The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Taking the Apostles off the Pedestal: Power Struggles in the Early Church

AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Have you ever found yourself in the company of Christians whose commitment to God is so great, and whose good deeds are so innumerable, that you feel reduced to a carnal dirt clod just by being in proximity to them?  How do you feel when you’re sitting in a prayer group, waiting for your turn to speak, and some spiritual superstar speaks out a prayer that is far more eloquent than anything you could ever come up with?  Makes you want to pass when it’s your turn to pray, doesn’t it? 

If we’re honest, we have to admit that it’s not always a plus to meet folks who seem fifty miles ahead of us in spiritual maturity.  Far more often such people only make us feel discouraged—like we can’t ever reach the insane levels of dedication and perfection that they seem to have so easily ascended to.  Human beings don’t naturally identify with the fellow who sang praises to Jesus while he was being tortured for his faith.  Such stories grab our attention because they are so miraculous.  But after an initial moment of awe over what occurred, it’s easy to crash down into despair and think, “Is that really what God expects from me?  I can’t imagine being that stalwart in the face of such horrible persecution.”  Give us the fellow who screams and curses God and begs for mercy, and that’s someone who we can all secretly identify with (see Spineless in the Face of Death: Encouragement for Christians Who Have Publicly Disowned Christ).  But spiritual superstars?  Those folks tend to drag us down, not up.  The more they boast about how awesome they are, and the more they talk about how effortlessly they glide through life on clouds of abundant joy and blessings, the more we feel like major losers.  Such is the common effect that spiritual boasting has—it’s an easy way to pull rank and make others feel inferior to you on a core level.  It’s an easy way to get others to vacillate between envying you and admiring you.  But what if this was what you wanted?  What if you happened to live in a very religious society where the government was based on the laws of the Old Testament, and being a spiritual superstar in the eyes of Yahweh was a key part of gaining social clout?  In such a world, it would really benefit you to con others into thinking that you were spiritually elite, wouldn’t it?  If you could get others to think that you were one of God’s favorites—a member of His very exclusive incrowd—then you’d suddenly find yourself enjoying the same kind of worship that pastors of modern day mega churches are experiencing today.  Welcome to the world of the New Testament Pharisees.

Now having power, glory, and the endless envy of others is all fine and well, but these things can be very tough to hang on to.  So let’s say that you do manage to get everyone to think you’re a perfect spiritual role model—how can you get a permanent lock on all of the sweet bennies that come with that position?  The key here is to eliminate the competition.  It’s not enough to make people believe you’re way out in front of them—you also need to convince them that they’ll never be able to catch up to you.  While you want them to worship you as a “Mr. Awesome,” you also want them to view themselves as spiritual flunkouts.  Pathetic try hards.  Mere wannabes who will never manage to wow God to the degree that you do.

So how do you pull off this tricky feat?  It’s all about messing with people’s theology.  If you can shape their beliefs, you can control their perception of themselves and you.  By New Testament times, the Pharisees in Israel had come up with a fabulous formula for keeping Jewish commoners right where they wanted them.  First, the Pharisees taught that God would only grant salvation to those who managed to pull off sinless living.  Then they claimed that they themselves were doing just that.  Both the Pharisees and their political rivals, the Sadducees, claimed to be perfect in the eyes of God.  Literally perfect.  As in Yahweh would look down on them and say, “I swear by Myself that I’ve never seen such morally perfect, spiritually spotless human beings.”

