There are many factors that influence the way we think, the way we relate to others, and the way in which we evaluate or judge others. Our family background, our political views, the education we received, the culture in which we live, the attitudes of those amongst whom we live and with whom we associate – these all combine to influence us.
For Christians there is another set of criteria – spiritual criteria – that ought to take precedence over all these other factors.
When Paul came to understand why it was that Jesus had died upon the cross, when he came to understand that Jesus had been raised from the dead and what that meant, his entire thinking was revolutionised. It would be no exaggeration to say that he would never be the same again.
Paul's new understanding did not prove to be sterile, having no practical influence upon him, rather his new grasp of doctrinal truth transformed both his everyday attitudes and his everyday behaviour. If our understanding of Christian doctrine doesn't affect our attitudes and our behaviour then we can be certain that we haven't really understood properly at all!
Old Habits Must Go
Paul used to regard people "according to the flesh". He used to regard Christ that way too. But now all that has changed.
What does it mean to regard someone "according to the flesh"?
It means to judge a person by external or outward appearance. Leaving aside spiritual considerations it means to judge by the unspiritual standards of what we can see with our eyes or understand in a purely worldly sense. To judge a person "according to the flesh" would mean to assess a person's value and worth based upon any number of things which might include:
Racial or linguistic origins – country of origin
Economic or political status
Social background – advantaged or disadvantaged
Morality or respectability
When Paul had judged Jesus according to the flesh he had dismissed him. He may well have focused on some of the following:
He may have been suspicious as to the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth – was Jesus born out of wedlock?
Maybe he thought of Jesus as simply as a northerner and was convinced that nothing good could come out of Nazareth.
He certainly thought of Jesus as being a man under God's curse – the proof was obvious, wasn't it, after all Jesus was crucified as a blasphemer?
He may have thought that Jesus and his followers posed a threat to the well-
Maybe he didn't like the idea of a man setting himself up as a rabbi who had never sat under a recognised teacher as he himself had done under Gamaliel.
Consequently Paul, in his pre-
Acts 8:1;3 "And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles... Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison."
All this raging was however an indication of a troubled conscience as become clear from the words that Jesus addressed to him on the road to Damascus:
Cf. Acts 26:14 "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads."
The goads (or the pricks) refers to a long pole with a sharpened point that was used to drive cattle when they were reluctant to move in the desired direction. An ox that kicked back could not hurt anyone except itself – it was futile behaviour. Thus Paul's resistance was similarly futile and continued resistance only served to harm himself.
There are many ways in which we too may "kick against the goads":
By violating the plain laws of God
By trying to resist his claims
By acting against conscience
By grieving the Spirit
By persisting in following a course of action we know to be wrong
By resisting providence
By opposing God
But when Paul came to understand the truth about Jesus all this old unspiritual way of making assessments of people simply had to change. New views of Jesus led Paul to adopt new views of other people too.
A New Standard
When Jesus appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road Paul's life was forever changed. He came to understand Jesus in a totally different light. In particular he now came to understand that far from being crucified for any guilt of his own Jesus had been put to death in the place of the sinners he was representing; the punishment he bore was not the just punishment for his sins but for theirs!
In the same way he realised that the stories about the disciples stealing Jesus' body were false; Jesus' resurrection was anything but make-
Now with a new assessment of Jesus, a spiritual and truthful assessment of Jesus, Paul was moved on to apply spiritual criteria to the way in which he regarded other human beings. Prior to his conversion he regarded those who were linked to Jesus as his followers as his and his nation's enemies to be opposed at every turn. But now he regarded relationship to Christ as absolutely essential. Indeed so essential was a person's relationship to Jesus that from now on this was the only valid way of assessing people. For Paul the human race now divided into two categories and only two – was a person in Christ or not, was he a Christian or was he not? Any other differences between men and women were now utterly irrelevant what mattered was the spiritual reality of being in Christ.
