I saw the new movie “Paul, Apostle of Christ” this past weekend, and I was very moved by its portrayal of the early Christian community living in the “reign of terror” of Emperor Nero in around 67CE. I encourage everyone to go see it. Three main things stood out to me.
First, you cannot watch this movie and not come to a greater appreciation of the New Testament documents that have been preserved for us. The main plot is the great Apostle Paul is in a Roman prison, his time is short, and many of the first generation of believers and apostles (who knew Jesus and witnessed the miracles related to Paul’s ministry) have died off. The little community of second generation believers in Rome is being tortured for the name of Christ, and they need to be inspired to hold fast through their trials. Luke (Jim Caviezel) shows up to write down Paul’s stories before he is martyred. You see just how easily these writings could have never seen the light of day. I left the theater wanting to go home and read the Acts of the Apostles again by candlelight!
Second, the film highlighted the non-violent, non-retaliatory lifestyle of the early Christians who resisted trying to get justice through the sword and violent rebellion. Some zealous young men in the church are understandably fed up, having watched their innocent loved ones be senselessly murdered, and they gather a mob to go break Paul out of prison. Paul rebukes them for lowering themselves to the level of the Romans, and points them to the way of love and sacrifice and suffering witness to Jesus. Paul’s words in his famous letter to the takes on new life in this film: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).
Priscilla & Aquila
Third, the film captured better than anything I’ve seen on the big screen the powerful witness and compassionate ministry of the early church to one another and the broader world in which they existed. The unsung heroes of this story, who really stole the show, were Priscilla and Aquila. This married couple were the leaders of an underground house church that we see taking in widows and orphans. We need to see this film just to get a real understanding of why the phrase “widows and orphans” is so prevalent in the New Testament (cf. James 1:27). Wives and children saw their Christ-following husband/father struck down in cold blood by a Roman soldiers, tied to a post and lit on fire along the road as lamps (a scene I’ve often read about but now saw vividly portrayed in this film). If it were not for the early Christians, who saw themselves as a new family in Christ and took orphans and widows, these orphans and widows would either be sold into slavery or prostitution.
As my friends and I enjoyed some Orange Julius afterwards and discussed the film (amplifying the jarring contrast between Christian existence then and now), I told them this film brought to mind one of my favorite ancient descriptions of the early Christian movement and the “remarkable and admittedly unusual character” of their way of life together. The Epistle to Diognetus is one of the earliest “apologetic treatises” written in the 2nd century (possibly as early as 130CE), from a Christian named Mathetes to someone named Diognetus. The letter is answering some of the bogus accusations made against the Christians in the early days. Enjoy these precious ancient lines that also survived the ravages of time for us to treasure and model our lives after today.
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle….While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh”, but do not live “according to the flesh”. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life….Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility. 5.1-17
In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, which is invisible, is confined in the body, which is visible, in the same way, Christians are recognized as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul and wages war against it, even though it has suffered no wrong, because it is hindered from indulging in its pleasures, so also the world hates the Christians, even though it has suffered no wrong, because they set themselves against its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and its members, and Christians love those who hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, but it holds the body together; and though Christians are detained, in the world as if in a prison, they in fact hold the world together. The soul, which is immortal, lives in a mortal dwelling; similarly Christians live as strangers amidst perishable things, while waiting for the imperishable in heaven….Such is the important position to which God has appointed them. (6.1-9)
As Saviour He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. (chapter 7)
It is not by ruling over his neighbours, or by seeking to hold the supremacy over those that are weaker, or by being rich, and showing violence towards those that are inferior, that happiness is found; nor can anyone by these things become an imitator of God. But these things do not at all constitute His majesty. On the contrary he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbor; he who, in whatsoever respect he may be superior, is ready to benefit another who is deficient; he who, whatsoever things he has received from God, by distributing these to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive: he is an imitator of God. (chapter 10)
My prayer and desire for the church today is that we would also be known for our “remarkable and admittedly unusual” way of life that puts Christ’s love and compassion on display in a world of increasing hostility and division.