Pharisees and Sadducees were pompous, to put it mildly.  They took spiritual boasting to extreme levels.  And yet, much to their delight, their scam worked.  The common people actually accepted the ludicrous claims that the Pharisees and Sadducees made about themselves.  What happens when humans are conned into thinking that some other human has made it into God’s inner circle of favorites?  Well, just look at how Catholics treat Mary.  A woman who is barely mentioned in the Bible has been turned into “the Queen of Heaven” and has a whole bunch of complimentary lore associated with her.  Instead of rejecting the whole Mary package as a reeking pile of idolatry, scores of folks embrace it without thinking.  Why?  Because that’s what others tell them to do and they simply don’t question it.  This is how it worked with the Pharisees and Sadducees in New Testament Israel.  Generation after generation of little Jewish kids were taught from the cradle to admire those arrogant glory hogs.  So those kids did.  They grew up into adults who really believed that the Sadducees and Pharisees were God’s favorites—a group of elite spiritual icons who understood God’s laws and God’s will better than anyone else ever would.  Is it acceptable for some twit of a commoner to dare to question the spiritual teachings of a Pharisee?  Certainly not!  When Pharisees preached in synagogues, their views were to be immediately accepted.  When Sadducees preached in the Temple in Jerusalem, everyone was supposed to listen and agree.  Don’t question perfection.  Don’t speak against God’s holy men.  It was a sweet system if you were on the right side of it.

Now the rivalry between Sadducees and Pharisees was fierce, with each group claiming to be more perfect than the other.  But the Sadducees had an inherent weakness: their turf was simply too small.  They were the lords of the Temple, and so their influence in Jerusalem was huge.  But there was a lot more to Israel than Jerusalem.  While the Sadducees were jealously guarding their Temple stronghold, the Pharisees took over the rest of Israel.  They invented the idea of synagogues—local meeting spots where Jewish men were invited to come and get brainwashed by Pharisees.  By being willing to mingle and mix among the commoners, and by flaunting the fact that they themselves had risen up from among the lower ranks of Jewish society—as opposed to the well-to-do Sadducees—the Pharisees gained a much stronger influence over Jewish commoners.  They were the public heroes, while the Sadducees were the more aloof Temple lords.  Because the Sadducees were dependent on the Temple, once the Romans sacked the Temple, the reign of the Sadducees came to an abrupt end.  But the Pharisees lived on, perpetually strengthened by their clever and very mobile system of synagogues.  Soon synagogues were popping up all throughout the Roman Empire, and where there was a synagogue, there was Pharisaical theology being promoted.  This meant that if you were a Pharisee, you could travel throughout the Roman Empire and find Jews everywhere who were ready to instantly welcome you, put you up in their houses, and treat your spiritual teachings as words from God.  They didn’t even have to know you personally—it was the title that would open the doors for you.  To be a Pharisee was to have power, glorious power.  You wouldn’t necessarily be rolling in wealth, but you’d have something better—social influence.  From the perspective of pride, having people’s admiration is even better than having the contents of their wallets, because admiration leads to worship, and worship leads to everyone fawning over you and perpetually complimenting you and trying to please you.  It was a sweet life being a Pharisee.  But then Jesus showed up and threatened to ruin everything.

THE POSITION OF PETER

To understand the Jesus problem, imagine yourself slipping into the sandals of a guy like the apostle Peter. You’re an ethnic Jew living in Israel, which means you’ve been taught from the cradle to admire the Pharisees and Sadducees.  You live up north in Galilee—a long way from Sadducee headquarters in Jerusalem—so it’s the Pharisees who you see most often.  Pharisees are the spiritual superstars who are in your face, and every week you go off to the local synagogue to be reminded of how awesome they are and what a spiritual zero you are.  Since you think Yahweh demands behavioral perfection from His followers, it’s very easy to give up on the idea of ever pleasing Him.  That’s what many of your peers have done: they don’t give a hoot about pleasing God.  They just go to the synagogues to keep on good terms with the Pharisees, because Pharisees had major social influence and they weren’t the sort of folks you wanted to tick off.  But suppose you actually do want to get somewhere with God.  What are you going to do about the fact that you sin constantly?  You know that you are nowhere close to perfectly keeping all of the laws of the Torah—plus all of the extra laws the Pharisees and Sadducees have invented just to keep you feeling like a spiritual clod.  If you’re honest with God and yourself about how many sins you commit on a daily basis, you’re going to be driven into spiritual despair.  You’ll be like that tax collector in the parable Jesus told:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Lk. 18:13)

