“They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” John 17:16
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world …” Romans 12:2
What is it that is different about Christians?
Considering the world today, and looking at Christianity today, too often the most apparent answer is, “Not much, really.”
Scant hours before His crucifixion, Jesus prays in the Garden (John 17) for the disciples whose job it will be to continue what He has started – the restoration of mankind back into right relationship with God. It was a relationship originally broken in another garden, the Garden of Eden, and then tumultuously tendered, restated, rejected and re-ordered throughout history by both Jews and Gentiles.
The Holy Spirit, after Jesus, carries the heavy burden of changing hearts, but relating the raw material – the story – of the history-changing Good News of the Messiah was the job of the disciples. Jesus is praying that they would be sanctified by truth and protected from a hateful and distrusting world.
Paul is the New Testament’s chief expositor of who Jesus was, what Christianity means, why the Messiah was sent, and to some degree, how Christians are supposed to act. Paul lays out the Christian message at great length in his letter to the Romans, provides a more succinct version in 1 Corinthians 15, and pens a brief, beautiful hymn describing Jesus, the Gospel, his own mission as Apostle and the fruit-bearing work of Christians everywhere in Colossians 1:12-21.
In all this, we learn what Christians are charged with doing. But the question is, what do Christians actually do? What does this “in the world but not of the world” business actually look like?
The best answer I’ve found is “The Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus,” an early piece of apologetics describing Christians. Of mysterious authorship and uncertain destination but utterly authoritative in its message, the letter appeared in the second century, possibly dating from the late first century when John was writing Revelation and collecting the works that would become the New Testament.
The writer (“Mathetes” means “a disciple” and is not a name) describes how the Christian is foreign to the world as the soul is foreign to the body, loves those who hate him, lives in eternal faith in a perishable world, and flourishes in persecution.
“Diognetus,” whoever he was, was quite obviously a gentile outsider, possibly a scholar, curious about what Christians believed and why they acted as they did.
It’s a timeless lesson any of us will find enriching – and convicting – today.
Walters (firstname.lastname@example.org) thanks Dr. Paul Blowers for the “Diognetus” tip.