Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I was studying Acts 19 today, and it reminded me of a message I gave over a year ago in Sunnyside, Washington, here reprinted in full:

Let Nothing Get between You and Jesus
Part Two: The Danger of Religion

Colossians 2:6-23

The world of the Bible was very different from our world—that is, in the western, developed world.  But there are many ways in which the attitudes and beliefs that you’ll find in the developing world are much more like that of the world of the Bible.

One common belief is the reality of spirits, both good and evil, that affect our lives.  If you go to Latin America, or Africa, or Asia—or to the ancient world, including the Greek and Roman world, you’ll find that to be part of everyday folk religion.  Even among the Jewish people of the time this was also true.  This is not just the belief that angels and demons exist, but the belief that there are ways to offend or appease them, and even to manipulate them for your purposes.

Every faith has the official “above ground” faith and the unofficial “below ground” faith.  We sometimes call that “folk religion.”  Judaism in the time of Jesus and Paul had the “above ground” faith expressed by the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but there are parts of the “below ground” 
faith that may surprise you.

In “below ground” Judaism, you had all kinds of crazy things.  People wore amulets to ward off the evil eye.  Sometimes, Jews away from the Israel built their own temples—even though that was forbidden by the Law of Moses.  But above all else, in folk Judaism, there was a great interest in demons, angels and manipulating them to bring health, prosperity and happiness. 

Understanding this is key to understanding some of the strange things that Paul writes about here in Colossians 2.  There are reasons to believe that Jewish exorcists had come alongside some early believers and that some ideas from folk Judaism were infiltrating the church there.  These ideas undermined the simple truth of “Christ alone.”  The idea they were falling for was “Christ plus religion” and here the religion was Jewish folk religion.
There’s a person mentioned in Acts 19 that may help us understand what this is all about.  In Acts 19:13-16 we read:

13 Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

I know it’s kind of funny—especially that last part.  But here’s what you need to know.  Sceva was part of a folk tradition that had existed in Judaism for hundreds of years.  There were others who did this, like a man named Eleazar in Rome, and these Jewish exorcists got a reputation among the Gentiles for their expertise in manipulating evil spirits.

Their approach was to invoke the names of angels in order to expel demons.  They used names we know from the Bible—like Michael and Gabriel—as well as a bunch of names of angels that we don’t know from the Bible: Ouriel, Raphael, Sabao, Abrasax and others. 

These guys claimed that the power to defeat demons by invoking angels came from a wisdom that was handed down from Solomon.  In a book called The Testament of Solomon, written probably in the first century BC, Solomon interrogates 36 demons and forces them to reveal what incantation defeats them.

Why 36?  That’s one for each 10 degrees of a 360 degree circle.  In The Testament of Solomon, the first interrogation goes this way:

Solomon asks, “Who are you?”  The spirit relies, “I am the first decant [10 degrees] of the zodiac, and I am called Ruax.  I cause the heads of men to suffer pain and I cause their temples to throb.  Should I hear only, ‘Michael, imprison Ruax,’ I retreat immediately.”

So you get the pattern: 36 evil spirits, their names, what harm they do and how to invoke an angel to stop them.  That’s what Sceva and Eleazar and who knows how many of these folk exorcists were doing.

This is the essential background to understand what Paul is talking about here in Colossians 2.  When Paul talks about the “basic principles” in vs. 8 and 20, the “powers and authorities” in vs. 15, the “worship of angels” in vs. 18 and the observance of Jewish law and harsh self-treatment in vs. 16-23, that’s all related to the beliefs and practices of Sceva and those like him. 

The application of what he says is broader, though.  It’s still of question of adding something to the simplicity and the wonder that is the gospel of Jesus.

Now let me repeat what I said last week: religion—almost any religion—can have a socially beneficial effect.  It teaches good behavior, basic morality.  I think the reason that the ethics or behavior taught by all world religions is so similar is that God has imprinted the basics of right and wrong on our souls, on us as image-bearers of God.
But ethics or morality can only take you so far.  It can make you a more tolerable—and tolerant—person.   

But—and here’s the central truth—it cannot take you to God.  Only God Himself can do that, and He does it through the bloody cross of Jesus.

When religion makes the claim that it can connect you to God, it speaks the worst blasphemy ever. 

I want you to think of the worst thing some absolutely godless, God-hating person ever said in your presence.  I think back to a man named Darryl.  His elderly parents were both believers, but he’d rejected the faith.  His father had been infirm for years, and finally died a few days before Easter.  We actually had the funeral on Good Friday.  It seemed that for Darryl, the days were full of agony.  He seethed with anger throughout the funeral.  At his mother’s suggestion, I met with him the day before Easter as he railed against the very idea of God.  He wasn’t just a non-believer, he was an anti-believer.  At one point he pointed out the window.  “See that leaf on the tree?  When it falls to the ground, there’s more real power shown than any so-called god has ever done.”       

When Jesus encountered the most “anti-God” people of the time—prostitutes, tax collectors (who were more like mobsters than IRS agents), pagans and so on—He never once was angered by their words or deeds.  Want to get Jesus anger?  Put a religious hypocrite in front of Him—people who rip off worshipers in the temple with money-changing tables, people who want to stone a woman caught in adultery, people who wanted recognition for the great holy humility. 

It’s this spirit of anger at hollow religion that echoes loud here in Colossians 2.  And Paul says, listen people of God, resist the pull of religion. 

First, he says, resist hollow philosophy and human tradition that’s at the core of religion (2:6-8):
Here’s the good way (6-7)…

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

Here’s the wrong way (8)…

 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

“Basic principles”—the Greek word here is notoriously hard to translate.  It’s stoicheia.  The word is used of things in a row, like letters of the alphabet.  They are “basic”, like building blocks.  But I don’t think “basic principles” is a good translation.  Maybe more like “elementary spirits.”

