A Collapsing Civilization
This summer I have been thinking afresh about the downward spiral of civilizations and the growing weakness of the church in the western world. Paul's letter to the Romans presents a sweeping view of the human condition and God's radical solution for all those who chose to follow Jesus Christ.
According to Romans, civilizations fall apart in three stages: As a nation turns away from God and loses contact with Him, God then releases the restraints against evil in that culture. Stage One is a sexual revolution beginning with increasing heterosexual immorality: premarital sex, and adultery. This phase of our nation's current moral decay started back about a decade after WW II. The outward expression of heterosexual sins reflects a breakdown in the integrity and centrality of family life.
Stage Two in a collapsing society is the appearance and acceptance of homosexual immorality. This class of sins is one step further removed from God's intended purpose for marriage and the family units which form the main fabric of society. Homosexual sins are also contrary to the created order of the universe as one finds it described for us in Genesis.
Stage Three is the appearance of violence in society--terrorism and terrible crimes: child abuse, kidnapping the murder of innocents, and a myriad of frightening bizarre evils which defy rational explanation. During this last stage good is often called evil and evil is named as good. The moral order has been turned upside down. All respect for God has gone and men now live openly in opposition to God in word and in deed. If the spiritual decline is not reversed, one can expect anarchy, revolution, rioting and social chaos.
See http://ldolphin.org/collapsing.html for more on this subject--a short study of Romans Chapter One. What started as a few short notes ended up as 8165 words, so I decided not to put all that in this short newsletter.
The Living among the Dead
The Bible does not use the word "dead" or "death" quite the same way we do. Death in the Scriptures is never extinction of consciousness for instance. When a person dies he or she does not really go to sleep, or cease to exist, they enter another realm of human existence and we who stay here in the physical realm lose all contact with them for now. Death in the Bible is never extinction of one's individual being. Neither do all people go home to heaven when they "die.".
Physical Death: A dead person is unresponsive. In speaking of physical death this means that there is no heartbeat, no respiration, electrical activity in the brain and the body begins to decay.
Spiritual death: To be spiritually dead means to be unresponsive to God, unaware of spiritual realities in the unseen world around us. What is interesting is that most of the people around us, however animated and active and "full of life" they may seem to be, are actually spiritually dead. They possess only natural life inherited from Adam and they are controlled not by their individual spirit and by God's Spirit, but rather are led along by unseen agencies at the soulish level.
The Second Death: Because death has to do with separation from God, a person can be dead physically and dead spiritually, yet fully conscious and eventually become separated forever from God. As one would expect, this is a terrible fate, but people end up there only by their own choice.
God, "the Living One," alone has life. All types of life, all forms of life, have had life imparted to them by God. Therefore the cure for death, in all its forms, is to be restored to a life-giving relationship with God.
"The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23)
"I am the First and the Last, and the living one. I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death." (Jesus, Revelation 1:17-18)
Spiritual rebirth (which occurs when anyone places their full trust in Jesus as Lord) ends all three forms of death for the Christian. In this present life we who believe still wait for our final deliverance from physical death. Ephesians 2 describes what happens when a previously spiritually dead person comes into a relationship with Jesus Christ and begins to experience the life of God within.
"And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:1-10)
Focusing on the "dead" part of this famous passage, note that those who do not know Christ are, first of all, "dead in trespasses and sins." This means that a long and detailed list of charges is accumulating against them in God's courtroom for a coming day of judgment. Second, the spiritually dead are walking according to "the spirit of the age" (or, zeitgeist). The spiritually dead are carried along by the constantly changing currents of the times, as slaves of fashion, locked into a career, driven by ambitions, controlled like slaves by the desires and philosophies of a fallen world, and so on Third, such persons are the subjects of the kingdom of darkness, hapless citizens of Satan's realm. Fourth, the spiritually dead have no choice but to act out all the selfish desires they were born with, inherited from their forefathers all the way back to Adam. They can not please God (as "sons of disobedience") and have neither the discernment nor the power to fight evil and live a moral life acceptable to God. To be "dead in sin" is a terrible state of affairs, yet millions of people live out their entire lives there, oblivious to the new life God freely extends to all men everywhere. Jesus said, "the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:10)
I think a lot of Christians forget this lostness of our non-Christian neighbors. The people we live among are only acting "naturally." Yet when open evil breaks out in society many of us Christians rush to sign petitions or to lobby against all sorts of things non-Christians do "by nature." No wonder that outsiders to the family of God see Christians as "against" most everything, and not standing in any redemptive or empathetic identification with the helpless plight of the lost. Of course what Christians want to see is people behaving more in line with God's laws, since this is in their own best interests, and the well-being of the social order, even if they do not go on to know the Lord.