Tax collectors were considered the scum of Jewish society.  As a fisherman, you’re not scum, but you’re hardly impressive.  You’re just eking out a living while you daily fall so short of perfection.  Meanwhile, you’re very aware of how the Pharisees are so much better than you are. And lest you forget how superior they feel to you, they find ways of reminding you.  Jesus captured the common Pharisee attitude well in that same parable of His:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (Lk. 18:10-12)

Yep, that sounds very familiar to you. You’re used to Pharisees openly bashing on you and your fellow inferior peers.  And why shouldn’t they boast when they’re so much better than everyone else?  They’re always fasting and tithing and doing a bunch of other rituals that you simply can’t find the motivation to drag yourself through.  So obviously Yahweh is wowed by the Pharisees while He looks down in disgust on guys like you and scuzzy tax collectors.  And since this is so obvious, it’s strange to you when Jesus—a nobody who claims to have special knowledge of Yahweh—actually suggests that Yahweh doesn’t admire the Pharisees.  Jesus seems to think Yahweh could actually find a scuzzy tax collector more pleasing than a Pharisee.

“I tell you that the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk. 18:14)

You’re just a simple fisherman. You’ve never received special training in Scriptures like the Pharisees have.  But you don’t need training to recognize how crazy Jesus talks.  Yahweh accepting a tax collector while He rejects a Pharisee?  What is Jesus smoking?  God doesn’t like self-exaltation?  Well, okay, that sounds nice in theory, but you believe that God approves of Pharisees and Sadducees and those men never stop bragging about how fabulous they are.  And if those men really are the members of God’s incrowd, then obviously Yahweh is okay with some bragging…or is He? Jesus says He’s not.  Jesus also makes no effort to hide how much He personally hates the Pharisees (see Know Your Bible Lesson 62: Woe to the Pharisees).  He’s always ripping on them in front of others, and that certainly makes you squirm.  It’s really not doing anything for your social status to sign up for Team Jesus.  You can see Pharisees eyeing you when they’re glaring at Jesus, making mental notes that you’re one of His followers. So why would you take that kind of risk?  You wouldn’t, unless you really think Jesus has the chops to surpass the Pharisees in Jewish society.  If you’re Peter, this is exactly what you think about Jesus. You think He is Yahweh’s Messiah, and that one day He’ll seize the throne in Jerusalem, drive out the Romans, and become the greatest monarch the world has ever seen.  If you play your cards right, you could end up being given a sweet position in King Jesus’ government.  It’s for the sake of your own political future that you decide to take a huge risk by siding with this brazen Rebel against the Pharisees.  When Jesus starts ripping on Israel’s spiritually elite,  you stand there awkwardly and hope you’re betting on the right horse.  You remind yourself of all the miracles you’ve seen Jesus do to convince yourself that He really must be the Chosen One.  And if He’s really the One, then sticking with Him is the smart move, and someday He’ll fix it so you’ll outrank these Pharisees who you’re currently ticking off.  At least that’s how you hope it works out.

But then Jesus turns all suicidal on you and dies.  Seriously??  But then He comes back to life three days later.  Whew!  Your dreams of glory are saved!

When the apostles were with Jesus after His resurrection, they kept asking Him, “Lord, has the time come for You to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” (Acts 1:6)

Now that’s He’s made His super powers clear to the whole world, Jesus will surely launch a coup and set up His new government, with you being one of His royal advisors.  Or not.  Because now He’s just ditched you again.  He’s gone floating up to Heaven and left you on earth with a whole bunch of burned bridges and your reputation in tatters.  Have you made a colossal mistake by putting your faith in Jesus?

