What a pastor should do in his study: part two

15 Apr

As you know Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus in order to set things in order as there were some false teachers who were stirring up problems within that particular church.

This meant he was going to have do some serious discipling and some serious rebuking.

Which, of course wasn’t an easy task for someone like Timothy. It’s not easy for most of us to minister in a place where people are so resistant, and so Paul in 1 Timothy 4:6, encourages him to persevere in the work of the ministry, by saying,

“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the doctrine you have followed.”

Now the key phrase there is good servant of Jesus Christ. This is how we have to begin as we think about what goes on in our study. We are there as servants of Jesus Christ and so our question is, how can we serve him best? And what I love about these verses is that the Spirit of God lays out for us what He wants from those who would minister His Word.

First, we need to study Scriptures.

As I plan my week, and set up my schedule, I start with my roles, what does God call me to be as pastor, and one of the important roles I have as a pastor, is that of a student.

Paul says in verse 6, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.”

And you might underline the phrase, being trained in the words. What Paul is reminding us is that a good servant is not only someone who teaches others the truth, ‘who puts these things before the brothers’, he is also someone who is continually learning himself.

Continually.

Because, you see, Paul’s not describing a process that is done. He doesn’t say, ‘you have been trained.’ Instead he’s describing a process that is to be constantly happening, ‘you are being trained.’

A good servant of Christ Jesus is continually being taught and instructed.

This is so important for us as pastors. Especially when it comes to our role as preachers, as communicators of God’s Word.

As someone has said,

Before we give out, we have to take in.

Impression comes before expression.

The more you are impacted by the Word of God in your studies, the better you will be able to communicate to others from the pulpit.

It doesn’t matter how good you are at saying things if you have nothing to say, and no matter how talented you are, you are not going to be able to make full use of your talent, unless you are pursuing your whole a life a deeper knowledge of God and His Word.

In other words, one of the things we need to do in our study, is study and as we make our plans and our schedules for the week, this study has to take priority.

That’s the point.

Preaching, the pastoral ministry, requires deep thinking and deep thinking requires great effort. As one author explains, “Behind the ministry of public teaching lies the discipline of private study.”

Paraphrasing, I think it might have been John MacArthur, in Africa, we don’t need more men who simply stand somewhere and talk. We need examples of men who sit somewhere and study. We need men who are more desperate for spiritual food than physical food, who are more serious about studying their Bibles than knowing the latest soccer scores. We need men whose eyes burn because of their tireless study of the Word of God, whose minds are filled with concern for the glory of God, and whose knees are sore from the time they spend praying to God. We need men who will not speak for God, until they have read and reread, written and rewritten, and can say with full confidence, ‘thus saith the Lord.’ We need men who don’t much about the around town gossip, but who do know much about what God says in His Word. We need good servants of Christ Jesus, who are being trained in the words of the faith, who use their time, to study.

When we make our schedules for the week, if we are going to be productive, we have to give ourselves a lot of time to think.

Because, a pastor is a student.

And you know, I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I think in the hustle and bustle of everyday ministry there is some pressure to forget that. Or not totally forget that, but perhaps to minimize the importance of serious, extended study.

I have found it is sometimes helpful to read how pastors in generations past thought about their work.

Take Nathanael Emmons.

Jonathan Edwards is legendary for spending thirteen hours a day in the study, but he wasn’t the only one who devoted himself to thinking and learning like that. Obviously his example had an impact on those who followed, and you can see it in the autobiography of Nathanael Emmons.

Listen to the commitment Emmons made to study at the very beginning of his ministry. Now, I am definitely not saying that he was one hundred percent right in the way he went about all of this, in fact, I don’t think he was, but at the very least, I think we can be challenged and pushed back a little ourselves by reading of his resolve.

He writes,

“As soon as I entered into the ministry, I resolved to devote my whole time to the sacred work, without encumbering myself with the cares and concerns of the world. I expected, however, that I should need great firmness and vigilance, to guard me against the solicitations of ease, interest, and seeming necessity, to neglect the proper business of my calling. Upon this consideration, I determined not to begin to do the least manual labor, nor even superintend my secular concerns; but to make my study my home, and my ministerial duties my whole employment.”

We can stop there, because I think reading that, the line that stands out to me, is ‘I determined not to begin to do the least manual labor,’ and to be straight, that sounds strange and almost seems lazy. In other words, it would be something I would be almost embarrassed to write, especially in an autobiography. What’s important for now though is not so much whether it was right or wrong, but that he doesn’t even blink at saying this. He doesn’t feel the need to justify this statement, and I think that points to a somewhat different conception of the importance of study and the work of the ministry than many in our day currently have.

And I am not saying, I think we need to go back completely to this way of thinking. The pastor is more than a student. Doing manual labor, caring for your family, all of these things, these are all ways to worship God, it doesn’t make sense that it can ever be right to neglect a real responsibility for an extended period of time and call that godly, but, at the very least, there’s a place, I think, for being challenged in that, just as we might read this and our minds immediately say, whoah, what about this, what about that, perhaps he might read our descriptions of what we do, and say whoah, in that, it doesn’t always seem that we take the role of study as seriously as he did.

And we need to, that’s the point, and as we look down, at this passage in Timothy, I think there are a couple of reasons why, which we will take note of in our next post.

What a pastor should do in his study: part one

14 Apr

There is a whole lot about being a pastor that is really wonderful.

We are all good at complaining, so we can find stuff not to like about most things, even being a pastor, but really, if we stop and think about it, we are really privileged by God to be able to serve Him as pastors.

Yet at the same time, of course being a pastor is difficult.

There are a number of different things that can make it difficult. If we wanted to make a list, it could take a while. One reason I hadn’t really thought so much about until recently has to do with the type of work we are involved in. By type of work, I mean, that we are not manual laborers. We are not obviously farmers. Or painters. We may do some of that on the side, or to help us survive as pastors financially, but that’s not the nature of our ministry, primarily. We are pastors, and as pastors, we are involved in something that has been called knowledge work.

Now I didn’t make that term up.

“Knowledge work” is a term coined by Peter Drucker, which means work that consists primarily of creating, using, and communicating knowledge, as opposed to manual labor. And knowledge work is challenging, in that it is not always clearly defined. This is one of the differences between knowledge work and manual labor. Painting houses and farming have their own kinds of challenges, they are difficult work, but at least, when you paint your house, you pretty much know what you are supposed to do next, at least you should, whereas when it comes to knowledge work, you don’t only have to do the work, you also have to figure how to define the work you are supposed to do in the first place.

This is part of what makes being a pastor somewhat difficult.

One of the blessings of this kind of work is that you have a lot of freedom. If you are a pastor, a full time vocational pastor at least, when you wake up at Monday morning and look at your week, you have some freedom, to figure out what you are going to do that week, and this freedom is a fantastic thing, what an opportunity, but this freedom also comes with a challenge. It means you have to figure out what to do that week.

