COLOSSIANS #27: FORGIVING EACH OTHER

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Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us. If we are struggling to forgive, the cross of Christ can help us. It shows us not only the seriousness of our sin, but also the seriousness of the sin committed by the person who hurt you. In the cross we find both justice and grace.

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Colossians #27. Colossians 3:13

 There is one final thing that I did not yet cover in the overview of how Christians are meant to treat one another: Forgiving one another. This is an extremely important topic, and many people either don’t know, or don’t fully understand what the Bible says about it. We will spend the next two weeks considering it.

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, tells us that we must forgive as we have been forgiven by Jesus. This idea is repeated consistently throughout the New Testament. The Lord’s prayer is really a way of praying. We aren’t just meant to repeat the words: Jesus teaches us the kinds of things we should regularly pray for. So, with “hallowed be thy name” we learn we should pray that the holiness of God is manifested in the world, and in us. “Forgive us our debts, and we forgive our debtors” tells us that we should regularly confess our sins, asking for forgiveness, and also that we should regularly forgive those who hurt us. Matthew’s version ends like this:

12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (ESV, Matthew 6:12-15)

That’s right. “Thine is the kingdom…etc” is not in the Bible. What is at the end of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” is an additional thought about forgiving others. Jesus says that if we refuse to forgive, the Father will not forgive us. Here is another one about forgiving in the same way we have been forgiven:

32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Ephesians 4:32)

Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness. He wanted to know if there was some sort of limit he could put on forgiveness:

21 Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven. (CSB, Matthew 18:21-22)

Seven was considered a special number in Jewish culture. It is the number of perfection, the number of God, a holy number. Though in the Greek could be the number 77, there is a more likely way to understand this, given the culture they were in. It is much more like “seventy times seven.” Even then, Jesus did not mean 490 times. The first people who heard Jesus would have understood that he meant: “a perfect number multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.”  In plain language: “an unlimited number of times.” In current language it might be something like this:

“How many times do I need to forgive? A thousand times?”

“I don’t say a thousand times…I say a thousand times a thousand! That’s right a million times, or even more!”

Right after this, Jesus told a parable about forgiveness. I’ll adapt it to our current culture:

There was a guy named Joe who got drunk, and drove his car into another vehicle. The other vehicle was carrying a wife and three children. The wife and two of the kids were killed outright, and the third child was left unable to walk for the rest of her life. The drunk driver, Joe, had a  minor scratch on his arm, and was otherwise unhurt. The husband and father of the devastated family was a man named Rick. When Joe sobered up, he was taken to court. The evidence against him was overwhelming. He knew he was drunk when he got into the car. He resisted all the attempts of his friends to drive him home, or call him a ride. He was guilty as sin. But he begged for leniency. At his hearing, Rick, the husband and father of the family that was devasted by the accident, pleaded on behalf of the drunk driver. Rick himself was a judge, and he begged his fellow judge to let Joe go with just a warning. He told Joe  he forgave him. The judge was moved, and dismissed Joe’s case.

A week later, a teenage driver – the son of one of Joe’s neighbors – backed into Joe’s fence. The kid was still learning to drive, and it was just inexperience. Joe’s neighbor, and the teenage boy, came and apologized to him. The family was struggling financially, but they promised Joe they would pay him back, just as soon as they got the cash. Joe refused to accept the apology, and told them that if they didn’t pay him immediately, he would sue them. They couldn’t, and so Joe sued them for the damage to his fence, and also for emotional damages amounting to five thousand dollars. When the case came to court, Joe found himself standing in front of none other than Rick, who was the judge assigned to the case.

Now, how do you suppose that Rick would respond when he judges the case? What would he think about Joe? How would you feel about Joe? Does Joe deserve to win his case? Doesn’t the fact that he himself was forgiven mean anything about how he ought to treat others? Shouldn’t it mean something?

Part of what makes us so angry about this story is that Joe is taking full advantage of the forgiveness that was given to him, but is absolutely unwilling to extend any grace to a teenage boy for a far smaller offense. If Joe continues to insist on suing his neighbor, do you think he should still be forgiven for his crime?

Jesus tells us that when we refuse to forgive others, we are acting just as offensively as “Joe” in the his parable. It is outrageous that we would beg God for forgiveness, but then refuse to forgive someone who hurts us.

One of the terrible things about what Joe did, was that by his negligence, he destroyed human lives. He ended the life of three precious people, two of them children. His actions devastated the lives of two others – the child who will never walk again, and Rick, the husband/father who lost his wife and two children, and now must care for his one disabled child. Joe’s crime strikes at the heart of things that we hold precious, and that is part of what makes us so angry about it.

God is the most precious thing in the universe. When we sin, we are striking at the heart of all that is good, right, beautiful and precious. It is like painting graffiti all over the Sistine chapel ceiling, or dumping toxic waste in the Grand Canyon, or hurting a child. That’s how serious sin is, because God is more precious than all of those things put together. The fact that God forgives us is HUGE. There is nothing bad that anyone could do to us that compares with the evil of our sin against God. Therefore, when we refuse to forgive someone after we ourselves have been forgiven, it is outrageous. The Bible is crystal clear. When we refuse to forgive others, we cut ourselves off from the forgiveness that is offered in Jesus.

I think this is as much about the way the things work as it is some sort of deliberate “punishment” from God. In the first place, if we are refusing to forgive someone, it is likely that we are convinced of our self-righteousness. If we can’t let go of what someone else has done to us, it seems unlikely that we are deeply connected, with both humility and gratitude, to what God has done for us. Think about the story I told (an adaption of the one Jesus told) about the drunk driver Joe, and the man Rick, whose family was killed by Joe. Part of what is so outrageous, part of what makes us angry when we hear it, is that the “Joe” character clearly has no appreciation for the forgiveness that Rick and the judge offered him. How could he really know he was forgiven by them, and still behave in that way toward his neighbor? The answer is: he couldn’t. The only way he could be so mean and petty toward his neighbor is that somehow, he doesn’t really understand, accept, or appreciate what Rick and the judge have done for him.

There are three possibilities for why Joe remained so mean-spirited, even after he was forgiven. First, he may not really believe that he is truly forgiven. His heart remains hard because he doesn’t really accept that his own wrongdoing has been washed away. He may not have forgiven himself. So he still lives under a cloud of condemnation and self-loathing, but it is based on the fact that he has not accepted the gift that was offered to him, he is not connected to the reality of the gift. So, just as he has rejected forgiveness for himself, he also rejects the idea of forgiving another.

Second, he may not believe that what he did was so bad. He might be somehow trying to justify his actions, and if he is doing that, he can’t receive forgiveness, because that would mean he was guilty, and needed it. He says to himself, “Sure, maybe I had a few drinks, but I wasn’t out of control. I bet that woman was looking at her cell phone, and she was the one who caused the crash. They just chose to blame me, because they think she was such a nice person.” Or, he might say, “My wife left me two months ago. I had to drink, it is the only thing that helps. If anyone is to blame, it’s my own wife for treating me so badly that it drove me to drink.” There are dozens of ways Joe could find to justify himself, or minimize his own blame. As long as he is denying responsibility, he must also deny the forgiveness that is offered to him. If he accepts the forgiveness, it means he must also accept that he was to blame.

 Third, he may utterly reject the whole thing. He says: “It’s big pointless, stupid world, and bad things happen. I just happened to be involved in it, but I don’t accept these judgements that someone else is putting on me, about what’s wrong, or what’s right. Wrong and right don’t even exist. It is what it is. We live in a random universe, with no “God” in charge. No, I won’t let them try to feel better by blaming me. “

So it is with us. The only way we can persist in not forgiving others, is one of those three possibilities: 1) We don’t really, truly trust that our own sins have been completely forgiven. Or,       2) We justify our own sins, and either claim they aren’t so bad, or insist that there are good reasons we have to sin the way we do. We are self-righteous, and don’t accept blame. Or, 3) perhaps, we reject the idea of sin, God and right and wrong altogether. 4) Or, perhaps it is a combination of all of these things.

Think about it another way. We have our “spiritual fists” clenched tightly closed around the hurt that someone caused us. That means that our spiritual hands cannot, at the same time, be open to receive what God offers. Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us.

Imagine a Christian woman who does ministry in the prison system. She tells a murderer that he can be forgiven for his sin of murder. She tells drug dealers the good news that Jesus has wiped all of their sins away. But at the same time, she holds a deep grudge against her sister-in-law. She has never forgiven her, because the sister-in-law didn’t come to Thanksgiving Dinner at her house five years ago, and made some comments about the lack of cleanliness in her kitchen.

How can this be? How can we say a murderer can be forgiven, but not a relative who has insulted us? Surely, this woman cannot be truly connected to the grace that God has given her, the grace that she proclaims to criminals. How could she believe her message of forgiveness for murderers, but, at the same time withhold forgiveness for family members who hurt her feelings?

Sometimes, we withhold forgiveness because the person who hurt us has never said sorry. This might be the case of the woman with the irritating sister-in-law. But the text says, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive.” How has the Lord forgiven us? Did he wait for us to say sorry? No!

6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son (NLT, Romans 5:6-10, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Christ loved us and forgave us long before we paid any attention to Him. It is true, the forgiveness offered through Jesus will not help us if we refuse to repent. But as soon as we turn to him, we find that forgiveness is there waiting for us. So, perhaps someone has hurt us. If we forgive them, and they don’t care, it may mean that the relationship remains strained. But for our part, we must let go of what they have done wrong. We must not hold it against them, and we must not hold on to grudges, or anger or bitterness.