This exact word is used to describe the evil spirits of the zodiac in The Testament of Solomon.  Paul is saying that “hollow and deceptive philosophy” has its roots both in “human tradition” (people’s ideas) as well as from the stoicheia spirits. 

Next, he says, resist external religious ceremony as any sort of means of God’s blessing (2:9-15).  The specific ceremony that he has in mind is the Jewish practice of circumcision. 

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

(That’s a wonderful passage in itself; we touched on it last week; “you have been given fullness in Christ”; that equals the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”)

11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

(The reason that Paul brings this up is because, like the false teachers he takes on in Galatians, this folk religion error in Colossae also said that the Jewish religious ritual of circumcision should be binding on all male Gentile believers as well.  But Paul says that now, it’s baptism, not circumcision, that portrays what God does in our souls—buried with Christ in His death, risen with Christ in His resurrection—this is our spiritual circumcision.) 

He goes on, vs. 13-15:

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.   

Paul tells us that even baptism is seen simply as an external signal of the internal transformation of the real person by the power of the Christ—not as a saving ritual.  We continue to use external signs like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, laying on of hands, anointing with oil and so forth, but never with the belief—the religious belief—that these external rituals have any power in themselves.  The power is in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Here Paul mentions the “powers and authorities”, and it’s also the same as the evil spirits from Solomon’s zodiac.  There’s a very similar passage in Ephesians 6:12: 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.”  The rulers, authorities and powers are again the same beings: the elementary spirits that claim to run things around here on earth and the spirits that that guys like Sceva said they could manipulate.  But Christ has triumphed over them, and He did so on the cross!

Finally, Paul says, resist earthly laws and speculations because they lack real, spiritual, transforming power. 

If someone regards himself as “spiritual”, as “religious”, let me tell you how he’s going to lord it over you:  he will tell you about his special diet, his special calendar and his special visions.  Part of the Jewish exorcist tradition was that you had to engage in strict observance of all these things as you prepare for an exorcism.  And that’s exactly what Paul addresses in 2:16-23:

 16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship [that’s theskeia, which means more “ritual” than just “worship”] of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19 He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

 20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles [the stoicheia] of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 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.

Again, this is lifted from folk Judaism.  What the New Testament teaches about Jewish ritual is not they such rituals and diet restrictions and observances were or are wrong, but that they were simply preparatory.  As Paul says in vs. 17, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  So if you want to keep a kosher table, you’ve done no wrong unless you believe that such a diet makes you more spiritual than other people.  The exorcists believed that these things actually gave you spiritual power to control evil spirits.

These things all seem so small because Jesus is so very large.  Human tradition—it’s so large until it runs headlong into the greatness of Jesus, who puts all tradition into perspective as He brings in truth that’s eternal.  Religious ritual—it seems so timeless, until it runs into the one through whom the whole creation was made—the one in whom all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.  Religious laws seem so powerful until they are they are overshadowed by the reality that is found in Christ.

Can I say something that seems so obvious, but needs to be said anyway?  Jesus Christ is great.  I don’t mean like frosted flakes great, I mean really GREAT.  All this angel stuff seems so small next to Him. 

Now how, does all this come home for us?  The first and most obvious is this: any religious practice or concept that suggests that we need someone or something beside the Lord Jesus for our well-being, now or eternally is false and must be resisted 100%.

Again, it’s Christ alone: not Christ plus angels or Christ plus exorcism, Christ plus rituals, Christ plus saints, Christ plus psychotherapy, Christ plus tradition, Christ plus denomination.  It’s just Christ—Christ alone. 

God is a jealous God.  Twelve times God describes Himself that way in the Old Testament.  Why?  Well, God alone deserves worship.  But it’s also because if we spread our worship around to anyone or anything that is unworthy of our worship, we are harmed as well.  It’s like crossing a steam with one foot on a sure steady rock and the other on a slippery, wobbly stone.  We’re the one who’s going to end up all wet.   

So, beware of religion in all its forms.  It’s dangerous.  The Jesus way isn’t a religion.  It’s a renewal, it’s a revolution, it’s a relationship, but it’s not a religion. 
Let me give you a second come home application: be especially wary of “folk” additions to faith in Jesus Christ.

I don’t think too many Christians are tempted to add Muhammad or Buddha to their faith.  But “folk” add-ons are much more tempting since they are seem so minor. 
It would be easy now for me to bag on certain churches that add on the adoration of saints and so forth, and that’s certainly included.  But let’s think about the things that some of us do or think that may be folk add-ons that we’re fallen for.

Here are some folk concepts that you’ll find on the Protestant side of the fence:

·         The King James Version is God’s anointed translation
·         No one get saved unless they walk down the aisle at the end of a church service
·         Peter will meet you at the pearly gates
·         Angels have wings, live on clouds and play harps all day
·         The devil is red and carries a pitchfork (he has a red tail too)
·         God helps those who help themselves
·         And on and on…

But I’ve got to give you one more “bring it home” from this passage.  While the Sceva kind of exorcists had some bad ideas, they were right about this: the devil is real.  Demons—fallen angels—are real.  Angels are real.  The spiritual world is real.

Demonic attack is real.  Christ is the answer, the solution.  I don’t need some amulet or ritual to protect me; Christ alone is enough.  I don’t need to call on angels or saints; Christ alone is enough.  I don’t need laws and rules and regulations or visions of ecstasy to protect me; Christ alone is enough.  “In the name of Jesus, be gone!” is enough.  He is enough!

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