Just when things are looking hopeless, Yahweh saves you once again.  He infuses you with His Spirit and suddenly you’ve got super powers.  Now you’re the miracle worker that Jesus used to be, and check out the size of the crowds you’re attracting!  You’re just a lowly fisherman, and yet thousands are gathering around to hear you preach.  Is this sweet or what?  Finally, you’re getting your turn in the limelight.  The more you heal, the more they fawn over you.  This is great.  And of course you’re promoting Jesus—your new Hero, and the Guy who hooked you up with this glorious situation.  You’re telling everyone to put their faith in Jesus. You’re fearlessly ripping on the guys who crucified Him—the Pharisees who you so used to admire. But secretly, you still do admire them, and you also feel like they are way smarter than you in spiritual matters.  So when one of them suddenly shows up and announces that he has become a Jesus fan, you’re totally thrown off your game.

You’re Peter.  You’re just a lowly fisherman who barely knows Scriptures.  It’s not like you’ve got smooth answers for how bizarrely Yahweh’s promises about a Messiah worked out.  The truth is that you’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions rolling around in your mind.  But this Pharisee who has just arrived is claiming that he encountered Jesus face to face, and that he’s received a download of special spiritual knowledge directly from Christ.  In other words, you’ve just been knocked back down to the status of a spiritual bumpkin.  There’s a new superstar in town: a Pharisee.  He’s got all the answers, as Pharisees always do.  And when he also demonstrates the ability to perform miracles, how can you compete?  All you’ve got on this guy is that you spent three years actually walking with Jesus.  But somehow that doesn’t sound so impressive when you hear this Pharisee waxing on so eloquently about why Yahweh sent Jesus and why Jesus had to die.  Wow, this guy sure knows his Scriptures well.  The more he talks, the more pressured you feel to fall in line with what he’s saying.  And before you know it, you’re promoting the Pharisee, even though some of what he says really bothers you. But he’s a Pharisee and you’re just a lowly fisherman, so how can you really oppose him?  Your own fans start saying things like: “Hey, Peter, did you read Paul’s latest letter?  I don’t get some of what he’s saying. It doesn’t sit right with me.  Does it sound right to you?”  But what can you say?  Will you dare to oppose the great, learned Pharisee when you’re just a lowly fisherman?  No, you won’t.  You can’t. It’s socially unacceptable.  You feel immense pressure to promote Paul as speaking for God simply because the man is a Pharisee, and you’ve always viewed Pharisees as spiritually superior.  So in your letters you find yourself trying to defend him, saying things like:

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with God. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. Paul writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3:14-16)

You have to plug Paul, because Paul’s a Pharisee, and all of the Jewish converts to your Jesus movement are going to automatically view Paul as superior to you.  If you oppose him, you’ll be the one who ends up ousted.  Pharisees always trump fishermen.

THE SUPREMACY OF PAUL

But now let’s slip you out of Peter’s sandals and into the apostle Paul’s.  You’re a Pharisee, and you’re addicted to the admiration that you’ve spent years basking in.  Joining Team Jesus has been a strategic career move for you.  You’re a smart guy, and you can see that Israelite society is a fractured mess.  With Rome getting more vicious and the Jewish government getting more stressed, your previous plan of trying to climb up the social ranks of Israel has lost its appeal.  At first you tried to score points with the heavy hitters in Israel’s government by running around the Empire persecuting Jesus followers.  Like your fellow Pharisees, you felt very threatened by Jesus as He gained rapid popularity among Jewish commoners, stealing away your rightful fans.  But then, on your way to go beat on some Jesus fans, you suddenly had a dramatic encounter with Jesus Himself.  That encounter convinced you that Jesus was Someone very special after all.