I want to say one final thing. This might seem really difficult. We might think: “I know I’ve been forgiven, and I am grateful, but I have so much hurt and anger against this person, I just don’t know what to do with it all.” The key to all this is to consider what Jesus did on the cross. The cross shows us the seriousness of our own sin – that is the punishment we rightly deserve – to die the death that Jesus died, and to suffer in hell. It also shows us the seriousness of the sin of those who have hurt us. That is also what the sins of others deserve, including the sins that others committed by hurting us. God takes seriously the pain that others have caused you. He declares it deserves a humiliating death by crucifixion. If our sin was punished in Jesus, can we not see that the sins of our fellow Christians was punished the same way? Satisfaction has been made for that thing that was done to you. It has been declared utterly wrong, and it has been punished, on the cross. Find peace in the sacrifice of Jesus, which shows us both the depth of sin, and the depth of grace.

There is plenty for us to chew on right now. Next time we will talk about what forgiveness for those who hurt us really looks like. Does it mean we have to open ourselves up to be hurt again? Does it mean that we are saying that what they did to us was OK? How can I find it in me to continually practice forgiving others? What exactly must I do (or not do) when I forgive someone? How can I let go of the hurt and anger?

COLOSSIANS #26: LIVING THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST IN YOUR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others. Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all?

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Colossians #26.  Colossians 3:1-14, especially 12-13

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

We are now deeper into a section of Colossians that tells Christians how we are to act. But we need to remember the basis for the way we act. It is not in order to get God to let us into heaven. It is not to prove our worth in any way, or get God to be pleased with us. Instead, we behave in certain ways because God has already forgiven us, and imparted to us the character of Christ. This section of Colossians shows us what the character of Christ looks like in each one of us. Particularly for this time, it shows us what the character of Christ looks like as we live in community with other Christians.

In several key places Paul has given us reminders that our behavior should be the result of what God has already done for us:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him Colossians (2:6)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (2:9-10)

​If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (3:1-4)

So again here, Paul gives us the reason for our changed behavior:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on…

We relate to one another as the New Testament tells us to because we are God’s specially chosen people. He has made us holy, and he loves us dearly. Therefore, this is what it looks like to reflect the character of Christ that God has already given us.

Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others.

Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all? Since Jesus is now in us,  through the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we just sort of “naturally” behave according to God’s intentions? Why all these verses about what to do, and what not to do?

I think there are three things that might help us with this question.

In the first place, in this mortal life, before we enter the New Creation, we live under the influence of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, we are not in neutral territory. There are other influences on us, telling us lies, making us feel left out, encouraging our sinful impulses. Even if we “naturally” know how to live in the character of Jesus Christ, there is tremendous pressure to live for ourselves, or for the things the world values, or according to the lies of the devil. With so many voices speaking loudly against the things of God, it is important for us to have clear guidance about how to live, so that we know what is true, right and good, and what is not.

There is another thought. Picture a dog with its food. Imagine trying to train the dog to share its food with other animals, or even just other dogs. For many years we had a wonderful dog, named Mario. He was a truly sweet-natured animal. He was kind and protective, not only toward the humans in our family, but also toward all of our (many) other animals. I had no qualms leaving him alone with our three year old daughter, or even little babies. But there was one thing that brought out savagery in Mario, and that was if any other animal approached his food dish when he was eating. My point is, it would be difficult to train most dogs to share their food. It’s unfortunate, but true, that really the only way to do it would be to make the dog so afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t share, that it obeys the master’s command to share. In other words, the dog never actually learns to want to share. It merely learns that it is more painful to be selfish than it is to share. To put it another way, the nature of the dog does not become sharing. The nature remains selfish. Only its behavior is conformed to the master’s desire.

In contrast, picture training a young child to share her toys. This is also challenging, and in some ways, much more difficult than training a dog, because you don’t want to use fear or coercion, and you want not just a changed behavior, but also a changed attitude. However, there is something in the child’s nature that is not in the dog’s. It is possible for a child to learn to enjoy sharing, to want to share. But even though that potential exists in her nature, it takes teaching and training to bring it out. So, our nature, because of Jesus, has been changed from one like a dog’s, to one like a child’s. Even so, we still need teaching and training to learn how to use the potential of our new nature.

Here’s one more analogy that may help. The entrance requirements for the United States Air Force Academy are extremely high. You have to be smart, and prove that you can do well academically. You have to prove that you have leadership potential. You have to prove that you are person of character and integrity. You have to have sponsors – including a member of congress. Now imagine a young cadet. He has the smarts. He has the leadership potential, the character, and the sponsorship. He is fully qualified. He has what it takes. He has applied, and he has been accepted. So now, he is cadet in the Air Force Academy. The fact that he has what it takes is now taken for granted. However, he must now learn how to use what he has. Even though he is accepted as a cadet, he must learn to apply what he “has” to being an officer in the Air Force. And the process doesn’t end when he graduates. Once he graduates, he becomes a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He has the commission, he is an officer. Even so, has really only just begun to learn how to work and live like an officer.

So it is with us, who have trusted Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have what it takes. We are fully qualified to in God’s kingdom, to manifest the character of Christ. We have been accepted. Even so, we still need to learn how to use what we have been given. We need to learn to live according to the grace we have been given.

We have been  talking about what it means to live out the character of Christ. First, Paul explained some things to put away from us: sexual immorality, covetousness (greed) malice, obscene talk, and so on. Now, he is telling us something to “put on.” So, first, he covered the negative: “Don’t do certain things,” and now he is talking about the positive: “Do these other things.”

The things we are to do are focused on our life together with other believers. It is not wrong to treat strangers this way, but this text, and many others like in the Bible, assume that we belong to small group of other Christians – that is, a house church. The way we treat others begins in the house church. It doesn’t end there – we should treat all people well – but it starts with us learning to live with each other in the love of Jesus Christ. If claim to love “the world” but don’t actually live in loving relationships with other believers, we will be hypocrites. Also, when we understand that this was first to be practiced among a group of other Christians that was small enough to fit in your living room, things make more sense. It is difficult to have a compassionate heart for all of the other 4,987 members of your mega-Church. In fact, when we try to apply it too broadly, Bible passages like this one become meaningless. How can you be kind and humble and meek and patient with hundreds of people whom you don’t even really know? No, Christianity was always meant to be practiced primarily with a small group of others who became your spiritual family. The word “family” is meaningless if we apply it to so many relatives that we are talking about hundreds of people. The things that go along with our understanding of “family”  necessarily mean a fairly small group of people. It should be exactly the same with “church.”

I am not saying it is wrong for mega-churches to exist. But where they do, they ought to get their members into small groups where real-life faith can be worked out together in real community. Many of the best mega churches do exactly that. But until and unless you get involved in a small Christian community where you know everyone, and they all know you, these teachings in the New Testament will be quite difficult to actually apply to your life.

The first thing is “compassionate hearts.” A more literal translation might have something like: “compassion straight from your guts.” The word used for “heart” is actually “internal organs” and it means a deep, powerful feeling. Compassion means that you “feel alongside with” another person. Sympathy means you feel for someone, but compassion is feeling with. Thankfully, other parts of the Bible explain this clearly:

5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV, Romans 12:15)

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

3 Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (ESV, Hebrews 13:3)

We are supposed to be so connected to the other Christians in our local Christian community (that is, our house church) that we “feel with” them. If they are happy, it should cause us to be happy. If they are suffering, they should know that we are so connected that we hurt too.

Kindness is the next thing listed. There is no mystery here, I think we all know what it is. Again, our biggest need is not to understand it, but to actually practice it with other believers, first, and then, also the world. I think one of the easiest ways to be either kind, or not, is in our words. Sometimes it feels so satisfying, so powerful, to say unkind things to or about another person. But this is not what the life of Jesus in you wants to do. A kind word at the right time can build up a person more than we can possibly imagine.

Humility is all about allowing  God (not ourselves) to defend our “rights,” and to trust him to make sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Even if that doesn’t take place in this mortal life, we trust that God will make it right in the New Creation. With that sense – that we don’t need to defend our own rights, or pride, or honor – we can deal with each other humbly. We don’t need to insist upon our way, nor make snide comments when our way is not taken, and things don’t go smoothly. We can be right without rubbing the faces of others in that fact.

Meekness is a word I’ve struggled to define for many years. The closest I can come is a mix of gentleness and humbleness. Humility and meekness do not mean that we have to look down upon ourselves, or believe that we are always wrong, or not worthy of respect. If you look at the life that Jesus lived on earth, we can see what both humility and meekness look like. Jesus was (and still is) King of the Universe. Yet, he did not insist upon his rights, or his own way. He dealt gently with people who did not respect him – and there was, literally, no one worthy of more respect. He presented the truth clearly, but did not try to force anyone to comply.  He did, at times, force people to make a decision about Himself. Even then, he gently spoke to them until they had to face up what he was saying about himself. At that point, they had to choose to either believe, or not, but he did not force them to believe.

Jesus was, by definition, always right, but he did not rub anyone’s face in that fact. He knew who he was, certainly. He didn’t feel badly about himself, nor have low self-esteem. He didn’t pretend he was wrong. But he didn’t either insist that everyone recognize his rightness, or give him what he truly deserved.

I think we all know what patience is. But I want us to think about what it means to be patient with each other in Christian community. It might mean smiling and waiting it out when someone tells you the same story you’ve heard fifteen times already. It could mean remaining calm and hoping for the best when someone in the group fails to make the best choice – for the twentieth time in twenty days. It means everyone sticking with each other even when it seems like things aren’t going anywhere. It means sticking with individuals in the group when they continue to struggle with the same things for months – or even years – at a time. It means continuing to commit to the group even when there is a season when it feels like you aren’t getting a lot out of it. Your presence there may be the main reason someone else is getting a lot out of it, and what goes around comes around – but not usually very quickly.

Bearing with one another. No one is perfect, but when you get to know a group of people really well, you find that they are all a group of especially imperfect people. We need to bear with one another’s idiosyncrasies and bad habits, and socially awkward graces and body odor, and bad cooking and so on.

We have plenty to chew on for this time. Ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say to you right now? How does he want you to take action on these things? How is he calling you to trust him today?

 

COLOSSIANS #25: HOW DOES CHRIST-IN-YOU WANT TO RELATE TO OTHERS?

