How resurrection motivates us to mission – Easter 2021, Part 4

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As we continue studying what Paul has to say about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:12-34, he begins with a really bizarre comment. In verse 29 he mentions that the Corinthian Christians were practicing baptism for the dead.  I am not going to be able to provide you the definitive answer on what that one is all about.  Scholars don’t know what it means for certain, and none of the options I reviewed are totally satisfying.  It is the only place in the NT that something like this is mentioned.  It could simply be that the Corinthians felt you could get baptized additional times for people who were already dead, thus hoping the dead people could be saved after death.  Paul’s point was not to fully explain baptism for the dead. Paul’s point is that whatever baptism for the dead is, it is futile if there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead.

Basically he is saying, “You Corinthians practice baptism.  Do you realize that baptism is based totally on faith in the belief that resurrection is true?  Look at the symbolism in baptism.  You go under the water to symbolize Jesus’ death.  Baptism would be pretty terrible if you just symbolized Christ’s death.  How long can you hold your breath?  What makes baptism so meaningful is the after you go under, you also come back up, symbolizing new life in Christ because of his resurrection!”

As Paul continues to show the Corinthians why resurrection is so vital, in verses 30-32 he gives an example of his own life. Because he believes resurrection is true, he gives himself fully to cause of Christ.  Look at how intense he is in verse 31.  When he says, “Just as surely as a I glory over you in Christ” he is basically giving, one commentator writes, “an affirmation based on something of ultimate importance to them: ‘I swear by all that I hold dear’ that this is true.” 

In other words, Paul is trying to communicate emphatically that because Jesus has been raised, it is a game changer.  We often talk about how because of 9/11 the world changed. Paul is saying something like that.  Jesus’ resurrection was so momentous an event that it not only changed the world but it should change our lives as well.  Paul shows how it changed his life.  He now knew the meaning of life, that Jesus was God, that Jesus won the victory and thus we should give ourselves fully to him and his kingdom because we and the hopefully many, many more we can reach for him will experience both the abundant life of Jesus now and eternal life in heaven.  Resurrection motivates us to mission! 

This is why, if you remember our study through the book of Acts last year, the apostles were constantly talking about the resurrection.  I encourage you to do a little personal study project.  Read through the book of Acts and make a note of how often the resurrection of Jesus comes up.  The resurrection of Jesus is the main theme of the preaching of the early church, as recorded in Acts.  And of course it would be.  They had seen Jesus die, and then come back to life!  It was the dividing line of their lives.  Everything in their lives was now either before he rose again, or after he rose again.

At the end of verse 32, though, Paul quotes from Isaiah, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”.  In other words, if there is no such thing as resurrection, then party it up! Be selfish. Jesus died, and a dead savior is no savior. Therefore, we don’t need to follow Jesus’ teaching. Maybe the Corinthian Christians were acting like that.

That’s why in verses 33-34 Paul gives them a call to holiness and passion for the kingdom, as he has already said, because the resurrection is true.

Skim back to verses 3-8, where Paul writes Jesus really did die, but he rose again. The miracle truly happened!  There were plenty of people who had a strong interest in stopping this new Christian movement.  Primarily the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  All they had to do to stop the movement was produce Jesus’ body.  The movement was entirely dependent on that one claim, resurrection.  As we just heard earlier from Paul.  If Jesus didn’t rise, our faith falls apart.  So if you want to destroy Christianity, like the religious leaders did, then produce the body. They never did.  In fact there were many people, Paul says, who Jesus appeared to who were still alive at the time of the writing of letter who could affirm that he really did rise again. 

Because he did rise again, then we have a mission! All religions have missions and hopes for the people who follow them.  What makes Christianity different?  The resurrection!  We have a living and active God, we have a God who became human, died and came back to life.  Why?  Because he loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.  Because he wants to rescue humanity because he loves us and wants our very best.  The resurrection means God is able to be a living and active part of our lives.   

Because of the resurrection, because Jesus is alive, Paul has a plea for the Corinthians and for us, starting verse 33 with a quote from the Greek poet, Menander.  Menander wasn’t a Christian.  Why would Paul quote a line from a play by Greek poet? Because the Corinthians would have been familiar with that play.  This shows Paul’s heart to connect with the Corinthians in a way that would be meaningful to them. 

Interestingly, the scholars tell us that this little quote was from a section of a play that encouraged sexual companionship.  Much like the contemporary idea of friends with benefits or polyamorous relationships.  Sexual freedom.  Scan back to what Paul said in 1st Corinthians chapter 6 about the sexual looseness of the Corinthian culture and pagan worship.  Paul is saying, “Do not be misled by this!”  If we give ourselves to the wrong understanding of pleasure seeking, we’ll forfeit our ability to serve the Lord. 

Come back to your senses he says!  Pursue holiness.  It is better by far.  And God desires our best. 

In conclusion, if resurrection as a concept is true, it is vital that we Christians believe that Jesus rose again. And if Jesus rose again, our response should be a vigorous pursuit of holiness and discipleship, of getting to know God’s character, living that out and sharing it.

If resurrection as a concept is not possible, then we should close up shop.  We Christians should sell our church buildings, disband, and give our lives to tell people to stop believing a lie. 

But if the resurrection is true, well, that truly changes everything, and we should put aside everything for the cause of Christ.  We should practice sacrificial love just like Jesus did.  That is what Jesus gave us…and that is what we our actions should show as well.  Living sacrificially so others can experience new life.

So is the resurrection truly true? Check back to the next and final post in this series as we’ll try to answer that question.