Of all the great heroes of Israel—guys like Abraham, Ellijah, and Moses—you haven’t known any with the power to pop back from the other world and perform miracles.  But Jesus, He just showed up out of nowhere and struck you blind.  He also knew who you were.  How on earth has some no count Son of a carpenter managed to get these kinds of supernatural hookups?  Your experience with Jesus vaults your lust for power and glory to new heights.  Why settle for being a bigshot among your fellow Jews if you can score the kind of power that Jesus has gotten His hands on?  And what’s stopping you from doing what Jesus did?  He was just some Bum from Nazareth, whereas you are from the cream of Israelite society.  You’re brilliant.  Well educated.  An ace manipulator.  A dominant personality and, okay, so maybe you do happen to think you’re awesome.  But whose to say you’re not?  After all, you’ve never broken a single one of Yahweh’s commands—or so you tell yourself.  You’ve been living sinless from day one, and you don’t mind telling people about it.  In fact you frequently find ways to remind everyone about just why you’re so fabulous when you write letters to the churches that you started.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, I persecuted the church. With regards to righteousness based on Yahweh’s law, I was faultless. (Philip. 3:5-6)

Faultless, that’s how you see yourself.  Perfect from day one.  A bright light of moral purity among all of these dim bulbs.  There’s never been a doubt in your mind that you’re a shoo-in for Heaven.  You have salvation all sewn up, so it’s a total joke to suggest that you were in need of any kind of Savior.  A medal, yes.  A Savior?  No.  These pathetic losers all around you are the ones in need of salvation, not you.  But your unbounded confidence presents you with a problem because Jesus’ whole shtick is that He’s the Savior of the world—the Lamb who atones for everyone’s sins.  A guy like you who never sins doesn’t need atonement because you’re faultless.  And yet how are you going to con Jesus into sharing His toys with you on the other side if you act like you don’t need Him?  Here’s where you have an important decision to make.  It’s obvious there’s only one way to impress this Jesus Guy, and that’s to pretend you actually view Him as doing you some grand spiritual favor.  You don’t, of course, but you’re totally confident that you can con Jesus as easily as you’ve been conning other Jewish commoners your whole life.  It’s all in how you act and how you talk.  No one—not even God—is smart enough to see past your act and realize how carnal your true motivations are.  That’s why you’ve been able to impress Yahweh so easily—because you think He judges you by your actions, not your soul attitude.  Jesus will undoubtedly do the same, because you’ve just decided He will.  So now the challenge ahead of you is to find a way to make Jesus think you actually value Him as your Savior.  This is going to be a bit tough on your pride.  But if you’re going to have to play the part of the wretched sinner who was saved by the glorious Jesus, then you’ll still find a way to be special.  Here’s an idea that your pride can deal with: you’ll change your story from “I was always perfect” to “I used to be the worst of all sinners, but now I’m perfect thanks to Jesus.”  That should do it.  And with this plan, you can go on waving your moral superiority in everyone’s face—which you just love to do—while you also claim superiority in a whole new arena.  After all, you’re a Pharisee: you excel at everything.  So if you’re going to pretend to be a sinner, then you’re going to claim to be the worst sinner there ever was.  You’re going to excel in sin just as you currently excel in righteousness.  No one’s going to paint you with an “average” brush.  So there.

This saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (1 Tim. 1:15)

It’s so fun to be the chief.  You’ve always found it aggravating to be second in command. Back in Israel you were far from being the chief among Pharisees, and you had no quick way to get there.  But here among these so-called Christians, you find yourself in a world without competition.  It was a piece of cake taking over the reins of a movement whose leaders were a bunch of low ranking bums.  Fishermen and tax collectors trying to lead a new religion?  What a joke.  They were easy enough to push aside, and now you’re working hard at building a massive kingdom for yourself.  You travel all over to spread the Great News about you—er, Jesus.  But so long as you’re promoting Him, you might as well promote yourself as well, right?  So you go around telling everyone how you were the chief of sinners before you knew Christ, but now today you’re the ultimate Christ follower.  In fact, you’ve decided that talking about Christ isn’t nearly as interesting as talking about how you follow Christ.  It’s really you that you want everyone to focus on and worship.  After all, you’re a Pharisee, and basking in the awe of the little people is what Pharisees do.  So as you travel around, you pop into synagogues where your Pharisee title is guaranteed to get you instant respect, then you stand around telling everyone how impressive you are.  When you start new churches, you spend the sermon time talking about what a great spiritual role model you are.  When you find little cronies who are eager to assist you in promoting yourself, you train them also to talk incessantly about the great Paul.