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COLOSSIANS #25. COLOSSIANS 3:6-11

6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

We are continuing from last time, when Paul started warning about the dangers of lawlessness. We need to remember that we don’t avoid sin, or do good, so that God will accept us or forgive us. Our acceptance and forgiveness are already assured by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus and what he has done. But just as in a marriage we live not just for ourselves, but also with and for our spouse, so it is with God. We live not for our own selfish desires, but with and for Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us. We have entered into a kind of spiritual marriage. Earthly marriage changes the way behave. So does this spiritual marriage. But we change (in both cases) because of love.

[By the way, the Bible often says things like “brothers” when it means “both men and women.” It says we are all “sons of God through Christ Jesus,” because there was a special significance attached to sons, but the concept applies to both men and women. Women need to learn to understand that these concepts are not about gender, but about who we are in Christ. So now, men need to understand the same things when it comes to the concept of spiritual marriage. We are all (both women and men) the Bride of Christ. It is not about gender, it is about the kind of relationship we have with Christ.]

Last time Paul listed some of the changes that take place because of our spiritual marriage to Christ, and they were changes in our desires, and how we acted (or did not act) on them.

Now Paul continues and talks about how our relationships with each other should change. In the first place, we must put away all anger and wrath. I might have translated these words, anger and rage. Paul says we should “put them away.” The Greek does not mean “put them away” like putting away socks that you will use again. It means, “send them away from yourself;  distance yourself from them.” Now, the truth is, at times Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5). So, not all anger is sinful.  Paul says it this way in Ephesians 4:26-27:

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Clearly there are times when anger is not sinful, since God himself gets angry at times. Of course it is right to be angry about injustice. Who would not be angry to hear about someone abusing a child, or stealing from the poor, or treating someone like  a second class citizen just because of their ethnicity? Who would not be angry if someone wrongs them badly?

But we must set a limit to the anger. Paul says, deal with it before the day is over. We are not to nurse anger, or feed it, or dwell on it. Get it out of your system, and send it away. Sometimes, to do that, you might need to express your anger to the appropriate person. Do so as soon as you can do it calmly, and then be done with it.

Malice is the next thing we are to send away. Malice is when you are deliberately trying to hurt someone, whether through words or actions. It indicates evil intentions. Sometimes people who are malicious may ask a question or say something that is technically innocent (on the surface) but it is said to hurt someone.

Slander is actually the Greek word from which we get our word “blasphemy.” Slander/blasphemy is saying something about God or someone else that is not true. I think it includes incidents where you say something that you don’t know to be true. In other words you are telling a lie or something that you know might be a lie about God or another person. So, perhaps I wonder if someone is having an affair. If I tell others that this person is having an affair, when I don’t know it is true, that is slander/blasphemy. Paul doesn’t mention gossip in this context, though he does in other letters. Gossip is repeating a fact that is not yours to repeat. So, to use the affair example, if I know for certain someone is having an affair, it is still not my business to talk about it with someone who does not need to know it.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is obscene talk. He says something like this also in Ephesians:

29 No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. (CSB, Ephesians 4:29)

I am both astounded and disappointed at how many Christians completely ignore both our verses today, and Ephesians 4:29 above. I have met probably more than a dozen pastors, and know of many others, who freely swear, tell dirty jokes and generally use foul language. They tell me that they are just trying to relate to “the people.” By this logic, they should commit adultery so that they can help adulterers!

A lot of people use foul language more or less as a habit. You get used to using certain words, and they sort of slip out of your mouth before you realize it. I am not deeply concerned about this, though, I think our scripture today is telling us that it isn’t a neutral habit and we should do what we can to change it. I think Ephesians 4:29 (above) gives us the important thing: the way we talk should uplift people and give grace to those who hear. I think we can say that in general, the F-word does not give grace to those who hear, nor do any of the other words. I think it is safe to say that the life we have in Jesus is not consistent with dirty jokes, or suggestive sexual language, or racial slurs, or insults, or demeaning labels. I think a big part of the problem is this: if these things come out of you, that means they are inside you in the first place. Jesus put it like this:

14 Summoning the crowd again, he told them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
17 When he went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated” (thus he declared all foods clean ). 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23

Another thing Jesus said:

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (ESV, Matthew 12:33-35)

I’m not trying to make anyone feel terrible about themselves. But what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what is in our hearts. Again, swearing is sometimes nothing more than a bad habit, and you shouldn’t stress too much about it. But it is a habit that you ask the Lord to change in you.

When I’m working with someone, and they hit their finger with a hammer, and they swear, I don’t think much about it. But when someone hits himself and does not swear, that gets my attention. In some jobs or circumstances, you can say a lot by not saying certain things, if you catch my drift. Many times, I have ended up having spiritual conversations because people noticed that I don’t swear. I will freely admit that it is easy for me not to swear, because I never got into the habit in the first place. But I think our language can say something about Jesus to other people. More often than not – maybe 75% of the time, at least, I find that those who don’t swear are Christians.

The final thing Paul puts here is “do not lie to another.” Part of the Greek word for “lie” is “pseudo.” The word goes beyond simply telling  a lie, and includes any kind of deception or falsehood and could even include “putting on a false front,” or hypocrisy. This is really important. We cannot grow together as a community if we are not honest with each other. Sometimes we are afraid of honesty, because sometimes it brings conflict. But listen, dear friends, listen well: Conflict is unpleasant. But when you have walked through conflict with someone else, and resolved it, you are closer than you would ever be if you never had issues. We are God’s children together forever, so there is no question of conflict destroying your Christian community, provided we go about it in a godly way. And so honesty, even when it leads to conflict, leads ultimately to greater love for another, and a greater sense of support and encouragement.

Verses 9-10 are extremely important in order to put all in this context:

…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

This is the key. Remember, this all builds upon what we have already learned. I don’t want anyone to confuse all these commands with some kind of legalism. Instead, these things are a guide. They show us what the character of Christ looks like. They show us how to put to death the old person, and let the new us, in Christ, be manifested more and more. We are being renewed in the knowledge in the image of our Creator. This isn’t about following rules, it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to renew us in God’s image. In a sense, it is about “unpacking” the gift of Christ in our everyday lives.

This also gives us a diagnostic tool. If there continues to be anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, if we continue to deal with others in hypocrisy and deception, then there is some sort of problem. The life of Christ is not flowing out into our souls and then changing how we live in the body. The problem might be that we don’t truly believe who Jesus Christ is, and what has done for us. It could be that we are feeding our souls with the things of the world and flesh, instead of the things of the spirit, like the Bible, Christian fellowship, prayer, worship and music.

I am quite sure that the actual Colossians, the first readers of this letter, would have understood these things to be especially important to how the lived in Christian community with each other. That is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write verse 11:

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

In Paul’s world, there were many divisions and distinctions between people that threatened real Christian community. Greeks considered themselves to be cultural elites. Jews thought they were better than all others, because their ancestors were chosen to be God’s people. “Barbarians” had a different meaning than we might imagine. It meant nothing more or less than someone who didn’t speak Greek, and was therefore not part of the Greco-Roman culture that dominated that area of the world in those days. Scythians were the real barbarians. They were white-skinned Europeans who lived far to the northeast, in crude huts, with a brutal, primitive, savage tribal culture. Perhaps a few made their way into the civilized world of the Mediterranean and became Christians. Slaves, were not exactly the sort of slaves that lived in nineteenth century America, but their freedom was certainly limited. We will talk more of slavery later in the letter, but in some ways, the big difference between slave and free in those days was that slaves had less money.  All these were ways of dividing people from each other in Paul’s time. But the Holy Spirit, through Paul, says, that these are meaningless distinctions. The only important thing about all people is where they stood in relationship to Christ. There is only in Christ, and not in Christ. And in Christ, there is no distinction worth mentioning.

In our day and age, we are tempted by divisions also. Some people consider themselves intellectuals and elites, and they might be tempted to think of themselves as better than others. Some might have a strong religious background, and so look down on people who only started following Jesus after many years without him. Some might be Westerners: part of the Western European culture that has dominated the world for the past four hundred years or so. Others might be from non-Western countries. Others still might come from very primitive places in the world. Some might be in economically difficult situations, while others have more money than they strictly need. Unfortunately, in America, as other places in the world, we also allow ethnic differences (which some people call “race”) to divide us.

I want to speak, very briefly, about racism. This scripture shows us that it is a sin when we use peoples’ ethnic background or appearance as a means to judge them, put them down, or divide us from them. Paul says very clearly that these things don’t matter: in Christ, we are all the same. In Christ, the important thing is that we belong to Him. I think there has been some confusion about this. Sometimes, in the United States, it seems like we are supposed to be especially sensitive to a person’s ethnic background. The Bible seems to be saying the opposite. I’m not saying we should insult each other with racial slurs. Obviously, the rest of this passage calls that sort of thing sinful. But I am saying, that in Christ, race is not important. Any way we have of making it important pales in comparison to the oneness we have in Christ.

Sure, we can celebrate the heritage of our historical cultures, but in America, even that sort of thing has had the tendency to divide more than to unite. In Christ there is neither black nor white. The idea that blackness or whiteness is somehow important, is, I think, one of the great lies of the 21st century. Let me put it this way: anything that starts you thinking about “them” and “us,” can become a real problem. I realize that racism is a thorny and difficult issue, which I will not solve here. However, I have seen race relations between blacks and whites deteriorate during my adult life, and that deterioration was accompanied by the idea that we should be especially sensitive to a person’s race, as opposed to simply striving to see every person as a person, regardless of his or her appearance. Also, when I was young, tension between American Asians and American whites was almost non-existent. However, as our culture has drawn more attention to race, and insisted upon “sensitivity,” racial tension has grown up between these two groups, where previously there was very little.

What we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years has surely not been working. Could we find a better place than scripture for guidance? In Christ, there is no black or white, Asian or Native-American, man or woman. Christ is all, and is in all. None of these things are supposed to matter. None of them should make any difference to the fellowship we have in Jesus.  None of them may be used as excuses for anger, rage, malice, slander, obscene talk or deception, or anything else that interferes with our one-ness in Christ.

