Someone once told me they couldn't watch big cultural events on TV, like the Super Bowl or the Oscars, without feeling like a sinner. Like those worldly things are simply beneath them as a Christian. I don't know how I feel about that perspective. I don't think I like it.
I'm kind of a student of culture. Always have been. Right now I'm digging into the new Foo Fighters album, I'm looking forward to Stranger Things Season 2, I'm downloading the next episode of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and I'm waiting for today's Philip DeFranco to drop.
I'm reading my Bible while wearing an H3H3 shirt and I have the new iPhone, a pair of Boosts, and more than a few fidget spinners lying around my house. Studying trends makes me feel youthful. There's a fun energy around these societal sort of zeitgeists, you know?
Jesus wasn't one to shy away from culture either. In fact, he engaged with it far more than any other Rabbi of his time. I make it sound like he was wearing a flat-billed cap, rocking a pencil mustache, and sipping espresso while speaking into his Apple Watch… but there's actually, kind of a shred of truth to that.
Jesus wasn't walled off in some secluded temple room reading Scripture, but rather, in the Gospels we see him at the marketplace, out by the docks, down on the beach, or over in the public square.
And what was he doing in all of those places? He was attending weddings, drinking wine, presumably selling the furniture he had made at one point, eating with tax-collectors and sinners, caring for the sick, having conversations with people that the Pharisees deemed 'undesirable' like the adulterous woman. "Neither do I condemn you."
And we see so many examples of Jesus talking with people no one else would dare talk to. There he is talking to a shamed prostitute who's drawing water from the well at mid-day to avoid being seen. There he is touching the shoulder of a man with a highly contagious disease, who had come to bathe in holy water.
Jesus didn't stand on the steps on the synagogue to speak down to the masses. He had no pulpit or microphone. He didn't rely on any establishment or pedigree. He was of the poorest class, he had no home and only the clothes on his back.
Jesus braved overwhelming elements in the worst part of the world in arguably one of the worst times of violence in world history to deliver his message. I can't remember who it was—might have been Jordan Peterson—who said that Jesus' time marked a period of transition from default violence among men to default trust.
Jesus used lowliness and humility to combat the loftiness and pride of the Pharisees, four hundred years removed from their old prophets and basically making up their religion as they went. These were awful men, preying on the wider public.
We see that Jesus engaged his culture for the gospel when it was difficult, when it was dirty, when it risked ruining his reputation or when it bucked the establishment. If Jesus is our gold standard, I wonder if we should be boycotting or engaging? what sounds more Christ-like?
I saw it time and time again in seminary. The men and women there became so engrossed in their pursuit of these lofty theological truths that they lost their ability to relate to the wider world. Maybe they felt the world would jeopardize the good thing they had going with God or something.
Maybe they feared that the world would distract them from their studies. Or maybe they became disgusted by the world after growing so accustomed to their clean campus environment. I often speculated: Why were these guys so detached and so out of touch?
Whatever it was, I watched these people become so out of touch that they could barely have a conversation with someone without bringing up the Doctrines of Grace or something. It was embarrassing.
If you can't talk football with the UPS guy as he's dropping off a package, if all you do is stutter or turn him away as fast as possible because you're sooo busy with your important "Lord's work," you've got a problem, you know? Like, you're never going to impact a normal person with the message of Jesus Christ—a message that is for everyone.
Jesus didn't discriminate.
I was there in seminary in the undergraduate program for four years. I transferred out, graduated with a business degree, and tried to go back to seminary for my Master of Divinity. I couldn't do it. I dropped out.
During that time, I remember watching guys and girls fresh from high school or fresh from college, I remember seeing their personalities completely morph. They were once so eager, open, imaginative, youthful, playful, fun, ready to engage... now they all try to outdo one another in appearing contrite, in appearing burdened with study.
Doing the "Lord's work." Yeah, right.
Pastors, Bible College students, seminary professors, hear me: If you can't turn off your theological brain for 15 minutes to talk shop with the guy who's changing your oil, how on earth are you going to make the gospel plain to the average congregant?
How can we teach the gospel to an increasingly un-churched culture? And how could we possibly win people from the heights of our soapboxes, from the heights of our ivory towers, from the heights of our loftiest doctrinal God-thoughts? Simple answer: we won't. We won't reach them.
Jesus didn't preach a grandiose message. He most often drew upon simple metaphors, like planting and harvesting, or losing a sheep, or losing a precious coin, or buying a field. Paul says "I didn't come to you with loftiness of speech" and "I made myself all things to all people."
One theme throughout the entire Bible is that God is an accessible God. "Come to me, all who labor or thirst." "Let us approach the throne of God with confidence." "Come all ye weary, heavy-ladened." "I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself." God has an open-door policy!
Jesus even said, "I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world."
Let that sink in for a sec.
Are you better than Jesus? Isn't the whole point of Christianity to mimic Christ? Correct me if I'm wrong here, but wasn't the word 'Christian' originally a derogatory term, as if someone were calling us "wannabe Christs" today—wasn't it meant to put us down? Didn't we take that mocking nickname and turn it into a badge of honor?
Don't you wanna be like Christ?
We see all throughout Scripture that God is always on the side of the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, anxious, ill, and oppressed. Often in our engagement with these individuals we risk our health, our comfort, our safety, our reputations. Truly, the gospel is a messy, wonderful work.
Jesus risked his health and cleanliness and comfort and safety and even his life to engage with culture. Think about that.
If you can't watch the Oscars or the Super Bowl without contempt, if all you feel is disgust when you see high hemlines and low necklines, when you hear a curse word or you see that ice-cold Heineken beer dripping from the bottle as Neil Patrick Harris brings it up to his homosexual lips—if that image just sent a holy chill down your spine—you aren't like Christ.
You aren't fit for the gospel. Go sit with that for a bit and come back to church when you're ready to be real with people.
You heard me, right? You aren't fit for the gospel. You need more training, yes, but it's a different kind than you're getting in seminary. You need to put down Gruden's Systematic and pick up a freakin' Bible. Here's your syllabus, here's your book list: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Read them again, with fresh eyes, and see your Christ as he lived.
Stop "guarding your heart." By walling yourself off from people who need the gospel, you're claiming exclusivity to it. You're no better than the Pharisees—making up new rules everyday that no one could possibly follow.
You're no better than the Gnostics, claiming a secret, special knowledge of the voice of God that no one else could hear. Or the 16th century Catholic priests who refused to let the common man read Scripture in his own language, for himself.
Careful now—Jesus rose against the Pharisees, the early Church rose against the Gnostics, and the Reformers rose against Catholicism. What venerable, God-ordained saint might rise against you? Who is God sending to you, to move you out of his way?
Trust me, brother, you aren't being holy. You don't even know holiness. You're being proud. You're making your gospel all about you when salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by hearing the word of God alone, to the glory of God alone.
Don't cheapen the gospel by making it your own little "This is how I feel good about myself" club. The gospel is an open door. When we were children, we painted "no-girls-allowed" on the treehouse. We enjoyed our exclusivity—our own little club. It's time to grow up and be a man, brother.
Jesus told a parable:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”