17. Superficial Religion

CHAPTER 2: Part 8: Freedom from the old religious ways

Meditations in Colossians 2: 17:  Superficial Religion

Col 2:16    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.

If you’ve followed these meditations for any length of time you’ll know we always pick up on ‘link words’ because they tie the verses together. So here we have a ‘Therefore’ which means the logic or instruction of this verse comes in response to what has just gone before. Paul, in the previous verses has focused on the spiritual realities of salvation, that we were dead, and have been made alive by God, and have been forgiven by Him, after all law or rule-keeping and the failure and guilt that go with it have been dealt with by the Cross. The final focus was on now having to major on keeping the rules and that is why Paul now homes in on these particular expressions of rule-keeping.

When I became a Christian in the last third of the twentieth century I found myself part of the good-evangelical wing of the Church but sadly the refocusing on the life in the Spirit had not come to the fore and therefore so much of instruction to new believers was all about what you can or cannot do. Our verse above is all about behaviour and although the words “You must,” or “You ought,” or “You mustn’t” or “You shouldn’t,” aren’t here, there is an implication that they lurk beneath the surface.

As I hinted above, when the power of the Spirit is absent, all you are left with is keeping rules. This is not to say that we should rely only on the Spirit, for we need both word and Spirit, but if we focus on rule-keeping, again as we said above, we are doomed to failure and then to be subject to guilt. So how does it, or should it, work?

If our awareness of the Lord’s presence is weak and if we know little of the life of the Spirit, then we may come across a simple little instruction from Paul’s teaching such as, Be joyful always,” (1 Thess 5:16) and our human thinking says, “Good Christians are happy Christians. I must be happy, I must be joyful,” and so we put on a superficial ‘face’ whereby we make ourselves look happy; we always smile and we always sound full of the Lord’s goodness – even if inside we are deeply upset over something. The trouble about this is that we convey an  unreal or false Christianity and most people see right through us, and the thing we are upset about does not get dealt with properly and, even more, other people (often non-Christians) think we are on a superficial plane well above them and cannot empathize with where they are at. Untruth and self-deception reign.  The truth is that we are sufficiently insecure in our uncertainty of God’s love for us, our lives are one of pretence.

Now watch this person get filled with the Spirit and start to enter into the wonder of being loved by God. They don’t try to be joyful, they just are as the Spirit who has been given the freedom to work within them, brings out the joy of the Lord – that is real – as they wonder in the glory of God’s love for them. Joy is the outworking of the Spirit (see Gal 5:22) not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort.

But then we come across another of Paul’s little guiding lights: “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thess 5:21,22) Back in my early days in the late twentieth century immediately it became, “Oh don’t go to the cinema and watch bad films, don’t drink alcohol and so don’t go to pubs where you will be mixing with ungodly unbelievers.” We didn’t worry about social injustice, caring for the poor, working to deliver people from slavery, saving women out of prostitution and so on; we simply focused on a few superficial prohibitions and as I look back now, I believe it was because our faith was so weak that we were ultra-defensive, unlike Jesus who mixed with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Thus Paul says, “do not let anyone judge you by…” and goes into a list of things where ‘do’s and don’ts’ will apply: “what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”  The reference to eating was probably in respect of kosher food or food given to idols that he deals with elsewhere in his writings. Drink was almost certainly to do with alcohol. Religious festivals was about having to keep the various Jewish feasts. No longer for the believer were these significant matters. To the Corinthians Paul was to say, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20). It is not about words (directing behaviour) but about life in the power of the Spirit. To the Romans he said,the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17)

As we said earlier, the expressions of our Christian life are to be the outworking of the Holy Spirit in us, not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort. Yes, we will not get angry, or whatever other prohibition is given in the scriptures, not so much because we have to make an act of will and make a great effort, but because the Spirit of love fills us and flows through us and prevents that thing having space. May it be so!

24. Lawkeepers

Meditations in Romans : 24:  Lawkeepers

Rom 7:1     Do you not know, brothers–for I am speaking to men who know the law–that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?

Paul was a law-keeper, an ex-Pharisee, just like so many of us are. If we are honest we’d much rather have a set of rules to follow, but the Christian life isn’t like that. Indeed Paul will go on to show us that if we do try to live by the rules, we’ll be doomed to failure and with failure comes a sense of guilt and condemnation. No, those are no longer to be parts of our lives and so Paul is going to move on to speak more about the role of the Law in our lives today.

Verses 1 to 3 are theory that will culminate in the conclusion in verse 4 – So, my brothers, you also died to the law.” i.e. the law no longer has an impact in your life. But that is the conclusion and so before we get there he starts out in verse 1 with a statement which he then illustrates in verses 2 and 3.