And figuring out what to do and how to do it can be challenging. It is a skill. It doesn’t take all that much skill to just make it through the week as a pastor. Because we have so much freedom as pastors, we can easily waste our weeks and it doesn’t take a whole lot of skill to do that. But actually taking that week God’s given you and using it effectively is something that requires a certain kind of ability.

As one author explains, “Some people think that knowing how to get things done is obvious – that it just comes naturally to people and that therefore we don’t need to spend much time on it. But that’s not the case…Effectiveness is a distinct skill that must be learned. Some people are more inclined to it than others, and everyone is naturally built to be capable of effectiveness, but effectiveness is something we learn, like reading.”

Learning how to be effective as a pastor when it comes to getting things done can be a difficult skill for us to learn, because the nature of our work can be a bit ambiguous. This is the point. Every week we have more choices and more opportunities what to do with our time than we can sometimes keep up with. As we sit in our studies on Monday mornings, and begin to make plans for the week, there are people to visit, books to read, messages to prepare, courses to take, programs to plan, and it can be very difficult to know what’s best for us to do next.

How do we make good decisions about how to use our time in the midst of all the activity and opportunities that are all around us?

Obviously, this is something we need to think about.

And not just practically. Not just because figuring out how to figure out what is best for us to do next is helpful, but also because it’s important biblically. I recently was asked to talk about what should happen in the pastor’s study, including scheduling, and this is an important subject practically of course, and it is also important biblically.

Knowing how to use your time and your opportunities matters because God wants us to make the best use of our time.

He commands it.

Think about what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:15.

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

The command there essentially is to think about the way we are living, look carefully how you walk, the reason we need to do so is to make sure that we aren’t simply conforming to the world around us, but instead living in a way that is wise, and the means by which we live in this wise manner is by making the best use of our time. It’s like Paul is saying we have been given this amazing resource, in time, that some people use well and others do not and what wise people do, they use it well. Think about it. Examine yourself.

Or it maybe even a better way to say it is not just that they use the time well, they maximize it.

The word for redeem is the word for buy. It’s like when someone goes to the store and sees a bargain. They buy it up. That’s an opportunity because they know it isn’t probably going to be there long. And Paul’s saying, we need to learn to be like that with the time and opportunities God has given us.

That’s more what this word time refers to.

Opportunities.

We recently traveled to America. And in America, people are buying all the time. They have an overload of stuff. They are hoarding. And, if we are going to be wise, we are to be like that with opportunities. As pastors, we need to be always on the lookout for opportunities to serve. As we talk about what we do in our studies, how we schedule, the question is not just how do we get by as pastors, or how do we survive, but instead, how can we be as effective as possible in using the opportunities we have been given in our lives to make God look great and to do other people good?

Now the place that people normally go in order to answer this question, how to best use their time, is to focus on being more and more efficient.

So in other words, if we were going to talk about what a pastor should do in his study, from this perspective, we would be talking about how a pastor can schedule his time and work in in such a way that gets more things done in less time? I think some of us, we are more tempted to think this way than others, but when life is busy and we have so many things to do and we think about what is happening in our study, sometimes our first concern is to figure out what techniques or tips, we can use to get more and more things done, more quickly.

But, that’s not the approach, I want us to take as we think about what is to be happening in our studies, and that’s because I don’t think as Christians, as pastors, our first question when it comes to what we should be doing in our studies, has as much to do with efficiency, as it has to do with effectiveness.

That’s what I am interested in.

Making the best use of our time in our studies as Matt Perman explains is not “first about efficiency, doing things right and doing them quickly, but effectiveness, doing the right things.”

That’s the first question we need to be asking.

And to answer it, we have to begin with God. Again, as Perman notes, the core principle of productivity is “knowing what’s most important to do and then doing” and therefore one of the most important things we can figure out if we are going to be productive is what is most important for us to do and the way we figure that out is not by sitting around and first asking ourselves what would we like to do, but instead what does God want us to do.

What does God wants from us on a weekly basis, as we sit in our studies as pastors and make our schedules?

We have to define that.

What God wants for us, is what matters most.

To be a productive pastor is to get done what God wants us to get done, week after week, and if we are going to do that, as we make our plans and priorities as pastors week after week, we have to do so based on what God has said are his priorities for us and He has spoken, that’s the good news, quite repeatedly and quite clearly. He is not ambiguous when it comes to our primary tasks as pastors.

And one of the places God has spoken regarding the pastor’s priorities is found in 1 Timothy 4:6-16, which we’ll begin to look at in the next series of posts.

The Key to Significance

13 Apr

How do I live a life that matters?

In order to answer that question, we are looking at Luke 1 where Elizabeth looks at Mary and says that she has been uniquely blessed among women and we are seeing that she identifies two reasons why Mary’s life is so significant.

And really the first reason has nothing to do with her and it has everything to do with Jesus. What matters is Jesus. I think that’s really the first step to living a life that is significant. It is realizing that your life is not really all that significant.

It’s what God is doing through Jesus that is really important.

The second lesson we can learn from Mary comes from her steadfast trust in God’s revealed plan.

What matters is Jesus.

And what God wants is faith.

If you take the time to read through the gospel of Luke, you will see this is the response he’s been aiming for since the beginning.

For example, Luke 1:4.

He says he is writing, “that you may have certainty…” which means assurance in our faith.

And then in the first story about Zechariah, verses 5-25, we see how he was disciplined for his lack of faith, and then in the next story about Mary in verses 26-38, we are meant to be impressed by her faith, and here in verse 45, Elizabeth cements that, when she gives a second reason Mary is blessed.

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

You can see how Elizabeth moves from blessing Mary for something we can’t imitate, blessed are you among women because you are giving birth to the Lord, to something we must imitate, blessed is she who believed, it’s almost like you can imagine her looking around as she says this, I sometimes wonder if even Zechariah is here at this point, and she is holding Mary up as an example, blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.

This is what we should really honor Mary for, this is what makes her significant, this is what we should learn from her, she believed that God would do what He said and that’s really at the core of what it means to be great as a Christian.

It’s not how much money you have, it’s not what family you came from, it’s not your education, it’s do you believe that God will do what He said?

Now when it comes to Mary, we shouldn’t honor her in any way that makes her out to be almost God, because she’s not and because when we do that, we miss the most important   things we can learn from her and should respect her for.  What makes Mary so important is not the ways she is unlike us, but the ways she is like us, and yet chooses to trust God.

I think this is a point that Jesus himself makes over in Luke 11:27 and 28, when after he was teaching, a woman in the crowd raises her voice and says to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed.’ And Jesus says to her, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’”

I don’t think Jesus is denying what Elizabeth said about Mary being blessed among women, but I do think Jesus is saying, when you think about that, don’t miss the point, don’t get so focused on her uniqueness that you miss that what is really great about Mary is the same thing that can be really great about you and me as well, and that is the fact that she heard the Word of God, believed the Word of God, submitted to the Word of God, and obeyed no matter what the cost.

And really, that is as you are looking your Scriptures, is pretty much a summary of what was behind every single great person and every single great act in the whole thing.

