Faithlife Sermons

Finding Your Way

Sermon  •  Submitted
0 ratings
· 242 views
Notes
Transcript

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Your Way Through the Fog

Clear Thinking for Confusing Times

From Colossians

 

 

Bruce Goettsche


 

Introduction

1  The Serious Need to Find Our Way

2  In Search of the Real Christ

3  Communicating the Truth of the Gospel

4  Doctrine in a Bottle

5  The Cancer Within

6  Watching What You Eat

7  A Spiritual Exercise Program

8  A Poster for Spiritual Maturity

9  Forgiveness: Letting Go of the Hurt

10 Job Description of a Disciple

11 Marriage God’s Way

12 The Christian Family

13 God and Your Job

14 Final Thoughts


 

 

 

 

Dedication

To Maggie, Rick and Rachel

Richard and Grace Goettsche

Mike and Donna Lawrence

Hiram, Janis, Kaitlyn and Lauren Kinser

My family, my foundation and God’s treasured gift


Acknowledgments

          After my first book, Faith Lessons: Lessons in Faith from Genesis, was published the most common question people asked me was, “How long did it take you to write the book?” That’s a difficult question. In one sense every book is a product of a lifetime of influences. And every book gets into print because of the encouragement and help of many.

            I am so grateful for my family. They not only enthusiastically encourage my writing; they allow me time to write. This book (like the last one) is largely a product of their love. 

            Thank you to the congregation of the Union Church of La Harpe, Illinois. I have been their teacher for twenty years, but I have also been their student. I have learned from their wisdom, been spurred on by their encouragement and friendship, and been delighted by their sense of humor and joyful approach to the journey called life. I love my job because I love the people I work with, and they love me.

            Thank you to the people of La Harpe, Illinois and the surrounding communities. I grew up in Chicago but I love living in rural America. I love the fact that it’s hard to go anywhere in our community without it taking twice as long as it should because you have to stop and visit with people. I love the way everyone rallies around when someone has a need. And I cherish the way everyone celebrates milestones. They celebrated when my first book got published, and their joy increased my own.

            Thanks to the Wednesday morning guys. Your commitment, honesty, enthusiasm, sense of humor and love over these many years we have studied together has deepened my life. I consider you guys to be my dearest friends.

            Thank you to Tom and Nancy Freiling and the staff at Xulon Press for their hard work, their encouragement and their consistently wise suggestions. Working with someone as experienced as Tom has been educational and fun. I’ve appreciated his continuing support and counsel. I respect Tom as a publisher and have come to cherish him as a friend.

            Thank you to Ray Pritchard once again for his encouragement and wise counsel. What a treasure it has been to have a successful author willing to take time to instruct and encourage me.

            Thank you to Sherry Blanchard for reading the manuscript and for her helpful and encouraging suggestions. Thank you also to Angie Kiesling for another great job of editing.

            And though it may sound trite, I do thank the Lord God Almighty for His grace in my life. Each day is an adventure and a delight because God placed His hand on my life. As I grow in the faith I become more aware of the greatness of my need and the wonder of His grace. May He be pleased with this book and may He use it for His glory and honor.

           


Introduction

 

            I remember the night I heard that Dannen died. Dannen, a redheaded fireball filled with life and joy, was a junior in high school and my son’s classmate since kindergarten. He and his friend Stuart were coming home from visiting Dannen’s sister for “sibling weekend” at the University of Illinois. The route they traveled was very familiar. They went over the train tracks they had gone over dozens of times before. The gates were up and traffic was steady. But this time as they crossed the tracks they were struck broadside by a passenger train and killed instantly.

            The investigation showed that a railroad worker had neglected to reconnect the crossing gates after some work was done on the gates. The railroad admitted 100 percent responsibility for the first time in its history. The train came around the corner with no warning. Dannen didn’t have a chance.

            Anytime someone dies suddenly it is devastating, but in a small town the devastation is multiplied. A fog descended on our community and in my life. I was stunned, confused, merely going through the motions. It’s been a couple of years, but much of that fog remains.

            One year after Dannen’s death, my wife and I returned from going out to dinner for our anniversary and I learned that Ryan, a young man from our church, had been hurt in a work-related accident. He was in critical condition. Ryan was in his early twenties and in love. I had known Ryan for years and liked him. Over the previous few months he got involved in our church with his girlfriend, and his spiritual life was beginning to take hold. He was starting to think about marriage. Just days before the accident he attended “Bring-a-Friend” Sunday and brought his brother and dad as his “friends.”

            It was a freak accident. Ryan was working with his uncle and grandfather in a confined space when a pressure pump blew up and hit him in the head. One minute he was filled with life, the next he was motionless. He never regained consciousness. So much life, gone in an instant. The fog rolled in once again. In times of tragedy life becomes very confusing.

            Perhaps you were one of the millions who stared at your television in disbelief as terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our entire country seemed dazed for weeks.

            But life isn’t just confusing in tragic times. The aging process brings about a certain haze. Disease throws us off balance. Our hearing, vision and memory get muddy. A midlife crisis may lead us to question our values and personal worth. It’s not uncommon for people in a midlife fog to do bizarre things. They feel like life is slipping away, and they’re overwhelmed with the question “Is this all there is to life?”

            The wide variety of religious or spiritual beliefs that affirm different (and often contradictory) truth creates a fog of spiritual perception. On every street corner, it seems, a new religion calls to any who will listen. New Age gurus encourage us to “focus” and use the energy within us. Islam and the occult, both growing in popularity, offer to serve as guides for life.

            Even in the “Christian” world it is easy to be confused. There are people who scream, sweat, wear too much makeup, fall over as if dead (slain by the Spirit), and preoccupy themselves with prosperity. Others seem to make Christianity and the Republican agenda synonymous. Still others deny basic tenets of the faith and proclaim that we ought to tone down our rhetoric and embrace all religions as equal. No wonder so many people are confused about what Christianity really believes.

            Chances are, you have your own list of things that bring a fog to your life:

  • aging parents
  • a declining body
  • false accusations
  • a job termination
  • a failed pregnancy
  • a financial reversal
  • a spouse who seeks divorce
  • the death of someone you love

            This book is about finding your way through the foggy times of life. No matter what causes the fog, the key to getting through the fog is the same. We must have a firm grasp of what is true and a set of values we can rely on, even when we aren’t thinking straight.

            One night my son and I had to travel to the hospital. He broke his finger in basketball practice, and it needed attention. The hospital is thirty minutes away from our home--usually. On this night the fog was so thick the thirty-minute trip took us ninety minutes. Much of the time I could only creep along at 20 mph.

            It was a stressful trip but we kept moving forward. We were able to keep going because we knew the road well, we kept our eyes on the centerline and we knew what landmarks to look for.

            It’s the same way you and I will get through the foggy times of life. We need to know the truth and have solid values to guide us. We need something dependable in the uncertain times of life. The Bible provides us with these invaluable resources.

            Paul wrote to the church in Colosse because false teachers were infiltrating the congregation, confusing the people. They questioned their values. Their beliefs became uncertain. In this short and wonderful letter, Paul gives the Colossians the tools they need to survive the confusion. The centuries have passed but the same tools still serve very well.

            Paul begins his letter by directing us to our firm foundation. When I took my son to the hospital it was important to know the road well and to keep our eye on the centerline.  Before you and I can find our way through the fog we have to be focused on the centerline of faith.  The first five chapters of this book and the first two chapters of Paul’s letter to the Colossians establish that centerline. These chapters may be slow reading but they are essential if you want to find your way through the fog.

            The second thing Paul does is give us a set of values (or landmarks) that we can depend on. Chapters 6-14 in this book (and chapters 3-4 in Colossians) deal with these core values--principles and disciplines we can trust when life gets confusing.  These chapters are very practical.

            I have not written this book as a commentary. The market is full of many great commentaries already. Some are listed in the footnotes. What I am trying to do is answer a specific question: What truths will give us the anchor we need for turbulent times?

            I hope you find my reflections on Paul’s words to be helpful, practical and interesting. Each chapter includes discussion questions at the end to help you interact with the text. I also hope you’ll consider using the book for a Sunday school class or Bible study.

            Thank you for joining me on this journey. I am honored that you have entrusted me with your time. I pray that God would help us not only to find our own way in the fog, but also to become “fog lights” to those around us.

           


 

One

 The Serious Need to Find Our Way

Colossians 1:1-14

            It seemed like a typical flight for Jay Kesler, the former president of Youth for Christ and Taylor University, but it wasn’t. When the flight attendant served lunch, the young man next to him declined a lunch tray. Instead, he sat with his head bowed, apparently in prayer.

            Impressed, and a little humbled, by the man’s devotion, Kesler asked the young man if he might be a Christian, since it appeared he was fasting. The man’s reply shook Kesler to the core of his being. “No, I’m not a Christian. I am a Satan worshiper, and the members of my church have agreed to fast every Friday at noon. During that time we pray that the leaders of the Christian world will fall. We pray specifically that they will fall into sexual sin and that their family life would crumble.”

            The account takes my breath away. I don’t want to believe that the antagonism against Christianity is really this strong. But Paul spoke plainly when he wrote, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).

            A spiritual battle that is invisible to the naked eye rages all around us. It’s not a figure of speech; it is very real. It’s not a game; it is a matter of spiritual life and death. The devil and his army are hard at work seeking to derail and minimize God’s people. These forces are crafty and persistent. Whether we recognize it or not, we are part of an enormous battle. The evidence is staggering.

  • There is rising interest in the occult; television commercials urge us to call our psychic guides or to get a free tarot reading.
  • The New Age movement exalts the “god that is within each of us.” The idea of spirit guides and channeling is commonplace. It is not uncommon to hear people talking about their “past lives.”
  • The Internet peddles pornography without discrimination. Television is filled with talk shows hosted by those openly antagonistic to Christian belief. They belittle, ridicule and promote revolt against the Christian mindset.
  • Spiritual talk is so prevalent on television that the words have lost their Christian meaning.
  • Christians are called bigots because of their moral stands and their willingness to label certain practices “sin.” They are called hate mongers because they claim there is only one way to salvation.
  • Biblical illiteracy is on the rise, and a staggering theological poverty exists in Christian churches. There is less concern with fidelity to the truth and more concern with drawing bigger crowds. Theology is sacrificed for pop psychology and a pandering to the cravings of men. Worship is more entertaining than reverent.

The prayers of the Satan worshipers are being answered. We are under assault.

            The people in first-century Colosse faced a situation not too different from our own. Satan’s tactics have not changed much over the years. He has constantly used contemporary culture to try to turn us away from faith in God.

            A wide variety of travelers came through city due to the nearby trade route. These travelers brought with them a host of contemporary ideas and offbeat religions. Colosse was a “global village.” These foreign ideas and slick arguments confused the young church in Colosse. As the theological fog descended on the church, the apostle Paul got out his parchment and dictated a letter.

            From the opening words of the letter, Paul goes on the offensive. The Satanist on the airplane knew the power of prayer, and so did the apostle Paul.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way.

                                                                      Colossians 1:9-10

            Three times in the first ten verses Paul tells the Colossians he is praying for them. Paul knew that if these Christians were going to stay faithful in a world where public opinion ran against them, they would need his prayers on their behalf. And they would need to pray. If you and I hope to stand in the fierce spiritual battle that is raging around us, we will need to learn to pray as well.

What Is Prayer?

            The first question we must ask is the most elementary question: What is prayer? The simple answer to that simple question is: Prayer is talking with God. We pray when we open our heart to the Almighty.