What my peach tree teaches me about resurrection – Easter 2021, Part 3

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I’m writing this in early spring, when I am starting to see the beginning of buds growing on the peach tree in my yard. Maybe you have fruit trees, and you’ve seen this growth process underway. As the buds eventually flower, the tiny fruit will begin to grow. Frequently, some fruit ripens early and we call those the first-fruits. The majority of the fruit will be picked later. Resurrection, the Apostle Paul writes, is like first-fruits. Specifically, he is talking about Jesus’ resurrection.

This week we’ve been studying 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 in which, as I mentioned in the previous post, Paul makes the serious claim that if resurrection as a concept is impossible, then Jesus did not rise from the dead, and thus Christianity is false. So is resurrection true or false? Can we Christians hope in our faith in Jesus, or not? Paul continues.  Look at verses 20-28. 

He starts off by talking about first-fruits.  Paul is giving us an image of that early ripening fruit on a fruit tree.  He says Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits; that he, Jesus, is the first of many others who will also rise again. You might ask, “But didn’t Jesus himself raise people from the dead? And didn’t that happen before his own resurrection?” Yes, Jesus rose a couple people from the dead in his ministry, but they eventually died again.  Paul is not talking about those temporary resurrections. Instead he is talking here about resurrection to eternal life.  Jesus was the first to do that.  After Jesus, Paul says, many more will follow. Jesus’ own resurrection is the authentication of this future resurrection. 

To explain this further, Paul goes back to the gospel.  In the previous post, I said that when Jesus died, though he did not have to, God declared the sin of humanity to be paid for.  Look at verses 21-22, where Paul describes this.

In those verses, the phrase “in Christ” is key.  If we are in Christ, we will one day be resurrected.  Paul is not saying all people will be made alive because of Christ. This is not universalism.  Paul is saying that those who are in Christ will be made alive.  So what does it mean to be in Christ?  Peek back to what Paul says earlier in the chapter, in verse 2.  In that verse Paul writes that to be a true Christian a person must believe in the content of the Gospel and act on their commitment to it.  That’s what it means to be in Christ.  Believe, and show that your belief is genuine by acting on that belief.  Those who believe and live out their faith can have confidence that they are true disciples of Jesus so that when they die in Christ, they will one day be made alive, resurrected to new eternal life.

Does it seem like the details of this resurrection are vague? It does to me. I wish Paul would have told us in crystal clear detail what how death and resurrection works. But he doesn’t, does he? Paul’s main point here is not to describe in precise detail what happens at the moment of death, or when and how the resurrection will take place.  Instead, look at verses 24-28 and what you see is a beautiful outpouring of praise, where Paul affirms over and over again that God, in the end, will win the victory. 

It reminds me of the book of Revelation. That book of the Bible is loaded with imagery that is difficult to decipher, including copious amounts of death and destruction, but the message we hear over and over is that God wins in end!!!  Praise the Lord!

Jesus’ resurrection victory is a first-fruits! A signal that there is a whole lot more resurrection victory coming for those who are truly in Christ!

But again, while all of this sounds wonderful, we Christians have to admit that our future hope is entirely dependent on not only the possibility of resurrection, but especially on the authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection. Check back in to the next post, as we continue following Paul’s argument about how Jesus’ resurrection has solid evidence for its authenticity.

Does Christianity really need Jesus to rise from the dead? – Easter 2021, Part 2

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Does Christianity really need Jesus to rise from the dead?  Maybe it would be okay to just worship and follow the teachings of Jesus?  He was a really awesome guy, resurrection or not.  If Christianity doesn’t actually need a risen Jesus, that could potentially help many people who simply cannot believe in miracles.  Thomas Jefferson was one of them from 250 years ago.  He produced a version of the Bible, the Jefferson Bible, in which he attempted to remove all instances of the miraculous.  Miracles, he and many other scientifically-minded people say, are not possible. So, they say, let’s dispense with all that and just follow Jesus, who arguably demonstrated the best possible way to live. 

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the Christians (see the previous post in this series, where I talk about numerous surveys in the last ten years, all of which suggest that in the USA one in four Christians are skeptical) who don’t believe in a bodily resurrection feel something like Thomas Jefferson did. Dead people coming back to life is just a hard thing to believe. 

The ancient church in the Roman city of Corinth in first century CE seemed to have a skeptical group as well.  Turn to 1st Corinthians 15 and read verses 12-19.

The writer of the letter, the Apostle Paul, starts this section by saying “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Apparently there were people in Corinth were teaching and preaching that the concept of resurrection is impossible.  Paul got wind of it, and knew that he had to respond.  Why?  What’s the big deal? 

In the Christian faith, we have for two thousand years claimed that the resurrection is like a lynch pin of our entire system.  You pull Easter out from the story, and our faith falls apart.  Look at what Paul says: if there is no such thing as resurrection, we have nothing.  A dead savior is no savior, Paul says. Resurrection, to Christianity, is a very big deal.

Notice that in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is talking about the wider concept of resurrection.  Any resurrection. He is not initially talking about Jesus’ resurrection.  But he gets there pretty quickly.  If the concept of resurrection is not possible, if dead things cannot come back to life, then there are some obvious ramifications:

Look at verse 13. First, Paul says, if resurrection is not possible then Jesus certainly did not rise again.  

Now follow his logic in verse 14. If Jesus didn’t rise, Christian preaching and faith is all in vain.  This is what I mentioned above: resurrection is absolutely foundational to Christianity.  If people cannot be risen from the dead, then Jesus didn’t rise to new life, and Christianity is null and void.  We Christians believe that the resurrection of Jesus is what validates our entire belief system.