It’s about faith. What are the stories of Abel, Abraham, Noah, Joseph, David, Daniel and pretty much every other hero about? They are as someone has written, a record of “redeemed sinners who believed and were blessed. By faith they embraced promises. By faith they lived. By faith they walked. By faith they endured hardships. By faith they looked to an unseen Savior, and good things yet to come. By faith they battled with the world, the flesh, and the devil. By faith they overcame, and got safely home. And that’s what we are seeing in Mary, and so it’s no wonder that Elizabeth said,”Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

And so if you are sitting there thinking as you read through the gospel of Luke, Jesus is just so huge, he is so important, he is going to be the eternal King of the Universe, He is Lord, what’s He going to do with someone like me, no man, Mary, Mary, she’s your example, she’s just an ordinary teenage girl, and yet God sweeps her up in this great salvation plan, and what did she have to offer, really she had nothing to offer God but trust and faith that God would do what He said He would.

How about you? People might think you are so significant, but do you trust God? Do you have faith that   God will keep His promises through Jesus, because in God’s eyes, that’s what matters most.

Now, if we look closely, I think there’s a lot we can learn from Mary’s faith and we have said some of these before,     but we can notice them more specifically.

One, it was a humble faith. In that, when it came to God’s Word, she wasn’t primarily concerned with the consequences it would have on her. That wasn’t her starting point. Instead, what did she say after the angel basically turned her life upside down with the announcement about her having a child before she was married? Did she say, but what about and what about?   No, she said, verse 38, behold I am the servant of the Lord.

There are two religions in the world, one that starts with me at the center and God is someone I use to get what I want and then the other, that starts with God at the center, and I am the one God uses to accomplish what He wants, which is how Mary clearly saw herself, behold I am a servant of the Lord.

Two, it is an active faith. After the angel tells Mary about Elizabeth, what does Mary do, in those days, Mary arose       and went with haste into the hill country to find Elizabeth. Faith in God’s Word does something. There’s no reason for Mary to go to Elizabeth, except for what the angel told her, and she was willing to walk a hundred miles in the middle of the hill country by herself, at the beginning of her pregnancy based on what he said, and maybe too for fellowship and the strengthening of her faith.

It’s sad but some of us aren’t really even willing to cross the street for our faith, and yet Mary was so wrapped up in what God was doing, that she was willing to do something pretty counter-cultural and that is go out on a journey by herself and find Elizabeth to talk about what God was up to.

It doesn’t mean much if you say you trust God’s Word and there’s no transformation in your life. What does your faith in God’s Word get you up and doing?

Three, it was a word-centered faith. This wasn’t a faith that was in her imagination. This was a faith that was grounded in God’s revelation and you can see that when you look at what Mary says in the very next passage in Luke. She was a young woman who knew the Word of God, practically every word in her song of praise that Luke records is a quote from somewhere in the Old Testament.

There’s a lot of talk about faith today that isn’t tied to God’s Word, but faith that isn’t tied to what God said, isn’t real faith, there should be another word for it, Elizabeth points out here, what’s exciting about Mary is that she believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord, her faith was grounded in God’s revelation and specifically the promises regarding His great saving plan. And this is not all there is to faith, but this is a lot of it, it’s     a trust in God that turns your whole way of looking at the world upside down, instead of beginning with you and what you want, you begin with Him and what He wants. It’s a trust in God that produces action, that causes you to get so excited about what God’s doing through Christ, that you make all kinds of counter-cultural decisions to put Him first, and it’s a faith, a trust that isn’t from your gut and the way you would like things to be, but instead that comes from a conviction that is grounded in God’s Word and His promises and the fact that you know without a doubt, He will do what He says.

How about you?

The Center of Significance

10 Apr

We could call this series of posts lessons from a teenage girl.

We are looking at the opening chapter of Luke and specifically at what he says about Mary to learn a little about where significance comes from.

And the first clear lesson we learn is that what really matters when it comes to significance is Jesus.

If you don’t hear anything else, you want to hear that.

It’s Mary unique role in God’s salvation plan that is the cause of her significance. And, I want you to see this, because this is where a lot of people go wrong when it comes to Mary and her importance. If you are looking to Mary first and thinking it must be that there’s something unique and special about her that caused God to choose to use her like this, I think you are looking completely in the wrong direction.

That’s not, if you look through all of salvation history, the record of how God goes about saving people, that’s not how God chose to save or use anyone. God makes it really clear time and time again that his choice of individuals was not based on their merits.

Why did he choose Jacob? Was it because he was so much better than Esau? No. Of course not. Why did he choose Moses, was it because Moses was sinless, no way, he murdered a man. Why did he choose Samson? Samson was about as bad as you could be. God’s choice of individuals is not based on their merit, it’s not Him looking down and seeing who is really good and decided to pick them to use, it’s instead entirely based on His mercy and grace and that’s true with Mary.

Mary is significant not because she was perfect, not because she didn’t have original sin, not because of an immaculate conception, not because any of those things, but instead because God in His kindness chose to use her   as a unique part of his great salvation plan.

To get more specific, look at what Elizabeth says about her and this is what this story is at least partially intended to highlight, she got to be the mother of the Savior of the world, and that’s in itself a tremendous blessing. Verse 41, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Now it’s the second blessed really that explains the first one, that’s a typical pattern you will find in the Old Testament, blessed, why, second blessed, Mary is blessed above other women, because she was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus.

As someone has said, “This high evaluation of Mary depends entirely upon her Son.”

We are intended when hear all this blessed talk about Mary, not to stop with staring at Mary, but to scratch our heads as we look at Mary and say, how can Elizabeth say something this big about this ordinary teenage girl, it’s because of Jesus.

It shows us how important Jesus is!

I was thinking ordinarily, if you put Elizabeth in the room with a thousand other pregnant women, and you knew what all their children were destined to do, Elizabeth would stand out time and time again, because her son was going to be the last Old Testament prophet, but you   put her in the room with Mary, and she is overwhelmed with the significance of the child Mary is bearing. So overwhelmed, that she basically starts shouting, verse 42, “and she exclaimed with a loud cry…”

It’s like she can’t contain herself.

You can imagine an old lady yelling with happiness when she sees this pregnant teen, and the reason why ultimately is not Mary but Jesus, and I just love how Elizabeth puts it in verse 43, and this really shows her faith as well, because she says, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Elizabeth had every reason from a human perspective to feel like she was more important than Mary, but here she’s humbled and really in awe that Mary’s come to visit her and the reason isn’t because of the importance of Mary herself, but instead because Elizabeth recognizes the baby inside her womb is no ordinary individual. He is her Lord.

This is really such a testimony to Jesus.

I don’t know how small Jesus was in Mary’s womb right then, maybe less than seven centimeters tall, but even at seven centimeters tall he towered over Elizabeth, because she recognized he was her Lord.

I wonder if you understand, that word Lord is really a big thing to say about Jesus. At the very least, it is a term great respect for distinguished people, it’s a way of describing someone as your superior. It’s possible that the Holy Spirit is enabling Elizabeth to even make a statement about the unique nature of this baby Mary is bearing.

