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(Romans 16:19–20) Surviving Vanity Fair

(Romans 16:19–20) Surviving Vanity Fair

Ref: Romans 16:19–20

At one point in John Bunyan's famous work, 'A Pilgrim's Progress,' Pilgrim and his friend travel through a town called 'Vanity Fair.' The town is a lot like yours and mine: materialistic, self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking, and God-rejecting. Temptation was lurking around every corner. In this message Stephen asks us to consider how well we are surviving the onslaught of temptation that surrounds us every day in our own Vanity Fair. In Bunyan's allegory, Pilgrim's friend didn't make it out alive. Will you?

Additional messages in this series are available here: When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder


“Surviving Vanity Fair”

Romans 16:19-20

  • Do you know what caused Jessica Simpson to break up?
  • Do you know what Paris Hilton wore at the last party?
  • Have you heard what Brad Pitt said about Angelina in Africa?

You don’t?!

If you’ve been to the grocery store lately you’ve seen the headlines.  It’s all there . . . of course you have to open the cover to find out the answers – which I didn’t do.  But it’s all there – including amazing stuff on how to double your retirement in 1 year and lose 50 pounds in your sleep.

Here are some interesting titles that have been in print in the last 30 days – available at grocery stores near you.

  • America’s Latest Illegal Immigrants are Vampires!
  • Judge who barred witches from adopting children is turned into guinea pig!
  • HOUSEWIFE EXPERIENCES HALF-RAPTURE & gets stuck in the dining room ceiling!
  • Credit card explodes when gal goes over limit!
  • U.S. currency accidentally printed with disappearing ink! Spend it while you can!
  • UFO aliens abducted my cat!  Felix now has gift of ESP, says amazed owner.  At least the cat is now good for something . . . okay, I added that last part.

You know what the frightening thing is, to me?  These magazines and tabloids are on the counter by the checkout lane because, people are what? buying them!

Are people this gullible?  Do they really care about the latest news and the latest UFO abduction?

I took my daughter and her friend to the fair this past week.  We stayed until the fire-works were over; had a great time.  I ate a deep fried snicker – all by myself.  It’s a snicker bar on a stick that they roll in batter and deep fry it and then sprinkle powdered sugar on it.  The snicker bar melts on the inside.  It was worth the trip.

I go to the fair to eat stuff like that – I also go to watch people.

The scary thing is realizing that the same people who paid money to see the bearded lady and the half-boy half-animal are the same people who are gonna vote in next month’s election; they’re gonna choose the next president of the United States.  That’s frightening!

Most of you, I would assume did not pay to see the bearded lady and I hope you do not buy the latest tabloids or magazines that fill you in on the latest scoop in our silly, sensual, gullible, self-centered, sinful world.

In the classic book by John Bunyan entitled Pilgrim’s Progress, young Pilgrim is journeying toward the Celestial City – picture of heaven in this allegory. 

And he encounters all sorts of difficulties as he leaves his home town called the City of Destruction and journeys toward the Celestial City.  Along the way he gets caught in the Slough of Despond; he is briefly imprisoned in Doubting Castle; he escapes from the Giant Despair.

The book was written in 1678, after John Bunyan, a preacher was put in jail for holding unauthorized religious services outside the Church of England.  While in jail, Bunyan began composing his classic work that has now been printed in over 100 languages.

In one scene Pilgrim has to walk through a town called Vanity Fair, with all its pleasures and enticements and temptations.  Frankly, I never go to the State Fair without thinking of Vanity Fair in Pilgrim’s Progress. 

However, Vanity Fair wasn’t a place of scary rides or deep fried snickers or places where 4H cattle and sheep are judged along with quilts and cakes. 

Vanity Fair was a city that represented the world of those who hated God and the Celestial City – or heaven.

Vanity Fair had one purpose for existence – it offered the travelers that came through anything and everything sinful that would entice them to forget about God and their journey to the Celestial City. 