            Have you noticed that many people seem to think prayer is something spoken in Shakespearean English, rich in theological terminology and engulfed in religious piety? Some believe prayer can only take place in church and only in a certain posture. In other words, many people view prayer as awkward, foreign and ritualistic. But you can sound and look holy and still be talking only to yourself. True prayer is simply sharing your heart with the Father.

            I love the story of a young man who met Christ after many years of wild living. After his conversion he went to his first prayer meeting. People around him spoke eloquently and knew all the catchwords (“bless,” “be with,” “anoint,” “guide,” etc.). The new convert didn’t know what he was supposed to say, so he stood to pray and said, “Lord, this is Sam. I’m not sure whether You remember me or not . . . I met You last Tuesday night. I just wanted to say, well, thank You for changing my life.” And then he sat down. The simplicity and honesty of that prayer brought tears to the eyes of many. I suspect it also brought a smile to the face of the Father.

            True prayer is honest and humble, a personal communication with the God of the universe. You don’t need a special vocabulary or a certain look. Prayer is simply talking to God from your heart.

Four Reasons to Pray

            There are many reasons to pray. Let me list four. The first reason to pray is because it is a great privilege. Suppose you were given thirty minutes to talk to the president of the United States. Would you consider that an honor? Would you prepare diligently and choose your words carefully? You bet you would.

            I would love to sit down and talk to some of the authors who have impacted my life. I would love to tell them what their books have meant to me. I’d love to know how they get their ideas, where they find their illustrations and what wisdom they’ve learned about their craft over the years. I’d like to know the person behind the words.

            I wish I could have thirty minutes with Moses, Abraham, David or Noah. I’d love to ask about the details of their stories. I have a million questions. I’d love to hear about their experiences with the Almighty.

            But can you think of any greater honor than to have an audience with the One who rules over all creation? That’s what prayer is. It is an invitation to talk with the One who put the stars in place. Prayer is our chance to obtain counsel from the One who is truth and wisdom. It is an opportunity to sit down with the One who knows all things. The Puritan John Preston lays it out very plainly:

Prayer is a privilege purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ. Christ died for this end; it cost him the shedding of his blood, so that we, through him, might have entrance to the throne of grace. And will you let such a privilege as this lie still? If you do, so far as is in you, you cause his blood to be shed in vain. For if you neglect the privileges gotten by that blood, you neglect the blood that procured them. [1]

            Conversation is a part of any vital and growing relationship. We measure the quality of a marriage by how well a couple communicates. To state it another way, one of the first indications that a marriage is in trouble is the lack of communication. The same is true for our relationship with the Father. True, honest, heartfelt conversation is a sign of a healthy relationship. A lack of such conversation is a sign of a relationship in trouble. We should pray because it is a great privilege.

            Second, we should pray because we are in a fierce battle. As we’ve already mentioned, the followers of the Evil One are praying and marshalling their forces against us. We ought to prepare as well.

            Think how foolish it would be to head into a battle with rocks in hand while the enemy was coming at you with guns, tanks, fighter jets and tomahawk missiles. When we try to fight the devil in our own strength, we are being just as foolish. We need to pray because we need the strength that the Lord can give us.

            Do you find it at all instructive that Jesus, the incarnate (God in flesh) Son of God, found it necessary to pray? If He did not feel He could face the battle in His own strength, neither should we.

            Third, prayer is a deterrent to sin in our lives. In the quiet times of private, honest prayer, God exposes the rationalizations we use to cover our sin. In prayer God holds a mirror up to our lives so we can see the way we really are, and repent.

            I remember a time when I was complaining to the Lord about a particular person in prayer. I felt I had a right to complain. The person was arrogant and had publicly ridiculed beliefs I held dear. At least that’s the way I felt at the beginning of my prayer.

            As I voiced my complaints to the Lord He began to probe my heart. Quietly, God’s Spirit questioned my own arrogance at presuming to know what this person was thinking. He pushed me to consider the possibility that this person was just insecure and really wanted to be liked. He even questioned whether I might be the one who was being petty!

            I didn’t like what I was hearing, but the Lord was right. I was acting childish (not Christian) toward a fellow believer. I was unwilling to overlook faults that I hoped others would overlook in me. And when I finished my prayer I had a new attitude. I knew I might never be a friend of this person, but I was resolved not to be an enemy.

            We are so good at justifying our sin. We can rationalize every wrong, excuse any wickedness and make our greatest weakness sound noble. But we can’t get away with that in the presence of the Lord. When we really talk to God we can’t pretend, because He knows the truth. We can’t hide, because He knows where to find us. We can’t make excuses, because He sees our heart. Prayer helps us live honest and pure lives.

            Finally, prayer makes a difference. Prayer is mysterious. I know the Lord knows what I need before I ask Him. I know He doesn’t need my permission or help to change a person’s life. I know the Lord’s will is not fickle. I know His wisdom is not limited so that He needs my insights. So why pray?

            We pray because we know that circumstances change when people pray. Diseases are often healed, strength is imparted, guidance is given, hearts are softened, needs are met. I know that when I pray for others, it helps them. But I also know that when I pray, I am changed. I don’t know how prayer “works” in the scheme of God’s providence, but I do know that when I pray as He has instructed me, things change.

            I wish I could remember how many times someone has told me that as they went through a crisis they sensed the prayers of God’s people. They reported a remarkable peace, an enhanced clarity of thought and a strength that defies logical explanation. Prayer makes a difference.

The Content of Prayer

            Many people don’t pray because they don’t know what to say. Notice how Paul prays for the Colossians. He does not focus on the material and temporal, as we often do. He is not primarily concerned with the Colossians’ comfort. He is concerned about their growth and faithfulness as Christians.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

                                                                                      Colossians 1:9-13

Discerning God’s Will

            Paul’s first request is that “God…fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Paul’s primary concern is for the Colossians to grow in their love and understanding of God’s will, and to be empowered and led by that will.

            I wonder what would happen if we started to pray in this way. I suspect your prayers are often like mine; we pray for people to feel better, to overcome difficult circumstances and to come to salvation. We are concerned with surface matters. When was the last time you asked

·       that the sick person be able to glorify God in their sickness?

·       that the missionary find depth in their personal relationship with God?

·       that your children experience an authentic, fruitful relationship with Christ?

·       that our churches grow in obedience, holiness and love for the Lord?

·       that we see beyond the outward appearance of those around us and see the person through the eyes of God?

            Our goal in prayer should be for God’s will to be done in and through our lives. I know some pastors believe that praying “Thy will be done” is a weak prayer. And it is, if we are just repeating the words. But there is nothing weak about seeking God’s will in our lives. Jesus was not praying a weak prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

            We must remember that our inheritance is not mansions, fast cars, fame, fortune and large-screen TVs. That stuff is not our inheritance, He is. Our inheritance is found in relationship, not in possessions. We need faithfulness more than health. We need relationship more than riches. In fact, when we have found God’s will we don’t need the other things at all!

           

Pray to Do God’s Will

            Paul not only prays that the Colossians discern God’s will, he prays that they might have the power to do God’s will. In verse 10 Paul asks that the Colossians might understand “in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way.” We pray often for God to give us wisdom. We need to pray just as often for God to give us courage to live according to the wisdom He gives.

            Have you ever had the sense that God was nudging you to do something? Perhaps it was to make a phone call to an old friend or to stop by and visit a person confined to their home. Maybe God whispered for you to give a certain sum of money to your church or to a family you had never met. Maybe He prompted you to mend a relationship or to reach out to a stranger. How many times have you had that “sense” and ignored it? I have ignored those whispers more than I have the courage to admit.

            We need to pray that God will give us courage to do what He tells us to do. We should ask that God give us the courage to

·       run from tempting situations

·       forgive rather than stew in bitterness

·       profess our faith rather than hide it

·       give of ourselves rather than indulge ourselves

·       trust rather than fret

·       repent rather than justify

           

Let’s pray that Christians everywhere will not just know God’s will but will do God’s will.

LIFE LESSONS

            I feel like a novice when it comes to prayer. I struggle just like you do. But the fact that we struggle doesn’t mean we should give up. I’m not very good with household repairs, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to fix things (even though everyone keeps telling me to stop trying to be so helpful). I don’t stop rooting for the Chicago Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls just because they struggle (although I do sometimes cry myself to sleep). We shouldn’t stop working at prayer either.

            Here are a few suggestions on how to get serious about the spiritual battle we are engaged in.

1) Set aside a time for prayer. Write it in your day-timer or put it on your. Get up early. Find a quiet place. Give prayer priority in your schedule. Determine that prayer is so important you will find time for it even if you have to skip breakfast, leave the paper unread or miss the news. Satan will always try to convince you to put prayer off. The most difficult believer to derail is the one on his knees.

2) Discuss your life with the Father. Too many times we “do our prayers” and then move on. We present a list of the sick and lost in our lives and figure we have done our duty. But we never get personal. Talk honestly about your struggles, your fears and your calendar. Present the day’s decisions to the Lord. Talk to Him about the things that make your heart churn. And don’t just talk to God; take time to listen carefully. Let the Father show you where you need to grow.

3) Use the Word of God as a starting point. Read through a passage of Scripture and then apply it to your life. Use the Psalms as a model of heartfelt prayer. When you read a command to “forgive others,” ask God to help you release the bitterness and hurt that make you resist that command. When you read about the importance of “thinking pure thoughts,” confess those areas where your thinking is polluted, and ask God for His help. When you are told to “go into the world and proclaim the gospel,” ask God for opportunities and the boldness to obey. This practice will help you focus on the deeper issues rather than the superficial.

4) Keep a prayer list. The prayer list will not only help you remember those who are in need, it will help you be aware of the answers God sends your way. It will show you that God is listening. Put your family, your friends, your fellow workers or classmates on the list. Pray for your pastor and those in the public eye. Pray for those who share their hearts in their books (please!). Don’t forget to add the personal issues God is working on in your life: your attitude, your use of time, your calendar, your integrity and your finances. Be specific in your praying. You will never know that God has answered your prayers if you aren’t specific in what you pray.

5) Don’t tell someone you will pray for them--pray for them. Right where you are, quietly say a prayer for your friend. It helps them to hear you pray for them, and it helps you to do it right now. How many times have you told someone you would pray and then forgot about your promise until you saw them the next time? Don’t let that happen. When someone asks for prayer, pray right then and there.

6) Read books on prayer and read biographies of people who prayed. Don’t do this instead of praying, do it as an encouragement to prayer. These books and resources remind us of the things the devil hopes we forget. They will spur us on.

7) Write out your prayers. Do you sometimes ramble in prayer? I do. Sometimes I find myself praying words and not really paying attention to what I’m saying. I may be talking holy but I’m disengaged. When we write out our prayers we are more focused. We choose our words more precisely, we think things through more fully and we slow down rather than rush.

            There are no quick-fix gimmicks for our prayer lives. Just as other relationships take time and energy to develop, our relationship with God will take time and energy to develop as well. We must be persistent and consistent in our prayers.

            Satan does not want us to have any genuine prayer time with the Father. He wants us to do battle on our own because he knows he can defeat us if we work in our strength rather than His. And just to be sure, the devil has enlisted a whole army of volunteers that apparently give their lunch hour to cheer him on in his attempts to derail our spiritual life.

 

Discussion Questions

1.     Do you think the prayer of the Satanist mentioned at the beginning of this chapter has any power? If so, where does the power come from?

2.     Which of the four reasons for prayer do you find most compelling?

3.     When you evaluate what you pray for, what percentage of your prayers is for physical things? What percentage is directed at heart issues?

