COLOSSIANS #22: THE DANGERS OF RELIGION

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We have died to the basic principles of this world. We don’t have to perform well in order to be accepted by God. Instead, we simply have to trust Jesus, and trust what he has done to us, for us, and with us. Even the apostle Paul was no better than us, and had nothing that we don’t have. All any of us have is Jesus. We can’t add to what Jesus has done, and no one can take Jesus away from us.

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Colossians #22. Colossians 2:20-23

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV)

Remember, Paul is still talking about the big picture of legalism. Legalism is like a ditch on one side of the road of true Christian discipleship. People who fall into the legalism ditch are all about performing correctly. When push comes to shove, deep down, they don’t completely trust the grace of God given in Jesus Christ. They may not admit it, but they often believe that they are better than other people because of how they behave. They don’t admit it, but they think they can earn God’s love and favor by doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong things. Now, the tricky thing is, we should behave differently once we receive the grace of God through Jesus. But our changed behavior should be the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the result of trust in Jesus, not trust in our ability to perform well. It should not make us proud, or make us feel superior to others. It should not be a basis from which we look down on others, or try to control them. It should result from surrender to Jesus, rather than a desire to be in control.

This is our third and final week looking at the dangers of legalism. Paul reminds us that through faith, by grace, we have buried with Christ in baptism. We are dead to sin, dead to the world, and dead to the way the world does things. Every other religion in the world is based upon how we perform. But Christianity is unique in that is based upon the performance of Another: Jesus Christ. We trust HIS performance, not our own.

Verse 20 says that we died to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The Greek word used for “elemental spirits” has another possible translation, and I think the context shows us here that it should probably read: “elementary principles of the world.” The principles of this world are that you need to do certain things in order to get certain results. This is not always wrong or bad: it is often the way the world works. If you want money, you need to do something in order to get it: for instance, get a job. If you want people to be kind to you, you should probably be kind to them. If you want to pass a test at school, you ought to make sure that you know the material. Paul is not saying that these elementary principles are always wrong and bad. But this is not the way to get the Life that is offered to us in Jesus Christ. If it was, we would be doomed, because, born as we are with a sinful nature, we cannot do what it takes to make ourselves holy and acceptable in God’s eyes. The life that we have in Jesus does not operate that way. It is a free gift, through faith. And Paul is saying this: “If you think that fasting, and treating your body harshly, and denying yourself ordinary things will somehow make you more pleasing to God, you are still trying to approach God by the principles of the world.”

This is another road-and-ditch situation. The elemental principles of the world are helpful for living the life we must live in the world. But they cannot be applied to the life of faith in Jesus; certainly not without serious reflection and adaptation.

I want to speak to one specific way that people apply “the elementary principles of the world” to Christianity where they should not. Some people think we control our own futures by the words we say. People who believe this will say things like: “God spoke the world into being, and we are made in the image of God, therefore we speak our future into being. So, we have to be very careful what we say.” Such people are terrified that if they say something negative or depressing, their very words will make the negative thing come true. They think that if they speak only good and positive things, their life will be filled with that. They are trying to apply the “elementary principles of the world” to following Jesus. “If we say the right things, good things will happen. If we say the wrong things, bad things will happen.” There is nothing Biblical or Christian about this idea. The current form of it comes from a book called The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. People have tried to “adapt” it to Christianity, but it doesn’t work with the Bible. It sells us the illusion that we are in control, and if we just say and think the right things, we can have all we want in this life, and avoid anything unpleasant. Instead, the bible teaches us that God is in control, not us.

Paul mentions some other ways people try to apply the elementary principles of the world to Christianity: fasting and other types of severe voluntary deprivation. Fasting, and self-discipline are useful and helpful things for spiritual life – if they are understood properly. Let me use the specific example of fasting. Fasting, by the way, normally means “purposefully going without food.” I have engaged in fasting in the past, and I’ll probably do it again in the future. The reason I fast is to remind myself that I need God even more than I need food. The hunger pangs remind me that he’s there, and that I need him. They also remind me to pray. When it is a “good fast,” the result is that I have a deeper experience of my dependence upon God. But when it is not working for me, I quit fasting, and eat, even if the time I planned for wasn’t up yet. Used in this way, fasting is a useful kind of self-discipline.