What if, in listening to this message, you realize that engage in some of these sins, or allow these differences between people to be important? What then?

First, do not panic. The presence of sinful flesh does not, all by itself, mean that you are not a true Christian. But a true Christian responds to sin by repenting, and giving Jesus permission to change him or her. Repentance is not about generating will power in order to avoid sin in the future. But repentance agrees that what the Bible calls sin, is in fact, wrong. A repentant heart wants to change, and gives God permission to work so that it can be changed. The main questions are: do you agree with God that your behavior needs to change? Do you give him permission to change you? Do you believe that he can and will change you through the power of the Holy Spirit? Will you try to go along with the changes he wants to make in you?

The change may not happen as quickly as we think it should. That’s fine. I don’t think it is up to us evaluate how much and how fast we change. But, is there any movement in a direction that looks more like Jesus and less like your sinful flesh? We don’t get to decide how much progress we make, only that there is movement in the right direction. The good news is given to us right here in these verses:

you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

And…Christ is all, and in all.

For anyone who is in Jesus, the putting off of your old self and the putting on of the new is a present, spiritual reality. You are being renewed in knowledge after the image of  God. Maybe not as quickly as we think it should be, but it is happening to us, and our main job is to not fight with God about it, but let him do it. For those who are in Christ Jesus, he is all to us, and he is in all of us.

COLOSSIANS #24: THE TRAP OF LAWLESSNESS AND THE SOLUTION OF LOVE

god's love

How can we avoid legalism, and trying to earn points with God, but also avoid lawlessness and sinning?

The answer is love. Love is at the heart of Christianity because love is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and what it means to have faith. Love not fear, nor selfishness, is what changes us and radically influences our behavior.

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Colossians #24. Colossians 3:5-7

 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. Colossians 3:5-7

We are taking things in small bites, but it is very important to remember our overall context. Paul started this section by saying: “In the same way you received Christ, now walk in him.” He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ; and the fullness of Christ dwells in us. Through faith, by God’s grace, we were buried with Jesus by baptism, and raised to new life. Our old life, the sinful flesh, has been put to death. Paul then began to discuss one potential problem in the Christian life: the issue of legalism. Legalists don’t fully believe in the work of Jesus. They think perhaps that they can add to what Jesus has done. They want to be in control of their own fate, and they often want to control the behavior of others. But Paul demolishes legalism by reminding the Colossians that in Christ we have nothing left to prove. We can’t be righteous enough to please God. We don’t follow God according to the ways of the world.

Last time we talked about the amazing truth that our real life, our true life, is found not in external things, but in Jesus Christ. It is already there, waiting for us. It will be fully revealed in all its glory at the same time that Christ is revealed in all of his glory. This is because part of the glory of Christ is what he has done for us. Real life comes from God, into our spirits, and from our spirits into our souls, and from our souls, it influences how we behave.

So, while some of this might be hard for us to hear, let us not forget the message of grace and life that the scripture has been hammering into us for many weeks now. Context is everything.

With all this in mind, Paul now begins to address a second potential problem in the Christian life: lawlessness. Remember the picture of following Jesus as a road? On one side of the road is a deep and dangerous ditch called legalism. Now, Paul begins to address the deep and dangerous ditch on the other side of the road: Lawlessness. In many ways, lawlessness looks like the opposite of legalism. Instead of following rules, like legalism, lawlessness rejects any kind of standard for behavior at all. A lawless person might think like this: “Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus did everything for us. There’s nothing for us to do. Therefore, I can live in whatever way pleases me best. I know I’m not married to this person that I’m attracted to, but I can’t earn points with God anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and have sex with her. And with anyone else I feel like.” Lawlessness says: “Paul just wrote that restraint and self-discipline don’t help us in our relationship with God, so I’m not going to restrain myself at all. If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I can get something I want, I’ll get it. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it.”

Lawlessness is lazy, and, above all, self-centered. Like legalism, the heart of lawlessness is being in control. Lawless people might think that they are the opposite of “in control,” but behind the “anything goes” behavior is an attitude that says: “No one can tell me what to do, or not do.” Like legalism, lawlessness says, “No one is the boss of me. I’m in charge of my own life, so I can do what I want.”

Unfortunately, most public schools in America, along with most universities, indoctrinate young people with the ideas of lawlessness. They tell people that the most important thing is to be true to yourself. In other words: “Make sure that you do what you really feel like doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Do not accept any standard for behavior except what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone else impose any kind of standard on you.”

Legalism had a tiny bit of truth behind it. So does lawlessness. It is true that Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. If we trust Jesus, we are thoroughly forgiven, and we can’t add anything to what Jesus has done for us. In Jesus, our sins are not counted against us, and the righteousness of Jesus is counted for us.

But we need to understand something: if we truly believe this, our behavior will change. If we truly love Jesus, the most significant part of us will not want to sin at all. If we belong to Jesus, we have accepted him as our Lord and King, and we have given up the right to live for ourselves.

I’ve used this illustration before, because the Bible uses it in many places. Picture a marriage. Two people love each other, and they agree to give up their lives as single people, and from their wedding day forward, they make a new life together. Part of marriage means you give up some of the independence you had as a single person. Now, you organize your life not only to please yourself, but to please the two of you together. When you were single, you might have gone out with your friends, and stayed out late. But when you are married, you decide together what you will do with your time. You don’t stay out all night unless you have talked it over and agreed with your spouse. You don’t spend your money as if it was all your own. You prioritize together how you as a couple will allocate your resources. You do things for each other and with each other because you love one another. Sometimes, you do things you would rather not do because you love your spouse. At other times, you might refrain from doing something you would like to do, because you love your spouse. You don’t behave in these ways because there are laws about marriage. You do it because you love your spouse. And you behave in ways that are loving sometimes even when you don’t feel all sorts of loving feelings, because you have made a commitment to honor and value your spouse.

Now, if you were a legalist, you might say: “I must sit here and listen to my spouse talk, because if I don’t, I must not really be married.”

There is no love there, only fear and obligation.

If you were a lawless person, you might say: “I don’t feel like sitting here and listening to my spouse talk, because I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to go watch TV because that’s what I really want to do right now. Besides, even if I don’t listen to her, we’re still married, right?”

There is no love here, either, just self-centeredness.

This is why I say the good, true road of Christianity is love. Love eliminates both legalism and lawlessness. Being a Christian is all about receiving the love of Jesus, and loving him back. And because of his love, also loving our neighbors. Love changes us. It reorients us, reorients our lives, toward the one we love. Love affects how we live, and the choices we make. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really love.

This has to be really clear: we don’t change our behavior in order to become acceptable to God. Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. But once we trust Jesus, once we believe what the bible says, our behavior will change, because we grow in the love that Jesus has for us, and the love we have for him. If our behavior does not change at all, not even a little, perhaps we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Jesus.

When Paul was speaking about legalism, he talked about some of the things that we died to: false humility, working to get God to accept us, and so on. Now, Paul is telling us about a whole different category of things to which we have died: the things of the flesh. He starts with five. These five are all about things that we might wrongly desire: sexual immorality; moral impurity; evil passion; lust; and covetousness.

The word for “sexual immorality” is the very broad Greek term porneia. Porneia means “any sexual activity apart from that between a man and woman who are married to each other.” To be specific, it includes: sex between people who are not married at all; sex between people who are not married to each other; homosexual sex; prostitution; sex between more than two people, rape, etc.

Moral impurity catches pretty much anything left after porneia. Just in case you have someone (for instance, like former President Clinton) who wants to argue about what exactly “sex” means, this Greek word covers basically any other kind of immoral thought or behavior. We might throw pornography of all types into this category also.

The next term is “passion.” The Greek word used does not always mean something negative, but in this context, it is safe to assume that Paul means any kind of ungodly passion, and probably passion with immoral sexual overtones.

Following that, Paul mentions evil desire. Sometimes, this might be translated “lust.” This is desire for something more than, or in addition to, what you actually need, and it includes a demand that the desire be satisfied, even if it is wrong. You can lust, or have evil desire, for all sort of things, including (but not limited to) food, power, money, sex, control, or material things.

I want to pause before we move on. The problem with all of these things is that they are corruptions of things that would otherwise be good. The Bible teaches us that sex between married couples is a good thing, and in fact, it says very clearly that married couples should not withhold sex from one another (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But Jesus teaches us to avoid corrupting and debasing God’s good gift of sex. Passion is often a good thing. But when the passion is directed to an object or person that it should not be, it becomes a sin. Desire is good. It is the same word used when Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples. But evil desire is for something that should not be desired.

The final sin in this set of five is “covetousness.” The idea behind it is that you want something that is not yours to properly want. That could be money, it could be a relationship, it could be a certain status or possession. The ten commandments give us some examples of the ways we might covet:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV, Exodus 20:17)

I’ve never coveted a donkey in my life, though I may have come close with a cow or a goat. But the idea of house or spouse is helpful. Your neighbor’s spouse is not available for you to want. Neither is her house, or car. You want something that should not belong to you anyway. You wish you could take it away from someone else, and have it for yourself. That is covetousness.

In verse six we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of such things. This is important. Sometimes, the attitude of lawlessness is that sins are not such a big deal anymore, because Jesus has forgiven us. But Paul is telling us that these things are deadly. Those who do not turn to Jesus will be under the wrath of God for such things. They aren’t something to play around with.

Each of these five sins refer primarily to strong desires for things that we should not desire. Let’s make sure we put in this context. Last time, Paul said that our real life was in Christ. Right now it is hidden, but it is no less real for that, and one day it will be fully manifested. We learned that we should seek life in Christ, not in external things, not in things that will wither and die anyway, things that will never satisfy us. So, now Paul is saying, put to death your habit of seeking life in the wrong places. These five sins: sexual immorality, impurity, evil passion, lust, and covetousness, are all ways in which we seek to find life. When we engage in such things, we are seeking life in the flesh, in things where there is no life. Paul says, “put those habits to death, where they belong. They are dead ends; worse, they are roads leading to even more death. Seek your life in Christ, and be done with seeking it in things like that.”

