Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Cor. 5:20-21

Shortly after my conversion, a night years ago, I ran into a guy who was attending the same Christian conference in Northern Greece. We spoke for a while, appreciated the sermons, talked about “Christian things”, enjoyed each other’s company and then set off to our respective lodgings for bed. As I walked on, I suddenly noticed that he wasn’t following. I turned around and saw him a few feet away, his face turned upwards and a small orange glow by his mouth.

As he took another drag from his cigarette he saw me looking at him. My puzzlement must’ve been noticeable. He was embarrassed, but he kept his composure: “I… I have a lung disease. My doctor told me I should smoke a few every day.”

Coming from Greece, where “Christianity” is passed on genetically like blood type, it didn’t take me long to learn that not all who claim to follow the Lord are true disciples. Christ Himself set out the standard characteristics of those who would be citizens of God’s kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7) and the rest of the New Testament (and the Old, if you read carefully), is very clear on certain marks that should be true about your life if you claim to be a Christian. And the passage above (2 Cor. 5:20-21) is one of them.

Now, Christians have lived in a wide range of times and places, and even today we live in both hostile and friendly cultures around the world (mostly hostile, coming to think of it). And the astonishing thing about genuine Christianity is that it never finds itself in a time or place where it must compromise its core tenets and its central beliefs in order to stand. Even in the face of the fiercest persecution, Christians have chosen – and still choose in many places – torture, suffering, bankruptcy, mockery, social denigration, and even death rather than denying their Lord. Why? Because the Gospel offers hope and promises that transcend anything and everything in this world (see for example Mat. 5:12; Mark 10:29-30; Phil. 3:20).

One more starter point: What is apparent in the New Testament is that the commandments that we are called to obey have ceased to be legalistic. What do I mean by that? If you look at the Old Testament, you will find that commandments given during that period included many specifics and how-to details, from ritualistic cleansings all the way to what to wear when, who to marry, how much to give, particulars about government, judiciary systems, special dates etc. And how often didn’t the children of Israel end up obeying the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of it? That was the problem of the Pharisees and Jesus indicted their cold hypocrisy on a number of occasions.

But in the New Testament, things have changed. The people of God are no longer restricted to a geopolitical nation like Israel. The Gospel has blessedly gone to the whole world and is spreading like wildfire in some of the most anti-Christian places on the planet. The Gospel is “all-inclusive” because it deals with an all-inclusive problem: The problem of human sinful, fallen nature – and that exists in every human culture.

So, there are no Christian clothes, foods, buildings or jobs. In the New Testament we are not given lists of what to wear, or instructions of how long our trousers and skirts should be, how short our hair should be or much we can smile, laugh, cry, sit back or sit up. We are not told what design our houses should be, or whether we should pray facing East, West or standing on our heads. We don’t get Christian recipes and diets, and eating a cheeseburger is not less spiritual than eating a cabbage (though less healthy and more enjoyable). Nor are we assigned specific times and places for Bible study and prayer or going to church or even tithing.

BUT:

We are told that our conduct – including our appearance – should not scandalise or lead others to temptation (Rom. 14:13). We aretold that our manner should be characterised by love for God and love for people (John 13:34; Eph. 5:2; 1 John 3:23). We are told that we should be hospitable (Heb. 13:2). We are told that we should pray at all times without ceasing and that the Word of Christ must fully live in us (Col. 3:16). We are told that we must not be greedy and discipline our bodies so that they do not gain control over us (1 Cor. 9:27), while in the same time we are told not to judge anyone about foods and special days (Rom. 14:3-6).

In short, New Testament commandments target heart attitudes and internal change rather than mere externalities. We don’t DO in order to be in God’s blessing; we ARE in God’s blessing by being in Christ and that pours out of us in wilful, loving obedience to His commandments.

Like John wrote:

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:3

But why would God allow His people such seemingly individualistic attitudes concerning what to do and what not to do? Wouldn’t it just be easier to rattle off another list of regulations instead of letting us figure it out for ourselves?

Well, here’s the key: As Christians, we are NOT supposed to figure it out for ourselves. We ARE supposed to be constantly and continuously filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18-19) who has been given to us to lead us into ALL truth (John 16:13).

And this is one of the things that distinguishes Christianity from ALL other religions, and why our faith, though “was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) is so remarkably adaptive and resistant to any human culture throughout its history. Because it is a work of God and not the invention of men:

… that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – 1 Cor. 2:5

So here I return to our original verse. Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ. In the original Greek, the apostle didn’t actually use a noun; he used a verb: πρεσβεύομεν (presbeuomen), which is related to πρεσβύτερος (prebuteros), the word for “elder”. The reference is to an older, wiser man who acted as a representative of a king to the king of another country. So, the sense here is that the apostles and – by extension – all Christians are currently “eldering” or “ambassadoring” for Christ in this world – we are, in effect, Christ’s representatives to a fallen mankind.

Did you hear that? We are Christ’s REPRESENTATIVES to this world. Read that again.

That, friends, should have a PROFOUND effect on our lives. And it should affect us like a sledgehammer on butter. Why? Because this reality, this blessed and serious responsibility that God has given us covers every dimension of our life. It means that Christ has entrusted His image and purpose to us; it means that when the world looks at us, that image should be pronounced and, importantly, NOT OBSTRUCTED.

Lets look at an example: Back to our smoking Christian. One thing that he and other “puffing disciples” would and have pointed out is “where does the Bible say we can’t smoke?” And believe it or not, this is a big issue in modern Greece; another culture in which Christianity must stand as always. And usually what you hear quoted to smokers – and correctly, in my opinion – is 1 Cor. 3:16 and6:19. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and thus we should not “defile” them with nicotine. To which the “puffer-brother” retorts, “So what about that high-fat cheeseburger you had yesterday?” Then we talk about nicotine addiction and the holy-smokey says: “So? You drink coffee three times a day!” And after five minutes of “exhortation” like this, we’ve all missed the point like the Pharisees.

Why? Because the question is not about health, smelly clothes and yellow fingernails. No. The question should be: “In this day and time, in this culture, does smoking help or hinder your role as a representative of Christ?”

Wow. Smoke that for a change.

Forget nicotine addiction. Forget heart disease. Forget cancer, brain damage, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and possible sperm toxicity. Forget unnecessary expenses and having to step out in the rain every so often “for a fag” as they say here in England. No.

How does WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING affect your representation of the image of Christ in your particular culture?

And of course, I’m not saying that if, in our rapidly-degenerating world, murder, paedophilia and theft became legal or socially accepted, that Christians should engage in such activities because the world around them won’t think any less of them. No – we have no excuse to directly disobey God’s clear commandments (plus, how do all those fit with loving your neighbour as yourself?). I hope that much is clear.

But for those things that fall under the heading “Where does the Bible say don’t or do this?”, for those, the Holy Spirit gives us a wonderful guide: You are a representative of Christ in your particular world.

So on that basis, pray, and decide.

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. – Mat. 5:14-16

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