“Culture” is one of those words (like love or liberal) that can mean so many different things it is really a challenge to define. Since this blog has a lot to do with culture it is important that you know what I mean when I use the word. When I speak of culture I am referring to “the often unchallenged and universally practiced beliefs, values, and behaviors embraced by a group of people in society” (borrowed from my own doctoral dissertation). Culture produces a way of thinking and therefore living.
The culture of Israel in the first century produced the religious elitism that we see in the Gospels. Men like Caiaphas, Simon the Pharisee, and even Saul of Tarsus (who later converted and became the Apostle Paul). Corporately John the Baptist and even Jesus Christ called all the religious leaders of Israel a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7; 12:34). Those vipers were both creators and products of their culture.
But not everybody was owned by a culture that repeatedly drew the ire and punishment of God over and over and over again…right? Take the apostles, for instance. Jesus specifically chose those twelve men because they stood out from culture, didn’t He? Hardly.
Allow me to show you three examples of things said by Jesus’ own disciples that reflect that they, too, were in the grip of a culture that blinded both their eyes and their minds. All three examples can be found in Matthew chapters 18 and 19.
Who is the greatest?
Immediately after Jesus paid His own and Peter’s temple tax (see Matthew 17:24-27) the rest of the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Apparently, they figured that if Peter could get his taxes paid by Jesus then the rest of them were in line for even better things. And Jesus did say that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The luxurious lifestyles of the religious leaders coupled with the power and influence they wielded had clearly signaled to the apostles that God’s approval was demonstrated by wealth and power. (And this wasn’t the only time this issue arose. They got into a fight about it at the Last Supper also [see Luke 22:24])
Imagine their shock when Jesus called a little child into their midst and said,
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).
They were wondering how much wealth and power they would wield in God’s kingdom and Jesus told them they would not even make it to heaven thinking like that! Talk about a rude awakening.
These men had grown up in a culture that saw wealth and power as hallmarks of divine approval. And if Jesus was ushering in God’s new kingdom and the apostles were His hand-picked leaders then it followed that greatness (as defined by their culture) was barreling towards them. The only question they had was what the pecking order was to be. Jesus’ response: keep thinking like that and you won’t have to worry about it at all.
Owned by culture.
It is better not to marry.
A second example of something the apostles said that demonstrates they were as engulfed in the culture as anyone else has to do with how they responded to Jesus when He was asked about His view of divorce by the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed Moses gave them wide latitude when it came to justifiable divorce. They cited Moses' instructions about the matter (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) to Jesus.
They believed that when Moses said if the husband finds “some indecency” concerning his wife that said “indecency” was whatever they determined it to be. Jesus squashed that by referring to Genesis 2:24 (which predated Moses) and then went on to say that the “indecency” Moses was talking about was only one thing: adultery. In other words, there is no justifiable reason for divorcing one’s wife other than adultery. The response of the apostles to that was,
If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry (Matthew 19:10).
Let that sink in for a bit. These pioneers of Christianity at one time believed that if they couldn’t get a divorce from their wives unless she committed adultery then it was better not to marry them! Seriously? Yes. Every one of them had bought hook, line, and sinker into the teachings of the religious leaders of the day that men could divorce their wives for anything they deemed to be indecent (burning supper, gaining too much weight, not keeping the house as clean as they wanted, etc.). How many times had the woman at the well been divorced?
It’s better not to marry if you can’t divorce your wife for anything about her that bothers you?
Owned by culture.
Who then can be saved?
A third example of how the apostles revealed just how permeated with culture they truly were is revealed in their astonishment at what Jesus said when the young wealthy man walked away from Him. When he turned down Jesus and His invitation to follow Him Jesus looked at the apostles and said,
Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:23-24).
Their response to Jesus hearkens back to their inquiry about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God. They had embraced what their culture had instilled in them that wealth was the divine response to a faithful and obedient life. They couldn’t believe it when Jesus said what He did about the near impossibility of entering God’s kingdom if one was wealthy. Their response?
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25).
All their lives they had been taught and told by their leaders that wealth was God’s reward for being good (as evidenced by the young man’s initial question: “what good deed must I do…?”). The young wealthy man believed he was a shoo-in since his good deeds had already been rewarded with such wealth. And the apostles believed it too. It was just an early version of the prosperity gospel and it so permeated their culture that they didn’t believe anyone could be saved without buying into it.
Owned by culture.
It should be clear that Jesus didn’t choose the apostles because they stood out, apart, and/or against the culture. They were as infected and infatuated with culture as everyone else. Then how did they become the fierce culture warriors that they went on to be? One word:
They needed to be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Once that happened they began to be referred to as the “men who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Take a look around you right now (especially if you are an American). I would say that is exactly what needs to happen to our country and our culture. But you cannot turn it upside down for Christ if you are owned by it.
Throughout Scripture, the Bible tracks two cities and the respective cultures they produce: Babylon and Zion (aka New Jerusalem). Every single one of us is owned by one of those city’s culture. Until we are saved, baptized, and filled with the Holy Spirit we are just like the apostles before Pentecost: owned by the culture of Babylon without even knowing it.
“Come out of her [Babylon], my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues…” (Revelation 18:4)