Paul also says: “This is how you used to be. You used to do these things, but now, in Jesus, all of that is changing.” I don’t want to gloss over verse Sometimes after people become Christians, they feel bad about what they did in the past. But that is over. The new reality is Christ. A few verses later Paul writes:

You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV, Colossians 3:9-10)

That reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Yes, I know we still sometimes fail and fall back into evil desires. But our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Our flesh (as it is right now) is destined for destruction – the part of us that wants to sin is as good as dead already. We need to remember that the part of us that wants to go on sinning is no longer who we really are. We are now holy and blameless in Christ. We are in a spiritual marriage with Jesus.

Meditate on these things right now. What does it mean to put to death the things of the flesh? One nuance of “put to death” in Greek is “deprive of strength or power.” I think this is a helpful thought. What gives these sorts of sins strength or power, and what takes power away from them? How will feed your desires for the things of God, and starve the desires of the flesh?

What does it mean to put off the old self, and put on the new? How will you do that in the coming days and weeks? How will you avoid both the trap of legalism, and the trap of lawlessness?

And finally, how will you help your brothers and sisters in Jesus to do the same?

COLOSSIANS #23: THE SOURCE OF LIFE

green leafy plant starting to grow on beige racks
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 There is no life in external things like bad stuff happening, or even good stuff happening.  If we live by our circumstances, or how we feel, we will be constantly going up and down, back and forth. Our text today tells us to seek life in the things of the spirit, not in our circumstances or flesh. We can be OK, no matter what is going on around us, or even in our own bodies. Our life is hidden in Christ with God, and that is where we draw our strength, joy and peace.

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Colossians #23. Colossians 3:1-4

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (ESV, Colossians 3:1-4)

In Colossians 2:11-12 Paul explains that those who trust Jesus have been buried with Jesus by faith, in baptism, and that they have also been raised with Christ. Again, in verse 20, he says, “since you died with Christ, don’t be sucked into living according to the principles of this world.” He has been telling us things to avoid: legalism, religious hypocrisy, trying to justify ourselves to God, or somehow add to what Jesus has done for us.

Now, he begins with the other side of the equation. In Jesus, we died to the basic principles of this world. That means, says Paul, you have been raised with Christ to a new kind of life. Since you have this new life in Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Set your minds on the things above, not on the things of earth.

I want to dive into this deeply, because it is so important. To help us, let’s briefly consider the life of the prophet Elijah. He lived in ancient Israel, during a dark time of history. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. Even so, he hid from the king and queen for most of the time of the drought.

At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.

Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and the cloud formed and a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.

Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.

The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done….ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further. Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about show Elijah His presence.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence.

Many translations say, “a still small voice.” I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The important thing is that when Elijah heard the silent voice, he went out and listened to the Lord. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.

I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.

Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing! But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.

You see what was going on? Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.

We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

Remember how God showed himself to Elijah. He was not in the storm, or the earthquake or the fire. Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still.

This is what Paul is saying to us: “Your real life is in the spirit, through Jesus. Set your mind on spiritual things, not in how your life is going.”

We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn to how cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense.  Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life from Externals.

We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks here on earth. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus  was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). The word for “tested” or “tempted” is the Greek word pronounced “peiradzo.” Some English translations say “tempted” but it doesn’t really mean just temptation to sin. It means undergoing trials to determine an outcome. In other words, this is life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt. If Jesus could not throw a lasso around life and make it behave for him, do you really think you can?

Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – that can be a daunting idea. “You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going live holy again?”

The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life out of our behavior. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.

Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there.  There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.

There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.

The reason there is no life in these things is because they all take place on the outside of us – in our flesh. Paul has been telling us that our flesh is already dead through Christ. We’re done with it. There is no life there. Let’s go back to how human beings are made. The scripture says there are three parts to humans: Body, Soul, and Spirit

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12 (ESV)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

It’s a different Greek word for each one: soma (body) psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). The body is fatally infected by sin. It is going to die. Everyone dies in this way. Sometimes, the New Testament calls a sin-infected body “the flesh.”

The soul is where we have our mind and personality. It is connected both to the body, and also to the spirit. It is the go-between, the middle. You might say the soul is where spiritual battles take place. Our soul can tell our flesh to stop doing something it wants to do, or to keep doing it. I believe that the souls of Christians will be made perfect and holy and complete when they are given new resurrection-bodies.

The spirit is the part of us that interacts with spiritual things. Those who do not trust Jesus have spirits that are dead to God (but alive to the influence of evil spiritual power). When we trust Jesus, our spirits are made alive to God, whole, perfect and holy, and dead to sin. The condition of your spirit, in Jesus, never changes. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely. Your spirit is fine if things are going well in your life. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely fine if things are going badly in your life. If you belong to Jesus, your life – your truest life, your spirit-life is already with Christ in God.

Now we can better understand what Paul was saying to the Colossians, and what God was showing Elijah. Life comes from God, through our spirit, into our soul, and then out into our behavior. If we want true life, we need to fix our thoughts and ambitions and desires upon the things of the spirit. These are what Paul calls “things above.” When we have real spirit life, we are no longer controlled by what the body/flesh wants. One of my bible school teachers put it this way:

“There are two dogs inside of you. A good dog, and an evil one. They are fighting each other for control over you.”

“Which dog wins?” asked someone.

“Whichever one you feed,” she said.

Paul is telling us to feed the good dog by setting our hearts, minds and will upon the things of the spirit. This is one reason that reading the Bible regularly is so important. I started reading the bible daily when I was thirteen years old. I’ve had spells when it wasn’t daily, but in general, I’ve continued ever since. Now, reading the Bible like that did not, in and of itself make me more holy. It certainly did not make God love me any more than he already did, and it didn’t make him love me any more than he loves people who don’t read their bible. But what it did do was to shape my thinking and my emotions toward the things of the spirit. It feeds the good dog, and weakens the bad one.

Paul also tells us that our spirit life, for the time being, is hidden with Christ in God. That means that the condition of your spirit it is not always evident to the world, or even to you. The Greek word for “hidden” in verse three is the basis for our English word cryptic. That means it is sometimes difficult to see or understand.

Paul makes sure, in verse 4, that we know there will come a day when the spirit-life will be fully revealed: fully evident to yourself and to all others. But that does not  change in what is happening with your spirit. It is only a change in that it was hard to see before, and when Jesus returns, it will be fully manifested.

Because we are already perfect and complete and holy in our spirit-self, Paul urges us strongly to seek to focus on  spiritual reality, rather than flesh reality. Let our souls, and then our bodies be influenced primarily by the spirit, rather than the flesh. To do so is not complicated: read your Bible, understanding that spiritual-reality is greater and eternal, while flesh-reality will eventually die. Develop community with other believers who are trying to do the same thing. Pray – have an on going conversation with God all day long. I know of a couple who communicate constantly throughout the day, by phone. They probably call each other dozens of times each day, and often they pass the time while they are doing the shopping or laundry or whatever else, talking to each other even while accomplishing other tasks. We need to do this with Jesus, also. Leave the phone line always open, connected. You can pray while hanging drywall. You can pray while fishing, or grocery shopping, or mowing the yard or entering data. Or, writing a sermon (thanks for that one, Lord.)

Paul says almost the same thing in to the Philippians that he did to the Colossians:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV, Philippians 3:18-21)

Be encouraged. If you know Jesus, all is well in your spirit, not matter what else is going on. You all know that these aren’t just words for me. For five years I’ve felt physically like I have a knife blade broken off in my left kidney. We’ve spent thousands of dollars looking for answers, and received none. But my spirit-reality matters much more than my body-reality. I do get frustrated. I do break down sometimes. But those of you who know me personally also know that my spirit-reality matters more to me than this, and that is why I’m really OK, and will continue to be OK, even if I don’t get healing until I die. This body won’t last forever, but my spirit will. So set your mind, seek, pursue, meditate on, prioritize, things above, things of the spirit, not things of the body and the flesh.

COLOSSIANS #21: EYES ON THE PRIZE

men and woman in red tank top is ready to run on track field

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Colossians #21. Colossians 2:18-19

We are continuing from last time. Paul set the stage by telling us to continue to walk in Jesus in the same way we received him: that is, by grace, through faith, not trusting in our own goodness or good works, but trusting Jesus to be enough. He reassures us that we have all the fullness of Christ living inside of us, and in Christ is the fullness of God. Then he again reassures us, telling us that through grace, by faith, we were buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to new life. Our sins have been nailed to the cross of Christ, and so have all the judgments that were against us.

Remember that last time we talked about the picture of a road: the good, safe road is love for Jesus, and through Jesus, love for others. On one side is the ditch of legalism, and the other, lawlessness. In our verses today, Paul is continuing to warn about legalism.

Last time we considered Paul’s exhortation to not let anyone judge us for things that are neither commanded, nor forbidden, by Christ or his apostles. These sorts of things include worship ceremonies, food and drink, church festivals, the day of the week that we worship, and so on. Now, Paul continues his exhortation:

18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.(Colossians 2:18-19)

In verse 16, Paul says, “let no one pass judgment on you.” Now he says, “Let no one disqualify you.” There is a difference in the two. I think it’s worth thinking about. Last time we talked about judging and being judged for things that don’t matter. Now Paul is taking this attitude: You already have the prize: Jesus Christ. Everything you need is found in that prize. Therefore, don’t let anyone suggest you don’t have all that you need already to be a Christian. Don’t let anyone put doubt in your mind about whether or not you’ve been given the prize. Don’t let anyone shake you loose from the prize that you already have.

Paul talks about a certain kind of person who might try to say that you have been disqualified. This is someone who insists upon false humility. The NIV translates the Greek this way, while other versions use “asceticism,” but I think false humility captures the sense of it.