Pilgrim’s companion named Faithful is eventually murdered by the citizen’s of Vanity Fair who are enraged because Faithful brings an indictment on their way of life by his pure and holy testimony.

After Faithful is martyred, Pilgrim is allowed to leave and is helped along eventually by a companion named Hopeful.

Eventually, after many adventures and trials, Pilgrim, whose name is changed to Christian after encountering the gospel of Jesus Christ arrives at the Celestial City.

There is truth to this allegory of John Bunyan – in fact, you ought to read the book if you haven’t.  Put down the tabloids and pick up this treasure.  

The truth is, we are all, right now, passing through Vanity Fair.

Will it detain our progress?  Has it distracted our attention? 

How do you survive Vanity Fair?  How do you keep from paying more attention to false promises of Vanity Fair than the lasting pleasures of God? 

In Romans chapter 16, the Apostle Paul tells us how.  He has interrupted his final greetings with a series of warnings.

He is deeply concerned that the Christians in Rome not be deceived by false teachers who promise them the trinkets of health and wealth and self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction.

These teachers preach a religion of satisfaction in self – and not the gospel of salvation from self.

Beware these smooth talking teachers – these chrestologia – promising a religion of self-satisfaction rather than self-denial.  Like the false teachers described by Jude, they are clouds that never deliver rain – and they are trees that never produce nourishing fruit. (Jude 1:12)

Watch out for deceiving teachers!

Secondly, Paul warns the believers to watch out for depraved culture.

Notice verse 17 again.  Now I urge you – (I beg you) – brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.  18.  For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

Now notice, verse 19.  For the report of your obedience has reached to all.

By the way, earlier Paul commended them, he wrote, “Because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. (Romans 1:8)

Now he commends them because their obedience is known by everyone.  Their obedience, no doubt in this context, to the truth of Christ.

Paul writes further in verse 19 of chapter 16, “therefore I am rejoicing over you.”

I am so happy about your testimony.

Any teacher who hears that one of his students from their Bible study stood for Christ . . . took a stand for the truth of scripture . . . that teacher will be as thrilled as anybody.

You rejoice when Christians are obedient to their namesake! 

Yesterday, I was at the grocery store picking up a few items and the teenage guy bagging my groceries had a cross on a chain around his neck – it was out and on top of his tee-shirt.  There weren’t any other customers in line, I knew I wouldn’t keep him from doing his job, so I asked him, “Hey, why do you wear that cross around your neck?”  I thought I’d have an opportunity to witness to him, assuming it was just a piece of jewelry to him – but it turned out that he was committed to living for Christ. This teenager said, “I wear it because whenever I’m tempted to cheat or steal or lie or do something wrong, usually at some point I have to look down and I’ll see this cross and go, “Oh yea . . . wait a minute, I’m a Christian . . . I can’t do that.”  Turns out he attends a church in Clayton pastored by a friend of mine who would have been incredibly proud of this young man’s testimony.

Paul writes, “I am rejoicing over you because of your testimony of passionate obedience to Jesus Christ.”

But that doesn’t keep Paul from delivering another warning.  He knows these believers are living in Rome: the Vanity Fair of Vanity Fairs . . . so he goes further in verse 19 and says, “but I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil.”

Be wise – sophos – which gives our name Sophia.  Be learned . . . wise . . . skillful in what is good.

This is the wisdom, James writes, that is from above – it is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 

It is contrasted with the wisdom of the world, James also wrote, that is earthly, natural, demonic [it produces] selfish ambition in your heart, arrogance [which] lies against the truth.  (James 3:124-17)

Wisdom throughout scripture is practical mastery of life and conduct (Proverbs 1:5).  It is truth lived.  It is knowledge put into practice.

Wisdom handles the situations of life with prudence and dignity; it knows how to deal with others and how to truly life.  It recognizes the sovereignty of God and seeks to understand the words of wisdom found in the word of God. 

