“If I were the Devil,” wrote Paul Harvey, “I should set out however necessary to take over the United States.”
Paul Harvey’s 1963 has now echoed with social conservatives for the better part of a century. What would happen if Satan took control of our city? According to Paul Harvey, the city would buckle beneath the weight of its social vices:
“I’d peddle narcotics to whom I could, I’d sell alcohol to ladies and gentlemen of distinction, I’d tranquilize the rest with pills. If I were the Devil, I would encourage schools to refine young intellects, but neglect to discipline emotions; let those run wild. I’d designate an atheist to front for me before the highest courts and I’d get preachers to say, ‘She’s right.’ With flattery and promises of power I would get the courts to vote against God and in favor of pornography. Thus I would evict God from the courthouse, then from the schoolhouse, then from the Houses of Congress. Then in his own churches I’d substitute psychology for religion and deify science.”
Harvey, of course, was issuing a cautionary tale, one which connects the dots between moral decline and urban decay.
But what really would happen if Satan took over a city? In his book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton recalls a sermon from Donald Grey Barnhouse that offered a vision altogether different from Paul Harvey:
“Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No ma’am,’ and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.’”
There are two kinds of “lost,” two ways to wander away from God. Harvey envisioned a world of self-indulgence, but Barnhouse envisioned a world of self-righteousness.
And both are forms of disobedience.
BEING IMMERSED IN THE GOSPEL
“Superficiality,” writes Richard Foster, “is the curse of our age.”
In countless churches we’ve grown preoccupied with the perfected surface. We understand the dance, the social customs. We sing during worship, we may even scribble a few notes. We’re doing alright, we tell ourselves. We measure success by our latest spiritual experience, all the while striving for kids who are well-behaved and city streets free of litter and crime.
It’s easy to rely on yourself for superficial things; masks are never that hard to make. When we go deeper, when suffering or circumstances penetrate our surface defenses and pierce our souls—well, that’s when we need a greater source of reliance.
On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus gathered his closest followers together in the upper room, offering him the equivalent of a “commencement speech,” describing what life was to look like in their new mission:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:1-8)
Now, all throughout John’s biography of Jesus we read these brief little “I AM” statements. Jesus uses everyday words and images to convey something deeper about who he is—and what he came to do.
A vine was ordinary enough. In many Jewish scriptures Israel was compared to a vine (e.g., Psalm 80:8-16; Isaiah 5:1-7). An image of a vine was even stamped on some ancient coins.
But Jesus was saying that he was the true vine. Unlike every other religious teacher—both ancient and modern—Jesus wasn’t saying: “Come connect with my teaching;” he was saying: “Come connect to me.”
The word he uses (seven times in these eight verses alone!) is abide. “Abide” is a simple enough word, but like the imagery of the vine its meaning runs deep. The word literally means to “dwell in,” the way we might abide in someone’s home. But Jesus is saying that we dwell in him.
We actually use similar expressions in English. For instance, when learning a foreign language we talk about the need to be “immersed” in a language or a culture. Why? Because total immersion is the best way to learn a new language or a set of customs. By inhabiting a place, the place rubs off on us in ways we aren’t always even aware.
Jesus is calling us to be immersed in him—to saturate ourselves in the customs and language and teachings and beauty of his Kingdom, and to lift our eyes from the bleak horizon of our own empires of cobwebs and dust.
“I STAND AND KNOCK”
Later in his life, John would pen the book we know as Revelation. In the opening chapters, Jesus speaks through John to write letters to a series of ancient churches.
Among them is the Church of Laodicea. This was the church that Jesus famously called “lukewarm:”
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:17-19)
This was a church that had “prospered.” You can imagine their success: worship music blasting, church programs thriving, services multiplying. If you were new in town, this was the church to be at, that’s for sure.
But Jesus calls them to repent. In fact, it’s to this church that Jesus writes: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Growing up I heard this verse a thousand times—usually in conjunction with a bad piece of Sunday School art depicting Jesus “knocking on the door of a sinner’s heart.” The implication, of course, is that to be “saved” you had to “invite Jesus in.”
It was years before I realized that Jesus wasn’t saying this to a group of unbelievers; he was saying this to a group of Christians.
It’s possible—dangerously, deliriously possible—that our churches could bust at the seams…
…but leave Jesus standing in the parking lot.
For our sake, for our city’s sake, for God’s sake, we need to return to Christ’s call to abide. We need to saturate ourselves in the exquisite richness of his gospel.
And most of all, if we have relied too heavily on our own religious performance, it’s time we invite him back into our lives, asking him to teach us to follow him anew.
 Paul Harvey, “If I Were the Devil,” October 13, 1963, WND.com, publisher.
 Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church