This is a tricky one, because true humility is an important part of following Jesus. Just as Jesus knew who he was, yet felt no need to rub the noses of others in it, so we should be the same. We don’t need to insist on our own way, even if we know we are right. We don’t need to insist on receiving the honor that we might rightly deserve. We should delight in honoring others, even if we don’t get the honor we think we should have. We don’t have to pretend to be less intelligent, or weaker, or less attractive than we are, but neither do we need to insist that everyone recognize these things. We can be humble in this way because we know that God knows who we are, and nothing we do escapes his notice. Through Jesus, he honors us, even when others fail to do so when they should.

And we should live with a recognition that everything we are, and everything we are capable of doing, are gifts from God, not something we somehow got for ourselves. It is not as if we were smart, or beautiful, or strong because we designed our own physical bodies. This is true, even when we have worked hard to use what we have. For example, say I have worked hard to study the Bible and be good at teaching it to others. But I was given the ability to learn and understand, and without that gift, my hard work would not have amounted to much. If I had not been given the opportunity to take time to learn and to have good people to teach me, my hard work would have come to nothing. Even my own motivation and self-discipline to work hard was originally given to me by God. This is true of each one of us, no matter what area of life we have become good at. True humility recognizes these things.

It might be helpful to use the road analogy. This is a smaller road, the road of true humility. On one side is the ditch of no humility (overt pride) and the other is false humility. So, false humility is something different from the real thing. False humility is a tool used by some to try to either shame or control other people. It can be very dangerous, because it is also, often, very subtle. Someone who is humble in a false way puts their pious Christian behavior on display. It is hard to argue with them, because they seem so spiritual and right. They might even say words that are good, but you can see from their tone that something else is going on. They often find ways demonstrate (sometimes without even saying it) that you aren’t as religious as they are. Some of these people might also insist upon some sort of outward pious behavior. This could involve telling people that they must fast at certain times, or implying that they ought to pray a certain way, or do certain specific good works. Usually, you will feel like you have to do these things in order for such a person to accept you as a real Christian. Now, it is good to fast. It is good to do good works. But we cannot insist upon certain fasts or certain good works. Especially, it is wrong to think that those things earn us special favor in the eyes of God.

Paul warns about two additional types of things that such people might be involved in. First the worship of angels. This is more or less a literal translation of the Greek, and it leaves us a with a slight problem. Does it mean that certain people worship angels? Or does it mean that some people claim to know how the angels worship God, and insist that we should worship the same way?

We might not be wrong to take it both ways, but I lean toward the second, for various reasons. In the first place, Paul is talking to Christians, and Christians are pretty clear that we must worship God alone, and never worship anyone else, not even an angel. In the Bible, several times, angels themselves told people not to worship them. (for example, Revelation 19:9-10)

Paul has been talking about things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and the way we worship falls mostly into that category, so I think that this the point here. We know that there are some things we should do as we worship (like praising God, and praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper) but the way we do those things is more or less up to us, as long as we honor the Lord. We are certainly never told to find out how angels worship, and then to imitate that.

The next thing Paul warns about it someone who has an unhealthy obsession with visions, and is probably proud about the visions and spiritual experiences she has had. As I describe this, keep the idea of the ditches in mind. All of these things might be done in healthy ways that honor God and encourage other Christians. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. At the same time, many people do engage in behavior that seems spiritual on the surface, but is full of false humility, real pride and with no true connection to Jesus, the head of the body.

Let me describe some of what Paul is warning about. For several years, I tried to be a part of a certain pastors’ group. I never felt comfortable in that group. One reason I didn’t like it is because whenever we met, it sounded to me like the pastors were boasting, under cover of false humility. They might say things like this:

“We felt like we ought to hold a revival. We brought 176 souls to Jesus in one week.  All we were doing was stepping out in obedience to the Lord, and he provided.”

When I write these words, I realize that you can’t hear the tone of voice, or see the expression. But when it was spoken, it was clear that this person was proud as a peacock about the revival, and felt pretty sure that 176 people came to the altar because he was the best preacher this side of Memphis. These are spiritual words. We should be glad that 176 people came to Jesus (if in fact that’s truly what happened). He gave lip-service to the idea that it was God who did it, but he made sure to not only tell us the number of people, but also to emphasize his own act of stepping out in obedience. This is someone who uses spiritual words and spiritual activities to build himself up, especially in contrast to others.

Another time we pastors were gathered around a meal, and someone volunteered to bless the food. His prayer probably lasted three minutes, which is a long time when you’re hungry, and completely unnecessary for a table prayer. Certainly, the “thank you for the food part,” took less than ten seconds, and the rest of the prayer was spent on other things. Mostly what I remember is that his prayer proved that he was eloquent, and spiritual, and that he had a great speaking voice. It felt like a competition, and he had just thrown down a challenge. He even sort of smirked when he was done, sort of like: “Try and beat that, fellas.” That was the last day I spent with that gathering.

Now, it is good for pastors to gather together. It is good to talk about what’s going on with our ministries. It’s good to pray. But we can do that in a way that is genuine and that builds each other up. Or, as with my experiences, we can engage in false humility.

I was part of another prayer group for about two years. I really connected with some of the people there. But prayer became a performance. Everyone began to pray very long prayers, with many words where few words would have been sufficient. Their attitude was something like, “Why use two sentences when we could make it last five minutes?” Their voices trembled with emotion, and their words were replete with thick eloquence. In short, they were showing off. Every week I thought of what Jesus said:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (ESV, Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus says, don’t do that, don’t be like them, yet these Christians did that again and again, every week for the two years I was with them, and presumably much longer.

Let’s cover the next thing Paul mentions: an obsession with visions. I believe in the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit today. I believe the Spirit empowers miracles of all kinds – everything that we see in the New Testament is still happening today, and can still happen among you and I. But once again, there are ditches here. One ditch is to say that God does not speak in any way at all except through the Bible. The other ditch is to become obsessed with the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. People who are obsessed are often much more interested in the supernatural activities than they are in the fact that the Spirit of God lives inside those who trust Jesus, and has power to change lives from the inside out. They are very concerned about the outward, dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while they do not cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their own daily lives: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

The Spirit of God will never contradict what is written in the Bible. So, if someone speaks about a vision that does not seem to be in accordance with the Bible, then that vision is not from the Holy Spirit.

Some folks may have prophecies or visions that don’t directly contradict the Bible. However, they seem to give as much, or more, weight to the visions as to the Bible. The fact that they have a supernatural experience makes them feel superior to those who have not. Their focus is not on Jesus, and not on the Bible, which reveals Jesus to us. Instead, their focus is on their own special revelation, which, even if it is genuine, is not as important as the Bible.

I want to speak about a few more types of people who might try to disqualify us (or make us believe we are disqualified) from the kingdom of God. For instance, I know a couple of people who live by faith in a fairly unique way. They don’t have regular jobs. They wake up in the morning, and look for whatever opportunities the Lord seems to be putting before them, and, as best they can, they follow his leading. They have some amazing and wonderful stories of God’s work and provision. There are also problems and pitfalls with this sort of life that, sadly, these people seem blind to. They might empty their bank accounts for a homeless person they just met, but then they go home and refuse to help their families with simple household chores. They are focused on big dramatic gestures, and they are easily bored or irritated by the ordinary things involved with following Jesus every day.

Related to this are people who feel a certain kind of calling on their lives, and then they try to impose their unique calling onto everyone else. The two I mentioned above seem to think that everyone should live the way they do. Here’s another example: suppose I am called to overseas missionary work. If I was an immature Christian, I might think that my passion for missions means that every single Christian should be a missionary. If I met someone who claimed to be a Christian, yet they weren’t missionaries, I would judge them. Now, I could make a pretty good case from the Bible that missions is important. But I might overlook the fact that if everyone went overseas as missionaries, there would be no Christians left in my home country to lead people to Jesus, and, also, no one left to give financial support to all the missionaries.

We are all called to follow Jesus. Certain parts of following Him are the same for every single person. But we are also all unique members of the body of Christ. Just because one person is called to a certain type of ministry and lifestyle, does not mean every person is:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:14)

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:17-20)

Our text here is to remind us that we should not let such people disqualify us. They aren’t better Christians than you, because you, dear friends have Jesus. Jesus is the sum total of what any of us has – no Christian has any more, or any less than Jesus. Long winded eloquent prayers do not make us into God’s favorite disciples.  Supernatural experiences and visions cannot replace the everyday, ordinary life of following Jesus, and they sometimes even hinder people from day-to-day discipleship. Don’t be fooled by their cloak of piousness. You, dear friends, focus on Jesus. He is the head from which the holy body is nourished and grows. If you want true life, abundant, everlasting life, spend your time, energy and strength on Jesus, getting closer to him.

COLOSSIANS #20:THE WRONG WAY TO USE THE LAW

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I think this sermon contains two extremely important concepts; ideas that we will use over and over as we cover the rest of Colossians. Please download the audio and/or save the written version so that you can refer to it again in the future.

Colossians #20  Colossians 2:16-17

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Important concept #1: The Two Ditches.

Before we jump into these verses, we need a broader context about the teachings of the Bible. Martin Luther compared following Jesus to riding a horse. He suggested it is possible to fall off either the right side of the horse, or the left side. In these days, I like the analogy of a road with two deep ditches. You might veer off into the left hand ditch, or the right hand one, and if you do, you end up in trouble. Ideally you stay in the middle, on the road.

