Only Jesus Christ – no if’s, no but’s (3)

Series Title:  “Growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ”

Scripture Reading

  • Colossians 2:13-23

Introduction

The story was told about a city which was hit by a phenomenal disaster on a Saturday afternoon.  Hardly any piece of infrastructure was left standing, and many people lost their homes and possessions.  One of the pastors of the city spoke to another and asked him what he would be telling his congregation the next morning.  “What can one preach after a day like this?”, he asked.

His colleague replied with strong resolve, “I will just tell them who Jesus Christ is.  Once they understood the message of Christ, all other things fade away in the background.”

Many people who are followers of the Prosperity Gospel, something that preachers like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers and Robert Schuller present as “authentic” Christianity, would be very disappointed to hear a message about Christ only after they have lost all earthly riches and belongings.

The Apostle Paul had a visit from Epaphras the evangelist, where Epaphras also preached the Gospel.  The occasion might have been when the church in Philippi send him to encourage Paul with gifts in Rome where he was held in house arrest. Epaphras fell dangerously ill during this visit and Paul sent him home.  But what he told Paul about the church in Colossae gave rise to the letter of Paul to the Colossians.

There were false teachers in Colossae who were misleading the the church.  The only response strategy Paul had was to once again imprint on them who Jesus Christ was; to what He has done to save the church, no one should add, because to do that would amount to nothing else but blasphemy.

It’s still happening

What happened then, is still happening today.  There is a desire with Christians to “dig deeper” – they are after a more and deeper spiritual experience.  It is sad that some of these people then start looking at foreign places.  It is foreign to the Gospel, or what started as a honest search, ends up in a satisfaction beyond what the Gospel presents in Jesus Christ.

The problem in not a desire to grow in deeper understanding of Christ and obedience to Him – and as such, a better knowledge of the Bible; the problem arises when something is added unto the message.  Invariably this “added-on-to” part usually ends up being the major point of contention, and it leads to judgementalism:  if you don’t experience what I’m experiencing, your surely can’t be a real Christian.   The Biblical message about Jesus Christ becomes a stepping stone to get to the “deeper” and and “richer” – and all other who have not reached that point are looked down upon as lesser Christians.

The ceremonialists

That was the problem with the Judaisers, the group who still wanted to cling to the circumcision – you might be a believer in Christ, but if you are not circumcised, you’re not there yet.  Applied to our day, if you have not experienced credo baptism by immersion you cannot possibly be a Christian – and by extension, you will never receive the Holy Spirit.  And if you have not spoken in tongues – well, that’s a sure sign that you have never been saved.

We labelled these group of people the ceremonialists.

The Gnostics

Then, there was another group, the Gnostics.  They were the forerunners of the Modern New Age.  Their ideas were not new then, and it is not new now.  It actually takes us back to primitive theology were earth, air, water and wind – or broadly – all nature is worshipped.  Man is his own god, and god is in every man.  There is no sin, hell or Satan.  We cannot know God fully, but we can work our up to Him; if we don;t make it the first time, then we come back and we try all over again, and again, and again – till we make it.  Knowledge is the big thing, but it is secretive knowledge, airy-fairy stuff.

The legalists

But we now come to another group; they were the legalists.  As a matter of fact, it is right here where ceremonialists and Gnostics meet, because both of them is in essence a self-help or self-improvement religion.  It denies the grace of God in Christ Jesus and try to find a way to get up to God.

Special days and food restrictions

Paul writes of them:

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

The text I just quoted begins with a therefore.  This is important, and we need to come back to it – next week, maybe.

Interestingly, both the Gnostics and the those who clung to the New Testament as if Jesus never came to fulfil the Law, had observed these things:  forbidden food, religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and Sabbath days.  And we even have them today amongst those who promote legalism; in some cases it is just more refined.