I just started looking through Luke 1 and 2 to notice the other ways times Lord is used, and look at this.

Luke 1:6, talking about Elizabeth and Zechariah,

“…they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the        Lord…”

Luke 1:9, “he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord.”

Luke 1:11, “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord.”

Luke 1:16, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God…”

Luke 1:32, “And the Lord God will give to him…”

Luke 1:46, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”

I think you are getting the point, this is not a small thing to say about Jesus, something like twenty five other times in chapters 1 and 2, when Lord is used, it is being used clearly to describe God and I am not sure that’s a coincidence.

Now, I probably should say this, people sometimes will on the basis of what Elizabeth says her, describe Mary as the mother of God,and for some who hear that, that way of speaking can be unhelpful, because obviously God doesn’t have a mother, God has no beginning and no end, He is not a created being.

God the Son however did become man.

He existed before He became man, and He had no mother at that point obviously, but He chose to become man, uniting Himself to human nature, and so He is this unique person, He is the God-man, and Mary is the mother of this unique person, she had no part in creating God the Son who  existed in heaven before the world began and has always existed, but did have a role in the incarnation of Jesus and that’s what Elizabeth is celebrating.

And John too.

That’s one of the parts of this story that I like so much. Because it’s like this baby, John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb is going crazy, trying to shout out the significance of Jesus

Verse 41, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” You notice of course, how they call this six month old fetus a baby, because it is a person, this description is another reminder why abortion is ultimately murder, from God’s perspective, John is a person and this person has desires even at this point, and his great desire is to exalt Jesus, so when he is near Jesus, he leaps.

Which, is obviously a miracle, because this is a leaping for joy and it’s a fulfillment of what the angel said about John in verse 15 of chapter 1, that he would be filled with theHoly Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.

Someone has said John was the world’s smallest prophet at this point, only a few inches high, and one of the strangest looking prophets too, because as a baby at this point in his mother’s womb he had that transparent skin, and he is using all of his inches and all of his might, to point his mother to Jesus.

That’s actually what alerted her to the significance of this baby in Mary’s womb. She explains in verse 44, “For   behold,” in other words, look this is how I knew you were the mother of my Lord, “when the sound of your greeting     came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

It’s interesting, back in chapter 1 verse 14, the angel told Zechariah many would rejoice at John’s birth, but even before John is born, you know what he is rejoicing in? The coming of Jesus. He is leaping for joy. And you say, how did she know that is why the baby was leaping, Luke tells us, she was filled with the Holy Spirit as well, she received divine revelation as well, and that’s why she see Mary as so blessed.

It’s not so much about Mary, it is so much about Jesus.

And I really think the first lesson we find here in this passage, is that as Christians, you know who is significant ultimately, it is Jesus, He is significant and if you put any other human in the room with Him, they all have to bow down and worship, even John the Baptist.

Jesus is the sum, He is the center, He is the main point of everything God the Father is doing in this world, and so if you or I are spending all this time, thinking about our significance, pursuing our own importance, building our own kingdom, we are totally missing the point.

Maybe to get practical.

You can just imagine if Elizabeth’s ideas about significance started with her at the center, how this story would have been different. If Elizabeth was about Elizabeth she would have been upset with Mary or envied Mary, but instead her ideas of significance started with God’s great saving plan, that’s what mattered to her and so she was rejoicing in the part Mary was granted to play in it.

She was just happy to be near Jesus.

And you know, we sometimes miss out on so much joy in what God’s doing because we are so focused on ourselves having to be at the center of it, and if you can just get yourself out of the center of everything, and see that’s God’s work through Jesus is at the center, that’s when joy is going to start, and this is where our ideas of significance have to start, not with what us and what we   do, but with God and what He’s doing through Jesus.

The point is it would just be so terribly wrong to look at what Elizabeth says about Mary and end with Mary, because what she says about Mary is really intended to get us thinking about the mercy of God and the supremacy of Jesus and we’ll see later, when Mary starts talking, that’s what it got her thinking about as well, she’s just amazed by a God who would stoop down to work in the lives of people like her.

And you know, it’s when you have this right view of God and right view of Jesus, that you can actually have a right view of your life as well.

It’s amazing that God uses people like us at all.

We can’t be like God I got this and God I can do this, no, man.

No one of us is needed by God and none of us are used by God because we have something He is lacking.

I mean, if looking at Mary doesn’t teach us that, I don’t what will, because here’s this teenage girl, and she’s playing one of the most important roles in the history of the world, because she is going to give birth to the future King of the Universe, and here’s the thing, did she really have anything to do with causing that, in terms of her abilities, her decisions, no, of course not, why would we try to make it about Mary, this is about God, this is about God picking her up and using her in spite of her and we can rejoice in that, and you know what, in the ways He sovereignly chooses to use us to advance the cause of Christ as well.

That’s amazing.

While none of us are going to play the same role in God’s great saving plan Mary did, we serve a God who uses people like us as well and because what really matters is Jesus and God’s great saving plan, and if God stoops down and chooses to allow us or anyone else to have any part in what He’s doing to glorify His Son Jesus and rescue His people, then we can just glory in that, because that’s what is at the center when as Christians think about significance.

Where Real Significance Comes From: part 1

8 Apr

I want us to think about significance and what makes a person significant.

And by significance, I just mean a person who you would say is blessed basically, someone who is important, someone who is an example to model your life after,someone who is worthy of respect.

The world definitely has ideas about who is worthy of all that and we grow up with those ideas being sort of forced upon us. It is strange when you grow up and you find yourself nervous about meeting someone or excited about someone or respecting someone and you step back and think why do I feel this way about this person and you realize it’s at least in part because you were taught to think that way about them.

Our cultures have different ideas about who is most worthy of respect and who are the kind of people you should model your life after, but usually across the board you are taught to think of significance in terms of money, power, status, education, family background, sometimes even skin color, reputation, what a person has done, what a person has accomplished.

I think that is pretty common.

You might think about some of the people you look to as important, who you would be overwhelmed to meet, who you really look up to, what do those people have in common?

I think that is an important question to ask yourself, to evaluate in yourself, for a couple reasons, one being that the way you answer that question does have an influence on the way you live.

Another being that the Bible, Christianity turns upside down the way we think about significance, or at least it should.

The church has a whole different way of defining significance than the world does. And I think there is hardly any better example of that than what we find here in the first couple of chapters of Luke. Because in these first couple of chapters of Luke, there’s a person, a follower of Christ, that stands out, clearly stands out as someone very significant and someone worthy of modeling yourself after.

This gospel is about Christ of course, there is no one who is in the same class as Him, but Luke also wants to give us an example of how to respond to Christ, remember he’s not just presenting history, he’s preaching history for a response, so as he lays out what happened with Jesus, He’s also pointing out how we should be responding to Jesus and the person he focuses on to show us how to respond, the example, is from a human perspective, the least likely person you would expect to be considered very significant.

I am talking of course about Mary.

When you look at Mary what you find is the absolute most significant thing about the way Luke describes her is her insignificance.

In terms of status, she didn’t have any.