So Paul concludes in verse 15, if resurrection isn’t possible, then Jesus did not rise, then our belief system is false, and that would make us liars.  Paul is simply laying out the ramifications of it all.  Either resurrection is possible, or we Christians have believed a lie. 

Then in verses 16-17, he takes it one step further.  In verse 16, he repeats the logic of verse 13: no resurrection means Jesus is still dead, and that means, as he continues in verse 17, that our faith is futile and here’s the kicker, we are still in sin! 

That’s also big deal for Paul.  Paul is saying that sin is the major problem resurrection-based Christianity resolves.  What is sin?  Some people say, “Sin is just the major stuff.  Sure I’m not perfect.  Nobody is.  But why would God care about my little lies, when I fudge on my taxes a bit, or gossip, when I’m not seriously harming anybody?  There are plenty of people out there doing really terrible stuff. Rape, murder, trafficking, hard drugs, genocide.  That’s sin! But me?  No way. God’s got bigger fish to fry.” 

Have you ever thought something like that?  Is that what sin is?  Just the big stuff? 

No! According to the description of sin in the Bible, our sin is what distinguishes us from God, because God is perfect.  There is a whole order of magnitude of difference between us and God, to the point that even the small stuff matters.  Sin is anything that is not in line with God’s heart and character. 

Furthermore, while Scripture does affirm that some sin is worse than other, that is related to its consequences and affects. But Scripture does not have a sin scale that suggests God doesn’t sweat the small stuff and only cares if we wrong others in “the big ways”.   All of our actions matter to him.  Not because he has some book of random rules that he wants us follow.  Instead God is concerned about all of our actions whether big or small, because sin is a misalignment from the heart and character of God.  Therefore, it is in our best interest, and it is in the best interest of the world around us, to be in alignment with the heart and character of God.  Because he is holy and he loves us and loves others with a perfect love.

That’s what has Paul so concerned.  Paul is saying that somehow the resurrection made it possible for us to be in alignment with God.  How?  How does the resurrection offer us this alignment?

The resurrection offers us alignment with God because resurrection is the amazing gift of God, that while we were still sinners, Paul writes in Romans, Christ died for us. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice who didn’t have to die, who willingly allowed himself to be killed on our behalf.  Therefore, when he who didn’t have to die, still willingly gave himself on our behalf, God declared the sin of humanity to be dealt with.  When he rose to new life, he validates his victory.

Because the punishment for sin is death, a dead savior is no savior.  A savior who is truly victorious over sin is a savior who will rise again to life, showing his power over death, the devil and sin.  If Jesus didn’t rise again, we are still in our sins, we have no relationship with God and no hope of eternal life. In other words, as Paul puts it in verse 18, we are lost.

What this means is that Christianity absolutely needs both the general concept of resurrection to be true, and the specific resurrection of Jesus to also be true. But was it true?

Check back in to the next post, as we’ll look at what Paul says next, that there is hope for the lost!

You have “zombie” cells in your brain – Easter 2021, Part 1

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Did you know you have zombie cells in your brain?  It’s true! Check out the Popular Mechanics article, “After You Die, Zombie Genes in your Brains Come to Life.”  Popular Mechanics is not a science fiction magazine.  It is a real science magazine.  So this article is 100% true.  Zombie genes in your brain come to life AFTER you die. Here’s a quote from the article:

“After you die, you’re not completely dead. In a new study, scientists from the University of Illinois–Chicago reveal that some genes express more actively in the human brain after death….They’re called glial cells, and these genes represent a cleanup crew that’s only activated after a messy incident—like brain surgery….The glial “zombie” genes peaked their increased activity after about 12 hours on average.”

Amazing, isn’t it?  But this extremely limited brain activity is not the same as zombies in science fiction.  Instead these so-called zombie cells are actually part of the dying process.  These cells do not bring you back to life.  They do not turn you into a zombie, like the walking dead.

Thought I’m pretty sure there are no such things as zombies, I find the concept of zombies fascinating…in a freaky way.  So I was quite interested to learn that since 2011 the CDC, on its website, has posted a notice about preparing for the Zombie apocalypse.  I’m serious.  Yes, that Centers for Disease Control.  Another agency based in science!  The same government agency that has been so front and center during the Covid pandemic.  They have a Zombie Apocalypse preparedness notice.  You can read it here.

As I’m saying this, you might be suspecting that the CDC notice might be a joke.  If you thought that, you’re right.  The part of the notice about zombies is not real!  They write on the notice that they are just being creative because what they really want to do is “share a few tips about preparing for real emergencies…!”  And they go on to give advice about the importance of having emergency kits and emergency plans.  It’s a very helpful article.

But what if were true?  What if people could actually come back to life? By asking that, I’m not thinking of zombies, I’m thinking of resurrection.  The dead rising to new life.

Resurrection is a totally different idea than the walking dead, because in resurrection a living human dies, and then rises to new human life.  Admittedly, it is a wildly odd idea.  That which is inanimate is not able, by definition, to become animate.  Yet, that is what resurrection claims happens.

Ironically though, as fascination with zombies seems to be growing in popularity, belief in a real bodily resurrection to new life has been declining. 

I looked at numerous surveys from the last few years, and they all pretty much report that one in four Christians do not believe that resurrection is possible.  I’m not talking about just Jesus’ resurrection; I’m talking about any resurrection.   