That’s why I have sent Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you of how I follow Christ Jesus, just as I teach in all the churches wherever I go. (1 Cor. 4:17)

Yep, everywhere you go, you talk about you and how you do such an impressive job of following Christ.  Your version of Yahweh’s “Good News” is saturated with stories about how fabulous the great Paul is.  But what’s wrong with that?  Clearly you’re more interesting than Christ is.  You’re more worthy of focusing on, which is why your advice to people is simple: they should all strain and strive to be just like you.

Therefore I urge you to imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:16)

As your fan club grows, so does your ego.  Soon you’re laying claim to souls all over the place.  You love to talk as if exposing someone to Christ means you deserve full credit for saving them, and that you now have some kind of spiritual supremacy over them forevermore.

For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. (1 Cor. 4:15)

When you want people to do things for you, you love to pull rank on them, acting like their very souls are your personal property just because you cast them a few pearls of spiritual knowledge.

So, Philemon, if you consider me your partner, welcome back your runaway slave as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul! Yes, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ. I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more! (Phil. 1:17-21)

You’re such an ace manipulator.  You’re so good at laying the guilt on thick and playing the entitled card.  But as fun as it all is, there’s always the concern that serious competition could arise.  The existence of your kingdom depends on your minions believing that you really are as superior as you claim to be.  So how you do maintain a large difference in rank between you and them?  How do you ensure that they feel utterly inferior to you, even as you pretend to be oh so concerned for the welfare of their souls?  It’s easy.  You just refer to your old Pharisee playbook and do the same thing you did back before you joined Team Jesus.  You work the theology, and teach people that God will only accept those who are perfect.  Then you claim to be perfect yourself, and you let everyone else draw the obvious conclusion that they will never be more than perpetual losers in the eyes of God.

So then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of His wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined Him in His death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of Yahweh, now we also may live new lives.  (Rom. 6:1-4)

Here’s the clever little con you’ve come up with to squeeze Christ into the same theological system you’ve always found so profitable.  You tell people that sinning before Christ was one thing, but now that Christ has come, they’ve all been infused with the supernatural ability to never sin again.  Therefore, if they sin, they are worse than failures: they’re going to be eternally damned.

We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with Him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and He will never die again. Death no longer has any power over Him. When Christ died, He died once to break the power of sin. But now that He lives, He lives for the glory of Yahweh. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6:6-11)

How clever is this?  First you refer to two  unchangeable historical events: the death and resurrection of Christ. Then you teach that the fact that those events occurred proves that followers of Christ have the ability to live sinless lives.  Therefore, anyone who goes on sinning can be legitimately branded as a vile rebel.  Of course in real life, a Man rising from the dead doesn’t have bumpkus to do with how much empowerment another man has to overcome a particular temptation in his life.  Your argument is as ridiculous as saying “Because Fred ate lunch at MacDonald’s on Wednesday proves that we have all been freed up from the temptation to sin.  Therefore anyone who still sins is clearly doing it on purpose because they hate Fred and they are rejecting the wonderful gift he has given them. Clearly such people deserve to burn in Hell forevermore.”  This is how absurd you’re being when you say that the resurrection of Christ magically alters the basic nature of human beings.  It does no such thing, but that’s the beautiful part of this argument.  You want people to feel like spiritual failures.  You don’t want them to actually feel confident in their salvation.  That’s why you constantly talk like not sinning is the simplest thing in the world.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)

According to you, it’s so totally basic—so obviously simple.  Just say “no” to sin. Just stop.  Just be perfect.  You then wax on and on about all of the glorious rewards that await perfect people like yourself.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to Him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. (Rom. 8:1-2)

Perfect people like yourself needn’t fear any condemnation from Christ or Yahweh.  Instead, you’ve got a glorious future ahead of you.  You’re totally freed up from sin.  It’s a cinch for you to live sinlessly. In fact, anyone who really has God’s Spirit would be living a sinless life.