However, if you fast because you think it will increase your holiness, you are applying the principles of the world to your relationship with Jesus in a way that is insulting to Jesus. You are believing that somehow humbling yourself through fasting can add to the holiness that you have been freely given in Jesus. The logical progression of this thought is that Jesus did not actually do enough to make you holy, and you are making up for the lack. So, you are not humbling yourself at all, but putting yourself above Jesus!

Fasting is good if you use as a means to remind your flesh that it is going to die someday, and remind your spirit that it is whole and complete in Jesus. Any kind of self-discipline is useful that way. But the minute you think you are earning some kind of holiness or goodness by your works, you are actually sinning in your pride. The minute you think it makes you somehow better than Christians who don’t fast, you are in trouble.

If someone is fasting (or engaging in some kind of self-discipline like that) for the right reason, it will bring them closer to Jesus, but it will not make them proud. Instead, they will feel their dependence upon Jesus even more deeply. They might tell others that there is benefit in doing such things, but they will never insist that others do such things.

If someone is fasting for the wrong reasons, they are likely to be proud of it. They might be passive-aggressive in how they approach it, but they will leave you feeling guilty for not doing what they do. They will often insist upon things that the Bible itself does not insist upon. They fast because it makes them feel holy, or better than others.

I think there are many things we might put in the same category as fasting. For instance, kneeling when you pray. If you kneel because it helps you remember the glory and holiness of God, then good. If you kneel because you want to glorify God through kneeling, then bend those knees! But if you kneel because it makes you feel more pious, or because you think you have to, or because you think everyone ought to, there is a problem. If you kneel because you think it makes you seem holy, your kneeling might even be offensive to God.

Paul wrote elsewhere about people who try to control themselves and others through self-discipline apart from the Holy Spirit:

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV)

Paul himself fasted on several occasions. He engaged in many types of self-discipline, and he even refrained from getting married. But he never insisted that other people should do those things. He found that those things helped him as he walked with Jesus. But he never thought that they made him more holy, or better than anyone else. Paul said this:

7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ 9 and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. (NLT, Philippians 3:7-9)

Paul says in our text today that if you try to control things through harsh self-discipline alone it actually has no value in controlling the impulses of your sinful flesh. Sometimes the Holy Spirit may lead you to fasting, or other kinds of humble behavior. When it is the Spirit doing so, then it is a good thing. But if it is about getting God to do what you want, or about relying upon yourself, or about feeling or looking more holy, Paul says it is both pointless, and even demonic. Certain types of people like to appear holy and righteous to others, and they want to use their religion as a way to look down on others, and even to make others do what they wish. For such people, things like fasting or harsh self-discipline are actually gratifying to their sinful flesh.

So what do we do with all this? Some of us may know people who put pressure on us to appear religious in certain ways. They think we should worship or pray the way they do, or fast, or observe certain festivals, or keep the Sabbath, or any number of things that the Bible neither commands, nor forbids. We do not have to listen to such people. They are free to fast if they want to, but if they use their fasting (or whatever it is they do to seem religious) to make it appear that they are more holy than you, or to put pressure on you, it is likely that they are actually sinning, even though they are doing religious things.

I want to make sure, however, that you read the next few messages after this one. There is another ditch, on the other side of the road, and we will talk about that soon. This is not a blank check to go out and party sinfully, and indulge your sinful flesh. The point us, some people indulge their sinful flesh by abusing religion. Don’t be like them, and don’t listen to them. Don’t let them judge your or disqualify you.

We have died to the basic principles of this world. We don’t have to perform well in order to be accepted by God. Instead, we simply have to trust Jesus, and trust what he has done to us, for us, and with us. Even the apostle Paul was no better than us, and had nothing that we don’t have. All any of us have is Jesus. We can’t add to what Jesus has done, and no one can take Jesus away from us.

MODEST RIGHTEOUSNESS

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People are supposed to glorify God for the character of Jesus they see in us. They are not supposed to glorify us for the spiritual things they see us doing.