Let’s call the right-hand ditch “legalism.” If you go this direction, you start to think that following Jesus is all about behaving correctly. The problem is that there is a tiny bit of truth in legalism. Our behavior should change once we have received the grace of God through Jesus. But it changes because God is changing us through the Holy Spirit, not because we have to earn credit from him. If you are in the legalism ditch, instead of recognizing that right behavior is a result of a true faith, you think (maybe unconsciously) that if you behave correctly, you prove that you are worthy of God. Without realizing it, you start to think that God blesses you because you are a good person. Certainly you aren’t like those other people. People in this ditch are sometimes proud (but often they hide their pride behind pious talk and behavior). They are at least as concerned with how other people behave as with their own lives, and frequently they focus not on what is in their hearts, but rather, what they do (or keep away from doing). They think (sometimes only hinting, but not saying directly) that when people suffer, it is because God is punishing them for their sin. This is a dangerous ditch, even more so because many of those who fall into it think that they are good, Christian folks. They are so busy trying to appear righteous that other people might think of them as strong Christians as well, while in reality, they are offending God by thinking that their “righteous” acts amount to anything.

The truth, of course, is that God’s punishment for sin is death and hell, not troubles in this life, and Jesus already took that punishment for those who trust Him. We cannot earn God’s love or favor, and our attempts to do so are offensive to God. All human beings have been judged equally guilty and unworthy, and all human beings are saved only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After receiving Jesus, the good works we do are not about earning anything from God; they are about responding to the new life given to us by the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus.

There is another dangerous ditch – the left hand ditch, which I will call “lawlessness.” This ditch also contains a tiny bit of truth: That Jesus paid all for our sins, and there is nothing we can add to that payment. But “lawless” people take it beyond what it means. These folks think that anything goes. If Christ paid for all my sins, past present and future, then why does it matter how I behave? Why not get drunk, or high, when I feel like it? Why not have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want? Why not get everything I can for myself, and live as comfortably as possible, no matter what that does to others around me? Why pay attention to anything except what I really want?

The problem with the lawless ditch is that it does not recognize that receiving Jesus Christ changes a person. The life of Christ that is in you through the Holy Spirit does not want to get drunk. It does not want to indulge the desires of the flesh. The Holy Spirit is God, and the character of God is holy, not lawless or self-indulgent. Sinning is like throwing pig-manure on the person who saved your life. If you really believe he saved you, you won’t want to do that; certainly, at least, a significant part of you will not want to.

The middle, the safe and good road, I call love. It is love for Jesus for who he is, and what he has done, and love for other people because Jesus loves them too. Love is other focused, not self-focused. Love manifests the character of God. Love puts the desires of Jesus above my own, and the good of others equal to my own.

Starting here, Paul is going to warn the Colossians about the two ditches. He begins with a warning about the ditch of legalism. In Colossae, at the time Paul wrote, the legalists typically felt that everyone should follow Jewish laws. They thought Christians should observe the kosher laws of the Old Testament (what you eat and drink) and also observe the Jewish festivals, the sabbath regulations and so on. These laws are found in various places in the Old Testament, but 2 Chronicles gives us a summary:

At that time Solomon offered burnt offerings to the LORD on the LORD’s altar he had made in front of the portico. He followed the daily requirement for offerings according to the commandment of Moses for Sabbaths, New Moons, and the three annual appointed festivals: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Shelters.(CSB 2 Chronicles 8:12-14)

The disadvantage of taking the scripture verse by verse is that we might forget the context we are in. Paul has been talking about walking in Christ. He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and Christ dwells inside of us, through the Holy Spirit. When we were still dead in our sins, when our flesh was still in control of us, Jesus died for us. One consequence of his death was that the law that rightly condemned us was fulfilled, and so made irrelevant to those who are in Christ. It is no longer a basis for judging personal righteousness. We no longer have to live by it.

“Therefore,” says Paul, “let no one pass judgment you…” The first things he mentions are parts of the Jewish law. These things, along with kosher regulations, and laws about ancient Israel, are just a shadow, pointing to Jesus. The reality of them is fulfilled and found in Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews agrees:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. (NLT, Hebrews 10:1)

Unfortunately, some people are strangely confused about this. I think it is because they are inclined to listen to human beings more than actually reading the Bible. I know a few Christian families who think it is wrong to eat pork, for instance. What puzzles me is that they don’t follow all of the other kosher regulations. They don’t have two sinks, or two refrigerators, or avoid cheeseburgers. Perhaps I am in danger of judging them, but it is very clear here that what we eat or drink has nothing to do with salvation. Trying to follow one small part of the Jewish food laws, as a requirement of following Jesus, is nonsensical.

2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. 4 For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. (NLT, Galatians 5:2-4)

Paul said this about circumcision, but it applies to any part of the Jewish law. We are saved by Jesus, by God’s grace through faith alone. If you think avoiding pork contributes in any way to your salvation, then you must obey every single part of the law perfectly. If you think observing the sabbath or Jewish festivals is necessary for true Christians, then you are obligated to follow the whole law perfectly. No. Paul is clear: these things are a shadow of the good reality. Jesus Christ is the actual good reality.

Now, what all is contained in this? What I mean is, most Christians eat pork, but we still think that committing adultery is a sin. The command about adultery was originally in the Old Testament. So how do we know what we are supposed to follow literally, and what we aren’t? Let’s look at important concept #2: How we handle the “law parts” of the Bible.

If we actually read our Bibles, it isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The New Testament makes it clear that the food laws are not necessary – in fact, it does so in our verses for today, as well as several other places (Mark 7:14-18; Acts 15:1-29; Romans 14:14 & 20). Our verses today also make it clear that we don’t have to follow the Jewish festivals, or sabbath day regulations – these were fulfilled in Christ. All of the Jewish worship regulations are just shadows of the reality in Jesus – the temple, the sacrifices, the priests’ clothing and everything to do with temple or tabernacle worship (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). All of the regulations that were about ancient Israel no longer apply literally. Things about the types of clothing to wear, or stoning adulterers, and so on – these were all given for a particular nation at a particular time in history. They can still tell us about God and point us to Jesus, but we are not supposed to follow them literally.

The moral laws of the Old Testament are different. Jesus, and his apostles, affirmed the moral truth of the ten commandments. These still serve two purposes: 1) To show us that we can’t be good enough, therefore we need Jesus. 2) To show us the kind of character we should be developing as we follow Jesus. In other words, we still ought to do our best to live by these moral laws, because that is what the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of us, wants to do. These moral laws are a reflection of the character of God. When we fail, we fall back on the forgiveness of Jesus, but we continue on away from sin, toward God. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the lawlessness ditch.

So, let’s think about some application of this “let no one pass judgment on you…”While most of us don’t worry about how Jewish we are, there are some of us who became Christians later on in life. We’ve done things in the past that we regret; things we might even feel ashamed of. Sometimes, we encounter Christians who seem to have together, people who have been following Jesus all their lives. These folks should not make you feel inferior, or second class. We all stand on the same ground at the foot of the cross. Let no one pass judgment on you for your past – it is past. You might also make sure that you are not passing judgment upon yourself for your past.

Certain groups of believers say that we must not use musical instruments as part of worship. Others say we must follow certain liturgies and prayers when we worship. Some say we must not drink a single drop of alcohol. Others insist that true Christians worship on Saturdays, not Sundays. Others claim we must celebrate the traditional seasons, fasts and feasts of the historic church.

Paul says none of these things can be an occasion for passing judgment upon Christians. These things are not the substance that is Christ. They are external. They don’t affect a person’s heart. They may be useful, or they may not.

Let’s make sure we understand. So for example, if someone does not want to use instruments in worship, we should not pass judgment upon them. If someone wants to use traditional liturgies and church festivals, or even ancient Jewish festivals, we should not judge them for it. By the way, those of us in the House Church movement should be careful not to become judgmental of others. We know that House Church is Biblical, and we know how many tremendous advantages it has. But it is not commanded by scripture (nor, of course, forbidden). I might think you’re missing out if you don’t do house church, but I can’t say it is the only right way to do church. I cannot pass judgment on you if you don’t want to do church that way.

I want to add another thing. If someone says: “No one must use musical instruments in worship” or, “no one should eat pork,” or “Everyone should use this kind of liturgy,” we can judge their words. We aren’t passing judgment on them as people, but we can say: “No, that isn’t what the Bible says. You can choose to be that way if you like, but the Bible does not say you have to. It certainly does not say I have to.” We should not allow someone to judge us for such things.

One reason I love Lutheran theology is that it is very Biblical. Many centuries ago, the first Lutherans put forth this teaching in their own words:

“We believe, teach and confess unanimously that the ceremonies or church usages which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God, but which have been introduced solely for the sake of good order and the general welfare, are in and for themselves no divine worship or even a part of it…

We believe, teach and confess that the community of God in every locality and every age has authority to change such ceremonies according to circumstances as it may be most profitable and edifying to the community of God.” Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article X, paragraphs 1 & 2).

This verse is supposed to be freeing. The Gentile believers in Colossae felt second class, and Jewish folks didn’t mind them feeling that way. But they (and we) have all the fullness of Christ living in us, and in Christ lives all the fullness of God. All basis for judgment against us has been taken away and nailed to the cross. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

Some Questions for reflection:

  • What things make you feel like a second class Christian? Why do you think you feel that way?
  • What unimportant things are you tempted to use as a basis for judging other Christians?
  • What unimportant things have been used to judge you?
  • Which “ditch” are you tempted to veer towards: that of legalism, or lawlessness? Why do you think that is?

COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (ESV, John 14:6)

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

COLOSSIANS #18: THE KEY TO NEW LIFE

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Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.

COLOSSIANS #17: THE PROBLEM OF RELIGION.

gold crucifix
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This is the sort of thing that gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into the “religion” trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we do this, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. We’re just trying to use God to get what we want. This is not the way of Christ.

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Colossians #17  Colossians 2:8-10

Be warned: don’t be carried away through philosophy, or empty lies, along with traditions that come only from human beings. These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ. In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.(Colossians 2:8-10 my translation/paraphrase)

There are all sorts of different philosophies and lies and human traditions that might lead us away from Jesus. I have mentioned two of them before. One is the lie that Jesus is just one of many ways. “You can’t be so exclusive,” say those who advocate this. “Jesus may very well work for you, but how can you expect everyone in the world to believe in what is after all, a religion of Western culture? People in other parts of the world are very different from us, and we need to accept that Jesus just might not ‘work’ for those people.”