4.     What is the greatest obstacle to prayer in your life?

5.     What things have you found helpful to keep you focused in prayer?

6.     What one suggestion will you use right away from this chapter?


 

Two

 In Search of the Real Christ

Colossians 1:15-20

            I am amazed at what can be done with computers today. You’ve probably seen a photograph that has been retouched. You can place a man’s head on the body of a beautiful female model. You can put yourself in a picture with a famous celebrity. You can pull in your gut, add hair to your head, increase your bust size, narrow your hips, and change the length of your nose or the color of your eyes. You can even pass these changes off as what you really look like--as long as you never plan to meet in person!

            What is fun with computers is deadly when it comes to faith. Today there is a “morphing” going on with the person and nature of Jesus Christ. People alter His appearance and nature to make Him fit their ideas of what He “ought” to be. In New Age religions Jesus is presented as a nice guy who shows us what humans can achieve. In Mormonism Jesus is presented as our “elder brother.” He is a god--just like the rest of us can be. Islam presents Jesus as a great prophet (not as great as Mohammed) sent only to the Jews. And many other religions see Jesus as an astounding revolutionary, a great moral teacher and certainly one of the most influential people of history. They all balk, however, at the thought that He is in the “very likeness of God” (Heb. 1:3) and the only way of salvation.

            If you stop the average person on the street, they will generally have good things to say about Jesus. Many will call him Lord. Some will call him Savior. But let me caution you. Whenever you ask anyone about Jesus, listen very carefully and ask the person to define their terms. What does a person mean when they call Jesus “Lord”? Is it merely a form of address, a formal title, a religious catchphrase, or are they claiming Christ to be the ruler of their life and the only way of salvation?

            In what sense do they call Jesus “Savior”? Is He the Savior because He shows us how to live in a way that pleases God? Is He Savior because He taught us to believe in ourselves and in each other? Or is He the Savior because He died as our substitute; the One who bore the wrath that we were due?

            “Who is Jesus?” is the key question to separating truth from error. If a teaching is wrong about Jesus it leads you away from God rather than toward Him. Consequently we need to understand who Jesus really is. Paul writes:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

                                                                                         Colossians 1:15-20

He Is Unique

            When I was younger my youth group took a trip to the B’hai temple in Wilmette, Illinois. At the time, we were exploring the beliefs of other religions. As we took the tour we walked into one room where several pictures hung on the wall: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius and the founder of the B’hai faith. We were told that God had sent many prophets through the years. One of those prophets was Jesus. The tour guide had lots of nice things to say about our Lord. But to him, Jesus was just one of the prophets. The “latest” prophet was the one who founded the B’hai faith.

            Paul affirmed that Jesus was more than one of the prophets. He speaks in much stronger terms: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” In other scriptures similar statements are made:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).

“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil. 2:5-6).

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14).

            The doctrine of the nature of Christ has been widely debated throughout the course of Christian history. Some deny the deity, or God nature, of Christ. They contend that Jesus reveals God, He points us to God and He represents God. But they would not say that He is God. He was a great man, but only a man. To assert that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God is to claim there are three Gods, they believe (this is the contention of Islam). The Bible doesn’t seek to explain this mind-boggling concept of the trinity--that three persons are one in essence. It simply declares that God is one and then calls the Father God, the Son God and the Holy Spirit God.

            Others deny the human nature of Christ. They go to the opposite extreme. They teach that God “borrowed” Christ’s body at His baptism and left before the cross. They believe the physical realm is evil and God could never be a part of the human existence. But the apostle John states in 1 John, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God: and this is the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:2-3). Jesus was divine (God) and human.         

            He is unique among men. Jesus is unique among men. When we accept Christ as Savior and Lord, we are empowered by Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, but we do not become God.

            Jesus is not “the best that man can be.” He is God. He makes us sons of God when we come to Him in faith. But Jesus is the Son of God. We are not, and never will be, the same as Jesus. We will forever be the created. He is the Creator. When you hear someone claim that we become “little gods,” or that God will live in us the same way He did in Christ, or that every believer is just as much of an incarnation as Jesus was, remember one word for such teaching: blasphemy.

            God loves us, He has placed His Spirit in us, He sees the Lord reflected in us, and we will gradually reflect more and more of His character, but we will never be the Son. We will never be eternal. We will never be the Creator. We will never be the One to whom “every knee shall bow.” Jesus is unique among men.

            He is unique among religious teachers. Jesus is also unique among other religious teachers. C. S. Lewis made the classic statement

If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Bramah?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, ‘Are you Allah?’ He would first have rent [torn] his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’ I think he would have probably replied, “remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects--Hatred - Terror - Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.[2]

           

            No other religious teacher claims to have created the world. No other religious teacher is willing to claim that He is eternal. And no other religious teacher can back up his statements with his resurrection from the dead!

He Is Supreme

            Paul does not stop at telling us that Jesus is uniquely God in human form. He also emphasizes the supremacy of Christ.

            He is the Creator. Listen to these words: “For by him all things were created.” Jesus was not one of the created; He was the Creator! And notice that this creation included not just the creation of the earth. He created all things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” Everything that exists comes from Him. He alone is supreme. He alone is God.

            In Paul’s day there was a great fascination and worship of angels. But our text reminds us that He made the angels! The worship of angels or any spiritual being is idolatry because it is the worship of the created rather than the Creator.

            Jesus is not only the agent of creation; He is the reason for creation. Paul says, “All things were created by him and for him” (v. 16). The purpose of creation was to bring praise and honor to the Son. In the Book of Philippians we read, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

Do you see the practical nature of these truths?

  • Since Christ created all things, we owe our allegiance and our worship to Him.
  • Since Christ created all things, He understands who we are and what we need better than we do ourselves.
  • Since Christ created all things, nothing can hurt us if we rest in Him. No power in the world is superior to His.
  • Since Christ is the end of all things, only the person who follows Him is heading in the right direction.

 

            He is the firstborn from the dead. What does this phrase mean? It means He is the One who knows the way from death to life. Jesus is the One who leads the way. He is the One who pioneered the path to eternity. If we want to find life beyond the grave we must follow Him. There is no other way of salvation.
            He is supreme over all.  The passage ends with these words: “so that in everything he might have supremacy.” Jesus is supreme. There is no one above Him, no one more important. He is to have first place in our

·       thinking

·       worship

·       work

·       families

·       leisure activities

·       time with friends

·       use of our money

·       use of our time

·       relationships with others

·       ambitions

·       dreams

He Is the Sustainer

            Jesus is not only “before all things,” but we are also told that “in him all things hold together.” Jesus did not create the world and then walk away. His leadership and Lordship over creation are essential for every moment of every day.

            He is the One who keeps things going. He makes the sun to shine, the rain to fall, the earth to rotate, the seasons to come and go. He is the One who grants life to our bodies. At any given moment He could withdraw His hand and we would be finished.

            If we recognize Jesus as the Sustainer we will live gratefully. We will understand that every day we live is a gift from God. We owe Him our life. Jesus is not an optional part of our lives--He is essential.

He Is Sufficient

            The final point Paul makes is in verses 19-20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

            Paul tells us that everything necessary for our redemption was accomplished through Christ’s work on our behalf. Nothing needs to be added to His work. We don’t have to “look for God”--He has made Himself available to us in Christ. Author Max Lucado draws us a picture:

Want to know the coolest thing about his coming? Not that the One who played marbles with the stars gave it up to play marbles with marbles. Or that the One who hung the galaxies gave it up to hang doorjambs to the displeasure of a cranky client who wanted everything yesterday but couldn't pay for anything until tomorrow.

Not that he, in an instant, went from needing nothing to needing air, food, a tub of hot water and salts for his tired feet, and, more than anything, needing somebody--anybody--who was more concerned about where he would spend eternity than where he would spend Friday's paycheck.

Not that he kept his cool while the dozen best friends he ever had felt the heat and got out of the kitchen. Or that he gave no command to the angels who begged, "Just give the nod, Lord. One word and these demons will be deviled eggs."

Not that he refused to defend himself when blamed for every slut and sailor since Adam. Or that he stood silent as a million guilty verdicts echoed in the tribunal of heaven and the giver of light was left in the chill of a sinner's night.

Not even that after three days in a dark hole he stepped into the Easter sunrise with a smile and a swagger and a question for lowly Lucifer--"Is that your best punch?"

That was cool, incredibly cool.

But want to know the coolest thing about the One who gave up the crown of heaven for a crown of thorns?

He did it for you. Just for you.[3]

            The way of salvation is this: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” That’s it. Salvation is found only through Christ. There are not many ways to salvation; there is only one. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We don’t need psychics, and we don’t need formulas. We don’t need anything but Christ’s work on our behalf. He is the only way to eternal life. We cannot simply nod our heads when someone says, “After all, we’re all going in the same direction.” We are not! Any other way of salvation is a delusion.

            Because Jesus is who He is, He is sufficient for our salvation. He is the only One who could supply the perfect righteousness (or right living) that would clear our accounts. Jesus is the only One whose life and position is valuable enough to secure the salvation of anyone who believes in Him. Jesus took our place. He took the penalty we deserved. By His death we can be set free.

            Christ is not only sufficient for our salvation. He is sufficient for every area of our lives.

·       He is sufficient to fill the ache of loneliness.

·       He is sufficient to give strength for the trials.

·       His Word is a sufficient guide for your life.

·       His provision is sufficient for your needs.

·       His sacrifice is sufficient to pay for your sin.

·       His grace is sufficient to carry you to heaven.

·       His wisdom is sufficient to overcome your confusion.

LIFE LESSONS

            The first priority of the devil is to turn us away from Christ. If he can’t turn us away, he will seek to distort the true image of Christ so that we serve an illusion rather than reality. Jesus doesn’t help us find God. Jesus is God. When we “see Him we have already seen the Father.”

            Even our best television shows can lead us astray. The shows Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven are touching dramas. They warm our hearts with their efforts to introduce people to the reality of God. They are among the best shows on television. However, don’t miss the fact that to be “politically correct” these shows minimize the uniqueness of Jesus. All faiths are equal. All roads lead to God. In this they lead us astray.

            A man purchased a new computer. He brought the thing home and set it up. He flipped on the power switch and nothing happened. He read the manual. He tried everything he could think of. As time passed he grew angrier and angrier. He was mad at the computer. He grumbled about the people who sold him the “defective piece of junk” and had no glowing words for the manufacturer. He was close to dropkicking the thing out the door when his young daughter came in and said, “Hey, cool computer, Dad. Can I plug it in?”

            Just as plugging the computer into the outlet is essential to getting it to work, having a clear picture of the nature of Christ is essential to a life of faith. In this day and age, when we are confused by all kinds of people who say “the answer is Jesus and…,” the Bible reminds us that the answer is Jesus--period.

            He is the One who can provide what you need for eternal life. He is the One who will equip you for life. He is the One who will see you through the hard times and give you everything you need for every situation. He is the One who answers the churning of your heart.

            I encourage you to do two things. First, listen to how Jesus is portrayed by those around you. Listen to the description of Jesus in your church. If the true Christ is not being presented, find out why. If necessary, go elsewhere.

            Listen to the description of Jesus in the media and how He is portrayed by other religions. Don’t settle for platitudes. Keep pushing until you know the truth.

            I attended an ordination service once. Pastors from churches of our denomination gathered to examine this man’s “calling.” The candidate for ordination began with what was called a simple statement of faith. It really was a mish-mash of personal history and philosophical meanderings. This was followed by an opportunity for questions. And I raised my hand.

            “In your statement I never heard anything about Jesus? Who is Jesus to you.”

            He responded, “I’m getting to that.”