In harmony with this new outlook Paul could write:
Gal.3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Col 3:11 "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."
None of these worldly, fleshly or outward differences are to be regarded as having significance any longer for those within the church, that one flock of Jesus Christ the great shepherd of all his sheep. These old ways of dividing up humanity are no longer relevant because, as Paul goes on to declare:
2Cor.5:17 "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."
In the original there is no verb and a literal translation would read more like this: "if anyone is in Christ – new creation!"
Paul compresses his thought and expresses it few words. What he asserts is impressive and a great import. Not only is a person entirely renewed when he/she comes to faith in Christ but he/she lives a new life where relationships are new and lived out in a renewed set of circumstances. Becoming a Christian is no small matter and we should never allow ourselves to imagine that it is.! We need to allow the truths of God's word to sink deep down into us so that it is the Word that now determines our assessments and not our own poor fleshly outlook.
When we look out at a mixed group of people we may well be tempted to say there is little difference between the Christian and the non-
How is this possible?
The change in the status from being a non-
Paul gives us the oh-
v.18 "All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself"
The wonderful thing about the Christian message is that it is so full of hope. What use would it be to dangle an unattainable carrot in front of us as though by working hard, by doing this or doing that, we might one day be able to save ourselves? No amount of effort on our part could produce in us a righteousness that would pass muster before God because the source of all such effort is polluted by sin. Any good works we might think ourselves capable of would only spring from our selfish pride and our self-
No, the Christian message doesn't lead us down the blind alley of works religion instead it reveals grace-
All the newness that is brought about as a man or a woman is brought to faith in Jesus Christ is brought about by God: new creation, new birth, new life, a new man, a new self, a new name etc. The NT is full of this wonderful renewal – we read of a new teaching, a new covenant, a new commandment, a new and living way; we hear about new wine in new wineskins, new treasures, a new world, a new heavens and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and we long to join in the singing of that new song worshipping the One who makes all things new!
Do you dwell on these things? Do you think about them? Do you meditate on these matters? If you never bother yourself with them don't be surprised if you find your heart growing cold. If you don't think on these things don’t be surprised when you find yourself failing to understand why others get so enthusiastic about them. If you fail to take time to meditate on these things they won't seem very important to you and you'll want to put something else in their place and all you'll be left with will be your own paltry efforts.
v.18 "All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself."
We weren't merely lost having failed to follow the right path; we weren't simply acting in ignorance and only in need of being given some more information. We were at enmity with God – we were living as rebels – it wasn't that we weren't his friends we were actively his enemies fighting against him with a deep-
But God decided to step in. God decided to act. God sent his Son, his only Son. And in the person of his Son God was at work to reconcile the world to himself! Paul goes on to explain that this was how God dealt with our sin problem:
v.19 "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation."
God has done all that is necessary for our salvation and he has done it all through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ!
That is what God has done and he wanted men to know what he had done. He wants men today to know what he has done. And so there is a message of reconciliation to be proclaimed. What use would it be had God acted but never explained what he had done, never told people what he had done? But having done all that was necessary to secure our salvation, our reconciliation, he established ministries of reconciliation which would pass on his message of reconciliation!
He set Paul aside to this task. Paul first needed to be transformed by the reconciling power of this message and then when he had he could begin to fulfil his calling to exercise the ministry of reconciliation. He didn't make up stories and invent fables. He didn't try to set up an alternative religion to the religion of Jesus – he passed on the message of reconciliation that he had been given a message which always placed Jesus at the very heart of things.
My friends, this evening, have you heard this message of reconciliation? Have you understood it? Have you responded to it? Are you rejoicing in it? Are you glorying in it? Is it transforming everything about you so that your attitude towards others is affected and not only your attitude towards God?
May the Lord fill us with joy in believing as we heed the call to be reconciled to God. And may God enable us to pass on to others this message that he has entrusted to us.
And to God alone be the glory.