The healing of social ills is never accomplished by passing laws--the role God intends for government in society is very limited--government merely restrains human evil. On the other hand, the church of Jesus Christ is the one body in society with the knowledge and the power to affect changes by changing people from the inside out. Ray Stedman calls the church "the most powerful force on earth," (Body Life, Chapter One, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/bodylife/).
Related to the work of the church in bringing people into a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (so that people can live the real life they were created for), the church has secondary functions in society described by the symbols of "salt" and "light." Salt is a symbol of a preservative which arrests decay and holds down corruption. Light is truth from God that informs the world of the way things really are, as revealed in Scripture. Both of these functions of the Holy Spirit working through God's people are silent and invisible.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said,
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:13-16)
The point of all this is that one reason a society collapses is because of the failure of God's people to be what they were supposed to be. The only way for a society to become healthy again is for the church to waken from slumber and shape up before her Lord. Human beings are not merely slightly flawed as far as God is concerned. Apart from Christ we are all in a hopeless state of depravity of absolute moral guilt before the Holy God who owns the universe. External fixes never cure the heart and there is nothing we can do on our own which gets the charges against us dropped in the divine courtroom.
When God attached His name to a people--whether it be Israel or the church, it is His reputation and his character that are at stake. For example, back in the book of Ezekiel, there is a clear promise that God will one day restore Israel so that the nation at last is what God intended her to be from the beginning of her history. But this restoration will not be based on Israel's track record or merit, but is entirely by grace. God has attached His name to these people.
"...the word of the LORD came to me, saying: "Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own ways and deeds; to Me their way was like the uncleanness of a woman in her customary impurity. Therefore I poured out My fury on them for the blood they had shed on the land, and for their idols with which they had defiled it. So I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed throughout the countries; I judged them according to their ways and their deeds. When they came to the nations, wherever they went, they profaned My holy name--when they said of them, 'These are the people of the LORD, and yet they have gone out of His land.' "But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went. Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name's sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD," says the Lord GOD, "when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine upon you. And I will multiply the fruit of your trees and the increase of your fields, so that you need never again bear the reproach of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations. "Not for your sake do I do this," says the Lord GOD, "let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!Then they shall know that I am the LORD." (Ezekiel 36: 6-38, see also Ezekiel 37:21-28)
Israel is Exhibit A. The Church is Exhibit B.
God has put two groups of people in the world whom He intends to reflect His character and His Person for all to see. About four thousand years ago God chose one of Abraham's grandsons. Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, as the founding father of the nation of Israel. Occupying a small strip of land with few natural resources, but transected by major trade routes, the land of Israel was to show the pagan world what the true and living God is like. Israel was fixed on a small plot of land, not a nomadic people, not given to much travel by land or sea. God intended Israel to model family and community life, sound government, a sound economic system, justice and fair treatment for all, and forms of worship which were pleasing to God. (For an example of this lighthouse role of Israel see 1 Kings 10.)
It would seem, in retrospect that God handicapped Himself in a big way. He gambled, as it were, on fickle and rebellious people to get His work done. The Old Testament history record of Israel under God is marked by constant and dismal failure. God knew this in advance, of course. For instance the latter half of Isaiah contains the following pattern: First, Israel the nation is revealed to be the chosen Servant of the Lord. Then Israel's complete failure to live up to her calling is brought into the limelight--along with calls from the Lord for repentance. Third, Messiah is shown to be True Israel who will Himself, single-handedly, fulfill the calling of God. Lastly, because of Messiah's perfect obedience, Israel, the nation, can be saved and will find her ultimate fulfillment and salvation in spite of herself. (http://www.ldolphin.org/isaiah58.html)
God deal with nations and individuals by means of covenants (contracts). There are at least half-dozen major covenants described for us in the Bible. Most of these are unconditional--fortunately for us. Our failures do not nullify the New Covenant we live under. (The greatest promises of a golden future for Israel were announced during some of her darkest hours by Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel, for instance.)
About two thousand years ago the nation of Israel was set aside temporarily while plan B was put into effect. (The fact that I use the term "Plan B" does not mean "Plan A" failed at had to be replaced by something different). God knows the beginning from the end of course. The church is Plan B. Both Plans are still in effect, in parallel, at the present time.
The church has much more going for her than Israel the nation did. This is argued repeatedly, for example in the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews. Nonetheless not many people today believe the church under the New Covenant has done any better than Israel did under the Old Covenant. The other day someone emailed me and asked if 1 Timothy 3:15 was not a major error in the text. Paul writing to Timothy says, "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." I hope I was able to give the inquirer some adequate answers.