This attitude, though it sounds enlightened, is actually very ignorant. Though Western culture was shaped by Christianity, the Christian faith was not produced by Western culture. In fact, today, most Christians in the world do not live in Western countries anymore. There are more Christians outside the United States and Europe than in. Christianity “works” in Nepal, New Guinea, Malaysia and Madagascar. People follow Jesus in the huge cities of Asia and the savannas of Africa and the mountains of South America. South Korea sends missionaries around the world, as does Brazil and even Bermuda. To say that Jesus “doesn’t work” for other cultures is to ignore the fact that there are Christians from virtually every culture and country in the world.

Another big lie we recently considered is that human sexuality is all about our own personal preferences, and God doesn’t care about it. But God gives the commands about sexuality to protect us, and allow us to thrive. The thought that these commands are “outdated” is the lie that is currently destroying Western culture. When sex is disconnected from loving marriages, the result is millions of children who are either not really wanted, or who are raised in chaotic, unstable homes, and they become profoundly damaged emotionally (and sometimes physically). The backbone of any stable civilization is the family, and our current attitudes toward sex are destroying it. In addition, women become more vulnerable, and more likely to be seen as sex-objects than people. We also damage our own emotional wellbeing when we have multiple casual sex partners.

But we have considered those before. I want to add another lie that has sometimes tempted me. I am an intellectual person, and I have great respect for modern science. But some scientists (certainly not all) have little or no respect for Christianity, and they claim that you cannot believe both the Bible and modern science.

This is a lie. It is not a choice between the two. God speaks most clearly through the Bible, and nothing he says or does will contradict that. Everything we need to know for spiritual life and truth is in the Bible. And contrary to the popular belief, there is nothing in the Bible that contradicts science. God also uses even those who are not believers to accomplish his purposes and reveal some of his more “general” truth.

For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about electricity. We don’t need to know about it for the healing and salvation of our souls. People lived without using electricity for thousands of years. But the Bible does tell us that God made everything there is. Therefore, we know that God made electricity, and it is not wrong to find out about how it works, and how to use it. God has given some people the ability to that, for the benefit of all people. The truths about electricity are God’s truths (since he created it) but we don’t need the Bible to discover them. On the other hand, we don’t need to know anything about electricity to be saved by Jesus Christ.

Modern science was made possible only by the worldview of Christianity, which taught people to believe that the world was orderly, and that human thinking is rational and can be used to discover the world around us. It is no random occurrence that modern science arose from the only culture that was shaped by a Christian worldview.

In addition to the lies of those who are not religious, it seems like Paul might be warning particularly about people who are insisting on certain kinds of religious practices. He talks about external circumcision (a religious practice of the Jews) as opposed to “circumcision of the heart.” He talks about “the written code, which was against us.” And he concludes in verse 16:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, ESV)

We will cover all of that later on, but for now, we should understand that it possible to be led astray even by people who call themselves religious. Elsewhere, Jesus warns us about “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” (Matt 5:17) and Paul says to Timothy:

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth.(1 Timothy 4:1-3, NLT)

Timothy was in Ephesus at the time Paul wrote that, and Ephesus was relatively close to Colossae, the place to which this letter is addressed. So I think now Paul is talking about not only lies of an ungodly culture, but also lies that come from those who claim to be Christians.

I want us to pay close attention to something from verse 8:

These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ.

There is a gigantic difference between “the basic principles of the world” and “the way of Christ.” The Greek phrase “basic principles” was used in ancient Greece in three related ways. One meaning is that of “elemental spiritual forces.” This would refer to pagan religious practices and or demonic forces. Another way is it used to mean the elements of which the earth is made. A third way in which this phrase is used to describe a sequence of events. In this last meaning it would be something like this idea: “If you do A, you will get B.”

I think Paul intends two parts of the meaning here: both the idea of demonic spiritual forces, and also the idea that the way to practice religion is to: “Do A, so that God must give you B.” He uses the same Greek word in verse 20:

20 If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. (Colossians 2:20-22, CSB)

There (in verse 20) the “elements of this world” lead people to say “Do this, and don’t do that, in order get what you are after.” In verse 8, he calls this “human traditions” and in verse 20 he calls them “regulations,” and, “human commands and doctrines.”

So, I think what he is saying is this: “Be careful not to be deceived by religious traditions, and religious talk that sounds good, but is not the way of Christ.’ What sorts of things is Paul talking about? Remember that phrase “elemental principles” or “elements of this world” refers to the idea that if you do A, you get B. Now, this is a powerful lie because it has elements of the truth. If you get drunk at night, you’ll most likely have a headache in the morning. If you treat people badly all the time, most likely those people won’t help you when you need it. If you spend more than you make, you will end up in financial trouble. So, in some instances, it is true that if you do A, you will get B.

But Paul is talking about this idea being used to more or less manipulate God into blessing you. For example, many people think that if you live a good life, then God has to bless you. Many religious people – people who claim to be Christians – say this.

Another example of this idea is that if you pray hard enough, or you pray in exactly the correct way, God must answer your request more or less exactly as you presented it. People who fall into this sort of deception treat the Bible as if it is some sort of legal document that we can use to argue our case in a spiritual court to force God to keep up what we think of as his end of the bargain. Or, some folks think it is some sort of code that must be unlocked; if we can just figure out the right way to do things we can manipulate God into doing what we want. In other words: if we do A, then God must do B.

This is the sort of thing gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into this trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we treat religion this way, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. Though many would not consciously say it, those who operate this way are not God’s people, put on this earth for His purposes; instead they become servants of our own desires, and God/religion is just a way for them to achieve those desires. One of the reasons this is so dangerous is because on the surface, we can look like good, religious people. We can do and say mostly the right things. But we are doing things the way of the world; we are trying to get what we want in the time and in the way we want it.

But Paul says this thinking is the way the world operates. We humans want to control our own destiny, and often our religious efforts are just one way that we use to try and control our own lives. Paul says this is not the way of Christ. What is the way of Christ? Paul tells us:

In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.

Christ is the fulness of God in a human body; and we have the fulness of  Christ in us. Therefore, in Christ, we already have everything we need. We don’t need to manipulate. It is pointless to do A in order to get B, because we already have all the “B” we need. It has been freely given to us in Christ.

Paul is going to return to this theme again and again in Colossians. He’s already said that we are holy and blameless in Christ. Now, he says we are filled with Christ, just like Christ is filled with God. That’s a huge statement. I think a lot of the time, it is very difficult for us to believe. I understand the problem, of course. The problem is that we don’t feel like we are filled with the fulness of Christ. We don’t feel like we have everything we need.

This feeling arises, I think, from three things. In the first place, we don’t always recognize that our feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. Feelings do always correspond to truth. You can feel worried when there is absolutely nothing to worry about. You can feel fearful when you are perfectly safe. You can feel a very deep desire for things that will ultimately be bad for you, and hurt you. You can feel like Christ is absent when in fact, the scripture right here says he is filling you.

A second problem is that we often don’t truly know the difference between what we need and what we want. I think human nature has a way of accumulating habits and little luxuries, and becoming so used to them that we think of them as needs, rather than what they really are, which is strong preferences or very useful conveniences. Even when something is useful, that doesn’t automatically make it a need. For instance, a microwave is very useful and convenient. Many people might think of it as a basic need, but I didn’t actually have the regular use of a microwave until I was almost thirty years old, and I didn’t die. I didn’t even suffer. If you can live without it, it isn’t actually a need.

The same thing is true with spiritual and emotional things. We aren’t good at distinguishing our needs from our wants, so we think we don’t have what we need from Jesus, when the truth is, as long as we have Jesus, we can get along without many of the things that we want, the things that comfort us.

I have found both fasting, and my experience of intense chronic pain, to helpful in distinguishing between wants and needs. When we abstain from food for the sake of prayer, we are learning in a very concrete way that we need Jesus more than we need anything else, even more than food (or whatever you may be fasting from). Suffering teaches us the same sorts of things. When you suffer, you realize that you can actually get along in conditions that you might have previously thought intolerable. And when you realize that, you recognize that we don’t actually need many of the things we thought we did. Suffering clarifies things for us. It sharpens our need for Jesus above all else.

The third issue is this: we are complete, without need in Jesus…in our spirits. This “being filled with the fulness of Christ” is a spiritual reality. But our flesh is not in sync with our spirit. Imagine you are driving in your car, listening to the radio. The station that you want to hear is broadcasting. Every bit of the music and talk that the station is producing is crystal clear, and is available to anyone who wants to tune in. But your radio doesn’t work right. The music and talk sort of comes and goes, and gets fuzzy and blurred with static. It’s not the problem of the people putting on the radio program. It’s not even a problem with the radio station. The problem is with your particular radio receiver. The program is totally available, but you can’t always get it loud and clear.

That’s how we are spiritually. We are filled with the fulness of Christ in spirit. But our flesh is like that faulty car radio. Even though the whole program is available to us, we can’t always tune in, and sometimes, things seem a little fuzzy and full of static, and we don’t get it loud and clear.

Unfortunately, this will be at least partially true until we die. When Jesus gives us our new resurrected bodies, they will be totally in sync with spiritual reality. But for now, we can do some things to help us tune in, to help us live in the reality that all the fulness of Christ has been given to us. There’s nothing new here: pray, read your Bible and “do life” with other Christians. I know I keep saying those things over and over. I’ll keep on saying them until I’m convinced that everyone who reads these message is doing these things on a regular basis.

When Spiritual things are not loud and clear, we can still trust that they are there, and God is delivering us grace and life, even when we can’t hear it well. We don’t need to control things by doing certain rituals, or saying certain things in exactly the right way. In Christ, we already have all that we need. Let us trust it to be true, and begin by thanking him for it.

  • What are some of the lies you are tempted to believe? What reminds you of the truth?
  • What are some ways that you are tempted to “manipulate God” into giving you what you want?
  • How can we live in the fulness of what we have in Christ? What does this even look like?