What could be the reason for this?  There are likely many.  First and foremost, resurrection, though is hard to believe because it goes against science.  Dead things do not come back to life.  So it is normal to be skeptical.  Just the other night my wife Michelle did not bring in a few of her plants and there was a bit of a frost.  Some of them are now dead.  They aren’t coming back. Some of them were okay… but some of them are done. Or how many of you have had children with goldfish that they excitedly won at the school fair, but the next morning you kids were screaming because the fish was belly up in the little tank? Not coming back, right?  Dead things don’t come back to life, and thus many people are skeptical of the concept of resurrection.

It seems that skepticism has been around a long time. The ancient church in the Roman city of Corinth seemed to have a skeptical group as well.  Check back in to the next post, as this week we are taking a break from our study through the letter of Colossians, so that we can study, for Easter, the topic of dead people coming back to life.

How rules can pollute your practice of following Jesus and what to do about it – Colossians 2:16-23, Part 5

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Have you ever been in a workplace or school or volunteer group that has a rule in place, and a newcomer asks, “Why do you have that rule?” and you honestly can’t remember?  You’ve been following the rule for so long that you’ve forgotten why it was imposed in the first place!  It was wise at some point, but now maybe it’s not needed.

Rules and regulations, Paul writes in Colossians 2 verse 23, have an appearance of wisdom. Rules and regulations often do, as they are put in place in response to a situation.

This is very true for religious-based rules and regulations.  As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, for a couple years Faith Church offered beginning ballroom dance classes in our fellowship hall  At the time the idea was first proposed, some in our church family were concerned it might violate the rule, “Do not dance in the church building.”  Maybe not every church had that rule, but some EC Churches did.  Our Outreach serve team was proposing offering the dance classes as a community outreach, so we had to talk about that rule. It might have been wise in the past, but it also might not have been.  Not all rules start out as good rules.  Either way, we concluded that the no dancing rule wasn’t applicable anymore, so long as the ballroom dance classes were tasteful, which they were.  On the first night, we had so many people show up for ballroom dance classes, we had to turn people away and build a wait list. 

In verse 23 Paul says that the rules not only have an appearance of wisdom, they also have self-imposed worship.  What does that mean?  I had to look that one up.  That Greek word means this: “a set of religious beliefs and practices resulting from one’s own desires and initiative—‘religion thought up by oneself’.”[1]  Paul is saying that the people promoting the Colossian Heresy are teaching a religion filled with rules and regulations that appear wise, but are based on religious beliefs and practices they made up!  You can see how that is a concern. We shouldn’t make up a religion, rules or regulations. True religion flows from the heart of God.

What was this made-up religion?  The Colossian Heresy might have been made up by mixing together elements of other existing religions. This practice of mixing is called syncretism, taking pieces of different belief systems and mixing them up to create a new religion. 

The resulting mixture sounds like Christianity, but it is also different.  So what might this syncretistic or mixed-up religion in Colosse have been? Look back at verse 18.  There Paul writes that the false teachers worship angels.  Well, Christians do believe in angels, but we don’t worship them.  Then Paul writes that the false teachers go into great detail about what they have seen.  It could be that Paul is referring to people who talk a lot and will not stop talking.  But it is also possible Paul is referring to visions (“what they have seen”). Yes, Christians believe that God can give visions and dreams, and in fact he did many times in the Bible, including to Paul himself, as we studied in Acts last year. But Paul said these people would go into great detail about what they saw.  It could be that Paul means these people take their stand on the visions, as if the visions are the central focus on their belief.  Either way, what they are doing he says in verse 18 is self-focused, arrogant, giving them a big head.  They are the focus, not Jesus.  That is the syncretistic, self-imposed, or made-up worship he is referring to in verse 23. 

Syncretistic worship can occur when Christianity and culture start to merge into one another.  For example, African Christianity has had to wrestle with witchcraft.  Asian Christianity has had to wrestle with ancestor worship.  What do you think American Christianity has had to wrestle with?  Consumerism and materialism, racism, our entertainment culture, and as I mentioned in the previous series, nationalism.  Each culture and each time period can have ways of thinking that confuse the truth about Jesus and how to live that truth in that culture and in that time.  What that means is that we need to do the hard work of making sure that our view of Jesus is as unpolluted as possible.  That can be hard work.

Next Paul says in verse 23 that the false teachers promote rules and regulations that have an appearance of wisdom because of their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body.  There’s that phrase “false humility” again, which we first heard about in verse 18. Paul’s repetition of this concept shows us that Paul is saying that whatever the Colossian heresy is, it gives the appearance of humility, but it is false. 

One way it shows itself to be false is through harsh treatment of the body.  What does Paul mean be “harsh treatment of the body”?  That phrase gives us another clue about the identity of the Colossian Heresy: Gnosticism.  Scholars debate if there was Gnosticism in Paul’s day.  Others wonder if Paul might be responding to an early form of Gnosticism.  We’re just not sure.  The reason why people wonder if Paul is referring to Gnosticism is because of this comment about harsh treatment of the body.  Gnostics believed that the physical body was sinful, that flesh is evil. Therefore if humans practiced self-flagellation, they could actually beat the sin out of the body.  But Paul says self-harm has no value in restraining sensual indulgence. 

Notice the link Paul is making here to rules and regulations.  So often we can follow rules and regulations, and we can have little or no heart behind it.  We can follow rules begrudgingly, angrily, or ironically.  Paul is saying back in verse 17 that those kinds of rules are a shadow, and the real thing is Christ!