You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to Him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. (Rom. 8:9-10)

So then, who is sinless?  Such people clearly have the Spirit of God dwelling within them.  But those who still sin obviously don’t belong to Christ at all. So then, who sins?  Everyone but you? How sad for them.  They’re all going to Hell.  And God hates them.  You love reminding people about how much God hates them.  You find many ways to weave that theme into the letters you write—letters which you pass off as your sincere efforts to encourage people in the faith.  Encourage—now there’s a crock. Discourage is more like it.  You need to keep these people beat down and despaired about ever pleasing God so that they won’t dare to imagine they could ever be as fabulous as you are.  So you select struggles that you know are common to all humans, and you preach that anyone who struggles in those ways could never please God.  Personal thoughts are a great example.  No honest person can claim to have a pure mind that never thinks of evil.  So it is so effective when you remind people that the presence of evil thoughts in their heads is evidence of how spiritually flawed they are.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God. (Rom. 8:5-8)

By making sinless perfection a requirement of salvation, and by teaching that pure minds and righteous motivations are the hallmarks of true believers, you leave people with only two options to choose from.  They can either become as arrogant as you by telling themselves that they never sin.  Or they can be driven into despair by realizing how impossible it is for them to simply discard their old flesh.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to His cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. (Gal. 5:24-26)

It’s certainly not conceited to claim you’re morally perfect.  And it certainly doesn’t provoke people to be constantly telling them that they are spiritual failures.  And it certainly won’t rile anyone’s jealousy to constantly flaunt your superiority in their faces and boast about the ease with which you dispensed with your old sinful nature.  It’s so fun to be a Pharisee and grant yourself a free pass to be as hypocritical as you want.  This was what was so annoying about Jesus when He was on earth—He tried to take the fun out of your game by exposing what a true Pharisee does.  You can still remember the sight of Him shouting out to commoners in the Temple, warning them of your kind.

“Pharisees don’t practice what they teach! They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden! Everything they do is for show!” (Matt. 23:3-5)

Jesus was far too perceptive for His own good.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter, either!

What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees! Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of Hell you yourselves are!” (Matt. 23:13-15)

It’s a good thing Jesus is dead.  He’d really get in the way of your kingdom building efforts by warning your fans that you are just trying to drive them into spiritual despair by lying your face off about what God wants from them.  Well, of course you are because you’re a Pharisee and that’s what Pharisees do.  It’s just a good thing Jesus is dead.  With Him out of your way, you can successfully con these trusting fools into thinking that you’re really passing on revelations from God as you tell them all how impossible God is to please.  And as they try in vain to purify their minds and nail that sinful nature to the cross, their admiration and envy of you will continue to rise.  It’s so fun being a Pharisee.

THE RETALIATION OF JOHN

But now let’s slip you out of Paul’s sandals and into the sandals of the apostle John.  Before Paul barged in and started throwing his clout around, you were finally getting your long awaited moment of glory.  For once, your fellow Jews were starting to take note of the great apostle John.  But now that Paul is also pumping out the miracles, you’re losing popularity.  Those darn Pharisees have always been impossible to beat.  So what can you do?  Well, you didn’t spend three years living like a hobo with Jesus just so you could be forgotten once again.  You want to make a name for yourself, darn it, and if you aren’t really going to get to reign as prince over some province of Israel, then you’ll find some other way of getting the glory.  This glory hogging Pharisee is going to find that he’s met his match in you.  You’re done being treated as inferior.  If Paul can claim to be sinless, then guess what?  So can you.  That’s right: you, John, are going to beat Paul at his own game.  No one is going to tell you that you’re not a true follower of Christ—not after all the years you spent sleeping on dirt and being mocked.  So if Paul is going to say sinless living is the mark of a true believer, then you’re going to claim to meet that standard.  You’re going to beat Paul at his own game.  Two can play this game of: “I’m sinless and you’re not.”  And by claiming to be morally perfect, you’ll keep your greedy mitts on the glory that you rightfully deserve.