Kittel and Friedrich, Abridged by Geoffrey Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Eerdmans, 1985), p. 1058

In fact, a loving, committed, humble, surrendered relationship with God is the starting point of true wisdom. 

Solomon wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)

His father, David wrote earlier, “Reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10). 

In other words, the wisdom to know what is good begins with God.

The outer walk of wisdom begins with an inner relationship with the God of wisdom.

God develops a character of wisdom in private which is revealed by a conduct of wisdom in public.

That’s why Paul informed us that we needed to be transformed in chapter 12.  We are easily squeezed into the mold of worldly wisdom, rather than godly wisdom.

What we do is related to who we are.

The world is desperately trying to convince themselves with something that goes like this – “I know I did something that was bad, but that wasn’t me . . . that wasn’t really me . . . I’m not a bad person; even though I did something that was sinful, I’m not a sinful person . . . that wasn’t the real me.”

Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote about a thief that stood before a judge with this sort of excuse.  He sad that he didn’t steal, but that an impulse came to his right hand, and his right hand stole that money.  The judge quickly ended this nonsense by saying, “Alright, in that case, I am sentencing your right hand to prison and the rest of the body will just have to go along.”

Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans: Volume 4 (Eerdmans, 1964), p. 155

Paul says, “wise up!”  Be wise – skillful, studied, passionate about that which is good (agathos) = right, clean.

This is another way of saying, “practice purity.”

In private . . . and in public.

And the more you practice purity in private, the more likely you will practice purity in public.

The wiser your decisions inwardly, the wiser your decisions outwardly.

Paul adds another phrase that will help us survive Vanity Fair with godly passion and focused pursuit on the glory of God.

Notice in verse 19b, “but I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil.”

Paul wrote the same idea to the Philippians in chapter 2:15, that you may prove yourselves to be . . . innocent . . . children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life.

What a picture of the believer, passing through dark and sinful Vanity Fair, holding out the word of life as a light in the darkness.

How do you live like that?

You practice purity and secondly, you nurture naivety.

Paul used a word – translated innocent – that speaks of something unmixed – clean – wholesome – unaffected.

The English word naivety came to my mind as I studied this phrase – “wholesome in regards to evil.”

Naïve means marked by unaffected simplicity.  Webster defines it as deficient in worldly wisdom.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Literally, ignorant of stuff that the world knows a lot about.

Surviving Vanity Fair with godly character and effective distinctiveness and the bright light of the pure gospel of Christ requires wising up to the good on one hand and on the other hand inviting ignorance of evil.

You refuse to study it . . . you refuse to become acclimated to it . . . you refuse to watch it . . . you refuse to buy it . . . you refuse to read it . . . you refuse to play it or learn it or copy it or follow it or even sing it.  You choose not to learn the lyrics of eth latest hit and the fashion decisions of the latest star. 

This is self-inviting, self-regulating ignorance . . . you choose not to know.

Maybe you’re thinking this isn’t really fair of Paul to suggest that a Christian should be naïve regarding sin – these 1st century Christians lived in Rome – it was probably easier for them – but times are different now.

We’re living in 21st Century America.

When Paul wrote to these believers, they were living in what Seneca, the 1st century historian, called “the cesspool of iniquity.”

The immorality among the upper classes was nothing short of our generation.  Homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality and bestiality were all acceptable moral behavior.  In fact, by the time of Paul, a heterosexual couple who weren’t versed or experienced in some other form of sexual behavior would have been considered prudish and boring.  Many of the Roman philosophers made fun of monogamous couples.

Add to that the fact that child prostitution proliferated as children, most often girls, were abandoned by parents who didn’t want them. 

Drug addiction was epidemic . . . life was cheap.  In fact, by the time of Paul, the poorer classes of people had formed labor unions, not for better pay or for better working conditions, but for the simple right to have a proper burial.