Paul is not saying that we shouldn’t have rules or guidelines or principles.  In the coming weeks we’re going to study Colossians chapter three where he’ll talk about the kind of life that practices the way of Jesus.  Paul will list rules we should follow.  Rules, then, are not inherently wrong.  But know this: rules will not change your heart.  It could also be that the word “rules” is not helpful, given its legalistic bent. Instead, going back to Colossians 2 verses 9-15, Paul is saying that we need to place our faith in Christ, we need to know him and his ways and his heart so we can be free to follow his way.  We should not follow the self-focused, empty rules of the world. 

This means we need to teach and practice discipleship to Jesus!

Are you judging people or yourself based on rules rather than on Christ? 

More pointedly, how are you evaluating your own heart?  It is not wrong to be a rule-follower.  Some of you take pride in being rule-followers.  Some of you are not rule-followers!  But when it comes to Jesus, Paul is saying, so far in Colossians 2, that we are people who have been made alive in Christ, transformed by Christ, and are still being transformed by Christ, so we should not look to rules and regulations as our guide.  Jesus is our guide for how to live life.   Continue to get to know who he is.  As you read scripture, study how Jesus acts, who does he interact with?  How does he relate to people? What do you learn about his heart?

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 532.

Christians should never ______ – Colossians 2:16-23, Part 4

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How would you fill in the blank in the title? Christians should never ____? What I’m getting at is rules and regulations that Christians have come up with over the years. Of course we could make a blanket statement like “Christians should never sin.” We all agree about that. But actually listing examples of sin is where this gets messy. I’m not talking about the clear examples of sin that the biblical writers give us, such as murder, lying, theft, rape, and many others. I am talking about the gray areas, or the actions that Christians might disagree about.

In my denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church, the primary example of what I’m getting at is the consumption of alcohol. The EC Church was strongly prohibitionist, to the point where members had to take an oath of public abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. In 2008 and 2016 revisions to our book of order, that changed, and now the church simply strongly encourages members to consider abstinence as a viable option, along with moderation.

What about your church or belief? Are there any rules you would add to the list? At issue is the question: “Can Christians make rules that are not in the Bible, and require people to follow them?”

As we continue our study through Colossians 2:16-23, Paul makes it very clear that the Christians in Colosse were making up rules and requiring people to follow them. Paul is not happy about it. In verse 20, after helping us understand the headless fake Christianity of the false teachers (which we talked about in the previous post), Paul turns his focus on the true Christians.  He says, “Why are you following the false teaching of those headless fake Christians?  Why are you following the rules and regulations these people are talking about?”

Paul is really concerned.  You can see what motivated him to write this letter in the first place. The people in the church had actually been listening to the false teachers and following the rules the false teacher made up.  How, then, does Paul respond to the people who have been listening to the false teachers?  “You have died with Christ to the basic principles of the world.” What does he mean?

Paul is saying to the people, “You died with Christ to that old way of living,” what he calls the basic principles of the world.  “You are free from that.  Jesus’ death and resurrection has won you victory from the old way.  What in the world are you doing still living the old way????”  Paul is fired up here. 

He is saying, “You don’t belong to that old way anymore.  Why are you submitting to its rules?”  Just as he wrote earlier in verse 16, “The false teachers want to judge you based on whether or not you are adhering to those old way rules, but you died to all that and are made alive in Christ, and yet here you are submitting to those rules?” 

He is saying to the Colossians, “What in the world, people?  That’s not Jesus.” 

Paul even mentions a few of the false rules, giving us another clue about what the Colossian Heresy is.  The rules Paul mentions are: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.”  What might that refer to?  There could be any number of rules that relate to those three “do nots”.  It might be the food and cleanliness laws in the OT.  Or Paul might be referring to other rules the false teachers created.  That should sound familiar to us.  We evangelical Christians have a history of making rules, don’t we?  Fill in the blank: Christians should never ____________.  Over the years I’ve heard so many rules. 

Christians should never read Harry Potter. 

Christian women should not wear two-piece bathing suits. 

Christians should not mow their lawns on Sundays. 

What rules have you heard?

Hear me heart on this.  I’m not saying that you can’t choose to do some of those things for yourself.  I’m not saying someone can’t, on their own, decide that in their conscious they aren’t going to read Harry Potter or they don’t want to mow their lawn on Sundays.  Before you think those specific two rules are ridiculous, consider that people might actually have good reasons for choosing not to do those things. A person might have some bad experiences with witchcraft and feel it is in their best interest to not read books about it. A person might have a neighbor who gets super-offended when people mow their grass on Sundays, and it would be a loving choice to abstain.

What I am saying is wrong is when one person believes that their view is the only right view, that it is a rule from God, and they are judgmental towards those who do not follow that same rule.  That kind of legalism is what Jesus so often took the religious leaders in his day to task for.

Let’s keep reading what he says in verse 22, because there Paul says that the rules from the false teachers are destined to perish.  They are temporary, because they are based on human teaching.  Now that is interesting.  That is different from the OT Law, right?  The OT was not based on human teaching.  It was given to Israel straight from God. So here we have a clue in verse 22 means that the Colossian Heresy might be talking about something else.  Or maybe the Colossian heresy includes an improper view of the OT Law, but it also includes other man-made rules and regulations as well. 

Check back in to the next post, as we’ll do more detective work to try to uncover what rules Paul is talking about.