            I apologized for asking the questions prematurely. He continued talking about his “faith history” and did talk about Jesus and the importance place Jesus held in His heart. But there was something superficial about his words, and I needed to hear more. When the time for questions came, I had my chance.

            “I’m still a little confused about your view of Jesus. Let me pose a question. If someone asked you how to get to heaven, what would you say?”

            He responded, “I’d tell them to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you’ll be saved.”

            I raised my hand again. At this point other pastors were looking at me. I guess this was a breech of protocol. This was supposed to be merely a formality, not a genuine examination. I said, “I certainly agree with such a scriptural answer, but I’m wondering if you would explain this in your own words.”

            What followed was a long and wandering discourse on faith. I knew this man was now trying to bury me with words, hoping I would just back off and not make him say publicly what he didn’t believe. At the end of his speech he made some comment about Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

            I raised my hand again. Since the allusion to the road to Emmaus was an obvious reference to the resurrection account in Luke, I decided to take a different approach to the issue. Since the resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith and the boldest declaration of Christ’s deity, I asked, “When you talked about the men walking with Christ on the road to Emmaus, do you believe these men were walking with the ‘idea’ of Christ or the ‘power of Christ,’ or were they walking with the actual risen-from-the-dead, present-in-the-flesh Jesus?”

            To his credit, he finally answered directly. “I would have to say I was more comfortable with the former than the latter.” In other words, he publicly confessed that he did not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus.

            Sadly, this gathering of ministers still voted to ordain the man to pastoral ministry. (Incidentally, I left and would not participate in those proceedings.) Today he is leading others away from the One who alone can save. This may be just as scary a thought as the Satanist in chapter one. Please examine your teachers carefully!

            Second, you must answer a personal question: What is the basis of your hope? Who are you trusting to lead you to heaven? This is the preeminent question. Where you stand regarding Jesus Christ will determine whether or not you are a child of God. In the fog of human discussions on religion it all boils down to this one simple issue. Who is Jesus to you?

            One evening the great conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was a brilliant performance. At the end of it, the audience went absolutely wild. They clapped, whistled and stomped their feet, caught up in the greatness of the performance. As Toscanini stood there, he bowed and bowed and bowed, then acknowledged his orchestra. When the ovation finally began to subside, Toscanini turned and looked intently at his musicians. He was almost out of control as he whispered, “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” The orchestra leaned forward to listen. Was he angry? They could not tell. In a fiercely enunciated whisper, Toscanini said, “Gentlemen, I am nothing!” This was an extraordinary admission since Toscanini was blessed with an enormous ego. He added, “Gentlemen, you are nothing.” They had heard that same message before in rehearsal. “But Beethoven,” said Toscanini in a tone of adoration, “is everything, everything, everything!”

            This is the response of believers when they fully understand and appreciate the greatness of the work of Christ. When we truly believe and repent of our sins and realize all that Christ has done for us, no matter what the crowd says, no matter how many people applaud our greatness, we must say, “I am nothing, but He is everything, everything, everything!”

 
Discussion Questions

1.     What different views of the nature of Christ have you heard? Think about the view of Jesus held by: the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhism, Scientology and some of the current religious “fringe groups.” How do their views differ from the biblical view?

2.     What are some catchphrases that non-Christians may use to sound more “Christian”? How can you cut through this fog of deception?

3.     Review the key characteristics of the nature of Christ (He is unique, He is supreme, He is the sustainer, He is sufficient). What practical difference do these truths make to our daily living?

4.     Do you agree that a person’s understanding of who Jesus is really is the key issue?

5.     What does your church (and pastor) believe about the nature of Jesus?

6.     What things in your church (and in your life) stand in the way of the truth that Jesus is “everything, everything, everything”?


 

Three

 Communicating the Truth of the Gospel

Colossians 1:21-23



            For the last several years I have been invited to speak to the College Prep English Class in our local high school. I am asked to talk to the students about public speaking. The first point I always make is that the key to public speaking is to communicate.

            This sounds elementary, but it is the key point. The goal of public speaking is not just to express information, it is to pass on information in a way that is understandable and persuasive. Consequently we must be well prepared and choose our words carefully. It is foolish to use a computer metaphor to illustrate a point when speaking to a senior citizens group. It would be just as foolish to use an illustration about stock portfolios when talking to kindergarten students. You might be passing on valid information, but you would fail to communicate with your audience.

            Have you ever watched a television commercial that was captivating, but when it was over you had no idea what product it promoted? If I were the manufacturer of the product I would fire the advertisers. They may be great artists and skilled at creating a graphic image, but they shouldn’t be in advertising. They failed in their first responsibility: to make people aware of the benefits of your product.

            We need to keep these ideas in mind as we seek to present the gospel to contemporary society. We must speak clearly and in terms that people will understand. The gospel message can be quite confusing to people today. The real message is lost in talk about styles of worship, music, spiritual gifts, the sacraments of the church and denominational labels. Christians often talk in “code words” that the world does not understand. Sometimes we use these words because we have merely memorized the presentation but don’t really understand it.

            In this chapter we take a close look at Colossians 1:21-23. These verses state the gospel message in a nutshell. We’re going to look at those words and try to understand them so well that we have a firm foundation on which to build our own faith and are able to explain the life-saving truth to others.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But 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--if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Our Problem

            Paul reminds the Colossians of what they were before they became followers of Jesus--“alienated from God and…enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” I bet you’ve never seen this verse on a Christian T-shirt or a refrigerator magnet!

            Paul understood that before we can ever hope to receive the message of salvation, we need to face the truth about ourselves. We delude ourselves into thinking we are decent people just looking for a break. But the Bible confronts that notion with strong words. The Bible tells us that before we become followers of Jesus, we are enemies of God. We are enemies in our thinking and in our behavior.

            Paul writes similar words to the Ephesians.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.

                                                                                  vv. 2:1-3

 

            And you wonder why Paul spent so much time in jail? This is a scathing exposé on the human heart. Notice what he says:

·       We were spiritually dead and lifeless.

·       Our actions were characterized by sin and rebellion.

·       We were followers of the devil.

·       We were led by our sinful cravings.

·       We deserved God’s judgment.

·       This indictment applies to all of us without exception.

                       

            Most of us recoil at such words. They seem overly strong. But they aren’t. Remember, the core problem of sin is not so much the “sins” we commit but rather the attitude of rebellion that dictates so much of what we do.

            Before we trusted Christ for salvation we may have sounded religious and even declared that we wanted to know God, but it wasn't really true. We didn’t want to know God; we wanted to control God. We wanted God to do what we wanted Him to do. We wanted Him to be our servant. We wanted to be God. We really had no interest in honoring and serving Him. In Romans 1:21-32 Paul makes his point relentlessly. Here is just a piece of that explanation.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

                                                                                            Romans 1:21-23

            Paul tells us that sin, rebellion and wickedness are so prevalent in our lives that we don't even notice those things. Over time our conscience becomes numbed to the reality of good and evil. Do I overstate the case?

·       How do you explain how a man could command that tens of thousands of Jews be sent to the gas chamber?

·       How do you explain how a person could pick up a gun, walk into a school (or place of business) and start killing innocent people?

·       How do you explain how drug dealers can peddle death to children?

·       What other explanation is there for a person who has an adulterous relationship even though it will break the heart of family members?

·       How do you explain how quick we are to attack each other with our words even though we know it is wrong, destructive and can never be taken back?

·       Where do you think prejudice has its origin?

·       What other explanation can we give for how easily we justify our lies to each other and even on legal documents?

·       How do you explain why we break speed limit laws and disregard God’s commands about money?

·       How do you explain the rampant sexual abuse in our society? How can an adult victimize a child? How would you explain the brutality of forcing someone to be sexually intimate?

·       How do you explain the human tendency to assume the worst about people?

·       How else do we explain the popularity of raunchy talk shows that focus on the perverted behaviors of society?

            Our natural sinfulness is verified by simply looking around us. We can see that what the Bible says is true just by examining our own hearts. Without Jesus we are lost and rebellious. Listen to Paul’s devastating rebuke in Romans 3:

              There is no one righteous, not even one;

                        there is no one who understands,

              no one who seeks God.

                        All have turned away,

              they have together become worthless;

              there is no one who does good,

              not even one.

                        Their throats are open graves;

              their tongues practice deceit.

              The poison of vipers is on their lips.

                        Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.

                        Their feet are swift to shed blood;

                        ruin and misery mark their ways,

                        and the way of peace they do not know.

                        There is no fear of God before their eyes.

                                                       [emphasis added]

            When the Bible talks about sin and rebellion, it is not talking about the other guy. It is talking about you and me! But how can we be so bad when it seems like we’re pretty decent people? The answer is that we are really good at justifying our behavior. We soothe any latent pangs of conscience by

  • Denial – “I didn't do anything wrong.”
  • Diversion – “Everyone is doing it,” or “What gives you the right to call me a sinner?” If we can put the other person on the defensive then we can get them off our case. Sometimes we are even successful at putting the blame for our behavior onto another.
  • Repression - We avoid any value judgment. We believe that if we never examine or discuss the rightness or wrongness of an action, the issue of morality becomes irrelevant.
  • Rationalization – “It's not like it's stealing. The insurance company expects to pay this money, and they can afford it.” In other words, we try to explain that the evil we did was really a good thing.
  • Redefinition - If we call our sin something other than sin, it doesn't seem so sinful anymore. So adultery becomes a “fling,” lying becomes “sparing another the painful truth,” gluttony becomes “eating too well,” greed becomes “seeking God's abundance” and a divisive spirit becomes “sharing my concerns.”

People may feel that the Bible is cruel when it calls us enemies of God. But let me ask you: Has Paul overstated the case?

            The story is told of a man who used to stop by a clock shop every morning to stare at one particular clock in the window. One morning the store owner came out (sensing a chance for a sale) and remarked that he had seen the man stop there every day to look at that “beautiful” clock. The stranger replied, “I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I stop here every day because my watch is not very accurate. Every morning I synchronize my watch with this clock. You see, I am the time keeper at the factory and I am the one charged to blow the whistle at 4:00 to denote quitting time.” The shopkeeper laughed. He said, “I must admit that this clock is not very accurate either. Every day I set it by the 4:00 whistle at the factory.”

            When neither clock is a dependable standard, the standard will become more and more corrupted. This is what is happening in our world. People determine their standard of right and wrong (and their view of God) by the prevailing view of public opinion. And public opinion is determined by the prevailing standard of right and wrong! Is it any wonder then that our society is drifting deeper and deeper into the mire of perversity? There is no dependable standard of truth!

            G. K. Chesterton understood things clearly. He wrote a letter in response to a question posed in The Times of London. The question was: “What's Wrong with the World?” Chesterton replied, “I am. Yours truly, G. K. Chesterton.”

            This is the starting point of the gospel. People may be offended at Paul's words, but someone has to tell us the truth! Someone has to point out that we are on the road to destruction, not life. We cannot point people to grace and forgiveness unless we are honest about sin and condemnation.

God's Plan of Rescue

            Once we understand the problem, we can comprehend how God meets that need in Christ. Paul writes in Colossians 1:22, “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.”

            Notice several things. First, God is the One who does the reconciling. Most people believe the key to salvation (becoming friends rather than enemies of God) is to work harder or to believe better. When I ask people why they think they are going to heaven, the majority say it is because they have tried to be good or because they have always gone to church.

            But understand our condition. Unless something happens inside us, we have no interest in God. We do not seek Him, we do not love Him and we do not want Him. If salvation depends on you and I taking the initiative, none of us will be in heaven! Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). God must work in us before we will even “want” to be saved. God has to change us on the inside before we will be willing to turn to Him.