The New Agers have their taboos in food and easily become vegans. You cannot eat anything you killed – that’s to disturbe the balance in nature!  As Christians we know how the answer this:  the world and everything in and on it belongs to God who created it.  We don’t worship it, and we understand that God gave us the mandate to cultivate the land and have dominion over creation – understanding all the way that we are accountable to Him for the way we do it; it is not ours to abuse it any way we like. Paul clarifies this in 1 Corinthians 8:

… for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:6, NIV)

The Jews on the other hand had lot of things they abstained from eating.  As golden rule we need to understand that all the foods Israel was forbidden to eat were scavengers: they lived off what was dead.  And this was important in the Old Testament because God is the holy God of the living.  Approaching Him after even touching the dead was forbidden, let alone eating food of things which lived on dead things.  But the curse on death was overcome in and through Jesus Christ.  Through his perfect sacrifice what kept us from God was overcome so now in his Name we come to God.  So, if people of other faiths try to ridicule Christians for the law against eating prawns, they just don’t understand the power of the cross of Jesus Christ.

The effect of all of this is that we are not bound by the dietary laws of the Old Testament anymore.  There is no theological reason as to why we cannot eat pork or prawns now.  But I know of people who for others reasons abstain from eating pork.  Let’s remember this principle:

… if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:13, NIV)

Eating or not eating has nothing to do with being saved or not.  Faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ only is what saves the sinner.  The apostle says:

But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Corinthians 8:8, NIV)

The same applies to religious festivals and New Moons.  Some in Colossae assigned special weight to these days and those who participated in it looked down on others to did not.  This was added as a necessary observance to show that one had really come to faith.  Once again, it was Christ-plus.  It was a way of adding good works as steps to God, a way of self-improvement.

Just a word about the Sabbaths and New Moons of the Jewish people.  In many cases these two were mentioned in the same breath.  I understand from the context in Colossians that this reference did not only refer to the seventh day of the week; there were other sabbaths in the Jewish calendar too.  There was for instance the Sabbath of the Years for the land to have a rest.

When it comes to celebrate one day out of seven for rest and worship, we understand that even this is fulfilled in Christ.  So, in strict terms, we do not have a sabbath day anymore – we don’t keep to the restrictions of a sabbath journey; we don’t have morning and evening sacrifices of lambs and bulls anymore; we don’t have special services by special ranks of people lighting the candles, putting oil in the lamps and presenting certain offerings anymore.  All that was fulfilled in Christ.

But we have a Christian sabbath:  on this day we celebrate the new life in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.  As Paul puts it:

These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:17, NIV)

The New Testament calls it the Day of the Lord.  They gathered on the first day of the week for worship.  On this day we gather too for the same reason.  We come together in corporate worship, we fellowship and encourage one another in our faith-walk.  The principle of the Old Testament remains the same:  one in seven days belongs to the special worship of God by his church family.

The exact day, the seventh or the first day of the week is not the main point.  The main point is the celebration of Christ victory over death.  There are others who think differently; they hold to a Saturday.  I don’t necessarily agree with their theological and practical arguments, but just like as it applies to them, it should not be a point of contention.  The point is, do you believe that Jesus Christ came to fulfil the Law and bring us salvation?

But once again, if this day is another box we want to tick in doing good works, it is adding to the salvation of Christ, which is idolatry.

False humility

But the  practices of the legalists go even further:

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. (Colossians 2:18, NIV)

It can so easily happen that trying so hard to be good includes the attitude that those who have not attained what I have attained cannot be Christians.  There are some people who are so humble, they are actually proud of it.  This is what this text says.

Selling all you have and giving it to the poor is a good thing, but this can also become a show: Look at me, I’ve made the sacrifice and you continue to live in your fancy house and drive your expensive cars.  Even being humble can be wrong at times, especially if someone wants to tick the box and climb another notch to perfection.