How rules are a shadow and Jesus is the real thing – Colossians 2:16-23, Part 3

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This week we have been studying Colossians 2:16-23, in which Paul writes that Christians should not be judged based on following the wrong set of rules. Look at Colossians 2 verse 17 to see how he describes these rules: they are a shadow of the things that were to come, but the reality is found in Christ.  What is he talking about?  A shadow?  What might have been the shadow that pointed to the future reality of Jesus?  In other words, what was God’s previous way of relating to humanity that was fulfilled in Jesus?  The Mosaic Law.  The Mosaic Law had all kinds of rules and regulations about what to eat and what to drink, and what festivities to participate in.  600 some rules! 

But now here is Paul saying that those rules where a shadow, pointing to something that was real.  We know how different our shadow looks compared to our body.  Does our shadow resemble our body?  Of course.  But the difference is vast.  That’s the difference between the OT Law and Christ.  In Christ, Paul is saying, we are freed from following the rules and regulations of the OT Law.  Therefore, we shouldn’t allow people to judge us based on whether or not we are following those rules and regulations.  We can say, “Don’t judge me,” to people who are evaluating us based on rules and regulations that don’t apply to us.  Want an example?  Tattoos.  The Mosaic Law in the OT is very clear that God didn’t want his chosen people Israel to get tattoos.  Just read Leviticus 19:28.  But that doesn’t apply to New Testament Christians! We are free from the law.

What else was going on in the church Colosse that might help us understand this situation with rules and judging? Up to this point, I can tell you that the investigation, the clues we have found so far, have me thinking that Paul is referring to the Judaizers, the people who believed that Christians had to not only place their faith in Jesus but also convert to Judaism and follow the stipulations of the Mosaic Law…all those rules.  But the clues we’re about to find now seem to take our investigation in a different direction. 

In verses 18-19, then Paul goes into some detail explaining what the judgmental people were like.  The people promoting the Colossian Heresy, Paul says, delighting in false humility and worship of angels.  They are the kind of people who go into great detail about visions, and they have unspiritual minds that puff them up with idle notions.  In other words, they are very self-focused. Though they give the impression that they are humble, they brag about their spirituality.  What this reveals is that they are not following the way of Jesus, they do not have the fruit of the Spirit flowing from their lives, but instead their minds are arrogant, puffed up. 

Paul says in verse 19 that they are disconnected from Jesus.  When Paul says that, he is making a serious accusation.  Jesus is the head of the body, of the church.  Paul says what we Christians know, theologically at least, that we the church are dependent on God to help us, to empower us to grow.  We need God’s Spirit working in our lives, so that we can grow the Fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot do it on our own. 

If we are disconnected from Jesus, then, we’re in a really bad situation.  The image Paul uses is gruesome, right?  A body that has been severed from its head!  That’s what Paul is saying the people teaching the Colossian heresy are.  Headless.  And they show they are headless by their behavior and character.   In other words, those people doing the false judging are not real Christians.  They can’t be!  They are headless. 

If you want to identify people who are disconnected from Jesus, just watch their behavior, their choices.  How they live their life.  It will be apparent, obvious.  Paul has been saying starting in verse 16 that these headless fake Christians are judgmental, focusing on rules and regulations rather than on Christ.  These headless fake Christians are arrogant, falsely humble, focused on a false spirituality. 

Instead, think about Jesus focused on?  What were the marks of his life?  Grace with truth, forgiveness along with accountability, empathy and compassion, selfless and giving love. We are called to be people connected to Jesus, following his way of life.

Don’t Judge Me! (Is it always wrong to evaluate other people?) – Colossians 2:16-23, Part 2

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“Judge not lest you be judged.”

Jesus said that. As a result, is it possible that judging has gotten a bad rap? What did Jesus mean? That we should never, ever form judgments about people? Is that even possible? Keep reading as we’ll seek to learn about this from what the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 2:16-23.

In our ongoing study through Colossians, we’re trying to understand what has the writer of Colossians, Paul, so concerned that he wrote this letter. Scholars tells us that there was a false teaching worming its way through that church, a false teaching called The Colossian Heresy. We having been looking for clues, verse by verse, trying to uncover what this false teaching was all about. So far we’ve found two clues, and you can read a summary of them in the previous post, or you can read the previous five-part series starting here, in which we first found the clues and studied them more thoroughly. As we saw in the previous post, we are studying Colossians 2:16-23, which is all about rules and regulations in the church.

Verse 16 starts with “Therefore.”  Always an important marker, connecting what was written before with what will be written next. In other words, because of the point Paul was making in verses 8-15, he now is building a case to make more points.  Again, let’s briefly review his point in verses 8-15.  There he writes that Jesus has won the victory over sin, death and the devil.  That in Jesus we have all the fullness, we are lacking nothing.  That in Jesus, we have been freed from slavery to our sin nature, freed to live a new life in the pattern, way and thinking of Jesus. 

Because of all that, Paul now says in verse 16, “Do not let anyone judge you based on what you eat, what you drink, or what events you do or do not participate in.”  This reminds me of the phrase, “Don’t judge me!”  We hear that in our culture, including in our Christian culture.  Usually it is meant with humor, as a person is getting ready to tell us that they did something that they think we might judge them as being inappropriate or unwise!  You see this on social media.  “Don’t judge me…I thought I was going to deliver my baby right there in the car, so I drove through multiple stop signs, red lights and broke the speed limit trying to get to Women’s & Babies Hospital!”  But “Don’t judge me,” can also be used as a method a person uses to take a kind of moral high ground, hoping to avoid accountability for a behavior they think others will condemn them for: “Don’t judge me…life has been terrible, so I had spent all weekend on the sofa eating ice cream and watching Netflix.”  “Don’t judge me,” assumes that there are rules and regulations that people use to judge one another.  And quite frankly, we do judge one another, don’t we? 