God could do His work in the world directly by shows of force and power. He has chosen to work through Israel and the Church and to win--through weakness and through ways and means the world considers foolish.
We are now at a time in history when God has brought many Jews back to their historic homeland. At the same Israel's ancient enemies have also been put on the stage of the Middle East for the last act of the grand drama of world redemption.
Most everyone who has visited the Holy Land can say good things about the wonderful peoples who live there. But looking at the state of Israel as a whole, does one now see a model nation reflecting the character and life of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? No, not really. Before our eyes we can watch the violence and rapid changes in the Middle East knowing that the world will know peace only when Israel is living in harmony with the God of her fathers. This is a very dynamic time in the history of Israel right now as we all enter what their rabbis call "the time of final redemption." (More on this later. See Israel, the Church and the USA Compared, http://ldolphin.org/IsChUS.html, and Israel is the Key to World Peace, http://ldolphin.org/israelkey.html)
The church of Jesus Christ is made up of Jews and non-Jews from every nation. Israel is a fixed people: a plot of land, boundaries, a temple, a king, an earthly inheritance. The church is a portable nation with no homeland here on earth, a people with a heavenly calling. The church is suppose to penetrate every culture and influence every nation. The work of the church is to call people to Jesus Christ and to fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord. When one looks at the church of Jesus after 20 centuries there is nothing much for an outsider to be impressed by. To an external observer there is surely little evidence of a living and holy God dwelling in the midst of His people.
Even if the church were to shape up 100% and be all she is supposed to be, things are still going to get worse until Jesus returns to Jerusalem. But we who follow Jesus are not supposed to be fighting a defensive battle while we "occupy until he comes." It is easy to be overwhelmed by the current sad status of our society and our world. Materialism and creature comforts lull us into apathy and inaction. But if we fail to yield our lives to be used by God day by day (Romans 12:1, 2), we shall lose things of eternal value and may even be found hindering, rather than helping, the work of God.
Other News: In my last newsletter (http://ldolphin.org/news/newsletter-38.html) I discussed summer plans to move to Oregon. Packing up and moving from the San Francisco Bay Area after nearly half a century here was a bigger deal than I thought. After a good bit of soul-searching and much prayer the Lord has indicated that I am to stay here in the Bay Area a bit longer. This fall I have the opportunity of teaching Romans to the Forum Class at PBC. (I'll post the class tapes in MP3 on my web site audio page.) Romans is a great book, foundational for every Christian, in every generation. Meantime my days of full of answering email and spending time with friends new and old here in Silicon Valley.
Books: Ruth Tucker's book, Walking away from the Faith is a new book I enjoyed. She describes a number of people in various circumstances and from various backgrounds who have apparently given up on their Christian faith. This is a very honest book which I found affirming to my own faith. "What can we conclude about the prevalence of doubt when we look back over church history? Certainly there has always been doubt and unbelief among Christians, but never before have Christians who live in what may be called 'Christian cultures' been faced with belief systems suffused with philosophical and practical atheism.'Almost all of us nowadays conduct our lives for all practical purposes as if God did not exist.' In centuries gone by, daily life as hard and God's role was critical. Whether experiencing travel or illness of childbirth of farming Christians looked first and foremost to God. Today we Christians, myself included, pay lip service (at best) to our dependence on God while in actuality we depend on the airlines, the doctors, the weather forecasters and the irrigation systems. God becomes an afterthought." (pp. 96-97)
Philip Yancey has a very fine new book just out, Rumors of Another World: What on earth are we missing? Zondervan, 2003. "A thin membrane of belief separates the natural from the supernatural. We experience the highest realities through the lowest, and we must pay attention to notice the difference."
Contributions: I am very grateful for the financial help of friends who help me stay actively available to the Lord Jesus Christ. In the past year or more two or three very generous friends have been generous contributors to my work. As I result of the help of these special friends I have had great freedom to stay busy in Christian service. Your contributions can be addressed to Peninsula Bible Church (include a note that it is for my ministry support); 3505 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306. I do not receive a list of contributors so I am not able to write individual thank you notes.
Since I often speak of the "Encroaching darkness" here in the San Francisco Bay Area, please do pray for us Christians who live here.
Newsletters are archived on my web site, http://ldolphin.org/news/. Recent articles usually are found at the top of my library page, http://ldolphin.org/asstbib.shtml. Email is always welcome. I share a large daily volume of email correspondence along with my coworkers in the Paraclete Forum, http://paracleteforum.org.
Sincerely, Lambert Dolphin.
August 28, 2003. Web Archive for these newsletters: http://ldolphin.org/news/