            Second, notice that this salvation is made possible through Christ’s death (and resurrection). The perfect Son of God died for our rebellion and sin. He was executed in our place. It was as if we switched places at the cross. It was our penalty and our crime, but His death. The demands of justice were met, the penalty for the crime was paid, and we are set free.

            But there is still a question isn’t there? How can one man pay for the sin of millions of people? Let me draw you a picture that will help you understand.

            Suppose the president of the United States was under attack by an assailant. How many Secret Service officers do you think would give their lives to defend the president? If given the opportunity, they all would. In fact, our entire armed forces would give their lives to protect the president. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, would give their lives to protect the one life of the president.

            Is this one man really worth the loss of so many lives? Yes and no. No, the one man’s life is no more precious than any other. But, yes, the one life is worth many lives because of the office or position of that man. The thousands are not giving their lives for the man, but for the office.

            Let’s look at it another way. Suppose an embassy somewhere in the world has been taken hostage. And suppose the president offers to become a hostage so the others can be set free. If you were the one holding the hostages, would you make that trade? Of course you would. Why? Because the value that resides in this one man’s office is worth more than the value of many individuals.

            Stay with me here. If the office of president of the United States is more valuable than many men, how valuable do you think the position of the Son of God is? Jesus is able to pay for the sin of all who believe because of His office. It is because He is the Son of God that makes it possible for Him to pay for the sin of any who will trust Him. As the Son of God He is so valuable that His life is a fair trade for an eternity of repentant sinners.

            Christ’s death allows us to be presented “holy in His sight.” Not only is our debt paid by Christ’s death, His goodness is applied to our account. Think of it like a business debt.

            Suppose you were deep in debt and sure to lose your business. Then a man came into the store and gave you a check to pay all your past-due bills. Wouldn’t that be great? But what if this man not only gave you what you needed to pay your debt but also eliminated all trace of debt from your credit record and bank records? And what if this man also gave you the resources you needed to become successful and well respected in business?

            This is what Christ does for us. He not only wipes away our sin debt, He also applies His obedience or right living (righteousness) to our account. It’s not that we are perfect (we still struggle), but when we stand before the judgment seat, God’s sees Christ’s goodness instead of our sin. Isn't that a staggering thought?

            The devil will make a lot of noise. He will hurl all kinds of accusations against us, but none of these will be accepted in the court of God's justice. In Romans 8 Paul asks, “Who will bring any charge against God's elect? Nobody, it is God that justifies.” When God declares us forgiven, we are forgiven indeed.

What Do We Need to Do?

            Paul continues with these words, “If you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel….” Paul is not declaring that we will only be Christians if we never make a mistake in the future. He is affirming that salvation only comes to those who truly receive and trust Christ.

            Let me use marriage as an illustration. Are you really married if you had a fancy ceremony and then went off your separate ways? Legally you may be considered married, but true marriage is much more than simply going through a ceremony. Marriage is an ongoing relationship. It is a commitment that endures and perseveres.

            This is what Paul means here. Saying we love Christ and want to belong to Him is not enough. We can go through the ceremony, say a prayer, shed a tear and even get baptized, but a true commitment is measured by what happens following the profession. We must not only profess faith, we must possess it. Christianity is intensely practical. Paul tells us that we must follow through; we can’t just say that we believe--we must really believe.

            Believing in Christ means making a commitment to trust Christ with the rest of your life. It means deciding to live by His standard of right and wrong. It means continuing to follow Him even when we don’t understand what He is doing. Sure we will stumble. At times we will fall. But true faith keeps coming back to the Father seeking to realign its heart with His. And over time we will get closer to the goal.

            The faith that God wants from us is a willingness to “bet our life” on Christ. It means putting all our hope for eternity on what Christ did on our behalf. Truly trusting Christ means I abandon all efforts to save myself and instead follow Him. When we ask someone to make a “decision” for Christ, this is the decision we should be asking them to make.

           

LIFE LESSONS

            Three things as we conclude. First, I hope you have heard these things before. If you have been going to church all your life and this is the first time you have heard these truths, it is time to find a new church! Paul tells us “this is the gospel you have heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” I hope this is the gospel you have heard over and over again.

            But maybe someone gave you this book as a gift. Maybe the message of salvation is new to you. Perhaps you’ve always felt that you could never be good enough to get to heaven. And you’re right. In fact, you are closer to the kingdom of God than the religious person who feels secure in his religious observances. You see, religious people trust what they are doing--they trust their own efforts. But you know that you cannot save yourself.

            The gospel message is for people like you and me. The message of salvation is offered to common people. It offers us a new beginning. It offers forgiveness, eternal life, and a new heart, spirit and direction for this life. I hope you will put down this book at the end of this chapter and make the commitment to “bet your life” on Jesus.

            Of course, it's possible that you have heard the gospel but have never made a decision regarding the truth proclaimed. A wedding ceremony is not a marriage, but it is a starting point. It's good to be able to look back on the day you made a conscious declaration of your commitment to your mate. In a similar way, it is helpful to be able to point to a particular day when you declared your faith in Christ. It helps keep us on track and focused. Have you made a commitment to trust Christ for today and forever?

            I’ve heard a riddle that asks, If three frogs are sitting on a log and two of them decide to jump in the water, how many are left on the log? Most people will answer, “One.” But the correct answer is “Three.” Why? Because deciding to jump and actually jumping are not the same thing. The frog is still on the log until he actually jumps off. Until then he is just “making a decision.” [4]

            Lots of people have reached a point of intellectual belief in the Savior. They are attracted to Jesus. They believe Jesus died for them. They believe He rose from the dead and is coming again. They believe Jesus is the only way a person can get to heaven. But they have not jumped. They have not actually placed their lives in His hands.

            If you’re ready to make that “jump,” consider telling Jesus something like this:

Lord, Jesus, I know that my heart is rebellious. I know that I rationalize more sin than I recognize. But I also know that you love me. Today I declare my commitment to follow you. Today I cling to what Christ has done for me on the cross. Today I acknowledge Him as the risen Lord. Today I submit myself to your love and ask that you begin the process of transformation in my life.

It's a simple prayer, and the words alone hold no power. Like marriage, what matters is the commitment of your heart. Receiving Christ is not something to be done on a whim. It is a decision that will impact the rest of your life. So make the commitment wisely, but do make the commitment.

            Second, take time regularly to remind yourself of where you have come from. When we become Christians, our sins are forgiven. We are free from the condemnation of our rebellion. But we must always remember the state of our heart and our life before Christ changed us. If we remember then we will no longer have any reason to feel smug and self-righteous. We will live with a sense of gratitude and humility that shows we appreciate God’s grace.

            You see, when we look at any other sinner (no matter how vile) we should be able to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” If we constantly remember where we have come from, we will view others with compassion. And we will be reticent to write anyone off. We know that the person being written off could have been us.

.           Finally, once we understand the gospel, we will want to tell someone else. Work hard to put the gospel into words people will understand. Look for a way to explain the problem of sin, the remedy of grace and the call to commitment that makes up the gospel message.

            When we share our faith with others we often make one of two mistakes. We either soften or eliminate the painful truth about sin in hopes that people will find the gospel more attractive (even though no one will seek a Savior unless they need a Savior), or we talk in a language that people don’t understand. The average person doesn’t understand words like “atonement,” “justification,” “redemption,” or even “grace” and “sin.” These are great words, but they may not communicate to contemporary society. Some false religions use these same words.

            Let’s go back to my opening illustration. When you talk to a senior citizen about a mouse, they don’t immediately think of a computer pointing device, they think of a rodent. Phrases like “hard drive” (riding over a rough road), “boot up your computer” (give it a swift kick) and “save your files” (find a box for those manila file folders) don’t mean the same thing to that audience as it does to me. Remember, the number one goal in communication is to communicate!

            As believers we must understand the gospel well enough to explain it to others using their own language. It is not enough to memorize a “canned approach” to sharing your faith. A good translator must know the language of the audience and how to use that language to communicate truth in a way they will understand. 

·       Perhaps to a child you would explain that the Bible says we have done many things that God told us not to do. Because of our bad behavior we needed to be punished. But Jesus took our punishment for us so that we could be friends with God again.

·       To the adult you might say that we broke God’s law (or committed cosmic treason), which is a capital offense. And the mandatory sentence for our crime is hell (or eternal separation from God). Jesus took our place and paid our sentence for us. He was our stand-in for judgment.

·       To a person of another faith you might explain that the gospel says that no matter how religious we are, we are all trying to make ourselves god. We are trying to construct God in our image rather than recognize that we are created in His image. The Bible calls this activity idolatry. In spite of our efforts to make our own gods, the true God reaches out to us and offers us a new beginning in Jesus Christ.

            You see, it isn’t a particular vocabulary that will lead people to salvation; it is the gospel that leads people to salvation! The words we use are meant to convey truth. If the words no longer convey the message, we must use more appropriate words.

            However you state it, if you convey the message that we are alienated from God; that God has provided a way for us to be His children; and that we must commit ourselves to trust what Christ has done for us, then you have communicated the gospel effectively.

            When we communicate accurately and in a language people understand, we have a chance to see people’s lives change. Mind you, these lives do not change because of our communication techniques. The change will come because these people have been introduced to the truth. And it is the truth that sets people free.

Discussion Questions

1.     Why do you think people resist the notion that we are “by nature children of wrath”?

2.     Someone has said that the doctrine of total depravity (the teaching that the stain of sin has affected and influenced every aspect of our life) is the only doctrine that can be verified by personal experience. Do you agree with that statement? What do you learn about sin by looking at the sinners around you?

3.     Does the analogy of the president and the Secret Service help you to better understand how the Son of God could give His one life as a payment for millions of lives?

4.     What practical value does understanding the true nature of the gospel have on your life?

a.   How does it affect your relationship with others?

b.   How does it affect your worship?

c.   How does it affect your pride?

d.   How does it affect the urgency of your witness?

e.   How does it affect your daily life?

5.     Where are you in the story about the frogs? Are you the frog that has not decided to jump? Are you the frogs that have decided to jump but haven’t left the log? Or have you actually “taken the plunge” and trusted Christ?

6.     What would be a good way to communicate the gospel to:

a.   a video game fanatic?

b.   a sports enthusiast?

c.   a gambler?

d.   a senior citizen?

e.   a model citizen?

f.    a good student?

g.   a poor student?

h.   a New Age movie star?


 

Four

 Doctrine in a Bottle

Colossians 2:8



            High school football is a big deal in our community. Our local team is perennially in the playoffs because the players are dedicated. They prepare all year long for the three-month season. The coaches put the team on a yearlong weight-lifting and agility program. The boys know that conditioning is the key to success. They work hard to be bigger and stronger than their opponents.

            Because weight training gives players such an edge, it’s easy to understand why some athletes experiment with anabolic steroids. Imagine the seductive attraction of a substance that promises to make you stronger and more intimidating with the same amount of work. Our school has strict rules about such substances, but I am not naïve enough to think that the temptation isn’t very real.

            Steroids, or “muscles in a bottle,” hold out great promise. They do make you stronger and bigger in a shorter amount of time. But doctors have discovered that these steroids also have a rebound effect. The same pill that at first made you stronger will eat away at the body you thought was indestructible. You consume the steroids, and they consume you. The benefit is temporary, but the liability is long lasting and could kill you.

            The apostle Paul didn’t have to concern himself with muscles in a bottle. But he was concerned about something just as deadly. Paul warns about those who sell doctrine in a bottle. They peddle faith in attractive packaging. They sound good and look harmless, but they are peddling spiritual death.

