The nation of Israel was chosen to represent God amongst all the other nations of the world – and one reason for keeping the Law was to make them ‘stand out’ as being different in the way they lived (e.g. Leviticus 18:2-4; Deuteronomy 4:5,6). In the same way, Christians have been chosen out of the world (John 15:19) and are meant to be different from the rest of the world. We don’t have a detailed Law to follow; instead, our ‘difference’ is primarily in attitude.
We have a slight problem in the UK, in that our society still broadly accepts and approves of Christian values. This means that Christians don’t stand out from the crowd to any great extent. There are only a few areas in which we can make our ‘difference’ obvious. One of these is in the festivals that we observe: most Christian festivals are ignored by the majority of the population (Christmas having reverted to its pagan counterpart), and Sunday is no longer a day of rest for most people – while Halloween has taken off in a big way during the last 30 years.
But perhaps the biggest area of conflict between Christianity and secular society is in the realm of sexual behaviour. Sex outside marriage, approval of homosexual sex (and now even ‘gay marriage’), abortion, cohabitation without marriage, divorce… Biblical standards have been comprehensively rejected. Here is our opportunity to bear witness, by an alternative lifestyle, to a God who makes such a life possible.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”This is not about merely obeying a set of external rules (not even rules laid down by Jesus), but about a fundamental change of attitude – an inward shift that produces a visible difference in the way we live.
The salt of the earth (Luke 14:34,35)
Salt was valued not only as a flavouring, but for its preservative properties. But the impure ‘salt’ in general use at that time could lose its salt content – and thereby become useless. Christians should, by their very presence, make a difference to the society they live in. We should be bearing witness to God’s high standards and setting an example of upright holy living; thus we can prevent (or at least slow down) the otherwise inevitable process of moral deterioration.
Salt has to be at the right strength: too little is bland, too much is deadly! Some Christians are so aggressive in promoting their beliefs that they put other people off! But most of us are more in danger of doing the opposite: becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the world, and therefore ‘invisible’.
The Greek word for ‘witness’ is ‘martus’. This could refer to somebody giving evidence in a law court (e.g. Acts 6:13), or to somebody telling others about their experiences (e.g. Luke 24:48). But in an age when Christians were often fiercely persecuted, ‘bearing witness’ to Jesus often ended up as being put to death for being a Christian. So the word ‘martyr’ has come to have the special meaning of ‘someone who dies for their faith’ (e.g. Acts 22:20).
‘Being different’ is the most basic form of witness. Jesus, “the faithful and true witness” (Revelation 3:14), set His disciples an example: He spoke out against some of the traditional teachings of Judaism (e.g. Mark 2:23-3:5; 7:9-13). He broke the normal social rules by associating with women, tax collectors, and other social outcasts (e.g. Mark 2:16,17; John 4:7-9). He did not retaliate or protest when wronged (Mark 15:1-5). He obeyed His Father to the point of being put to death (Philippians 2:8).
The cost (John 15:18,19)
The world does not tolerate non-conformity very well. This is especially evident in our own culture, which idolises ‘tolerance’ yet refuses to tolerate anyone who dares to suggest that God might not approve of some modes of behaviour that society deems acceptable.
Jesus warns us that we should expect to be despised and mocked – just as He was. This is how the true servants of God have always been treated (Matthew 5:11,12). From the world’s point of view we are traitors; we have rejected its philosophy and do not live by its rules. And we know what happens to traitors… If we are going to stand firm in our faith, we need to be under no illusions. We must be sure of what we are standing for, and confident of our eventual reward. “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives for ever.” (I John 2:17)