But is that what Paul means?  Doing whatever we want, but excusing it away by saying, “Don’t judge me”? In these verses, Paul is giving us our third clue about the Colossian Heresy, and he is saying that there were people in the Colossian Church who were actually doing the kind of judging that he describes.  They were judging people for what they would eat and drink, as if there were rules specifying what to eat and drink.  They were judging people for the parties the people would participate in, as if there were rules about that too.  Were there rules in the Colossians church about those kinds of things?

No!  That’s why Paul says, “Don’t let yourself be judged about that.” 

How can you actually not let yourself be judged?  Just say “Don’t judge me!” whenever someone tries to judge you?  By putting your finger on their lips to shush them?  If the words start coming out of their mouths, it can be very hard to actually stop the judgment!

You can try to interrupt them, lovingly, graciously, speaking the truth in love to them, trying to explain with humility the loving freedom we have in Christ.  But that may or may not work so well.  It is important to let people know, “I believe you are being judgmental to me, and it hurts.” 

We need to remember, as we have this conversation, though, that there is a healthy, good kind of judging.  But because that word “judging” has such a negative connotation, we should use a different word. I propose that we use the word “evaluation.”  Paul himself would write that it is right and proper for Christians to evaluate the people in their lives, especially that we should evaluate people in the church.  I know it can feel very iffy, the idea that we should evaluate one another.  Just reading that might give you an unsettled feeling.  But hear what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, “What business it is of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.  ‘Expel the wicked man from among you’.”  In other words, Paul is saying, if there is sin in the church, it should be lovingly and truthfully addressed, because it is not in the best interest of the people or of the church or of the Kingdom of God to allow the sin to continue.  So we definitely evaluate and we hold people accountable because we love them! 

But that evaluation is very different from being judgmental.  Judgmentalism has a bitter spirit and an angry tone, is lacking love, promoting division.  Judgmentalism does not listen, is not teachable, but instead has everything figured out before the conversation takes place. Judgmentalism is accusatory, often manipulative and intimidating. 

Still, we could get confused here because it seems like Paul is saying one thing in Colossians 2 and saying the opposite thing in 1 Corinthians 5.  What is it Paul?  Are we to judge people in the church or not?  I see Paul as being consistent.  How so?  Because the judgement he is referring to in Colossians was based on rules that did not apply to Christians. 

Check back to the next post as we’ll see why these rules do not apply to Christians.

How many rules do Christians need to follow? – Colossians 2:16-23, Part 1

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How many rules do Christians need to follow?  I’ve heard the critique that Christianity is a religion with lots of rules.  “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that, and Christianity is so antiquated with all its super-restrictive rules!”  When Michelle and I were students in Bible college, the student handbook certainly had a lot of rules.  Take music for example. We were told what kinds of music we were and were not allowed to listen to.  I once got a “white-slip,” for listening to the band U2.  A white-slip was a paper saying you broke a rule, and if you got enough of them, you’d have to pay a fine.  We couldn’t go to the movie theater, although we were allowed to rent movies from Blockbuster (remember those days!?!?).  We couldn’t wear jeans to class.  I once wore a pair of colored jeans to class, and I was spotted by a Resident Assistant who told me to turn around, go back to my dorm room and change. On and on the rules went. Maybe you grew up in a Christian environment that had certain rules.  Where I live in Lancaster County, if you have any connection to the Mennonite or Amish world, well, you know about rules better than me. 

As we continue studying the letter to church in the ancient Roman town of Colosse, this week we’re going to hear about rules.  Baseball season is just around the corner, and that’s a sport with rules.  Rules make for an orderly game, for fairness, or at least they’re supposed to.  We all know that rules can get weird, though, can’t they?  Have you ever heard, “That is a stupid rule!”  So they’ll make a new rule to try to deal with the stupid rule.  Last night I was watching a game in the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, and the rules were called into question. The play under review was that the basketball was touched by a member of one team, directing it through the legs of a member of the opposing team, and out of bounds. In the process, the ball appeared to graze the uniform of that opposing team member. The question was, “Who touched the ball last, before it went out of bounds?” Do you know the answer? I’ll give you the answer at the bottom of this post. While we’re used to rules in sports, what about Christianity or church?  Do we need rules?  Turn to Colossians 2:16-23 and let’s see what Paul has to say about rules.

Just a reminder that as we read Colossians we are playing the role of detective.  What are we detectives trying to uncover?  Something called The Colossian Heresy.  A heresy is false teaching, and that false teaching is why Paul is writing this letter.  He has heard that the false teaching, whatever it was, has made its way into the church, into the hearts and minds of the people there in the Roman city of Colosse.  Paul is concerned!

What this means is that there were actual people who were promoting this false teaching, a teaching that did not line up with the heart of God and who Jesus was, but it was being promoted as if it did.  Of course those false teachers wouldn’t have called themselves false teachers or heretics.  They thought they were telling the truth.  They might have called Paul the heretic and false teacher.  So there is a battle of ideas taking place, and this was the case all over the early church, and as we will see, it is still the case today. 

Because the people and Paul all clearly knew the identity of the false teachers as well as the content of their false teaching, Paul doesn’t come right out and clearly label or describe the heresy.  Instead he refers to it in the normal way we refer to things in letters or conversations when everyone already knows what we’re talking about, vaguely, because we don’t have to get specific about it.