The Danger

            There was a problem in Colosse. False teaching had invaded the church. Many believe that Epaphras (who may have founded the church in Colosse) made the journey to visit Paul in prison because of the strange new teaching invading the church. This false teaching is most likely the primary reason that Paul wrote the letter.

            We know several things about the teaching that infiltrated the Colossian church and created a fog in their understanding of the truth.

·       It claimed to be some sort of philosophy (2:8).

·       It had a strong Jewish flavor (2:16).

·       It encouraged a fascination with angels (1:16; 2:10,15, 18).

·       It held a diminished view of the nature of Christ (from Paul’s emphasis on the deity of Christ).

·       It believed matter (for example, our earthly bodies) is evil.

I don’t know much about the details of the teaching so I will resist the temptation to speculate. We may not know the specifics of the threat facing Colosse, but Paul’s letter can help us in our own fight with the perversions of our faith.

            Every day we are bombarded with new theologies. These theologies may not present themselves as “religions,” but they are forms of idolatry. We are exposed to them through television, radio and the Internet. These ideas are found in music, in the books we read and in our daily contact with others (who have also been exposed to these ideas). Today false teachers proclaim that

·       we are gods

·       we must find our spirit guide and discover our previous lives

·       pets are people too (if pets were people wouldn’t they be called people rather than animals?)

·       every religion teaches basically the same thing. The only thing that matters is sincerity

·       drugs will help us find God

·       true believers will be prosperous and never get sick

·       salvation is achieved through keeping laws

          No wonder so many people who are searching for the truth are desperately confused. Since false teaching surrounds us on every front we must know what we believe (see chapter three), and we must keep up our guard. All false teaching has a common characteristic: It leads us to depend upon something or someone other than Christ. False teaching always encourages us to be more dependent on ourselves or our systems. False teachers may talk about Jesus and His importance, but their teaching will always turn us gradually away from complete dependence on the Savior. Here are some warning signs of false teaching.

            It will be attractive. No one will follow something they find abhorrent. So false teachers package their teaching in very attractive terms.

·       It emphasizes man’s potential to achieve. False teachers make us feel good about ourselves. They talk very little about sin and the need for repentance.

·       It focuses on material and personal benefit rather than on the greatness of God.

·       It appeals to man’s inner desire to be “as god” (the same desire of Lucifer in Isaiah 14, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden). Many present-day religions believe that man is “one with God” or will one day “share in God’s god-ness.”

·       It promises to give us something more than simple faith in Christ can give. Gnosticism, a heresy that may have been the focus of Paul’s concern, emphasizes a “deeper experience.” It promotes a “secret truth.” These false teachers promise an experience that is “better” than what most believers have known. (They make it sound as if after two thousand years someone has finally “understood” the truth. How’s that for arrogance?)

            It will often quote the Bible. Many false teachers use parts of the Bible to reinforce their false doctrines. This makes them sound biblical. They surround their philosophies with a truckload of Bible verses. But you can use the Bible to prove anything if you don’t care about context!

            Not long ago I watched a popular speaker on “Christian” television. He told his audience the key to Christian victory is to “speak the truth.” He proclaimed, “God will not bless us unless we confess out loud the blessing we desire.” (Some call this the “name it and claim it” approach.)

            For proof he turned to Numbers14:28, which says, “As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say.” He repeated these words and had the people repeat them over and over to “prove” the principle that God will not give us the blessing we desire until we “claim” that blessing out loud.

            I looked up the verse in the Bible. The verse is found in the story of the twelve spies who were sent to check out the promised land before Israel took the land. Ten of these spies returned and convinced the people the land would be too difficult to take. They said it would have been better to die in Egypt or in the desert than to be killed and have their wives and children taken by the “giants.” They became rebellious and wanted to make someone else their leader so they could return to Egypt.

            Caleb and Joshua urged the people to be faithful and trust God. But the people refused. God was angry and considered destroying the entire group. Moses interceded for the people. God said, “As surely as I live…I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall--every one of you twenty years old or more….”

            God was not giving us a principle about positive confession; He was punishing the Israelites! He was saying, “So you think it would have been better to die in the desert? Fine. That’s what will happen.” And the Israelites wandered in the desert for the next forty years until everyone over the age of twenty had died.

            The speaker on television was using the Bible to prove something it didn’t teach. You may have heard that “a text without a context is a pretext.” At this point, this man was a false teacher and needed to be confronted.

            It will be subtle. False teaching usually does not wave a banner that says, “We don’t agree with the Bible, and we don’t believe in Jesus.” Most false teachers emphasize those areas where we do agree. They make us feel good and move us slowly but surely away from the truth of God’s Word.

            We see this in the way the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) promotes its religion. It doesn’t spotlight the points where Christianity disagrees--it emphasizes how similar it is to orthodox Christianity. The Mormons show touching commercials about family values, they talk about Jesus as the Savior and Lord, they talk about the importance of the Bible. They try to appeal to the traditional church.

            What the ads don’t tell us, of course, is that Mormons don’t believe Jesus is uniquely God (they believe we will all become gods someday). They believe the Bible needs the added enlightenment of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenant, and the Pearl of Great Price (all these books are bound in with the King James Bible in the Mormon Bible). Mormons believe we must earn our salvation by good deeds; the Bible teaches that our only hope of salvation is God’s grace. The Mormon faith is not a Christian religion even though it uses Christian terms.

            Many false teachers come from within the church. They wear the name of Christian but really lead us away from God rather than toward Him. Some of the people will be sincere and unaware that their teaching is unbiblical. Satan is good at the business of deception.

             

Defending Ourselves

            How do we guard ourselves against those who peddle doctrine in a bottle?

            First, we must use God’s Word as our sole reference point. Paul turns from his cautions about hollow philosophies and immediately focuses on the true nature of Christ. In other words, he underscores what is true. We cannot defend against error unless we can recognize it as error. And before you can recognize error, you must know the truth.

            A builder will not know when something is being constructed incorrectly unless he knows what the blueprints require. A surgeon cannot repair a body unless he knows how the body is supposed to work. An obstetrician cannot tell if a baby is in distress unless he knows how a baby normally responds.

            This is why it is so important that we know the Word of God. We must strive to take every thought captive to the Word of God. It’s time consuming, but we must check every teaching by the Word of God (in context). The moment we let our guard down, we become prey for false teachers.

            I am deeply concerned that the Christian world is becoming less biblically focused and more celebrity focused. We often absorb what our favorite teachers and speakers say without examining their teaching carefully. We are sometimes persuaded by personality or style more than reason. Churches put more emphasis on presentation than on content. We focus increasingly on experience and less on truth. We are more concerned with “what works” (what draws a crowd) than with what is true. And that is extremely dangerous.

            Max Lucado gives this chilling example.

No one ever expected it would happen the first time. Especially with this church. It was the model congregation. A heated swimming pool was made available for underprivileged kids. Horses were provided for inner city children to ride. The church gave scholarships and provided housing for senior citizens. It even had an animal shelter and medical facility, an outpatient care facility, and a drug rehabilitation program.

Former Vice-President Walter Mondale wrote that the pastor was an “inspiration to us all.” The Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare cited the pastor’s outstanding contribution. We are told “he knew how to inspire hope. He was committed to people in need, he counseled prisoners and juvenile delinquents. He started a job placement center; he opened rest homes and homes for the retarded; he has a health clinic; he organized a vocational training center; he provided free legal aid; he founded a community center; he preached about God. He even claimed to cast out demons, do miracles, and heal.”

Lofty words. A lengthy resume for what appeared to be a mighty spiritual leader and his church. Where is that congregation today? What is it doing now?

           

The church is dead . . .literally.

Death occurred the day the pastor called the members to the pavilion. They heard his hypnotic voice over the speaker system and from all corners they came. He sat in his large chair and spoke into a hand-held microphone about the beauty of death and the certainty that they would meet again.

The people were surrounded by armed guards. A vat of cyanide laced Kool-Aid was brought out. Most of the cult members drank the poison with no resistance. Those who did resist were forced to drink. . . all was calm for a few minutes, then the convulsions began, screams filled the Guyana sky, mass confusion broke out. In a few minutes, it was over. The members of the Peoples Temple Christian Church were all dead. All 780 of them . . . And so was their leader, Jim Jones. [5]

           

We must not fall prey to the delusion that this could never happen to us. We can and will succumb to false teaching of some sort unless we test everything by the Word of God.

            Second, we must learn to think clearly and critically. Thomas Gilovich, author of How We Know What Isn’t So, [6] makes some valuable observations about human nature and how we respond to things we are taught.

            We are attracted to information that confirms something we want to believe. If we like a statement or agree with it, we tend to accept it without examining it. Gilovich uses the example of the oft-quoted “fact” that bad things always come in threes. If you want this to be true, you can convince yourself it is true. But we should ask some key questions about this widely held belief: In what period of time do these three things have to happen? Certainly if we wait long enough, three bad things will happen. How do we know when one set of three begins and another ends? How can we be sure that bad (or good) things don’t come in twos or fours? His point is simple: If you want to believe something, you can convince yourself it is true.

            On the other hand, we tend to reject anything we don’t fully understand or like. We will latch onto any excuse (even a poor one) to reject difficult things. We arrogantly conclude that if we don’t understand something, it must not be true. We see this happen with the Christian doctrines of the trinity, predestination, eternal judgment and even grace. Sometimes truth is more complex than our minds can grasp.

            Much of the information we base decisions on are “facts” built from secondhand information. Often this means that it has been changed or embellished to make it more interesting. We see this all the time on the Internet. A story is passed via e-mail and everyone assumes it is true. We are told that little children will have their dreams fulfilled if a particular story is passed on to our friends. When these stories are checked out we find they are a hoax.

            Much deception is stated in the form of self-fulfilling prophecies or circular arguments. For example, someone says, “You can’t help a person until they hit rock bottom.” But what does that really mean? How do you know when someone has hit rock bottom? We are left to conclude that if a person responds to intervention, they must have hit rock bottom. If they don’t respond then we conclude they are not at rock bottom yet. We call this a circular argument.

            The same circular reasoning is promoted in some Christian circles. It is proclaimed, “Everyone will be healed if they have enough faith.” But what does it mean to have “enough faith”? How do you know if you have “enough faith”? The answer is simple: If you are healed you had enough faith; if you aren’t, you didn’t have enough faith. This is another circular argument or self-fulfilling prophecy. How do we know that some people are healed and some are not for other reasons (such as God’s sovereign will)?

            We must work to think clearly in all areas of our lives. We need to discipline ourselves even in daily conversation to make sure we hear correctly and not simply hear what we expect or desire to hear.

            Let me give you a real life example of the kind of mumbo jumbo that goes on all around us. My son is enrolled at a state university. Recently the campus newspaper printed letters debating the evangelistic efforts of a Christian group on campus. One professor wrote to address a letter from another student who favored the evangelistic thrust of the group. I quote the actual letter so you can see the context.

I want to apologize to you for the apparent shortcomings in your education, and take this opportunity to try again.

You have confused two things--facts and beliefs. I am sure that you do, in fact, believe that God, the Judeo-Christian one, is the one true God, and that the Bible is the ultimate statement of his truth. However, the fact that you believe this does not make this a fact.

You see, I can believe things whether or not there are facts to support my beliefs. A good scientist, and there are many around you if you’d like to continue this discussion, will tell you that facts are things which can be explained objectively, verified independently and observed repeatedly.