For one thing she is a girl, a young one at that, as we have said before, maybe even only thirteen or fourteen. If she was much older than that, it would be strange because that was the normal time when girls in that day were pledged to be married. And being a girl in those days wasn’t something to be envied. Really, women didn’t have much power at all, girls, young unmarried girls much less. There’s a reason some of the religious leaders in that day would pray, God I thank you that I am not a woman; it’s because being a woman in that culture, was hard.

What’s more, Mary doesn’t seem to come from a family of great significance. She’s not just a girl. She’s just any other girl, really.  She definitely doesn’t come from a very important town. She’s from Nazareth, which most people outside of Israel would not have even heard of, and may have been a town of as little as hundred people. A village.

It’s not right, but you think about the kind of person that people are going to listen to as a source of wisdom, look up to, think of as favored, significant, it’s probably not a teenage girl, even today, especially not a young one, not a twelve or thirteen year old; it’s not someone that comes from an insignificant family, and it’s definitely not someone who is from the village.

And so what I am saying is from pretty much whatever way you look at it, Mary measures low on the social status scale.

In fact, if you want to go through the first couple of chapters of Luke and just pick out almost anyone else who is specifically named you are going to find that other people would usually look on her as far below them in terms of importance or significance.

One of the interesting things about the way Luke writes these stories, when he describes the characters, he seems   to go to lengths to establish the pedigree and respectability of all the other named characters.

When he talks about Zechariah, Zechariah is a priest, righteous and blameless.

Elizabeth, his wife was righteous too. She also was of the house of Aaron.

Joseph, who hardly plays a role in the way Luke tells Jesus’ story, twice we are told though, he is of David’s household.

Later we will meet Simeon, who is described specifically as righteous and devout.

And then Anna, who Luke points out is a prophetess, a daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.

But Mary, nothing, except that she’s a virgin and betrothed to be married.

Her insignificance seems to be her primary significance, and yet out of all these other people, in all these stories, she is given the place of the highest blessing, even you might say, besides Jesus, she is given the place of highest status.

And by status, I basically mean that it’s really clear that in Luke’s gospel she’s someone we are supposed to respect and learn from.

As you look at what he writes, there’s a number of ways we see that.

There’s how much he talks about her. That stands out. Of all the other writers who told the story of Jesus, Luke talks about Mary the most. Even Matthew, who also tells the story of Jesus’ childhood, mostly tells it from Joseph’s perspective. Yet with Luke, it’s Mary who is prominent. When he talks about the shepherds coming to visit the     baby, he says in 2:16, they found Mary and Joseph, he mentions Mary first. When Simeon blesses Jesus in Luke 2:34, he addresses Mary. In Luke 2:48, when Joseph and Mary go back and are surprised to find Jesus still in the temple, it’s Mary who speaks to Him. Luke mentions Mary something like sixteen times in this gospel. Then there’s the fact that when we meet her, right at the beginning, an angel describes her as favored by God, not once but twice.  I have got this thing where I think if an angel calls someone favored by God, then it’s a pretty big deal. Her older relative, Elizabeth agrees, we are going to see that twice, she calls her blessed. And Mary herself says, from now on all generations will call me blessed, which is not a way of bragging about herself, but about God’s grace, man I have been treated in such a stunning way by God. One of the things you look for when you study the Bible is repetition, is there something that is said more than once, and there’s five times here that it is stressed that Mary is favored or blessed by God in a tremendous way.

And if that’s not enough, I think Luke tells a whole story in 1:39-45 to get us thinking a little bit about what it is that we can learn from Mary, what it is that makes her significant like this.

Because this story, really carries with it a little shock.

Now I have to admit, I didn’t see it that way at first. I kind of thought it was a little commonplace really and wasn’t sure what we would find in it, because it’s about these two ladies meeting each other and that didn’t seem all that exciting at first.

But then, I took a step back and tried to think about what was actually happening and I saw that this really is a   surprise because what do you have here, really, what you have here at the most basic level is an unmarried pregnant teenage girl who is going to meet with her elderly relative, we can say auntie, and not just any auntie, but her auntie who is married to a priest.

And I wonder, if you think about the story like that, what’s happening here, in your culture, in most religious cultures, how you would imagine that story to go down.

I can tell you.

Nine times out of ten it’s not going to go down well.

What usually happens when unmarried pregnant teenage girls go to visit their religious elderly aunties?

We can play out how it’s usually going to take place in our heads. The young girl is going to go in fearfully. When the aunt finds out what’s happened, she’s going to launch into her, and at the end of the story, the young girl is going to walk away ashamed.

Embarrassed.

You can even imagine an auntie who was like Elizabeth saying, why can’t you have been like me? I was faithful all these years, and now look at the way God’s taken care of me.

But that’s not what happens at all.

Instead, Mary is wanting to get to Elizabeth, even though she knows it is going to be a hard trip.  She’s not presented as fearful. But eager. They say Elizabeth was living something like a hundred miles from where Mary was. So this is a teenage girl going out into the hill country on her own to visit her aunt, and Luke tells us she did it with haste.

In other words, pretty much immediately after the angel made his announcement, she got up to go.

And when she finally gets there and greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth shouts out with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women!”, which is absolutely not what you would expect the older women to say about the younger one. You almost want to look back to the passage to make sure you read it right.

I thought it would be Mary blessing Elizabeth.

It’s even a little funny because Elizabeth is the one who really would have been showing at this point and not Mary.

Mary, if anything is barely in her beginnings of pregnancy and Elizabeth is at least six months along, and this is huge for Elizabeth, she’s been waiting forever for this, and you would expect her to say something like, can you believe       Mary what’s happened to me, and you would expect her to focus on the amazing grace that God’s shown her, but as we read this, instead her entire focus is on Mary, she’s saying,“Blessed are you Mary” and “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

And then it gets even more intense, because it seems like the older woman is overwhelmed with the privilege of having this teenage girl visit her.

Listen to what she says next,

“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Now that’s surprising. That’s not just how you would expect it to work culturally, and what’s more, when you look down at the passage, it’s not just Elizabeth saying this, it is Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit, which means really she is prophesying here, this is ultimately God speaking through Elizabeth.

And it makes you ask, when you read that story, at least I think it should, what is it exactly that turns everything upside down like this? What is it that we can learn from Mary? What can we learn from her and from all this about significance and what’s really important in life?

What Luke is doing is holding Mary up as a model disciple.

Mary shows Theophilus and she shows us how we are supposed to respond to the message about Jesus that we are going to be studying in this gospel and I think as we look at Elizabeth’s testimony about Mary we see two things in particular that make her such a model for us as Christians, why she is so significant, and really we learn two lessons about the this gospel about Jesus turns upside down the way we as Christians think about significance, which we will look at tomorrow, but let me summarize simply for now.

When it comes to significance:

What matters is Jesus

and,

What God wants is faith. 

And while those two phrases might sounds a little like cliches, I think if we look a little more closely at them, they can completely turn upside down the way we pursue significance.