Animals were more protected and venerated in the days of Paul than humans.  As is our own day, where to destroy the egg of an eagle is against the law, but you can destroy a baby in a mother’s womb and be protected by the law.

It is no more difficult for us to follow this text of scripture than for the early Roman Christians to pursue purity and nurture naivety.

We do, however, have something particularly dangerous added to our battle with evil that Rome never imagined.

A wonderful tool in spreading the gospel and all kinds of information, but an assistant to evil like the world has never seen.

We call it the world-wide web.

In many respects it is aptly named – a web.

I recently read an article written by the Barna Research Group that was headlined, “Christians Believe Almost Anything They Read on the Internet.”  Their study released last November showed a heightened gullibility among evangelical web-surfers.

As embarrassing as it may be, a staggering 9 out of 10 evangelical Christians who responded to this study admitted to never checking into the source of information they read online.

The Department of Internet Fraud report that millions of dollars were stolen from overseas as a result on a single e-mail scam.  Perhaps you received the same email that I did – several of them, in fact, where a rich person in Africa is urgently in need of foreign bank account numbers so he can hide his riches from corrupt leaders.  The victim is promised 10% of his wealth for helping house his money in their bank accounts.

Nobody believed it right?  In one year alone, this one e-mail scammed 127.8 million dollars from gullible people. 

One Chicago-based think tank said that it seemed that Christians have a case of alertness to the world, but not to the world wide web. 

One web site reported printing a satirical article about manna appearing in Sinai again, which produced a 2,000% increase in traffic to their site as people began propagating this sign as one of the key “end times phenomena!”

Frankly, this doesn’t bother me so much.  If people are foolish enough to pay to see the half boy-half lizard, they’ll probably pay to get some manna from Mt. Sinai mailed to them along with holy water from the Jordan River.

What bothers me most is the destruction that is occurring today in the lives of millions of believers, caught up in the web of internet pornography, improper chat rooms, voyeurism, immodest if not immoral my spaces that invite a person through entry level voyeurism and soft-core pornography into the deeper, darker addictions.

The Justice Department, last year, estimated that 9 out of 10 young people between the ages of 8 and 16 have been exposed to pornography online.

Daniel Weiss, “Obscenity Enforcement, Corporate Participation and Violence against Women and Children,” (7-23-05)

By the way, in an effort to keep up with cable and internet pornography, the standards of prime-time television are rapidly following suit. 

Now, 70% of prime-time television shows feature sexual content.  The number of sexual scenes per hour have nearly doubled in the last 10 years to now more than 6 scenes every hour.

Leadership Journal, (Winter 2006), p. 35

Let’s just tell the truth . . . we are living in a sexually saturated society. 

And there is a connection to seeing and doing.

Observation leads to escalation which leads to desensitization which leads to action.  These are known facts. 

What you see and do follows the law of diminishing returns – you need to see and do more next time in order to feel what you felt the first time.

Sin is never satisfied with its past experience.

Imagine the implications in our generation of something Jesus Christ said in His generation, “The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. (Luke 11:34)

That’s why David attempted to nip it in the bud – at the very entry point into his life when he made that wonderful and holy commitment, “I will set no evil thing before my eyes.” (Psalm 101:3)

If there was ever a time to purposefully nurture naivety . . . to choose ignorance of sin by refusing the world’s entertainment, it is now.

What are you choosing to watch?  What are you reading?  What are you allowing through your eye gate, into your heart?

Hear the warning of Paul, in this generation, regarding the evil potential of our world.

Today, one out of every six women, including Christians, struggles with an addiction to pornography, according to a Today’s Christian Woman survey.   Which accounts to some 30 million women.   This same survey found that 80% of the women involved are actually more likely than men to act out their behavior in real life, through affairs and multiple partners.

Today’s Christian Woman, September/October 2003

Family Safe Media reported in December of last year that they have found the largest group of viewers of Internet pornography are young people between the ages of 12 and 17.  Most of them boys who are now set  for a life-time of battle against these early impressions..