The mystics

Messages from angels

What about people who got so advanced in their spiritual life that they even speak to angels and receive messages from them!  They must be special!  Is that something to strive for?  No!  The only voice I have allegiance to is the voice of God who spoken what He wanted to say in the Bible.  And yes, I need to read it more and more and put every effort in understanding it.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he had something similar in mind.  There were those who looked down on other members of the church because they did not speak in tongues.  Paul made a list of the gifts and every time he put the gift of tongues last in order of importance.  Then he says this to them:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, NIV)

A true sign of being filled with the Spirit of God is not the extra-special things, but the elementary principle of Christian life:  love.  Jesus did not say to his disciples that other would know that they are his disciples because they speak in tongues or have the gift of healing, or any other gift, but the gift of love.

Conclusion

My dear friend what saves is faith in the living Saviour who came to seek and save the lost.  It’s Him and Him only.  Of course faith has arms and legs and lips.  We’ll get to that some time in our study of this letter of Paul.

I found this illustration:

When interviewing Dr. A. J. Gordon as a prospective pastor of a Boston church, the pulpit committee asked: “If you are called to the pastorate of our church will you preach against the cards, the theatre, and dancing?” “I will,” solemnly affirmed Dr. Gordon. He was called.

Months passed and he didn’t say a word against the cards, the theatre, and dancing. The official board of the church said, “Almost a year has gone by and you have said nothing against cards, the theatre, and dancing. We wonder why.”

Dr. Gordon replied essentially as follows: “Gentlemen, it is true that I have said nothing against these things, but I have preached Christ who is the only Saviour from all evils. When He comes into one’s heart all evil things vanish from the life like the mist before the hot breath of the noonday sun.”

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 31 January 2016

Be careful how you listen (2)

Be careful how you listen (2)

Scripture Readings

  • Isaiah 29:9-16
  • Mark 4:113-20

Hymns/songs

  • “Psalm 96”
  • “O Lord, you’re beautiful”
  • “Open my eyes that I may see”
  • “Revive Us”

My dear fellow-believers in Christ,

Last week we heard the Word of God as it taught us that not all evangelistic and missionary attempts of the church can be counted as successful. As in the time of Isaiah there have been, and will be, those who are hard of heart who will not except the message of Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ.  They hear the Gospel but to them it remains a riddle, and in the face of truth they continue to further harden their hearts.  They are the road on which the seed fell and Satan comes and took it away.  There is no growth and no crop.

The Apostle Paul writes:

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4, NIV)

Does this heart-breaking phenomenon mean that there is no growth on the work of the Gospel?  Does it mean that we should lose heart and stop or slow down the spreading of the Gospel?  Paul says in the same chapter:

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5–6, NIV)

The Sower and the Seed

In his first letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. ” (1 Corinthians 1:18–19, NIV)

He wrote to the Romans:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, NIV)

I recently read these statistics, which I have to say, I could not absolutely verify the claims, but found more than one website quoting the figures:

  • It took 1400 years for 1% of the world’s population to become Christians.
  • For that to double to 2% took the next 360 years.
  • It was then 170 years for that to grow from 2% to 4%.
  • Then, between 1960 and 1990 the proportion of the world’s population who are Bible-believing Christians rose from 4% to 8%.
  • Now in 2007 one third of the world’s population confesses that Jesus is Lord and 11% of the world’s population are “evangelical” Christians.
  • The evangelical church is growing twice as fast as Islam and three times as fast as the world’s population.
  • South America is turning Protestant faster than Continental Europe did in the sixteenth century. South Koreans reckon that they can evangelize the whole of North Korea within five years once that country opens up.
  • And then there’s the Chinese church. Tens of millions of Christians who’ve learned to pray, who have confidence in Scripture, who know about spiritual warfare, have been schooled in suffering and are qualified to rule. One day in the next century that Church – tens of millions of Christians trained to die – will be released into global mission and our prayers for the fall of Islam will be answered.

The sower

As Jesus explained to the disciples the meaning of the parable of the seed, the sower and the soil, they would not be excused if they though what someone else asked Jesus on a later occasion, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” (Luke 13:23).