 

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Matthew #19 . Matthew 6:1-20

Matthew 6:1 records Jesus moving on to a new subject. He has given us examples of Christian character in action. Now he begins to speak about the practice of religion. He introduces the topic like this:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt 6:1, HCSB)

At first, this sounds a little odd, coming from Jesus, because as part of the very same sermon, he has just said, in Matthew 5:14-16

“You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine in front of people, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:14-16, HCSB)

So which is it? Should we be careful not to practice our righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them? Or should we let our light shine in front of people so that they see our good works and give glory to God? Although it sounds like Jesus is contradicting himself, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. I think, obviously, he is referring to two different situations.

In Matthew 5:14-16, He has just finished describing the character traits of someone who trusts and follows Himself. When we studied those verses we saw that, in fact, disciples are supposed are supposed to let Jesus manifest His own character through our lives. It is immediately after that where he says, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world…” and then, “Let your light shine. Let people see it.” What it amounts to is this: we are supposed to let people see Jesus in us. We are supposed to let him live in us and through us in such a way that other people see it, and are drawn, not to us, but to God.

Now, in 6:1, Jesus is talking about something else entirely. We have to understand the culture of the Jewish people during the time of Jesus. In some ways, it was very different from many places today. Religion was a big deal to them. If you were religious, you were respected and admired. Practicing your religion in a very public way was one means to get people to think well of you. Jesus says, your faith should not be about what other people think. You should be concerned only what God thinks. We could summarize the two different situations like this: People are supposed to glorify God for the character of Jesus they see in us. They are not supposed to glorify us for the spiritual things they see us doing.

The end result is supposed to be that people “give glory to your Father in heaven.” If they are giving honor or glory to you, that is when you should be hiding your good works, or at least directing people to look away from you, toward God who is working in and through you.

In fact Jesus says that if you act religious in order to get the reward of praise from other people, that is exactly what you get – and nothing more.

So, we should be public with our faith in our faith in ways that show off the character of Jesus and point people toward him. And we should be private in our practices with things that would tend to call attention to ourselves and our own activities. As one bible commentator put it succinctly: “Show when tempted to hide, and hide when tempted to show.”

Jesus gives three examples of when we should “hide” rather than “show.” These are things we should do because we want to do them for God, to please him and get closer to him. No one else needs to know about them. If we are serious about helping those who are poor, it shouldn’t matter whether or not we get credit for it. The main point is that we do what are led by God to do to help. If we are sincere about praying and fasting to get closer to God, then it doesn’t matter that no one else sees you doing it. The point is, you are trying to be closer to God, and He sees that.

Basically Jesus says, “You can do it to be praised by other people, or you can do for God. If you do it for the praise of other people, you have not done it for God.”

Jesus starts with the subject of giving to the poor. He makes the main point about doing this for God, not others. He then says, “But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, (Matt 6:3, HCSB).” I think the idea here is that we shouldn’t even be doing this to feel good about ourselves. Don’t let your left hand be proud that your right hand gave to the poor. Do it only for God, and for the poor. Now, of course, when you give to a ministry through your local church, someone will know about it. When your local church engages in ministry to the poor, people will need to talk about it, to help make others aware of the opportunity to be involved. We can’t help these things, and I don’t think we should worry about it too much. But we should give for the sake of God and for the sake of the poor, not for the sake of our reputation. God sees your heart, and he’ll know what your goal is.

Jesus uses a second example: prayer. He starts with the example of the Pharisees, who often prayed in public, not because they were moved to turn to the Lord, but because they wanted people to see them doing it. We shouldn’t be legalistic about this. After all, Paul says we should pray without ceasing (1 Thessolonians 5:17), so you ought to be praying while you are out and about. I pray in public sometimes, because I’m always talking to God. But I try to do so in a way that no one notices me doing it. My favorite method is to pretend I’m talking into a cell-phone ear-piece :-). At many other times, I just pray with my “mental voice.”

Now, Jesus is not trying to ban all instances of people praying out loud in the presence of others. In fact, the New Testament records many times when Christians gathered together specifically to pray together. Since some of those prayers have been recorded in the Bible, it is obvious that people often prayed out loud in those situations. Some examples come from: Acts 1:13-14; Acts 2:46; Acts 3:1; Acts 12:12; Acts 16:25; Acts 20:36; and Acts 21:5. In Matthew 18:19, Jesus says that he pays special attention when two or more Christians gather to pray. The rest of the New Testament commands Christians to come together and pray: Ephesians 6:18-19; Colossians 4:2-3; 1 Timothy 2:8; James 5:16, among many other places. The point is, when we do come together and pray, we do it to be in the Lord’s presence together. We don’t do it to impress each other, or show each other how spiritual we can sound. We are simply having a conversation with God together.