An Unspiritual Spirituality

7 Apr military-662863_1280

We can sometimes become confused when we meet a very religious unbeliever.

We shouldn’t be.

People will go to great lengths to avoid the cross.

As someone has said, “the devil is happy to provide a religion that can seem to satisfy people while keeping them from God. Consequently you have multitudes of people who come up with ingenious plans that they believe merit salvation. They look for religion, perhaps even an intense one, which avoids the cross of Christ.”

People are willing to do almost anything to minimize the importance of Christ and to exaggerate the importance of themselves. They are willing to deny themselves many legitimate pleasures just so that they are able to fool themselves into thinking they don’t need Jesus Christ as much as the Bible says they do.

This is exactly what these false teachers seem to have been doing in Colossae.

“They were substituting what they were doing for what Christ had done.”

One of the things that may have made these false teachers seem so spiritual and may have made what they were teaching sound so enticing is that they seem to have been very self-disciplined. They weren’t just going out and living large. No, they were very strict and serious about the way in which they lived.

You remember in verse 18 that we read they were “insisting on asceticism.”

Many in Paul’s day viewed the physical part of man as inherently evil. Therefore in order to free the soul to really worship God they had to treat their bodies severely. And they came up with a whole intricate system of do’s and don’ts to. We can see in verse 20 and 21 that they were doing that by imposing stringent regulations on the Colossian church. “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” These regulations all had to do with earthly things like food and drink. That’s why Paul says their regulations in verse 22 were “referring to things that all perish as they are used…” The point being these false teachers focused on externals not the heart. If you asked these false teachers to define what it meant to be spiritually mature they’d respond with a whole long list of things that you could and couldn’t do. They’d give you this little list of rules that they made up. If you could jump through all their hoops and do their little dance then you would really be close to Christ.  Paul sums up their approach in verse 23, by saying they were “promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body.” You want to know how to gain the approval of God? Faith alone is not enough. Christ is not enough. No, you need to do something that appears very spiritual. You need to do what I say!

Now, Paul’s going to give a whole lot of reasons why this approach to spiritual maturity doesn’t work, but one thing you do have to give it credit for – it’s very popular.

When it comes to spiritual maturity, we’ve got lots of people in our world who don’t care about it at all. We’ve got others who think that can grow closer to God by keeping a list of rules. We’ve got others who seek to grow in their relationship with God by seeking experience after experience instead of studying the Word of God. And we’ve got many, many, who think of spiritual maturity in terms of externals alone, which is at the core – asceticism – and which is what these false teachers were promoting here.

This ascetic perspective on the spiritual life runs very, very deep. Almost every major religion that I know of has some sort of ascetic tendencies. You look at the history of Hinduism and you will discover that they had monks who lived in forests, and they have rituals where people beat their flesh. Buddhism certainly has an ascetic element. One writer basically defines Buddhism this way, “Buddhism is essentially a monastic religion which, in its highest degree, can only be practised by monks. The Buddha thought of salvation as a liberation from suffering and the passions: one has to eliminate all desire in order to be reunited with the Absolute. Only monks can do this. There are then monks who seek this Absolute through meditation, and non-monks who acquire merits by enabling the monks to live.” Apparently, even the natural religions of the native Americans had an ascetic element to it. As someone has written, “The famous temples in Peru under the Inca kings had communities of vestal virgins whose rules were more severe than those of the Roman vestals. The temples in Mexico had religious of the same kind: “They ate in common and slept in large halls, rising in the night and assisting in a choir like our religious at Matins. They were responsible for sweeping the temple and for its upkeep, and practiced great mortifications; they were called ‘daughters of penitence’.”

And not surprisingly, this ascetic perspective on spirituality even affected many who professed to follow Christ. That’s why in the early history of the church we discover the rise of monks and nuns and we hear of men who would go out into the wilderness and do all sorts of crazy things. I just read of one man this week, Simeon Stylites who spent the last thirty six years of his life on a fifty foot pillar because he thought that was the path towards true spirituality.

The point being, as we look at the history of the world and the church and we find so many people being attracted to this particular perspective on spirituality that should indicate it is a danger we should take seriously. The idea that you can achieve greater spirituality by depriving yourself of certain things God has created you to enjoy is one that is very, very popular and thus very, very dangerous.

We shouldn’t be surprised about the popularity of asceticism because Paul prophecies that’s going to be the case. He says in 1 Timothy 4, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

I think it’s interesting that Paul calls asceticism there in 1 Timothy 4, ‘the doctrine of demons…’ because you notice here in Colossians 2:20 that Paul connects the ascetic regulations these false teachers were promoting with the “elemental spirits” of the world. Point being, one of the devil’s schemes appears to be promoting a false view of spirituality based on asceticism, because you don’t need to be saved to practice this kind of spirituality.  

It doesn’t take the new birth to deal with externals alone.   Anyone can in Jesus’ words “wash the outside of the cup…”

That’s Paul’s point in verse 20, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations…” which are verse 22, “…according to human precepts and teachings.”

We often think of our pre-salvation condition as that of being dead. But Paul here presents it as that of being alive. We were dead to God and alive in the world. And as a result we viewed our relationship with God from a worldly perspective. We lived according to human precepts and teachings. And at the core of that humanistic teaching was the idea that we can earn approval with God on our own by keeping a little list of man-made rules and regulations. But as believers we’ve completely rejected that idea. We’ve turned our back on the wisdom of the world. Or in Paul’s words, We’ve been united to Christ and as a result have “died to the elemental spirits of the world…” We’re no longer in bondage to that way of thinking. When we became Christians a death took place. We died to thinking the way the world does about God and about religion and about what it means to be spiritual.

When people come and try to intimidate us into thinking that in order to be really spiritual we have to do what they say, we have to jump through all their little hoops, we stop and evaluate what they are saying in light of what God says and even if what they are saying sounds good, “has the appearance of wisdom,” and even if they seem really religious, and even if they are persuasive and go into great detail about spiritual experiences they have had, we completely reject any teaching that tries to get us to substitute what we do with what Christ has done.

In other words, we must reject asceticism.

For one thing, it is distracting. If we really want to grow in Christ it is pretty silly to focus our attention on as Paul says in verse 22, “things that perish.”

Why would you make things that are by their very nature passing away the central element of your perspective on spiritual maturity?

As Paul says in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

It’s not the things that you eat or drink that defile you. As Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

We are so prone to think that living for God is all about externals, and we get so wrapped up in the externals that we end up ignoring what is most important, the internals.

This is why asceticism by its very nature doesn’t work.

Paul says that it “has indeed an appearance of wisdom…” It sounds good, but it is only a façade of spirituality. I mean I guess I can see the appeal. We have this sense of guilt, we know we are sinners, and we figure that if we can just beat ourselves up enough, than we can earn God’s forgiveness, which flows out of what? Again, it flows out of pride. I can and I must atone for myself. The reality is, we can’t. The reality is, Paul says, all these rules and regulations “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

No value.

If all you deal with is the externals and you don’t deal with the heart, you haven’t even touched the root of the problem. You can poke your eyes out, and still struggle with lust. In fact, you know what asceticism and this severe treatment of the body really does? It just satiates the flesh. It feeds the flesh.