They were entrusted with the Bible as the message of Christ Jesus, and yet they had to learn this lesson right at the beginning of their ministry.  The Bible teaches us that they and other disciples came to Jesus after He had told the parable to the multitude to ask about its meaning.  Jesus then took them to Isaiah and his experience with people who heard the Word of God and yet hardened their hearts.  Our Lord then asked them,

Don’t you understand this parable?  How then will you understand any parable?

It is almost as if the Lord was somewhat surprised by their own misunderstanding about what happens when one sows the Word of God, as if they did not learn from the Old Testament prophets that there is no natural inclination in the heart of the sinner to accept the Word of God.  The apostles and the disciples of Jesus are the sowers about the Good News of Christ crucified and resurrected.  They should expect that not all the seed will necessary come to fruition.

But what they had to learn in the being sowers of the seed is that being faithful to the Word of God is the most important characteristic of a sower of the Word.  In other words, success does not lie in method, appearance or presentation of the sower.  The parable here does not say anything about the sower, other than it is a farmer who went out to sow.

Like the prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostles of the New Testament, and the Church of Christ through the ages were and are humble servants of the Gospel.  Their success does not lie in rhetoric, in majestic presentation, in clever method, or anything else.  Through the ages God used the unwise of the world to outdo the wise as He blessed the faithful preaching of the old-old story of Jesus and his love.

Jesus called fishermen, not the spiritual elite to be his disciples.  They were not learned or wise.  They were people whom God could use for his own glory.  He enabled them by his Holy Spirit, and their humble, yet brave, preaching of the Gospel changed the world.

We need to learn this lesson in our day.  There are many teachers of the Gospel today who get anxious about numbers; they measure success against numbers.  Mega-churches are a sign of glorious success, while small churches are looked upon as failures.  In an effort to attract the masses preachers are sometimes not happy being an ordinary prophet.  They resort to all manner of methods to make the Gospel look acceptable.

Dr Robert Schuller made this statement:

The secret of winning unchurched people into the church is really quite simple. Find out what would impress the non churched in your community then give it to them.

Worship services are sometimes filled with worldliness with and emphasis on experience through music, ecstatic worship and lots of stories.  Prosperity theologians are sometimes promised that followers of Jesus will become rich, because they have God as their Father. In the process the pastors themselves fly in private jets and live in multi-million dollar mansions.

Many ministers today run churches as business enterprises. Of discipleship and humble servants with the Bible not much is heard; what is on the agenda is leadership and management.  Instead of reaching out to the world the doors are opened so widely that the world is reaching in.

In the process to draw the masses, some are more aware of the social and psychological well-being of people that the worship service is nothing more that a therapeutic experience.  People are then welcomed in the church to walk away felling better about themselves.  Dr Robert Schuller once said:

I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”

To this Bishop Spong added:

I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church’s participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.” (Underlining added)

No, my friend, this is not what Christ had in mind when He called his disciples to be sowers of the Word.  And they learned that following Christ was not being popular, not being wise in the eyes of this world, not being acceptable to everyone, not following the principles of this corrupt world.  They stuck to the old-old story Jesus and his love, and for that they were willing to die. This is what we called to in our day.

Yes, we only sow, others water, but God gives the growth.  And like it is written about the servants in the parable of the pounds in Luke 19, when the Lord returns after He has gone to the Father to receive the Kingdom, He will return and demand of the servants what they have been doing with what was entrusted to them.  Most commentators see the pounds in this parable as the Word entrusted to each member of the church of Christ.  Like the sower who sows the seed, so the servants are supposed to put the pound, the Bible, to work.  We should preach to Word of God, we should spread the Word of God, we should make it possible for others to do so where and when we cannot go – but, the fact of the matter remains: Christ is going to ask for a return in the investment He made in us by calling us as his disciples.  Therefore, my friend, we need to answer this question this morning: what have I done in the Kingdom of God by being a sower of the Word?