So for those of us 2000 years later reading this ancient mail, we have to play the role of detective to try to uncover the content of the Colossian Heresy.  Last week in Colossians 2:8-15, we uncovered our first two clues. 

The first clue is in verse 8, where Paul writes that the heresy was hollow, deceptive philosophy based on human tradition and the basic principles of the world, rather than on Christ.  Then in verses 11 and following Paul gave us the second clue when he referred to the idea of circumcision, which was the identifying mark of the Jewish people.  When you put those two clues together it is possible that Paul was saying that the heresy was taught by people who believed that when a person became a Christian, they also needed to convert to Judaism by being circumcised, as in physical surgery.  Paul, as we saw in verses 11-15, says that Christians do not need to convert to Judaism because we are placing our faith in Christ and the victory that he won on the cross and through his resurrection.  In other words, as he says back in verse 10, we have fullness in Christ, and we need nothing else! 

Now Paul gives us more clues. Paul is not done talking about this heresy.  So we continue our investigation today in Colossians 2:16-23. Go ahead and read the passage, and then come back to this post.

Get all that?  Does Colossians 2:16-23 make sense?  I found it to be confusing.  Almost like Paul is writing in code, even though last week I said that he wasn’t writing in code!   I still don’t think Paul is trying to be mysterious or lead us into confusion.  If we were there in that house in the town of Colosse, with our Christian church family gathered around us, excited to hear the reading of this letter from Paul, I believe we would have pretty much understood what Paul was writing about.  You and I 2000 years later have a big cultural, language and history gap to cross as we try to understand this.  Our investigation, looking for more clues, will help us close that gap. 

So check back in to the next post, as we take a look for more clues, verse by verse.

And here’s the answer to the basketball rule I mentioned above: the officials determined, after viewing the replay, that the basketball had indeed brushed the shorts of the player, and that counted as touch. Therefore, possession went to the other team.

Why we should look to Jesus to win us the victory – Colossians 2:8-15, Part 5

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All week long in this five part series on Colossians 2:8-15, I have been seeking to understand the Apostle Paul’s answer to the question, “What is truth?” After hearing his concern that there are deceptive philosophies in the world that seek to captivate us, Paul focuses our attention on Jesus, saying that Jesus is the truth. But how? In the midst of our broken world, what does Jesus offer us that is truth?

Notice how Paul answers this in the end of verse 13.  Forgiveness.  He forgave all our sins.  That is amazing to think about.  We are forgiven.  There is an astounding freedom to this.  I know that I don’t always feel forgiven.  Maybe you feel that too. When we screw up, when we hurt someone, when we ignore God, when we allow our eyes to wander or our mouths to spout off, we can feel guilt or shame, and we don’t feel forgiven.  Yet into those unsettling feelings, Paul underscores the truth that we are people who are forgiven.

There is no sin that we could commit, and no amount of times that we commit it, that would necessitate Jesus to say, “You just crossed the line, buddy…that sin is not forgiven.  That was one too many.” Or “That was too awful, too heinous, and you are not forgiven.”  Even if you hurt someone badly in your life, and they can’t get over it, and they say, “You are not forgiven,” God still has forgiven you.  That sin was dealt with on the cross.

Take a look at verse 14 to see how Paul paints this image for us.  He gives us a picture of Jesus taking the written code and nailing it to the cross.  You can almost see what Paul has in mind here.  Jesus holding up scrolls containing the Mosaic Law, pulling out an ancient hammer and huge nail like they used in crucifixions and just pounding that scroll to the cross. Some scholars believe that what Paul imagines here is not the scrolls of the Mosaic Law, but a list of the sins we have committed. Either way, as he nails it to the cross, Jesus is in essence saying, “You are no longer condemned, you are forgiven, I love you.” 

Here’s what is so amazing.  At his actual crucifixion, there was a real hammer and nails, right?  But Jesus wasn’t the one holding them.  The soldiers were.  And instead of a scroll, it was his body.  The soldiers pounded the nails into his hands and feet.  That’s how the forgiveness happened.  That’s how you and I were freed from slavery to sin.  That’s how every single person who ever lived has the opportunity to live a new life, by placing their faith in Jesus.  This beating, this abuse, this murder was done to him, and still Jesus says, “You are no longer condemned, you are forgiven, I love you.”  New life is possible to each and every one of us, to everyone in our community and around the world, because of this. 

Let’s keep going to hear how Paul describes what happened through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Read Colossians 2, verse 15. 

Victory!  Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities!  He made a spectacle of them in public, Paul writes.  Jesus triumphed over them by the cross.  What appeared to be the means of his death turned out to be his victory! 

In Jesus new life is possible for us because he won the victory over sin, over death, over the devil.  There are many ways to understand what Jesus did through his death and resurrection, and this is an important one.  Victory!  Victory in Jesus! 

In Christ we have a new life, a new outlook, and it is one of victory over sin, victory over the sinful powers in life that want to ensnare us.  Therefore, we have victory over the ideas, the hollow and deceptive philosophies based on human tradition, that want to capture us.  We are free in Christ, and this new life in Christ is what we base our lives on.  Jesus is the truth.  

In other words, we filter everything in our lives through him. 

This truth of victory and new life in Jesus puts into perspective the empty, hollow philosophies that seek to captivate us. There is no political leader, no celebrity, no person or idea that we should allow to hold our focus and attention, except for Jesus. There is no hope for the world except for Jesus.

Have you allowed other ideas or people to captivate you?