I myself am often greatly encouraged when other Christians pray out loud with me. Their concern for what we pray about, and their quiet faith, often provides much-needed support for me.

I do, however, sometimes find myself among people who don’t seem to know what Jesus said about this subject. Unfortunately you don’t have to go very far to find people who pray in ways that seem calculated to whip up energy and enthusiasm among the people who are present. When you step back and listen, it sounds much more like a performance for others than a real conversation with God.

Jesus adds another thought into the mix. The pagan worshippers in ancient times used to babble on and on and use many words in an attempt to get their deities to hear them. He tells his disciples not to do that.

I suppose I am about to hurt some feelings, but I want us to take this seriously. Suppose I was to ask my Dad if I could borrow his truck. While I’m asking, I might think of a few other things I want to say to him. I would probably proceed like this: “Hi Dad. I was wondering if you could loan me the truck on Thursday. I’d really appreciate it. Thanks for all the times you’ve helped in the past. Oh, and the kids would really like it if you could play a card game with them on Thursday. Thanks! Love you!”

Suppose instead, I approached this conversation the way a lot of Christians approach prayer. It might sound like this:

“Oh Dad, dearest Dad, I just come to you today, Dad, I just come to you and praise you, because you are the owner of the truck, the RED truck, the DODGE truck, the truck that has done so much, and meant so much for us over the years. Dad, I really just want to ask you, Dad, if, Dad, you might find it in your plan to let me borrow the truck once more, Dad. And Dad, I just want you to know that I know the truck belongs to you, Dad. It is your truck, Dad. The truck doesn’t belong to me, Dad, it is yours. I just want to use it, Dad, if that that’s OK with you.

Dad, let your BOAT be hauled with that truck, Dad! Yes, Dad, let your BOAT be hauled, Dad! I say, Dad, let your BOAT be hauled your TRAILER used! Yes Dad! Your boat be hauled, your trailer used.

I just want you to know that I love you, Dad. I love you Dad. Oh, I really just love you, Dad. And Dad, I just want to say, Dad… I just want to say that my children…I just want to say that my children, Dad, they just want to play cards with you, Dad. They just want to play cards. Just with you, Dad. Oh, Dad. Oh Dad. Oh Dad, oh Dad, oh Dad.”

I am not trying to offend anybody. But if you are offended by this, think of what God feels! If it is offensive for me to portray a conversation like this, think how offensive it might be to God that we call this sort of thing “prayer!”

I’m serious. Jesus said it, not me. Don’t pray to impress others. Don’t babble on and use many words; your Heavenly Father already knows what you need. How offensive to think that you have the power to convince him to listen by using that sort of blather!

Jesus goes on by giving us a method of praying. We call it’s the Lord’s prayer. I think it is fine to use a prayer in and of itself, because that helps us to remember it well. But more importantly, it is a format for praying. Let me break it down briefly:

1. Our Father in Heaven…Start by recognizing that through Jesus Christ, God has become your loving Father. He cares for you and loves you.

2. Let Your name be honored as holy…Continue by praising God for who He is, for his holiness. Ask him to keep making you holy, and keep helping others to know and grow in His holiness

3. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…Pray for God’s purposes and ruler-ship to extend in your own life, and in the world. Invite him to be your king. Invite him to be king in specific ways in your life, in the lives of those you know, and in the world. Ask for him to do his work (to fulfill his purposes or “will”).

4. Give us today our daily bread…Pray for what you need for today: spiritually, physically and emotionally.

5. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors… Confess your sins and receive his forgiveness. If you need to, make a decision to forgive others, and offer them that forgiveness.

6. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one…Pray for protection from the devil, sin and temptation.

Hopefully as we pray this way, we will do so in simple faith, and not with an attempt to try to impress others or God by self-conscious, spiritual-sounding phrases, repetition, or many unnecessary words.