Here’s a guy who is out sleeping around, getting drunk, living large. Here’s a guy who is in his suit and tie, putting his money in the offering plate, doing his spiritual thing and trusting in his own righteousness. What’s the difference?

Not much. They both are feeding the flesh.

The one guy is acting as he were the center of the world and getting his kicks by giving in to flagrant sin. And the other guy is acting as if he were the center of the world and getting his kicks by being religious. Same root problem. They are both living for self.

Some of the most religious spiritual people in the world are at the same time the most fleshly people in the world because they are motivated to be spiritual for the wrong reasons. If I am all about being spiritual because I think that somehow by what I do or don’t do I can earn approval with God then I just have a deluded sense of my own sinfulness. I think I’m better than I am. And I don’t recognize my need of Christ.

This is how the world lives.

But it doesn’t make sense for us to live that way. When we were saved we died to that kind of thinking.

Paul writes the letter of Colossians because he wants to help us become spiritually mature. He wants to help us grow in Christ. But if we are going to grow and mature spiritually there are certain attitudes, certain approaches to spirituality that we must absolutely reject.

We must never substitute our works for Christ’s works.   We must never think or act like we can earn approval with God through what we do, but instead we must always remember that from beginning to end we are completely dependent on Jesus Christ.

We must never substitute our word for God’s Word. We must never allow the promise of some sort of spiritual experience to distract us from the reality of what God has revealed. We must allow God’s Word to tell us what is real and what is not.

And we must never substitute a true spirituality for a false. We who have been saved and submitted to the wisdom of God must not think that we are going to be sanctified by the wisdom of the world.

Slapping spirits on their snouts

6 Apr

We have been looking at Colossians 2:16ff and noting the various wrong approaches to spiritual growth Paul says we must reject.

So far, we have spent all our time on the first, which is legalism.

Now for the second. Paul warns us about the dangers of mysticism.

Mysticism is a broad word, of course. People have used this term to describe a number of different ideas. For our purposes, by mysticism we mean (as someone has put it) “basing one’s knowledge of God on a subjective experience rather than on objective revealed truth.”  The mystic we are describing, paraphrasing B.B. Warfield, is the man who “substitutes his religious experience for the objective revelation of God recorded in the written Word…He derives his knowledge of God from his own spiritual experiences rather than what God has revealed in His Word.”

Here is God’s Word and here is his experience. He chooses his experience and neglects God’s Word.

This is exactly what the false teachers in Colossae were doing. They were basing their teaching on their own experiences and not on the Word of God.

Paul writes in verse 18 and 19,

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

The Colossians had heard the gospel from Epaphras. He had proclaimed the Word of God to them. But now false teachers had entered the church and were attempting to persuade the Colossians that they needed something more. Specifically, we see here in verse 18 that they were “insisting on asceticism and the worship of angels.” These false teachers were basically saying to the Colossians that they weren’t experiencing the fullness of the Christian life. That in order to experience the Christian life to the fullest they must follow their example and practice asceticism which we’ll talk about in another post, and become involved in the worship of angels.

It’s difficult to know for certain what these false teachers were teaching. We honestly don’t know all the ins and outs of the philosophy they were presenting. But one of the things we do know for sure is that they placed a great emphasis on angelic beings. The fact that throughout the book of Colossians Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate Jesus Christ’s superiority to angels seems to indicate that these false teachers were elevating angels to a position of importance alongside Jesus Christ. And interestingly, as we look at church history, this appears to have been a problem that plagued the Colossian church for centuries, so much so that three hundred years later, a group of godly church leaders had to come together in Laodicea which was the town right next to Colossae and make a formal declaration which said, “It is not right for Christians to abandon the church of God and go away and invoke (which is a synonym for to pray to, or to appeal to) angels.”

Although we don’t know everything about this particular heresy we can say that these false teachers seemed to have developed a fascination with angels which led them to insist on worshiping them. It could be that they were pretending to be humble and saying that they were not good enough to go directly to God Himself and worship Him through Jesus Christ so instead they had to first begin with the angels instead.

Which is something the Bible expressly forbids.

Exodus 20:2-4 puts it very simply, “I, am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

That means that we should worship God and serve Him alone, which is what the angels do. The angels don’t want us to worship them. They want us to worship God. When the apostle John encountered an angel in Revelation 19, he fell down to worship him. And the angel responded by rebuking him for doing that. John writes, “I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said to me, ‘Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God.”

Honestly, this issue is not all that complicated.

In fact, in light of how clear the Bible is about all this, we might be tempted to wonder how the Colossian believers would ever be persuaded to fall for the philosophy these false teachers were presenting. They knew better. That’s a point I want you to keep in your heads. The command to worship God alone is not too hard to understand. That’s something the Colossians understood. Epaphras came and preached the gospel, then these false teachers came and were telling the Colossians to do something that was clearly contradictory to that gospel.

What could possibly make them think that God wanted them to worship angels when God’s Word makes it so clear that they should not?

Well, we discover the false teacher’s strategy in the middle of verse 18.

Paul says that the false teacher was insisting “on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions…” or things he has seen.

When the Colossians would ask these false teachers why they believed what they believed they would answer because of the experience that I had and because what I’ve seen. They were taking their stand on visions that they claimed to have had. That was the basis of their confidence. Even though the objective written revelation of God says this, you ought to do this, which is in direct opposition to that written revelation, because of a subjective experience that I’ve had.

Which is what?

Mysticism.

They were rejecting the external authority of God’s Word and instead basing their religious convictions on internal subjective experiences that they claimed to have had.

“The Bible says this…But I reject that…Because God revealed something new to me…”

Now, this is where the rubber meets the road. Although you may never have met anyone who has pleaded with you to worship angels and done so on the basis of visions he’s had, I can guarantee that you’ve met those who base their religious convictions on their own experiences rather than the Word of God.

This type of mystical approach to God pretty much defines the spirituality of our time. There are many in our culture who claim to be interested in God and in spiritual things while at the same time completely rejecting what the Word of God has to say. They have little respect for what the Scripture says and instead base their ideas of God on what they feel or think.   They say they want to pursue God but they don’t want to submit to the authority of His Word.   They want to have a relationship with God, they just don’t want to have to obey Him or do what He says.

This type of mystical approach to God is generally accepted in the liberal church. I remember hearing a religious leader say that when he was thirty nine years old or so he finally accepted God’s call to come out and live his life as a gay man for God. In his words, “Just simply to say that homosexuality goes against the tradition of Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.” When he says something like that, he is simply following in the footsteps of these false teachers in Colossae. The Bible says this, but do this, because I say so.   I had an experience which supercedes God’s divinely revealed truth.

This type of mystical approach to God is at the root of most of the cults in our day. Throughout history, men have repeatedly risen up and claimed to have received special revelation from God that is contradictory to what the Bible reveals and time and time again foolish undiscerning individuals have believed them. If you don’t believe me about the power of this kind of error, just take a vacation to the state of Utah.