Nearly half the men polled, including pastors, Christian leaders and regular church members, admitted to visiting an adult site during the last month.

I can’t tell you now many men are caught up in this – men who we’ve talked with or prayed with or know about who have become entangled in the web.


Today there are more than 1.3 million adult oriented web sites dedicated to luring people to their harm and great ruin.

And according to comscore Media Metrix, 71 million Americans of all ages will visit adult sites this month.

And they will look at an estimated 15 billion pages of pornographic content this month.

Above statistics taken from

There is a connection to this epidemic and the fact that 32 million Americans committed adultery or fornication this week – 32 million – this week.


Right now, ladies and gentleman, the victims of this national epidemic are children, where the commercial business of child pornography is now estimated at 20 billion dollars worldwide.

That’s more than the annual revenues of ABC, NBC and CBS combined.

You cannot watch pornography on the internet or sexually immoral scenes on television or at the theater, without choosing to pitch a tent inside Vanity Fair.

Before too long, the path of godliness that marks those on their way to the Celestial City will seem dull and boring and rigid and harsh.  Why bother . . . let’s settle down, like Lot did, and pitch our tents toward Sodom and Gomorrah.

What we need today is a resurgence of passionate purity.  The church is in desperate need of men and women, teenagers and college students who will not watch this stuff in moderation . . . we need total abstinence.

Oh that we would beg of God a greater love for that which is good and a greater hatred for that which is evil.

Four words came to mind as I studied this text:


Pray for wisdom – God will never rebuke you for asking for this wisdom – wisdom that distinguishes between good and evil; wisdom that longs for that which is heavenly and despises that which is worldly.


The tests are coming . . . they are already in front of you!  This is war . . . nothing more or less.


There are two misconceptions that I want you to avoid in this battle:

  1. That walking with God will diminish the temptation to sin. 

If that were true then our Lord would have never even been tempted – for He was led by the Spirit of God – walking in perfect harmony with His Father when he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan.

  1. The second misconception is that the longer you walk with God, the less likely you are to be tempted with sin.

If that’s true, then why tempt Jesus Christ who lived a sinless life for 30 years.  In perfect fellowship with the Father, now after 30 years growth and development, in total surrender to the will of His Father . . . now He was tempted.

And by the way, when Luke recorded the temptation of Christ, he ended the paragraph by reporting that “Satan departed from Him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13)

You would think that the text would read, “And Satan departed from Christ forever.”  No need to bother tempting Jesus.

No, he departed from Him until another opportunity might arise.  Get the picture.  Here is Jesus Christ, walking with purity and godly perfection, and Satan is trailing Him, waiting for some possible opportunity to tempt Him. 

If Satan thought He could trip up the Son of God, how confident do you think he is that he can trip you up?

Pray, Prepare . . .

Pursue (run after the right things; run away from the wrong things).

One more word: Praise.  Paul writes here in Romans 16:20, And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

Satan was crushed at the cross; He is being crushed by every victory over temptation and he will be crushed in the final judgment when he is condemned forever in hell.

It’s as if Paul says, “Praise God for Satan’s defeat in the past, the present and, especially, praise God for his ultimate and final supremacy over Satan.”

In the meantime, as you do battle . . . as you pursue purity and nurture naivety, you can also praise God for His daily strength for the saints.  Paul wrote at the end of verse 20, The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Perhaps, knowing that the Roman believers failed, like American believers and believers on every Continent fail – Paul ended this by reminding us all of the grace of God.

Wonderful, unstoppable, immeasurable, faithful, grace.  Praise God for His amazing grace.  But don’t trample on it . . . live a life that demonstrates gratitude because of it.

Let’s both commit to Him our need for forgiveness and pardon, but His power and His grace for the temptations you will need to run from even today and as we run, let’s praise God that one day, finally and ultimately, Satan will be crushed under out feet in final and eternal victory.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts,

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen

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