And [an angel] called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons… For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…” Revelation 18:2-4
Babylon. John, the author of Revelation, used it as a code word for Rome, the superpower of his time. In today’s world, “we” – the United States – are the superpower of the world, the economic, cultural, and political giant among the nations. Drunkenness? Sexual immorality? Luxury? Sound familiar?
The command to “come out of her” is an explicit sexual reference intended to make us blush. “Quit fornicating with the ways of the world,” God says. Without a euphemism.
We must ask, therefore: how do we, as citizens of God’s heaven and disciples of Jesus, live as we sojourn in Babylon? How is it that we “come out of” the ways of the world? The ways of America?
As always, it is helpful to look to biblical history for guidance. The actual city of Babylon was once the superpower of its age, promulgating paganism, trade, and tyranny across its empire. The prophets tell us that it was because of divine decree that the Babylonian empire included Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, ordered in the sixth century B.C. that all but the poor of Judea be exiled to Babylon.
That meant: God’s people, in Babylon, in the heart of the empire. The question the Jews were asking themselves at that time is the same kind of question we must ask ourselves today. For them, it was, “How do we practice the Torah, God’s law for us, in a pagan city, away from the promised land and the temple?”
The book of Daniel deals with this question, especially in chapters 1, 3, and 6.
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank… Daniel 1:8
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego… said to the king… “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18
When Daniel knew that the document [banning for a month the worship of any god besides the king of Babylon] had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10
In each case, faithful Jews took their lives in their hands by maintaining the practice of their Israelite identity under the watchful eye of a dictatorial, pagan regime. And amazingly, in each case, the pagan king ended up baffled and in awe of the true God.
And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of [Daniel and his friends], he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. Daniel 1:20
Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28
Then King Darius wrote… “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever…” Daniel 6:26-27
We make a difference when we stand out, not when we blend in.
For exiled Jews wishing to the live the Torah, from the sixth century B.C. to the present day, the necessity of living together in groups has been obvious. The laws of the Torah assume a context of community. A kosher diet alone requires a kosher farmer, a kosher butcher, and a kosher vendor. One cannot practice Orthodox Judaism in isolation.
Likewise, the commands of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament assume a context of community as the setting for the practice of the Christian life. By my pastor’s count, there are 49 “one another” commands in the New Testament: be at peace with one another, submit to one another, encourage one another, pray for each other, etc. And that doesn’t include the 10 repetitions of the command to “love one another” in John’s writings alone.
Exiled Jews needed each other to maintain their ritual purity and their commitment to monotheism. Sojourning Christians need each other to exhort one another in the gospel and to be the body of Christ to the world.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27
By the Holy Spirit of Jesus in us, the church is Christ to the world. You may be an eye, I may be a hand, but either way, we cannot function without each other. Close-knit, interdependent, mutually submissive, mutually confessional, mutually accountable community is crucial.
The biblical mindset is not “us against the world,” but us, in the world, different from the world, and therefore helpful to the world. Jesus said,
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16
As it was for the Jewish exiles 2,600 years ago, it is our differences from the world around us that make us attractive and amazing to outsiders. Why be impressed at more of the same? More pettiness, more egoism, more infighting, more ignorance. We cannot be light by imitating darkness. We cannot be Jerusalem by participating in Babylon.
And Jerusalem is what we are: God’s city, God’s house, God’s children.
Your sister church here in Babylon sends you greetings… 1 Peter 5:13 (NLT)
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35