Jesus gives one more example of righteousness that should be different from the Pharisees: fasting. It seems clear that Jesus expects that his disciples will give to the poor, pray and fast. He doesn’t say, “Don’t do these things.” Instead, he says, “When you do these things, do it like this…” So fasting should be something that Jesus-followers do, at least occasionally.

What is fasting? The basic activity in fasting is going without. The most common form of fasting is going without food for a period of time. Others ways of fasting include going without meat, or without coffee, or without TV or just about anything else you can think of. I myself prefer to abstain from food when I fast, since going without other things does not seem to affect me as profoundly as not eating. Some people fast by going without food during the day and eating only an evening meal for a specific length of time. Some drink only water; others drink diluted fruit juices. Since I want to encourage you to try fasting, I suggest you try a method that is challenging for you, and yet still sounds “do-able.”

My own experience of fasting has not reflected what I might have thought before I tried it. I used to think that fasting was about having the strength and self-discipline to “do without” for God. I thought it was about commitment and dedication and “getting serious” about God and prayer. The more I fast, however, the more I realize that it is just the opposite. In my experience anyway, fasting is more about weakness and surrender before God than it is about the strength to do without food. Fasting is humbling – it puts me in a place of need. Without food, I feel in a physical way my spiritual helplessness and dependence upon God. Fasting is not a way of demonstrating my strength – it is a way of acknowledging my weakness and my utter need for Jesus. It seems to me that fasting is like holding a door open for Jesus to come in and work in a special way.

Every time I feel a hunger pang, I am reminded of my need for Jesus, of my helplessness without him. I remember that I need him even more than I need food. And when I feel those hunger pains, I am also reminded to pray, to talk to him in the middle of whatever else I’m doing.

One thing Jesus obviously knew is that when you fast without showing others you are doing it, it is like your little secret, between Jesus and you. This makes you feel closer, somehow.

My best experiences of fasting are when I do it in the middle of my everyday routine. When I take a day away from everything, and make the whole day about fasting, it usually doesn’t go so well. My very worst experience of fasting was when a group of us tried to fast together; in other words, we weren’t doing it as Jesus tells to, in secret. I wonder if that’s why it was such a bad experience for me.

Jesus concludes the entire section with these thoughts:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

The Pharisees had an eye on what they would get here and now from giving, prayer and fasting. Jesus reiterates three times that if we do these things to be admired by people, that is all the reward we get. But if we do them for God, then God himself stores up treasure for us where it can never fade or be taken away. Jesus says, invest in heaven by pleasing God; don’t invest in getting approval from human beings. These things: giving to the poor in secret, praying simply, and often alone and fasting in secret are all ways of investing our lives in the future-life we will have with God in heaven. It keeps our hearts and minds from being focused on the pathetic, temporary things we might get out of this life, and instead, pulls our hearts to the glorious, unfading joy we have waiting for us.

~

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Is it right to make rules for others?

1 SAMUEL#11. SAUL’S LEGALISM. Saul let’s his insecurity drive him to impose a vow upon the Israelites. How did that work out?

honey

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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To read the sermon, read it! Smile

Last time we looked at how Jonathan single-handedly attacked the Philistines. He acted out of faith, not fear, and God used that to create a huge victory for the people of Israel. The Israelites pushed the Philistines back to the edge of the hill country. But nothing spoils God’s work like false religion and religious pretenses. Saul again showed his lack of real relationship with God. He was worried about the outcome of the battle, so he made an oath and imposed it upon all the army that no one should eat until the sun went down. It sounds very religious and impressive. It was supposed to motivate people. It was supposed to impress God, so that God would help them even more.

It backfired because it was a stupid idea that again came not from faith, but fear, selfishness and pride. By the way, I want to point out the fact that Saul was not content to make the vow for himself. Instead, he imposed his fake religion (which sounded holy) on everyone else. This is typical of people who do not live by relationship. Precisely because they do not have their own relationship with God, they feel that everything they experience must be a rule that everyone should follow. They don’t recognize the give and take and unique life experiences that go along with walking with God in faith. They can’t go it alone with God. They live only by rules.