Paul is clearly speaking to Jewish Christians in Rome because of the insert into the declaration: “for I am speaking to men who know the law.” They, more than us, would have been law-conscious, because the Law given through Moses had been given to Israel to keep, and that requirement was still as much with them as when it had first been given. But it is the statement or declaration that he makes which is the important issue: “Do you not know, brothers that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?”  That’s pretty obvious really, isn’t it? Once you die you are no longer able to do anything, especially keep rules! But that is a vital piece of understanding in all that Paul is trying to convey in the pictures he uses.

In chapter 6 Paul had gone to some lengths to explain that we, when we came to Christ, died to Sin. That was what all the talk about death and baptism was all about. The point he was making there again and again, was a) that we had died when we came to Christ and b) having died Sin no longer had any power over us. The only power over us was that of God’s Spirit in us leading us into righteousness.

Now he is rerunning the same concept but it is in respect of the Law because he knew that the presence of the Law has a similar effect on them as Sin had done – to make them failures, guilty and condemned failures, and he wants to show them that they have been delivered from that. So he starts out with that strangely simple comment that dead men don’t keep rules.

But being Paul he’s not going to leave it there; he’s going to illustrate it to drum the point home:  “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.”  (v.2) There you are, an applied example of the statement he started with. It’s a pretty universal law. You may get married and thus have legal obligations towards one another, but if one of the couple dies, the other one no longer has any obligations towards the dead spouse.

He hasn’t finished. He’s going to bang home the point even more: “So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.”  (v.3) i.e. part of the marriage contract is that you are bound to that one man and only one man. If you have a relationship with another man while still married, you are committing adultery, but if your husband dies, it is then quite legitimate to marry someone else now. Because of the death, the legal requirements of the first marriage are no longer effective.

So then we come again to the conclusion of this short argument: “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” (v.4)  Now you see why Paul was using marriage as an illustration.  When we died, the law that bound us to rule-keeping was lost to us, and then when we were raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit (implied and covered by Paul in the previous chapter as the second part of the death and resurrection illustration) we were tied into (or married to) the one who raised us from the dead, God.  He raised us and we belong to Him now and the lives we now live are an expression or fruit of the Holy Spirit living in and through us.

It is Him and not the Law that will be energizing and guiding and directing us from now on. We only use the Law as a fall-back when, on odd occasions, we foolishly stop listening to Him. Then the rules will apply, but otherwise, as Paul will go on to show us later, the life we now live we live by the power and direction of the Spirit. Hallelujah!

29. Live Righteously

Meditations in 1 Peter : 29:  Live Righteously in Freedom

1 Pet 2:16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.

I wonder how many of us are really free?  The New Testament has quite a lot to say about freedom. For example James refers to “the perfect law that gives freedom.” (Jas 1:25). The context there seems to suggest the will of God, originally expressed in the Law of Moses but now fulfilled in Christ, the law of love, which brings freedom to its followers. The apostle Paul writing to the Galatians declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” (Gal 5:1) when he is speaking about no longer having to comply with Old Testament regulations. In fact throughout that letter he is suggesting a freedom from a rule-keeping mentality that still hung on from Old Testament times but which was no longer appropriate.

Why is it no longer appropriate? Because as Paul says, we are now freed children of God: “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21). Moreover because we have the Holy Spirit within us, He brings freedom: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 4:17). Freedom is the outworking of the ministry of Jesus: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners …. to release the oppressed” (Lk 4:18). All the things of the past – a sense of failure in rule-keeping, shame, guilt, fear etc. – have all been swept away when we were redeemed and were adopted as children of God empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Our sins have been dealt with: “Christ … has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Heb 9:15). Part of this means we no longer have to fear facing God in eternity: “that by his death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb 2:14,15).  Paul, speaking of this was then able to declare, “now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Col 1:22) or as he put in to the Romans, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1). No longer are we having to worry about keeping the rules (and failing) and having to face God after death. All of our sins have been dealt with by Christ on the Cross and so we are free to live as children of God. We are free children of God and we can look forward to meeting Him!

But there is a danger that Peter has in the back of his mind:do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” Freedom that is unrestrained reverts to license. Here is the young Christian who hears these things. Before they were a Christian they used to drink too much. They were convicted about that, became a Christian and then heard the good news that they were no longer under the Law or having to adhere to rules, and so say, “Fine, I can drink as much as I like then.” Hold on, says Paul, that is silly; you’ll be leading yourself into greater temptation and the likelihood of a fall: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:18)

“Just a minute,” I hear you saying, “that is a rule; you’re putting us under the Law again, surely?” Well yes, the Law is always there in the background. It acts as a safety factor if we are being insensitive to the Spirit. He will always be seeking to lead us in righteous living, that is ‘right-living’, living according to God’s design, that is not harmful to us or to others. If we are immature, slow of understanding, or insensitive to the Holy Spirit, then we find the Law being applied by God, or at least the teaching with which the New Testament is full. Freedom does not mean we are free to do anything. Too much food is gluttony and leads to obesity, sex outside the confines of marriage leads to promiscuity, adultery and a whole host of other damaging actions. Excessive use of alcohol leads to drunkenness and again, a whole host of harmful spin-offs. If we are unable to enjoy our freedom without falling into excess, it probably means that we have obviously not yet realised what incredible lives we now have, i.e. low self esteem still rules, which needs to try to boost itself in some harmful way.