The seed is the Word of God

God has a purpose with the Word:  it is called the Word of God.  It is about Him, about his grace, mercy, love – but also his justice, righteousness and holiness.  It is about Christ and what He did to disclose God’s love and justice upon a sinful world.  It is about God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and it is about Christ through whom and for whom all things were made.  It is about new life in Him and his promise to return.  It is about his grace towards sinners, and it is about his wrath upon those who reject Him as Lord.  It is about the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word, and Him who create new hearts to know Jesus Christ as Lord; about Him who leads us into holiness away from worldliness.

To this Word we don’t add, and from this Word we don’t take way anything, lest the plagues written about in the Book falls upon us.

It is not a popular Gospel, and we cannot make it sound popular.  We cannot water it down to make it more palatable or more acceptable.  We cannot compromise the message of salvation in Christ.

This Bible is “the light for our path and a lamp for our feet” (Psalm 119:105).  It is God’s “hammer that breaks a rock into pieces” and the “fire” which cleanses (Jeremiah 23:29).  It is “living and active, sharper that any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrew 4:12)  The “Word of God stands forever” and the preaching of the Word is “the imperishable seed, living enduring” which brings about the new birth (1Peter 1:23-25).  This Word of God is the Good News about Jesus Christ which brings about faith (Romans 10:17).  With this Word in our hand we “teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” because “all Scripture is God-breathed”. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

It was by the Word of God that Jesus could stand against the temptation of the devil, and it is by this Word that we have the bread of life (Deuteronomy 8:3).  For this Word we must “crave like new-born babies to be nourished so that we may grow up in our salvation” (1Peter 2:2).

This Word is our “sword of the Spirit” as we face the battle with the enemy (Ephesians 6:17).  The Word of the Lord is the only thing the apostles kept them busy with, and Paul warned to have nothing else but the Word because “it holds promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1Timothy 4:8)
We receive and spread this Word as “not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NIV).

Should any person, “even an angel from heaven preach a gospel other than the one we have in the Scripture, let them be under God’s curse! If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8–9, NIV)

It is this Gospel we hold on to  like others who died in the Lord triumphing the devil “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:11, NIV)

A fellow by the name A.C. Grayling decided the Bible is outdated, and wrote another Gospel, “The Good Book”.  It presents wisdom teachings taken from many of the world’s greatest minds, including Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and many others, and is organized into 12 sections, including Genesis, The Sages, Parables, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Acts, and The Good, sort of Ten Commandments:

  • Love well (but what is love?)
  • Seek the good in all things (but what is good?)
  • Harm no others (but by what standard?)
  • Think for yourself (but what should my standard of thinking be?)
  • Take responsibility (but for what?  Hitler ans Stalin though they were responsible!)
  • Respect nature (but why?)
  • Do your utmost (but for what?)
  • Be informed (but what is the source of information?)
  • Be kind (but why, and by what definition?)
  • Be courageous (and start a different religion?)

Bishop Spong calls for a more acceptable Gospel than that of the bBible, one which speaks honestly to the situation of modern Christian communities.  He posted 12 Theses whereby we should define a new reformation:

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found. (Because man asks for it?)
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt. (Really?)
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. (Darwinism is the standard, and what if that is wrong?)
4. The virgin birth understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible. (Human life by itself is impossible.)
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity. (Sience has become the standard?)
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed. (No cross, no Christianity.)
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history. (No resurrection; death reigns.)
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age. (Scientism again.)
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time. (Who sets the standard then? Don’t blame Hitler.)
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way. (Says who?)
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior. (No heaven and no hell?)
12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination. (Quite right; all need redemption in Christ, for all sinned.)

Conclusion

My brother, you’re a sower – that is, if you are a disciple of Christ.  Wherever you go is a sowing field.  What you have is what the Spirit of God enables you to do.  What you sow is the Word of God – the power of salvation.  Go, be God’s servant, trust Him for growth.  Sow nothing else, but nothing less, than what the Spirit has given you in the Word of God.  AMEN.