Paul, the man Jesus “recruited” face to face after His death and resurrection to be the apostle to the Gentiles, was concerned about the purity and integrity of that Gospel. He had every reason to be proud of his accomplishments and heritage as a Jewish Pharisee, a scholar and leader of the highest order, but counted them all rubbish for the sake of the Gospel. Paul did not boast in his accomplishments; he boasted in Christ.
At the same time, Paul was keenly concerned with bad influences creeping in to the little pockets of believers that Paul oversaw and nurtured. We see this concern in most of his letters, including the letter to the Philippians, which I have been reading the last couple of days. Paul says in Philippians 3:2-7:
“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by [in] the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
This got me wondering: Who might Paul be talking about today?
In Paul’s day, a major concern was distinguishing between the old covenant and the new covenant, the Law and grace, the promise that came through Abraham that is by faith and the promised that came through Moses that are by the Law. This was a key distinction, especially for a Jew like Paul, because the Law was only the foreshadowing; Jesus was the reality. The Law was only a stop gap, a placeholder, a tutor to teach us that no one can be made right before God’s eyes through our own efforts; we all fall short; Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law’s requirements and the only way to God the Father.
These were important, fundamental principles that Paul jealously guarded in his day at the very beginning of the church. They are no less important today, though concerns for the integrity and purity of the Gospel go well beyond the thinking of Middle Eastern Jews, Greeks and Romans in the 1st Century.
Though Paul is addressing the Jewish inclination to put faith in the observance of the Law, heritage and teaching, the Gnostic views of Greek philosophers were no less of a threat, albeit a much different one, in the 1st Century. Paul addressed those concerns as well in other letters. It depended on his audience and the influences that played on them.
Today, though, what are the threats to the purity and integrity of the Gospel?
It could be anything that provides an independent measure by which we determine our allegiance and in which we put our faith. I have written extensively about political platforms and political ways of thinking. Do our politics inform our faith? Or does the Gospel inform our politics? One way obscures, corrupts and bends the Gospel to its own purposes and is antithetical to Gospel, even if it sounds good.
And that is the problem: many things sound good to us. If someone uses enough Bible verses and sounds spiritual, it’s easy to be led off track. I have written about Jesus’ warning that we should know those false prophets by their fruit, but we should not be led astray if we know scripture and have a heart to follow it whatever the influences of the day might suggest.
I dare say, we have to be more vigilant and concerned about people in our own midst who may be wolves in sheep’s clothing than anyone hostile to the Gospel. Maybe they don’t even realize they are wolves. Maybe we have been influenced by wolves, not even knowing it.
In Paul’s day, and I suggest in ours, the influences we most need to be concerned about are the religious ones in our own midst!
Neither Paul nor Jesus spent much time talking about the Roman pagans who ruled over Palestine in the 1st Century. Jesus focused on the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Paul focused on the people coming around the pockets of Christian believers attempting to influence them back to following the Law or those who embraced a Gnostic gospel that exalted special knowledge and the deity within people while denying the physical resurrection of Jesus.
These were religious influences that were close to, around and infiltrating into Christian circles. The openly antagonistic enemies of Christians were not the influences that Paul and Jesus were most concerned about.
Where might these similar influences lurk today? I have already suggested the “Christian politician”. I have written extensively about the Christian support of Donald Trump. I understand that Hilary Clinton was viewed as a greater threat to Christian values and concerns in the last election, but hooking our wagons to Trump is dangerous and threatens to corrupt and destroy the integrity and purity of the Gospel message. Frankly, it already has.
Fine, Christians helped get him elected to avoid the greater perceived threat, but now we need to hold him accountable to the Gospel. We need to hold up the Sermon on the Mount as our example we expect him to follow, and if he won’t follow Christ, we should not follow (or defend) him!
What is the fruit? Paul said he had more reason to boast than most. He even recited his credentials, but only to say that he counts them all loss. Paul boasted only in Christ. This is the attitude for us to follow and for us to look for in the people we hitch our wagons to.
I don’t really want to keep going back to Donald Trump, but he is such a good example (or a bad one) of the kind of fruit that should raise red flags. How often does he boast about himself, how smart he is, what a good business man he is? Where is the boasting in Christ? Where is the humility?
Certainly, there are other people we should be concerned about. College professors who impose their own views on the scriptures are one set. I think of a guy like Bart Ehrman. He grew up in the church. He went to Wheaton College and graduated with a doctoral degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, but he has turned his back on the integrity and purity of the Gospel. He trusts in his own ability to assess the veracity and authenticity of the writings, which he has concluded are suspect. (For an idea of Erhman’s approach to the New Testament, watch A Critique of Bart Ehrman’s Forged.)
My point here isn’t to name names. I have just picked some obvious ones that raise red flags. Science is another huge influence today. Some scientists even assert that science is the only measure of truth and reality that exists. Many would reduce all things, spirituality, the mind, beauty, love – everything – to mere molecules in motion. Many see religion and spirituality through the constricted and myopic lens of science, but scientists are mostly outsiders, strangers to Christians. More insidious influences can be found much closer to our church steps.
We could lump all the New Age and prosperity gospel advocates into another bucket. Some Christians may think it unfair of me to lump them together, but I see the same “spirit” in both. The common thread? How can I leverage spiritual truths to benefit me? It’s about manipulating knowledge and truth for one’s own benefit. Whether it is scripture or witchcraft or Zen Buddhism or astral projection, the focus is on using spiritual “devices” for personal profit.
This is not the example Jesus or His followers gave us. God emptied Himself to become one of us and, then, was obedient to death on the cross. He tells us to take up our crosses to follow Him. That is what His early followers did – they followed him in the example of selling their possessions, sharing with each other and those in need and exalting the Gospel above themselves and their own personal benefit. Paul counted all that he achieved in earthly influence, power and possessions as loss.
Paul, like Jesus, urged us to focus on the fruit – the example:
“Keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is their destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven….” (Philippians 3:17-20)
What is our focus? Is it on ourselves? Our present lives? The things we have achieved and gained and treasures we want to gain in this life? Where is our treasure?
Where is our confidence? Is it in what we can achieve? Is it in what we have? The achievements and credentials of others? Larger than life personalities of people who boast in themselves and what they have done?
It boils down to focus. Where is our focus? Our confidence and our focus should be on Christ. Our measure is Christ. Everything else is expendable (loss).