Peter has a helpful motivating thought: “live as servants of God.” So how is that helpful? He is saying, realise the wonder of who you are and you won’t do these things, you won’t feel you need to do these things to boost your ego. You are a servant or representative of God; that is an incredible privilege. All of heaven looks on at the wonder of who you are: His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 3:10) Our lives make the angels gasp at the wonder of God’s love being expressed in us. How can we possibly live as anything less than the wonderful, holy, love-filled children of God who are salt and light to the rest of the world (Mt 5:13-16). Let’s live in the freedom that Christ has bought for us, with wisdom and understanding, avoiding anything that leads others to deride His name as they watch us. Let’s live with His grace and goodness that is called righteousness.

When God talks

Lk 1:12-14,18    When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth…. Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
We’ve thought previously about the unexpected nature of an angel turning up in the Temple after over four hundred years of silence from heaven. This may be the point, before we consider Zechariah’s response, to ponder why the long wait from heaven. Michael Green in Evangelism in the Early Church proposes a number of reasons why God moved with this timeframe so that this was the perfect time for the Gospel to be spread through the world. Paul was to say, “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). We might put this “when the time was just right…” So God sees the time is just right and the angel Gabriel is dispatched from heaven to start the ball rolling.
Now perhaps the first thing to note is that God communicates with Zechariah in a very clear, tangible way. An angel is a very clear form of communication. The Lord could have just prompted Zechariah and Elizabeth to make love and given Elizabeth the ability to conceive after this long time, but instead He chooses to involve Zechariah in such a way that his faith is challenged.
Have we realised this about our own lives, that God delights in communicating with us in such a way that it requires a response of faith from us? Perhaps you are one of those people who relegates God to the outer perimeters of existence where He can’t say or do anything – which of course makes us more comfortable!  When you were reading your Bible and that passage seemed to leap out at you and convict you, did you realise that it was God speaking to you and requiring a response from you? When the preacher’s sermon on Sunday seemed to speak to you and convict you, did you realise that the Lord was speaking specifically to you and was looking for a response from you? When a Christian friend approached you with ‘a word’, did you realise that this was God speaking and required a response from you?
How does the thought of God speaking to you and requiring a response from you, leave you feeling? Does it evoke fear in you that such a thing might happen? If it does, it may be that you are similar to Zechariah. When Zechariah saw the angel, saw God’s means of communication, he was startled and was gripped with fear. Now this is a godly man, a man who was ‘upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly,‘ (v.6), a good man! However, it seems that he knew about God but didn’t know the Lord personally. He hadn’t come to the place of knowing God’s tremendous love, or of knowing the security that comes with that. Having observed the Lord’s rules for all these years had not left him understanding how good God was. No, when an angel comes it scares the life out of him! We won’t bother to speculate why.
Years later Jesus was to speak a very simple parable: “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.(Mt 13:45,46). Now that little picture says that knowing God’s rule over your life is THE most wonderful thing possible and is worth giving up everything else that you have to obtain it. That is the way that Jesus portrayed knowing God, but poor old Zechariah hasn’t come into that knowledge yet.
The angel realises all this and reassures the old man, and then gives him a piece of news that should absolutely thrill him: you’re going to have a son and he’s going to be special! For a couple who had yearned to have children for years and years, this should have been like winning the Lottery! But look at Zechariah’s response. His response should have been, “Wow! That’s absolutely wonderful! Thank you so much!” but instead it was “How can I be sure of this?
What? What is this saying about Zechariah? It says that this rule-keeping and otherwise possibly lovely man, is really clueless about God! Think about it! This is an angel isn’t it? Zechariah knows it’s an angel otherwise he wouldn’t be terrified. If God says something is going to happen, even if we think it is beyond our human ability, it’s not beyond His! He doesn’t say something is going to happen if He’s not sure that He can do it. Now you see how silly that is. Let’s be honest, Zechariah’s response could be read in one of two ways. It could be read as either, “You’re kidding me, I don’t believe you, you’re lying!” or “Yes, well, that maybe what you say but God can’t do that in my life.”  

Now to be fair to Zechariah he has had a lifetime of rule-keeping without the knowledge or experience of God.  We might have responded similarly, but I’m afraid that is no excuse, as you’ll see if you read on in the account.  Watch this space!