What Changes

Phariseeism is quite old; it is the default setting for the human race.  We love to disparage those who don’t agree with us.

One common format for this old Phariseeism: “you can’t possibly be a Christian if you believe that” or “you can’t claim to be a Christian and then practice that” or “you can’t possibly be a Christian if you vote that way” or “support that politician” or “participate in that activity” or “frequent that business” or “agree with that individual.”

We live in a time where people are convicted over minor infractions and tossed away with abandon.  If someone says, thinks, or does something that the in-group decides is reprehensible, not only are they vilified, they are boycotted, and they are turned into an unperson who can never, ever be forgiven. 

It’s like living in a high school that can never end.  You say something that someone dislikes or takes the wrong way on Twitter or Facebook and you will lose your job, your career, and your standing in the public arena.  You’ll never get invited to the prom.  You will never be forgiven no matter what you say, no matter what amends you attempt to make, no matter how you walk back your words. 

Love, mercy and forgiveness no longer play much role, except as platitudes.  The Pharisees are in charge and they want to see some punishment; they want to have endless power, and they demand that everyone bow to their way of thinking, and living, and being for now and ever more. 

The legalism that is inherent in the way the world works is fundamentally about power and diametrically opposed to Christianity.  And because we live in this world, Christians are easily infected by it.  Look at the power of worldliness in Colossians 2:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:16-23)

It is a mistake for the church to concern itself with joining those who wish to pass laws to prohibit evil things.  Making more rules is an ineffective approach to solving problems.  Passing a law against annoying behavior does not mean that the behavior will stop. My wife tells me to stop chewing with my mouth open.  Over and over again.  Her reminding me of the rules doesn’t stop me.  People still speed, still steal, still murder. All a law does is create the possibility of rendering punishment.  Prohibiting the ingestion of various substances does not keep people from imbibing.  Prohibiting behaviors does not stop behaviors.  Fear of my wife getting annoyed does not seem to be enough to make me keep my mouth shut.

The only way to solve bad actions is through a transformation of the human heart.  This genuine change is what the church can accomplish through the power of the Good News.  Through the power of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit enters people and they are made into something new and different.  You cannot have God living inside of you without that having a profound impact on your choices and lifestyle.  We wage war against the darkness, not by using the weapons of the world, but by using the sword of the Spirit.  God can fix what otherwise cannot be repaired.  God changes lives that all the laws in the world never will.

Even then, because we are dealing with human beings, they will still misbehave.  Misbehavior cannot be ended this side of eternity.

Remember these “elemental spiritual forces of this world” that saddle us with rules are our enemy.  In contrast, the people of this world are never our enemy; they are fellow-sufferers and victims.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Our struggle, as the struggle of the people to whom the Book of Revelation was written, is ultimately the same: it is against the necessary evil.

Recall who runs the necessary evil: the one who offered the necessary evil to Jesus if he would only worship him:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)

And so John writes against those in Revelation who are worshipping that necessary evil that wants to keep us living in an eternal high school. In the time of John, it was personified in the Roman Empire, which required the literal worship of the Caesar.  All right-thinking Romans would gladly acknowledge him with their sacrifices and proclaim “Caesar is lord.” 

Christians then and now must affirm that no, only Jesus is Lord.  Never Caesar. And only Jesus can change lives. Caesar can go to Hell.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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