By Drew Williams
As part of our recent family vacation, we visited the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, not far from the modern city of Naples in Italy. Pompeii was founded in about the seventh century B.C., and was occupied by the Romans 200 years later.
In 79 A.D. its 800-year existence was smothered, first in volcanic ash that spewed from Mount Vesuvius and then, a day later, by lava that flowed at a rate of 100 miles an hour. The site was lost for about 1,500 years, the only clue to its existence being found in a letter from Pliny the Younger, who, from a neighboring town, witnessed the volcanic eruption and wrote about it. Excavation work began in the 1700s and continues to this day. The city has been preserved for centuries because of the lack of air and moisture, and the buildings and artifacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a very sophisticated, educated and cultured society.
There were some surprising finds. Pompeii had a complex sanitation and fresh water system.
The city was laid out with high sidewalks with stone roads two feet beneath that were deliberately flooded each day to cleanse the city. Large stepping-stones were at every intersection so that pedestrians could cross the road and the width between these stepping-stones was uniform so that the standard axle width of your Roman chariot could be driven unimpeded.
There were three theaters, a gymnasium and public bathhouses. They set crushed marble in the sidewalks so that its iridescent quality would catch the moonlight and make it possible to walk the streets after dark. There were “fast food joints” on every street corner. Pompeii was also a port city and the kind of “recreation” you might expect to find in any maritime destination was very freely available, with at least 40 such establishments vying for trade.
Today it is difficult to go anywhere in Italy without finding evidence of a deep Christian faith and heritage; churches and crosses are on street corners and mountaintops everywhere. Yet in all of the remarkably preserved city of Pompeii, there was absolutely no sign of faith. Yes, there were temples—but these demonstrated this city’s incapacity to really ever grow beyond their desire to satisfy their own earthier appetites.
This was a little bit disconcerting to me—even a little depressing—until a thought struck me right at the end of our day. How extraordinary that God had preserved in Pompeii, to its last detail, the Roman world that the Apostle Paul walked in and was writing to. It is likely that Paul’s letter to the Romans would have been in circulation in Rome when Mount Vesuvius erupted 150 miles away.
It is possible to forget that Paul’s letters were written to fledgling communities of faith that were growing in cultures that were strongly resistant to faith, and these same fledging faith communities were heavily persecuted. The authorities were literally marching into homes and dragging people off to jail. Yet whenever Paul says, “I’m praying for you,” he never mentions these details. He does not pray about the particulars of persecution, neither does he pray for protection. He doesn’t even pray against suffering. In the face of a hostile world, persecution and challenge, this is his prayer: “For this reason [in the face of great spiritual opposition] I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory, He may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being (Ephesians 3:14-16).” And in 200 years, out of exactly this hostile Roman culture, came a movement of God that changed the face of the world forever.
Are there are times when we wonder if the world is just too sophisticated, too complex, too developed for our faith? Are there parts of our lives that we think are somehow beyond God’s help? John Piper writes, “There is an extraordinary power available to believers, a power that can accomplish far more than we ordinarily think or imagine. It comes by the Spirit. It accords with the riches of God’s glory. It is the very fullness of God.” Paul would encourage us with the same assurance, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power (1 Corinthians 4:20).”
So in every seemingly insurmountable challenge that we face today, as Paul told his Roman brothers and sisters in Christ, God would reassure us: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13).”
Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.