If your God were in fact the one true god, all bright Muslims would see this, drop their Korans in the recycle bin, and join up. If Jesus were in fact the Son of God, all bright Jews would toss their Torahs and join up too.

Those are not, however, facts. They are beliefs. That is why what you practice is called faith, and not science. Faith means that you believe something despite the lack of hard, external, empirical evidence. That is why finding, having and keeping faith is so difficult. You don’t see lots of folks having crises of belief over the existence of gravity, or having conversion experiences in which they suddenly “feel the weight” and begin to believe. Gravity is a fact.

Belief in God is faith, which brings me to the point of this little missive of mine.

Tolerance, is respecting others’ rights to their own beliefs. If you blow up a building filled with innocent people, they die. This is a fact, and no good people of conscience, regardless of their particular beliefs, would question or tolerate this.

However, whether Jesus was the son of God, or homosexuals live a “deviant lifestyle,” are beliefs that you hold.

If you still don’t understand this, then perhaps you should consider taking a class. Almost any one would do. [7]

            Many people would read this letter and shake their heads at the “devastating arguments.” But, in truth, the arguments are extremely poor.

            First, the professor engages in a logical fallacy called “argument to the man.” In other words, he attacks the Christian rather than confronts the argument. At the beginning and the end of the letter he implies that these particular Christians are mental pygmies. This type of argument is designed to get a person to “back off” because they have been insulted, not because they are wrong.

            Second, the professor has created a false dichotomy. Faith and facts are not mutually exclusive. The professor wrote, “Faith means that you believe something despite the lack of hard, external, empirical evidence.” In other words, he is proclaiming that faith has no factual basis. But he is wrong again.

            Christians base their faith on the fact of the historical reliability of the Bible (its strong textual evidence and the astounding verification by archaeology), the historical life of Christ and the factual evidence and eyewitness testimony of the resurrection. It is true we cannot prove the deity of Christ or the reality of salvation by the scientific method. But that does not mean these are not reasonable conclusions based on the facts.

            In truth, the scientific method does the same thing. In science you draw reasonable conclusions based on the factual information you have. This professor reveals that he has faith in science’s ability to draw correct conclusions from the data available. Do you want to bet that this professor believes in evolution even though it cannot be “explained objectively, verified independently and observed repeatedly?”

            The notion that if something is truthful everyone will embrace it is false. We know that cigarette smoking increases the likelihood of lung cancer, but people keep smoking. We know that those who drive while drunk are a hazard on the roads, but people keep doing it. Human nature is such that we would rather embrace what is wrong than admit we are wrong. And of course many Muslims and Jews have renounced their former beliefs to follow Christ, but not everyone will do so.

            Even the argument on tolerance is flawed. The professor is pleading for tolerance and understanding, while at the same time refusing to show tolerance toward evangelical Christians.
            This is one isolated example, but you probably know someone like this professor. They sound educated, they believe they are intelligent, but they have never learned to think. Unfortunately, people assume they must be right. We must be prepared to see through the flawed reasoning of those around us.

            Third, we must pray faithfully. The power to transform evil does not rest in our intellect and our reasoned argument. Transforming power comes from God. We must get a firm grasp of the truth, sharpen our minds and, above all, pray for

·       protection from error and wisdom to recognize that error

·       wisdom in responding to antagonists

·       compassion in dealing with the hurting and confused

·       boldness to present the truth of the gospel without dilution

·       God’s Spirit to open the eyes of the false teachers

            God does amazing things in response to prayer. The late Herbert W. Armstrong founded the Worldwide Church of God. The group had a popular television show called The World Tomorrow and published Plain Truth magazine. Ten years ago almost every book on cults (perversions of Christian faith) or false religions included a discussion of Armstrong-ism or the Worldwide Church of God. This organization departed from biblical Christianity.

            When Armstrong died in 1986, Joseph Tkach took over as president of the organization. Tkach was sincere in his desire to follow the Lord. As he studied the Word of God he realized that many of the organization’s teachings weren’t biblical. And Tkach had the courage to repudiate those false teachings and lead the church to embrace biblical Christianity. These changes created quite a controversy in the church, but he stood squarely on the truth.

            Tkach died, and now his son, Joseph, is president of the Worldwide Church of God; the organization is biblical and evangelical. Today its magazine stands for historic Christian faith. The prayers of many were answered. [8]

            Only God can change people and only God can change organizations. Sharp debating skills, impeccable logic and great knowledge of the Bible cannot equal what God can do in a human heart. As we affirmed in chapter one, prayer is our greatest weapon.

LIFE LESSONS

            False teaching lurks around every corner. You’ll hear it on talk shows, read it in books and sometimes even hear it from pulpits. We have an obligation to weigh the teachings of others by a careful study of the Word of God.

            We must be cautiously suspicious of teachings that have people barking like dogs, laughing uncontrollably and receiving new “revelation” from the Lord. We must beware of those who “tickle our ears” with teachings that appeal to our greed and who are no longer accountable to anyone. We must be on guard toward those who talk about their past lives or their spirit guides. We don’t want to become heresy hunters, but we do need to recognize that there are many confused people in the world. Much error is being proclaimed as truth. People are running after every new idea as if it had been delivered from Mount Sinai.        

            The best way to guard against false teaching is to learn some basic questions to ask:

  • Is the teaching consistent with the Bible? Have you checked it out yourself, or have you taken someone’s word for it? Have you checked the context or just read an isolated verse?
  • Do these teachings move us toward Christ or away from Him? Do they exalt man or God?
  • Are the arguments for the teaching sound? Are they self-fulfilling prophecies or circular arguments? Do they rely on personality rather than reason?
  • Does the teaching anchor salvation to your works or to God’s?

            I encourage you to become more acquainted with the truth. Read a good Christian book that explains what Christians believe. [9] Don’t be lazy when it comes to understanding Christian doctrine. Many people speak of doctrine with a sneer. But doctrine is the foundation on which we stand or fall. There is too much at stake to be lazy in this area.

            Standing up for truth won’t make you popular. In fact, it will make you a target. People will tell you that you should “just get along.” Some will call you a zealot, a fundamentalist, and label you as narrow-minded, empty-headed and dangerous. But those who heed your warning, those who are kept from wandering into the fog of contemporary religious nonsense, will call you a friend and a brother.

            Doctrine in a bottle is just like muscles in a bottle. It looks good at first, but in the end it will kill you.

 
Discussion Questions

1.     What are some common false teachings?

2.     What is the difference between heresy and honest differences of opinion in interpretation? How do we tell the difference?

3.     Why do people continue to use steroids even though they know they are dangerous? Why do people continue to smoke cigarettes when they know they are bad for your health? How do these examples illustrate why people embrace false teaching?

4.     Look back at the insights from Thomas Gilovich. Think carefully about those observations. Do you think they are valid? Can you cite other examples?

5.     How would you respond to the letter from the professor that says Christianity is based on faith, not fact?


Five

The Cancer Within

Colossians 2:16-23

           

            I hate cancer. As a pastor, I have watched too many people lose their lives to this unseen enemy. An apparently healthy person notices a weakness or an annoying growth and goes to see their doctor. Months later, this same person is dead.

            I also hate Alzheimer’s disease. This devastating illness leads to a shrinking of the brain and the loss of a person’s personality. The life of the one we love slowly disappears. An affected person can’t find words for their thoughts. They lose their sense of direction and can easily become lost. A father or mother no longer knows their children. A dignified person becomes socially inappropriate, and cherished memories disappear. I’ve seen what this disease does to a family. I’m watching it take away my dad. And I can tell you, it’s devastating.

            I also hate neuromuscular diseases. I remember Jimmy, who lived down the street from us. He was filled with life but his body kept that life imprisoned. He died before he really had a chance to live. I’ve seen healthy and vital adults slowly lose their ability to walk, to stand or to help themselves because of multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy or some other neuromuscular disease.

            These diseases apparently develop when maverick cells in the body become traitors and begin an insidious attack on the other healthy cells in the body. These killers come from within.

            In the last chapter we looked at false teaching. In this chapter we continue that discussion but look at a different kind of false teaching. This false teaching comes from within the church. The apostle Paul pinpoints three different “cancers” that come from within.

Emphasizing Performance Over Relationship

            In Colosse the Christians were being judged by what kind of meat they ate, what beverage they drank, what holidays they observed (or didn’t observe) and how well they conformed to Jewish practices. Paul gave the people of Colosse a stern warning: “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. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality however is found in Christ” (2:16-17).

            The Pharisees and Sadducees were big on rule keeping. They made rules to help you obey the rules that were made to help you keep the rules! In Paul’s day a religious group called the Judaizers emphasized performance. They had a fit when Paul extended the message of salvation to the Gentiles. They believed the Gentiles hadn’t been properly trained. They didn’t know the rituals. The Judaizers believed a person couldn’t become a Christian unless they did the right things.

            Today these kinds of people want to know whether you smoke cigarettes, drink wine, play cards, go to movies or even think about dancing before they will call you a brother or sister in Christ. They want to know if you speak in tongues and read from the King James Bible. They want to know what “kind” of church you attend. They want to know how much water you use in baptism, when you baptize and how often you celebrate communion. They need to know what kind of music you sing in worship and what kind of format you follow for worship. And if you don’t agree with them on any of these things you are considered to be “outside the kingdom.”

            What is necessary for salvation? Do you need to wear a tie to worship? Do you have to give up smoking before you can be saved? Do you have to abstain from watching football on Sunday afternoons? Do you have to get rid of all your non-Christian music? Do you have to give up card playing?

            Max Lucado captures the spirit of these folks.

Some time ago I came upon a fellow on a trip who was carrying a Bible.

"Are you a believer?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said excitedly.

I've learned you can't be too careful.

"Virgin birth?" I asked.

"I accept it."

"Deity of Jesus?"

"No doubt."

"Death of Christ on the cross?"

"He died for all people."

Could it be that I was face to face with a Christian? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I continued my checklist.

"Status of man."

"Sinner in need of grace."

"Definition of grace."

"God doing for man what man can't do."

"Return of Christ?"

"Imminent."

"Bible?"

"Inspired."

"The Church?"

"The Body of Christ."

I started getting excited. "Conservative or liberal?"

He was getting interested too. "Conservative."

My heart began to beat faster.

"Heritage?"

"Southern Congregationalist Holy Son of God Dispensationalist Triune Convention."

That was mine!

"Branch?"

"Pre-millennial, post-trib, noncharismatic, King James, one-cup communion."

My eyes misted. I had only one other question.

"Is your pulpit wooden or fiberglass?"

"Fiberglass," he responded.

I withdrew my hand and stiffened my neck. "Heretic!" I said and walked away. [10]

           

            It seems silly doesn’t it? But this kind of thing divides churches and limits the effectiveness of the church in the world.

            When I served as an associate minister in Michigan I began a Campus Life group in the local high school. I gathered a team of adults and we assembled a group of key Christian teens in the high school and made them our core group. One night we went to an established Campus Life meeting at another school. It was a great night and I thought the teens had caught a vision of what we hoped to accomplish in their high school.

            The next day one of our core group told me she would not be able to continue her involvement with Campus Life. When I asked her why, she said it was because “that guy last night was reading from the Living Bible.”

            I thought she was kidding at first. Then I thought she had a problem with the fact that the Living Bible was a paraphrase rather than a true translation of the Bible. But that wasn’t her problem. Her problem was that he wasn’t reading from the King James Version of the Bible.

            She explained to me that since the King James Version was the “authorized” version of the Bible, it is the only one we should read. I explained that the King James translation was “authorized” by King James in the 1600s and that did not mean it was the only version approved by God. But she was ready for me. She quickly quoted Revelation 22:18-19: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”[11]

            She said other versions of the Bible were “adding and taking away” from the Word of God.

