Study 4: 1:11-14
The flesh religion
We now come to a section of the epistle, that lasts until practically the end of Chapter 2, where Paul gives us testimony of his conversion and some events thereafter; far from being a diversion the incidents that he relates are relevant to the message of the epistle: that is flesh or Spirit? The verses quoted above reveal what even the best of religion brings: havoc to God’s people.
(Heb. 9:10) Blood was applied to the outward, the washings were outward, the animal sacrifices were outward; even the commandments were outward, they were on tablets of stone or inscribed on parchment. The law being external and outward could not be applied inwardly, and was without the power to change the inside nature of a person.
In the Gospels we read:
Over the centuries, since Moses' day, the Jewish leaders began to add more laws and traditions and it was this that Jesus condemned; the leaders had added burdens and developed traditions above that which God gave. The Jews turned the Mosaic Law into the opposite of what God intended it to be, see study 22 . We could say that the OC became perverted. Instead of pointing men and women to Christ the leaders, who should have known better, had shut up heaven to others and taken the key of knowledge away (Mtt.23:13; Lk.11:52).
Paul was brought up in the Jews’ religion from a child. He became a very high ranking Pharisee. He boasted of being a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews’.
Here we have the apostle stating what he was in the flesh: he had all the externals correct as far as Judaism was concerned. He was advancing in it; it profited him in the flesh, but in the spirit he was dead, as dead as any unregenerate man. If anyone could have confidence in the flesh, it was he; he was gaining the whole world, yet he was losing his soul, no eternal profit at all. And what was the fruit of it all? That this great zealot for God, who was following an outward form of religion, without any power to change, was causing havoc with God’s people, wasting and destroying the church.
Before anyone boasts that this was only Paul’s experience, and that could only happen in the OC, we need to take heed for it can happen in the NC as well. Any work of God can degenerate into the flesh. It can become a 'flesh religion'. Any flesh religion can cause anyone to advance for the advantage of the person involved. Its tradition makes the word of God of no effect; religious people become zealous for their particular cause, and it is this that causes the havoc. The flesh religion wastes and destroys. How does this happen? How do God’s people get into this mess? Usually it is subtle and happens over a period of time, and the downward spiral is by degree. Consider the following:
3.1 CollectivelyA group of believers seek God, and He is pleased to pour out of His Spirit, and a genuine work commences For a time believers live in the truth and in the Spirit, fulfilling God’s perfect will; as time develops, unless they keep guard, they either seek to regulate what God gave, or seek for what others in the world have. Our concern at present is with the former situation.
It may be those who saw the move of God, or it may be the next generation, but at some stage the work degenerates. It starts with walking in the flesh and not the Spirit, that is they think that by their own scheming they can contain God and put His ways into a structure, so a denomination, whether called that or not, begins.
Conditions of membership are laid down and people may be asked to sign a declaration of belief, the declaration may be scriptural but that's not the point: the people are having another burden laid on them. Details may differ from assembly to assembly but the usual pattern is: you can not do such and such in your life, and be a member, and you can't be a member unless you agree to their doctrines, and you can’t be involved in ‘church’ work unless you are a member.
An hierarchy in the assembly develops (thus disobeying a commandment of Jesus in the Gospels! see Mk.10:42-43) and an ‘us and them’ is manifested, whether or not it is called clergy/laity doesn’t matter, for that is what it is. In most places the unscriptural pastoral system develops. The assembly does not realise that this is a remnant of Romanism, but where they have their priest, we have our pastor!
Tradition grows up and woe betide anyone who cuts across that, even if what they say is true and from scripture! These assemblies try to ape how God moved in the past and hope that God will move again. Meetings have their own format, structured as the leaders want, there’s no room for the Spirit; genuine Christian meetings are replaced by ‘services’ and no one but a select few can bring a ‘a psalm, …a doctrine, …. a tongue, … a revelation,…an interpretation.’ The whole thing becomes openly or covertly controlled by the flesh.
3.2 IndividuallyLegalism and bondage can also result from an individual who tries to live the life by regulations, or by some so called special revelation; he then begins to tie a yoke of bondage on others, as well himself. Firstly he may say he had a vision or extra Biblical revelation. Everything then has to fit in with it; he begins to tell others to believe him and his interpretation, after all he had the vision! He then follows a code of conduct, and possibly a strict aesthetic lifestyle, and then tries to impose it on others. This downward spiral leads to the destruction of lives in all sorts of ways. Individuals who are the innocent party usually end up bearing the brunt of the havoc. There is no need to elaborate any further here the point is clearly made.
Those of us who have been in denominations/formal set ups can identify only too readily with the above in some measure. The tragedy of it all is only too apparent to the Spirit filled and led believer. This is not to say that there are no genuine born again believers in such set ups, nor that God can not use what’s there for His glory; that is not the point. The point is that it is legalism, and the tragedy is that many of God’s people like it that way!
How many believers’ lives have been ruined by such legalism we can not tell, but many have - of that there is no doubt. Those who try to effect change and restoration are jumped on, discouraged and thrown out in the name of tradition. Some of those suffer greatly: they either are so discouraged and backslide, or they find themselves in a wilderness of lack of real Christian fellowship.
Such is the flesh religion. It destroys and causes havoc. Now consider this in contrast to how Paul received the gospel.
The true gospel comes by revelation, not by men working it out in their own minds and hearts. Now Paul received this directly from God's hand, so that he could fulfil the apostolic ministry God gave him. But in another sense everyone has to have the revelation of the gospel applied to their lives, if they are to be born anew. It can not be received by man’s efforts or schemes, such as the ‘sinner’s prayer’ which deceives so many into believing they are saved when they are not. This we shall take up in the next study.
This gospel was hid in the ages past: the prophets, and indeed angels could only look from afar, and even then they did not have the full revelation that we have now in these days of the NC (I Pet.1:10-12) This clearly implies that the OC was not the final revelation,- it was replaced by the NC. The implication is then clear: by going back to law and legalism not only is it going back into bondage, but also to something far less than what we have in Jesus. It is rejecting the revealed mystery in Christ. In other words going from the light back into darkness, for Jesus is the light of the world.
The true Gospel of Jesus Christ is a revelation from God to mankind, no efforts of the flesh can bring about salvation. Let us cast off all man made schemes that would change the gospel into a flesh religion, And let us remain fixed in that which God has given to us.