This type of mystical approach to God has even had a devastating effect on many within the contemporary church. Many professing Christians are basically basing their views and ideas of God on their own personal experience rather than on His Word.   In fact, many professing Christians have something of a bias against the disciplined study of God’s Word. In their minds, their experience trumps God’s Word.

One pastor writes, “…mysticism has caught many Christians unaware. It has thus swept much of the church into a dangerous netherworld of confusion and false teaching. Mysticism has created a theological climate that is largely intolerant of precise doctrine and sound biblical exegesis. Note for example how wildly popular it has become to speak scornfully of doctrine, systematic Bible teaching, careful exegesis, or the bold proclamation of the gospel. Absolute truth and rational certainty are currently out of vogue. Authoritative biblical preaching is decried as too dogmatic. It is rare nowadays to hear a preacher challenge popular opinion with clear teaching from God’s Word and underscore the truth with a firm and settled ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

If perhaps you are not following, let me get a bit more specific.

Many within the church have fallen for a type of mysticism. Please hear this. Don’t get me wrong. They may give lip-service to the Bible. They may even say that the Bible is inspired. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty they give more authority and weight to the things they have experienced than they do God’s Word.

One of the most common ways people do this is by giving their feelings the same authority or more authority than the Word of God in their lives. How many times have you heard someone say, “I know that the Bible says this, but I’m going to do this, because I just know in my heart of hearts it is right.”

“I know the Bible says we are not supposed to get divorced except for certain reasons, but even though I don’t have those reasons, I just know God would want me to get a divorce.”

When a person says something like that, they are simply following in the footsteps of the Colossian heretics. They are rejecting what the Bible clearly teaches in favor of something they claim to have experienced. They are willing to agree and submit to the Bible when it suits them but they will reject it when it doesn’t.

This is what makes this kind of mysticism so dangerous.

As one writer explains, “Whenever an organization says, ‘We believe the Bible is inspired plus we believe our leadership is inspired,’ or ‘We believe the Bible is inspired plus we believe this other book of ours…is inspired’ the Bible always ends up taking the back seat instead of being on equal footing with these other sources of special revelation.” While many Christians would agree that is wrong when it comes to their own lives they basically do the same thing.   “Their claim is essentially, ‘I believe the Bible is a bona fide source of information and the Spirit also gives private information which is separate from God’s Word directly to me.’ When that happens, the second step frequently follows the first: The personal, subjective sense of what a person thinks God is telling him trumps the objective Scripture.”

That’s incredibly common, and in light of how common this mystical approach to spirituality is, we better pay very careful attention to the warning Paul gives us here in verse 18.

He says, “Let no one disqualify you by insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions…”

The term, “disqualify” means to “rob someone of their prize.” These false teachers were telling them that to experience the fullness of the Christian life they had to follow what they said when in all reality Paul explains that if they followed what the false teachers were teaching they’d end up completely empty.   By asking them to set aside “the external authority of God’s Word” and to throw themselves instead on the visions these false teachers claim to have had is to ask them to discard Christianity.

I want you to hear this. You reject the external authority of God’s Word you reject God.   Christianity is a religion based on external authority. That means real practically we believe that God has revealed the normal Christian life in this book and that as a result we can and must interpret any experience that someone claims to have had in light of what the Scriptures say.   If someone says this is what is true, we must go back to the Word of God and ask, is what they are saying really true.

This book is authoritative over our life – because it is God’s Word.

If we want to know God’s will we don’t need to run here and there and chant some sort of mantra in the corner of the room. We need to go to God’s Word.   The Spirit of God speaks to us today through the Word of God.   God didn’t give us the Spirit to reveal to us all sorts of strange ideas that would lead us away from what the Scripture actually teaches.   He gave us the Spirit to help us understand the Word and to seal upon our minds the truth the Word teaches and promotes.Therefore, if a person comes to us, no matter how intelligent they are, no matter how spiritual they are, no matter what they claim to have seen or experienced, if what they are saying isn’t in accordance with God’s Word, we must not be intimidated by them and the experiences they claim to have had.

We should instead, follow the example of the reformer Martin Luther.

As one author explains, “When such intimidation came from the sixteenth century mystical charismatics of Martin Luther’s day, the great reformer was very firm with them, clinging to biblical revelation and the centrality and sufficiency of Christ. In particular, the followers of Thomas Munzer and the radical Anabaptists gave great prominence to the work and gifts of the Spirit and to mystical knowledge. Their cry, expressing their suprabiblical experience, was ‘The Spirit, the Spirit!” Luther replied, “I will not follow where their spirit leads.” When they were granted the privilege of an interview with Luther, they gave their cry, “The Spirit, the Spirit!” The great Reformer was not impressed and thundered, “I slap your Spirit on the snout.”

He spoke like that, so dogmatically, because when a person substitutes his own personal experience for what the Word of God really says what is he being in all reality? Is he being spiritual? Is he being religious? No, he’s being proud.

He is ultimately saying “My Word is more valuable and more important than God’s Word.”

That’s what Paul says is at the root of the heresy their in Colossae. These false teachers are going on in detail about visions they had, because verse 18, they were “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind…”

Think about that. That’s a fascinating statement. Here is a man who is claiming to be humble. And here is a man who is claiming to have had a spiritual vision. And yet what does Paul says is at the base of the spiritual vision they had? A fleshly or sensuous mind.

When we think about a sensuous mind we normally think of someone who is given over to the kinds of things Paul describes in Colossians 3:5, “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness…” It’s important to note that biblical speaking a person can be very spiritual and very interested in spiritual things and yet at the same time have a sensuous or fleshly mind that is motivating all that. A person can be very religious and very spiritual and always talking about God and very disciplined in his pursuit of God and at the same time be puffed up by a sensuous, fleshly mind.

Isn’t that what Paul is saying here?

These false teachers are not as pure as they seem.  They have a fleshly mind. Proof of that is their pride. They are puffed up without reason. And they prove they are proud by the fact that they reject the truth of God’s Word and advocate strange doctrines.

The result being they commit spiritual suicide.

This is what makes the whole thing so tragic. These false teachers, Paul explains in verse 19, “…are not holding fast to the Head…” In other words, these false teachers are not connected to Christ.

They claim to be interested in spiritual growth. But the only way a person can grow spiritually is by being vitally connected to Christ. Paul says that it is from Christ that “the whole body, nourished and king together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”

So in rejecting God’s word and taking their stand on subjective experiences they claim to have had, they demonstrate that they are not connected to Christ and although they go through the motions of spirituality they make it absolutely impossible for themselves to grow spiritually.

All their discipline, all their religious activities, are for nothing. They have no spiritual value.

If we are going to mature in Christ we can’t just accept any idea that comes along or any teacher that comes along on the basis of things they claim to have seen or experienced. Instead we must learn to evaluate everything that is said and taught in light of what God has revealed in His unchanging Word. We must not be intimidated by ideas that people have and people present to us that we know are in contradiction to the Word of God. We must stand up against them. We must reject mysticism.

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