There is no doubt that Christianity does not enjoy the esteem and influence that it once did in this part of the world. No doubt there are many who would love to make Christianity great again. This being so, there is an event recorded in the book of Acts which should be cause for reflection.
To understand the importance of this event, we will want to go back to the Old Testament. Let’s go back to Genesis where God called Abraham and made two key promises. The first was “I will make you into a great nation” (12:2 NLT). The second was “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (12:3 NLT).
As we read through the rest of the Old Testament, we may get the impression, from Exodus right through to the book of Malachi, that it is all about the special nation that descended from Abraham. We read about the founding and formation of God’s people, the giving of the law, their relationship with God along the way, their lack of relationship with God along the way, their exile due to a lack of relationship with God, and their return from exile thanks to God’s commitment to the relationship and his promises.
Reading through the Old Testament, therefore, we might get the impression that the focus is almost entirely on the first promise to Abraham, of making him into a great nation. The other promise, of all nations being blessed, for the most part seems to fall off the radar.
Enter Jesus. The attitude of people toward Jesus, as they considered whether he was the Messiah or not, could be summed up with the question: “Is this the one who is going to make Israel great again?”
God’s old covenant people had been through a lot including exile and the return from exile. They continued to face hard times as they had been under foreign rule quite often since the return from exile, and were now under the thumb of the Romans. Perhaps Jesus is the one who will fix this Roman problem and bring them back to being a sovereign nation? The mood in the air pointed to a focus on the first promise of making Israel great. Even the apostles were caught up in it when following his resurrection,
…the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”Acts 1:6 (NLT)
While the apostles still had in mind the promise of making Israel great, Jesus pointed to another promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit:
He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:7-8 (NLT)
The Holy Spirit did indeed come upon a great crowd of people which we can read about in Acts, chapter two. But all these people, though coming from different nations, were part of God’s old covenant people. The idea of making Israel great again could still linger, the promise of blessing all the families of the earth could still be largely off the radar. Until we get to Acts, chapter ten. Here Peter had a rather “un-Jewish” vision, while Cornelius, a non-Jew had an angel visitation resulting in the invitation of Peter to the home of Cornelius, another rather “un-Jewish” thing to happen. Peter then spoke to them about Jesus, and,
as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. For they heard them speaking in other tongues and praising God.Acts 10:44-48 (NLT)
Then Peter asked, “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
If there was any doubt before, there was no doubt now, that Jesus’ purpose was not about making Israel great again, but about making the world great at last, fulfilling the promise to Abraham that “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3 NLT).
This fulfilment of the promise challenges us in our desire to make Christianity great again.
Let’s remember that while the Jews hated being under Roman rule, most nations, and many Jews, could see the benefit of Roman rule. New roads were built along with new buildings and facilities like gymnasiums. And there was the “peace of Rome.” Nations under Roman rule, and there were many, could count on protection from attack, both from beyond and from within the empire. The Roman army would intervene, and it was a very good army.
While Rome brought peace, it did so, as at least one Bible teacher has pointed out, by “the power of the cross.” Rome ruled and kept peace through the use of brute force and brutality. The empire had peace, but it was an ugly empire, with an ugly, and precarious, kind of peace. In contrast, Jesus brought a different kind of peace, a beautiful lasting peace with God and others. Jesus brought peace by the power of cross, but it was not peace won by brute force and brutality, but rather peace won by love, grace, and forgiveness.
Through Jesus, God was not making Israel great again by making it like Rome as some had hoped. Rather, through Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God was, and still is, inviting everyone to the Kingdom of God. This is a good kingdom, one of love, justice, and goodness.
Rome had accomplished the bringing together of many different peoples together in one peaceful empire. That peace was held by the power and brutality of the cross. Jesus brings people together in one peaceful kingdom. That peace is held by God’s forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love made evident at the cross.
Which cross do we use? Are we a people of brute force? Or are we a people of love and grace? Christianity can not be made great again through brute force. There is nothing great about that. Perhaps we need a better focus than making Christianity great again anyway. Perhaps a better focus is the blessing of all the families of the earth.