Saul’s oath is actually much more like a curse. He says: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” This doesn’t sound like the voice of the Lord. It sounds more like the devil. There is an Old Testament tradition of making vows that are associated with curses. However, such vows are also associated with blessings and promises from the Lord. Saul does not include any blessings in his vow. Neither is it associated with any promises from the Lord. To put it simply, there is nothing positive about it.

Notice too, how Saul sees this as his own battle, with the Philistines as his own personal enemies. This is in contrast to Jonathan, who clearly saw the battle as the Lord’s fight, with himself simply a tool in God’s hands.

Three negative things came out of Saul’s religious pretenses.

First, the victory was not as great as it could have been. In other words, the vow had the opposite effect of the one he wanted. The men were weakened by hunger, so they could not sustain their offensive against the Philistines. Saul’s vow preceded not from faith, but from the flesh. It was all about self-effort. Because of that, it was as weak as the flesh. Flesh without food is weak. So the vow flopped. Jonathan’s act of faith energized and sustained the troops. Saul’s rash vow, based in self effort and the flesh, drained them, and robbed them of strength. Jonathan himself realized this. After he himself had eaten in ignorance of the vow, one of the soldiers told him of his father’s words. Jonathan said:

“My father has brought trouble to the land. Just look at how I have renewed energy because I tasted a little honey. 30 How much better if the troops had eaten freely today from the plunder they took from their enemies! Then the slaughter of the Philistines would have been much greater.”

Second, because they were so hungry, when sundown arrived, the troops began to slaughter the captured livestock of the Philistines and eat without regard to the laws of Moses. Specifically, they were eating meat that had not been properly drained of blood.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Leviticus 17:11-12)

The idea expressed in the Old Testament is that the life of an animal (or person) is carried in the blood. The life belongs to God, and so the blood must be given to him, not consumed by people. It is a way of saying, “Even as I take this food, I recognize that the life of this animal belongs to God, not to me. I receive it as a gift, and I give its life into God’s hands.” But Saul’s vow weakened the resolve of the people who had been running, fighting and marching all day long, and when sundown finally came, they were tempted to sin. They were in such a hurry to eat that they did not properly bleed out the animals. To look at it another way, Saul’s vow did not protect people from sin, but rather made them more vulnerable to it.

Third, Saul’s foolish vow led to strife when it came to Jonathan. Saul had bound everyone to his vow – even those who didn’t know about it. Jonathan, unaware of his father’s oath, ate some of the wild honey that was in the forest where they were passing through in pursuit of the Philistines. The Hebrew says that as a result his eyes became bright. This is one of those Hebrew expressions that is very obscure. The HCSB says, “he had renewed energy” which is probably pretty close to the meaning, though not the exact words. You might say, “brightened up” or “perked up.”

After the men have eaten and regained some strength, Saul decides to pursue the Philistines further – as he could have done, if he had not subjected his troops to hunger. Once again, Saul is simply doing something, moving ahead, without regard to what God may want to do. He is acting not out of faith or his relationship with God, but rather out of a rash desire to make up for the time lost that he himself had caused.

In the earlier part of chapter 14 we saw that Saul was indecisive. He wasn’t sure whether or not he was going to win the battle, and so he sent for the priest to inquire of the Lord. However, before the priest had finished asking God, Saul saw how things were going and told the priest to stop and charged ahead. In other words, he wasn’t asking God because he really wanted to hear from God, he just wanted to know whether or not he would win. Now, he makes a decision to continue the attack without even considering if it is God’s will or not.

The priest is the one who stops him and says, “Let’s ask God first.” Grudgingly, Saul agrees. But there is no clear answer from the Lord. We know that the Israelites cast lots, trusting that the Lord would determine the result. However, we don’t know exactly how this worked. Obviously, there was some possibility that the Lord would not answer at all. In this case that’s what happened.

Sometimes – not always, but certainly at times – we can’t hear God because we are separated from Him by our own sin. If your heart is turned away from God, if there is un-repented sin in you, it will be difficult for you to hear what he wants to say to you. This was a physical demonstration of that fact. Again, I’m not saying that every time you fail to hear from God, it is because of sin. However, if you are asking God to speak and you are not hearing, the very first thing to do is to ask Him to show you if there is any sin standing in the way. We can at least credit Saul for recognizing this.