We proclaim to you the One who existed from the beginning, Whom we have heard and seen. We saw Him with our own eyes and touched Him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. (1 Jn. 1:1)

Two can play this “I’ve had direct contact with Jesus” game.  As Paul waxes on about his direct revelations from Christ, you keep reminding people that you actually walked with Christ when He was alive in Israel.

We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. (1 Jn. 1:3)

That’s right: you’re claiming to have fellowship with both Yahweh and Christ. Paul is preaching that the only people who can really make those claims will be living sinless lives with their old nature totally cast away.  Fine.  Then that’s what you’ll claim to be doing.

And we can be sure that we know Him if we obey His commandments. If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love Him. That is how we know we are living in Him. (1 Jn. 2:3-5)

Here is your own self-check that you love to flaunt in people’s faces: you simply ask yourself “Am I obeying God’s commands?”  Yes, you are.  Perfectly, in fact.  As perfectly as the pompous Paul.  So there.

Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in Him. Anyone who continues to live in Jesus will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know Jesus or understand who He is.

Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God. So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. (1 Jn. 3:4-10)

While Paul goes around bragging about how easily he resists the temptation to sin, you upstage him by claiming that you don’t even desire to sin.  It doesn’t even cross your mind to sin.  You can’t sin—you’re literally incapable of it now that you belong to Christ.  That’s just how super awesome perfect you are.  Beat that, Mr. Pompous Pharisee.

CONCLUSION

Have you had your fill of arrogance yet?  If so, then kick off those sandals of the apostle John and let’s return to real life.  You sin every day.  We all do.  Knowing Christ has never enabled anyone to live a sinless life.  We just think that it does because we park our brains and accept the foolish teaching that our foolish leaders keep regurgitating from pompous showboats like the apostles Paul and John.  Then there was pushover Peter, who didn’t have the chops to stand up and call Paul and John out on their foolishness.  A bunch of bloated egos and insecure yes men—such are the great founding fathers of the Church that we’ve been endlessly worshiping for all of these centuries.

The purpose of this lesson is to help you understand the cultural context of New Testament Israel.  The apostles were humans, and all humans are prone to pride trips and social turf wars.  Everyone wants to be a somebody in someone’s eyes, and some of us will go to any length to get others to admire us.  Understanding cultural context can help us understand why the early church leaders were the immature messes that they were.  We can all sympathize with the pressures they felt, and we can all understand the basic principles of wanting to be admired by others.  But if we’re going to grow past spiritual infancy, the day must come when we stop treating these dingdongs like icons of spiritual maturity.  So much of the teaching that we find in the New Testament is total hooey, but hooey can become quite harmful when you treat it as rock solid truth.  If you want to mature in your own walk with God, then you will need to seriously rethink your whole view of the Bible.  You’ll have to unlearn a ton of lies and get exposed to many new truths.  God is the only Teacher you can trust to help you get your theology debugged.  Ask Him to teach you and He will.  Meanwhile, stop wasting your admiration on mere created beings.

FURTHER READING:
How the NT Epistles Define Christ: Not God, Just Another Flawed Human
Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God
Taking Moses Off The Pedestal (Jude 1:9)
Recognizing Your Spiritual Dependency On Humans
Know Your Bible Lesson 76: The God Dispensers
Shady Shepherd Tactics: Gaining Rank

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