            Again I tried to reason with her. I explained that translations of the Bible are not trying to change God’s Word; they are trying to make the message of God’s Word understandable to contemporary people. “In fact,” I said, “John wrote those words in the Book of Revelation in Greek. By your argument, when the King James Version was developed the translators were changing the words of the book of prophecy by translating the Greek to English.” But her mind was made up. In her thinking Campus Life was a cult.

            I learned that there was a large “King James Only” group in the area where we lived. They published a regular newspaper that called people who disagreed with them “heretics.” The paper was filled with cartoons that made sport of other believers who didn’t see things their way. They concluded that you couldn’t be a true believer unless you read the King James Version of the Bible.

            These people had set up certain behavioral tests for who was or was not a true believer. People who emphasize obeying certain laws to gain salvation are called legalists. Rather than trusting God’s grace, they emphasize man’s efforts. They do the same thing the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did. All forms of performance emphasis are deadly to the church because:

           

·       It is a perversion of the gospel. The Bible declares that “no one is righteous” (Rom. 3). We can never do enough to earn salvation. In Romans 4 Paul emphasized that we are saved by grace and through faith. Grace is a gift. It is not something we earn; it is something we receive. If we are granted salvation because of anything we do (get circumcised, be baptized, give lots of money to the church) then grace becomes unnecessary. The legalist adds requirements to salvation.

·       It gives power to the wrong person. Plenty of people would like to control our lives. But if we let them “call the shots,” we have given them the position reserved for Christ. This is a form of idolatry.

·       It puts the focus in the wrong place. Focus on performance emphasizes a superficial spirituality. Frankly, it is a lot easier to keep external rules than deal with the issues of the heart. It’s easier to not play cards than it is to deal with bitterness in our heart. It is easier to not go shopping on Sunday than it is to forgive. It is easier to put on acceptable clothes than it is to put on the nature of Christ. It is easier to abstain from drinking wine than it is to be filled by God’s Spirit. Focusing on externals distracts us from the real issues of discipleship and life.

·       It gives people a false sense of security. Those who focus on externals feel good about their spiritual state because they are fitting in. But they don’t realize that all they have done is conform to peer pressure--they may not have come to Christ at all.

·       It makes us narrow and divisive. Those who focus on externals insist that everyone attain the standard they have adopted. In other words, everyone needs to be like me. These people miss the delight of diversity and the growth that can come from others of different experience and culture. The legalist chooses to walk in a tunnel when the Lord has given us a great and wonderful world to enjoy.

Legalism alienates the world. Nothing pushes people away faster than legalism. Steve Brown writes:

My friend, Jim Green, told me about an interesting incident that happened on the first live nationwide television broadcast. Because it was a first, a number of prominent people were asked to address the nation. Conrad Hilton was among those who had that opportunity. Everyone waited to see what this great man would say to such a tremendous audience. He said, “A number of you have stayed at Hilton hotels. Let me ask you to do something for me. When you take a shower, make sure the shower curtain is on the inside of the tub.” [12]

            What an opportunity missed! Hilton could have told people how much he appreciated their business. He could have shared his philosophy of service. He could have encouraged people to be better citizens. He could have told an inspirational anecdote to brighten the hearts of the listeners. Instead he whined about the shower curtain.

            This is the way Christians sound when they spend all their time talking about rules. They portray Jesus as someone who is more like a drill sergeant than a friend. They picture a Jesus who says, “Stand up straight, cut that hair, put out that cigarette, turn off that radio, put down that book, sing this song, read this version of the Bible, pray this way, seek this experience.” Is it any wonder that many want nothing to do with the Savior? Legalists make it impossible for people to see Jesus.

            No one is going to get to heaven by keeping rules. They can only get there by trusting the Savior who loves them and has set them free from the drudgery of rule keeping.

            The legalists siphon joy from the Christian life. They make us uptight people who are focused on minor things, rather than people set free to love and serve the Lord by grace.

            Just before this discourse on legalism the apostle Paul wrote:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

                                                                                    Colossians 2: 13-15

            Have you experienced the sense of triumph that comes from grace? Do you realize that Christ has done for you what you could not (and cannot) do for yourself? Are you letting other people tell you what hoops you need to jump through if you want to be a Christian, or are you running to the embrace of the Lord who loves you and has saved you?

Emphasizing Experience

            Paul moves on to a second threat to our spiritual life: the threat of those who put the emphasis on experience. The text says:

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

                                                            Colossians 2: 18-19

            Notice the stern warning given here. Paul says, “Don’t let these people disqualify you for the prize.” The word for disqualify carries the idea of an umpire calling you out because you have not obeyed the rules.

            These folks focus on feelings and impressions rather than the objective Word of God. They “delight in a false humility.” Can you see Paul smiling as he writes these words? Basically he is saying these folks are proud of how humble they are.

            They say their belief is anchored to the Word of God, but if it is a matter of God’s Word or their experience, they trust their experience or will seek to twist God’s Word to validate their experience. Paul describes them further:

  • They worship other beings. They have a spirit guide or carry a special angel charm.
  • They have seen visions. These people are eager to tell you the “latest word from the Lord.”
  • They are “puffed up with idle notions.” They draw false conclusions. They come up with all kinds of aberrant teachings that promise to lead a person to God but really lead them away from Him.

            Do you see the inherent dangers here? First, we cannot trust our own emotions and imaginations. Our emotions can be manipulated. Our emotions are affected by music, by circumstances, by our physical health and even by the weather! I can be moved by the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” I can be brought to tears by a television program. Emotions are fickle and unreliable as a measurement of true devotion. I am concerned when people evaluate a time of worship by how it makes them feel. That “presence of the Lord” you say you feel may just be the effects of outward stimuli.

            Everyone has weird dreams on occasion. It is dangerous to try to draw spiritual meanings from these things. It is also dangerous to make our experience the measurement for truth. Just because we “feel” that something is true doesn’t make it true. There is only one objective (unbiased) standard of truth. That is the Word of God. It must be given careful attention and placed alone in a position of supreme authority.           

            An alarming thing is happening in some churches today. “Prophets” are telling people they must take their “revelations” by faith. Anyone who questions the validity of these words is considered a skeptic and a non-believer. In other words, these people have removed any check on their subjective experience. We must test all things by the Word of God.

            Our experience is not the measure of the depth of our relationship with Christ. The fact that you have (or have not) spoken in tongues does not make you more spiritual than someone who has had a different experience. The fact that you prefer a quiet, reflective worship does not make you more or less spiritual than someone who prefers expressive worship. These things reflect a difference in personality and preference and are not a measure of spirituality.

            There is room for different kinds of experience within the body of Christ. It is truth that must be the constant. And we must always measure experience by truth and not the other way around.

Emphasizing Restrictions Over Grace

            Paul mentions one more threat to our Christian freedom:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

                                                                        Colossians 2:20-23

            These rules focus on what you cannot do. The church, says Robert Farrar Capon, “has spent so much time building into us the fear of making mistakes, that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble.” [13]

            Does that sound like your life? Are you so focused on “not doing anything wrong” that you are missing out on the joyful freedom that comes from life? The believer who is spiritually free is learning to appreciate the music of life. He is learning to see the blessings God has given. She is learning to laugh, smile and enjoy. Why give this up to make yourself miserable?

            Martin Luther went into the monastery in the hope of drawing closer to God. He believed that spirituality was gained through subtraction. (If you eliminate enough of the carnal things in your life, you will find God.) Luther worked hard to eliminate all his sins. He spent hour after hour in the confessional until he wearied the priests. Then one day Luther was getting ready to teach a class on the Book or Romans. In the first chapter he read, “The just will live by faith.” And these words awakened Luther to the true nature of grace. Luther realized he was trying to live by the law. He was trying to live in his own strength. He was miserable. Suddenly it dawned on him that what he needed was not greater effort but a joyful acceptance of an undeserved grace.

            Martin Luther was set free from the shackles of life. He was set free to enjoy the journey. In fact, at one time Luther said, “If you are going to sin, sin boldly.” Please understand that Luther was not encouraging us to disregard God’s standards. He was trying to say, “Live full throttle! Enjoy the grace of God, and if you sin, may it be due to your exuberance rather than your reluctance.”

            Sure, God still has standards. He still wants us to obey His Word and to purify our lives. But our obedience to the Lord should be based on love not fear. We should seek to live holy lives because we know that God’s way is the best way, not because we are afraid of being kicked out of heaven.

           

LIFE LESSONS

            If you asked the typical non-churchgoer to describe Christianity, what would they say? Most likely they would talk about a faith that involved a lot of don’ts. In fact, some would say that once you become a believer you can no longer do anything fun.

            Where do they get this notion? Why don’t they see the joy and freedom that come from forgiveness? Why don’t they see the tremendous satisfaction that comes from His grace? Why don’t they see that “peace that passes all understanding”? The world has this image of Christianity because we have allowed the cancers of requirements, restrictions and experience to define our faith.

            Is it possible that you are missing out on the joy of life because you are too busy trying to measure up to others’ expectations? Is it possible that you

·       feel unspiritual because you haven’t had certain experiences (like speaking in tongues, having visions or being “slain in the spirit”)?

·       feel immature because you don’t know as much about the Bible as those around you?

·       feel disqualified from the kingdom because you are still battling an addiction to nicotine?

·       feel guilty if you dance with your spouse?

·       feel anxious because of a pierced earring?

·       are reluctant to laugh for fear that it is inappropriate?

            If any of these things is true in your life, you may be suffering from spiritual cancer. Take radical action! Cut these expectations and limitations out of your life and then submit to a regular dose of grace.

            Is it possible that you are guilty of robbing others of the joy of discipleship by your

·       preconditions to fellowship?

·       preoccupation with experience?

·       your sour disposition (anyone having fun must be sinning)?

            Take a hard look at your life. What qualifications are essential in your mind before you consider someone a true brother or sister in Christ? If it is anything more than a genuine relationship with Christ based on repentance for sin and confidence in God’s rich grace, then you are a “carrier” of this disease. You are part of the problem rather than the solution.

            Reread the last three chapters and grasp the true nature of the Christian faith. Instead of merely playing the notes, start enjoying the music.

            Should we debate issues like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, election and free will, and the nature of God-pleasing behavior? Sure, but we should do so not as adversaries but as brothers and sisters in Christ who are less concerned with being right and more concerned with being faithful. We should do it not as those who try to determine whether others are true believers but out of a desire to enjoy the riches of His grace.

            It is devastating to know someone dying of cancer. But it is delightful to know someone who has survived cancer. They understand that life is precious. They live every day gratefully. They no longer let little things weigh them down. They savor every moment.

            My prayer for you is that you will be a “sin and condemnation” survivor. May you live each day with the freedom and joy that come from knowing God has forgiven you. May you dance with the freedom that comes from new life. And may you stop focusing on technique so you can begin to enjoy the music of His grace.

Discussion Questions

1.     Of the three “cancers” that live inside the church, which do you think is the most prevalent? Which one do you struggle with the most?

2.     What are some examples of legalism (judging by externals)? How could daily prayer be made into something legalistic?

3.     What should be the proper response to those who claim to have “a new Word from the Lord”? Why?

4.     What guidelines could help determine when a restriction is excessive and when it leads to spiritual growth?

5.     What steps can you take that will allow you to enjoy the music of grace?


 

Six

 Watching What You Eat

Colossians 3:1-17

            I’ve always struggled with the concept of exercise. To be more precise, most of my li