Now, a straightforward reading shows that Jonathan was one who caused God not to answer. He was the one chosen by lot. And yet, we know that eating honey is not a sinful act. In addition, Jonathan was totally unaware of the curse Saul had called down on the army concerning food, so he did not deliberately or knowingly violate any oath. I don’t think the Lord chose Jonathan by lot to show that Jonathan was sinful. I think he did it to expose Saul – to impress upon Saul his own arrogance and foolishness and show him the results of it. Look at it this way. God did not withhold his answer because Jonathan ate honey. He withheld it because of Saul’s oath. Without the oath, Jonathan’s eating would have had no significance.

So Saul’s oath weakened the army both physically and spiritually, it prevented them from hearing the Lord, and now it led to the condemnation of their greatest warrior. Let’s say it plainly: the result of Saul’s rashness was to condemn his own son to death for simply eating when he was hungry, even after that very son had achieved a great victory.

Even when his arrogance and insecurity is so exposed, Saul will not repent. He doesn’t say, “I am so sorry, that was a foolish vow to make, let us ask the Lord for forgiveness and mercy.” No, he would rather kill his own son than admit that he was wrong. He continues his rashness and says, ““May God punish me and do so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan! ”

Remember those words. Nothing bad ever happened to Saul that he did not bring upon himself.

The people protest. Jonathan is the one that achieved the great victory that day. He was ignorant of the curse. He doesn’t deserve to die. Notice that Saul backs up. We can hope that he did so because he had a tender heart toward Jonathan, and really didn’t want him to die. But truthfully, that tender heart wasn’t enough. He didn’t back up until the people protested. What really changed his mind was popular opinion. Again he shows his insecurity.

It is quite likely that during all these proceedings, which probably took several hours, the Philistines made their escape. In other words, again, it is Saul’s rashness, harshness and foolishness that makes the victory less than it could have been.

Most people don’t make vows like Saul’s anymore. Maybe we’re too fond of our food. But the truth is, we do sometimes make internal promises to ourselves. Sometimes we let our negative emotions control us, and we act or speak rashly, or make quick, impulsive decisions that somehow bind us. We might say something like “I’ll never do something nice for that person again.” Or maybe we decide because of a certain incident, we hate and distrust all men or all Asians or something like that. We may not think of it like a harsh or rash vow, but it is basically the same thing that Saul did. I think we should expect the same types of results.

It seems obvious now what Saul should have done. He ought to have repented and asked the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. It would have involved humbling himself in front of his people. But everything might have been different for him if he had done those things. If there is some way in which we have taken Saul’s course, we can still correct that by doing what Saul was too proud to do. If we humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness and mercy, if we repent of our ungodly internal commitments, I am confident that the Lord will forgive us and help us.

A thousand years later, Saul’s namesake, who became known by his Roman name, Paul, wrote this:

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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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, 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.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

King Saul’s oath, imposed on the entire army, did indeed have an appearance of wisdom. It promoted self-made religion and severity to the body. But it was of no value. Unfortunately, even today there are people try to impose their false sense of religion upon others. I’m not talking about people who speak the truth about what the bible says. I’m talking about people like Saul, who don’t really operate out of a faith-based relationship with the Lord. These are the folks who tell you, you cannot eat meat on Fridays, or wear blue jeans in church, or that you are not holy unless you pray like they do.

There are certain core things that all Christians believe and agree upon. I’m not talking about things like these. But apart from those core beliefs, when another Christian insists your faith must look and sound and feel exactly like her faith, she is operating out of a sense of law, not a sense of relationship.

I have fasted many times in my life. Often, fasting is a spiritually rewarding time for me. However, a few times, I’ve been in the middle of a fast and I realized it wasn’t doing me any good. At those times, I simply quit. This is because I’m walking in relationship, not by law. The whole point of fasting is to bless the relationship that I have with the Lord. When it doesn’t accomplish that, there is no point in doing it. Once or twice, I have fasted because others told me they wanted me to fast with them. Those times were counterproductive, spiritually speaking.

Let the Lord speak to you right now. Maybe you need to give up an internal commitment or vow that you have made. Maybe you need to realize that you are free from the expectations of others, so long as you continue to walk and true faith and in relationship with the Lord. Let him talk to you about this right now.