“Besides this, since you know the time, it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep, because now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is nearly over, and the day is near; so let us discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”-Romans 13:11-12
On the night of June 18, AD 64 a massive fire started in the mighty city of Rome. The fire raged for seven days. The people suffered, and many suggested without evidence that Nero himself set fire to the city. Roman historian Tacitus relates that “Nero blamed the Christians, who are hated for their abominations, and punished them with refined cruelty.”
These events sparked the first major persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Nero’s wild ride ended four years later when the Senate sponsored a rebellion that resulted in the deposition of Nero and ushered in an era of political and governmental uncertainty.
But think of this: while their world was burning, Christians in Rome likely had in their hands a copy of the letter to the Romans from the apostle Paul. They would have been reading soul-anchoring truths like,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.”-Romans 1:16-17
The church is no stranger to traumatic geopolitical events and major culture shifts. Governments and policies will come and go. The fate of the church—and Christians—does not depend on political happenings. When we are fuzzy on that truth we will face specific challenges:
- If we put our faith in the government or a political ideology we are sure to be disappointed because no government or political movement is worthy of it. Let down is inevitable.
- If we wed the hopes of the church with the government and the government is displaced, collapses, or changes dramatically we will face unnecessary discouragement, fear, or panic. We don’t have to ride that roller coaster.
- If we focus too much on earthly institutions like governments we will likely miss out on investing in the eternal work of building the church. This doesn’t mean political efforts are a waste, but we should audit our expenditure of time, energy, and money for political causes. Do our co-workers/family/neighbors find us more passionate for a political ideal than for Christ?
- If our primary identity is a political movement then we may be tempted to view those who do not share our views as enemies. In the worst cases we can grow bitter against them and respond to them with hatred rather than love and compassion.
- If we bank on one specific form of government and it is replaced by another we will be tempted to rebel against that authority. Should we rebel against the government we sin by not submitting to God’s appointed authority (Rom. 13:1-5).
- If we align too much with an earthly ideology we may begin to adopt the moral and ethical viewpoint of that movement. While we may share some morals, we also certainly will not share others. Thus the needed call to “discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).
Andrew Fuller said,
“When a man’s thoughts and affections are filled with such things as these [politics], the Scriptures become a kind of dead letter, while the speeches and writings of politicians are the lively oracles.”
We will always face political and cultural upheaval. Will we walk by faith in the midst of it? Christians in Rome woke up on June 19, AD 64 to find their city burning but their faith secure. Their calling had not changed and neither has ours; the righteous will live by faith. Indeed, “it is already the hour for you to wake up from sleep… the night is nearly over and the day is near” (Romans 13:11, 12).
5 thoughts on “When Rome Is Burning”
Thanks for these wise words Ryan. Really important stuff, and I will share it
Point 5 needs to be clarified/elaborated on. For example, if the state shuts down my church, am I to heed? John MacArthur’s response to his state and city is a great example. Romans 13:3 says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” So what if the ruler is a terror to right (good) conduct?
Thanks for this Jay. I would argue that regularly meeting for worship is an essential component of Christianity and thus warrants disobedience of rulers that prohibit such meetings. The current challenge to the church varies significantly from place to place. Most churches have been able to both comply with government requests for extra precautions while continuing to meet.