Last Days Religion
Topic: Dudley's Monthly Message Passage: 2 Timothy 3:1–3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:18–5:21
LAST DAYS RELIGION
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive . . . having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5 (ESV)
It seems that some have missed the point of the apostle Paul’s warning about powerless religion because they have delayed it to some future last days. He is clear that he is not speaking of some distant future, but the last days that were present then and are present now. Paul was living in the last days of the Old Testament era, as it was being fulfilled in Jesus and his new people. This era officially ended in 70 AD when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Rome. Paul also is aware that the last days of history began with the resurrection of Jesus and would extend until his final consummation. During these last days, the powers of hell would come against the truth of God’s finished work through Jesus, the final sacrifice and reigning king. He spent much time warning the early believers to watch out for the wolves that would come in to devour the freedom of the new believers. The Jewish leaders who rejected Christ were relentless in their efforts to thwart the growth of the people of God. Governments ruled by demonic ideologies tried to marginalize and mock the group they called, “The Way.” We are still in these last days. The battle over the truth of God’s word still rages. Though the authority of the principalities has been stripped by Jesus’ death and resurrection, they seek to dominate by deception. Only the truth as revealed in Christ can displace the lies.
Powerless religion is not only a fruit of last day’s deception, but it is also an ongoing cause of it. When there is no power to transform human brokenness, the perversions and distortions are displayed in all sorts of non-social and destructive behavior. When the Christian church adopts a powerless version of its gospel, it dooms people to spiritual and moral slavery. The human heart is designed to enjoy intimacy with God. When sin separates, that intimacy is lost and cannot be regained by mind-games, ritual, regulations, and willpower. Only the power of the resurrection can recreate a human heart that can enjoy union with God. Only the living body of Christ can offer a second childhood for those who still suffer from the wounds of the natural family. Only the gospel gives hope to anyone, at any time, that the future is not only bright but sure.
Paul goes on in this text to describe religious people (even leaders) who are predators on vulnerable women, and women who are captive to sins and desires. Current news reports confirm that the church system has been infested with such people. They probably loathe themselves for their misbehavior, but because they have adopted a powerless religion, they are bound by their own form of brokenness.
When some think of power in religion, they visualize physical miracles only. Religious people have argued about the existence of miracles in this day of enlightenment. It is a fruitless argument. Life in union with God is so powerful in its effect, it could easily be called a miracle. The miracle that makes all others pale is the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, which makes personal transformation possible. Broken people being put back together is the miracle that most impacts society and displays glory to God.
As I write, we are facing dark times as a society. Many are praying for revival or awakening. I am not sure what we expect. Will God drop down a cloud of angel dust to fix our problems? Will there be some miraculous turn around in morality? Will we suddenly stop killing babies under the deception that our freedom includes murder? Will our government magically begin to enact just laws that reflect God’s concern for all people? Will people begin to be nice to each other? Will churches be filled with people looking for a place to worship and serve? Must we wait until Jesus comes again with immortal saints and angels to do on earth what he sent the church to do?
God has chosen to link his work on earth to human instrumentality. In fact, the Incarnation is God’s ultimate declaration that he does his work on earth through humans. All along the story, God has chosen humans to be his vessels of mercy. Noah was chosen to save a remnant in the middle of the great flood. Abraham was chosen to be the father of the family that would become a nation. Moses was chosen to lead the great exodus. David was chosen to rule an earthly kingdom that prefigured the final Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus was the ultimate God-man partnership. After his ascension, he sent the Spirit to empower the church, which is now his primary vessel of mercy on earth. As the health of the church goes, so goes the society. The church has the message that is true. Only the truth sets humans free to be truly human again. If the church is defiled, the message is dulled, and the society is destroyed. If the citizens of any country understood God’s ways, they would be praying for the purification of the church. There will be no lasting reforms without the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus. He, alone, offers the reconciliation that unites humans to God again. Alienated people are fearful people, and fearful people are dangerous.
The church, like former Israel, has been invaded by the religion of Baal. It is the universal religion that depicts God as distant and separated from us. Our religious duty is to offer whatever he demands to get him to come and bless us. Everyone is in the market for a god that can be bought or bribed into action on our behalf. Any religious message that contains any part of that belief is Baal-inspired. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. (1 Kings 18). The wicked king, Ahab, had torn down the altars to Israel’s God and built altars to Baal. The prophet dared them to get their god to respond with fire that consumes the sacrifice. 450 prophets, along with 400 prophets connected to Ahab’s wife, were there to face down one little prophet from God. Baal was far off. They prayed long and loud. They danced. They cut themselves. They cried. They laughed. They begged. They promised—until they were exhausted, and there was not a hint of a whisper from Baal. The reason is simple. There was no one there. Baal is a projection of his worshippers. He has no power except what his worshippers give him.
I’ve been in some Christian worship services that felt like that morning with the prophets of Baal. People were trying to get God to show up. They said they would sing him in, or pray him in, or dance him in. They revealed that they thought he was far away, revealing they did not grasp reconciliation. Then Elijah prayed after he had poured water over the sacrifice and the altar. He made sure there would be no religious tricks. If fire came down, it would have to burn water. When he prayed, his theology was revealed. He reflected on his partnership with God, mentioning that he was acting in response to God’s initiative. He was not coaxing God to do anything; God came down and consumed the sacrifice, the altar, and the water.
The altar that Elijah restored was a type of the cross. The animal on it was a substitute—it required death. The worshipper was blessed because of the substitute. One day in the future, God himself, in the person of the Son, was on the final altar. The fire of God’s vindication came down, and he was raised from the dead. He ascended to the right hand of the Father and sent the Holy Spirit to give eternal life to his people. That is the gospel that confronts Baalism. God closed the gap. He came to us. He paid the high price of redemption. He reconciled humans to God and made each reconciled son an ambassador to spread the news.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (ESV)
“Baalism” must be confronted today with the gospel of power. The God who changes people from slaves to free men, from fearful to courageous, from guilty to forgiven, from shamed to clean, from hopeless to assured. When humans can’t change by the force of their own wills, they will normalize their weaknesses and re-categorize their perversions. They will demand that others accept their new language and agree with their version of reality. But, they are still left with the loneliness of alienation and the fear of rejection. They desperately need a God who is present and powerful. They don’t just need miracles of circumstance, they need the miracle of transformation—the kind that only the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead can perform.
“Avoid them.” That is Paul’s instruction. Elijah took the false prophets down to the valley and cut off their heads. He was just following the instructions of the law given to Moses. It was radical, but it revealed the seriousness of tampering with God’s message. Paul doesn’t demand such physical separation, but he does reflect the seriousness of the problem. In our effort to be non-judgmental and open to unity, we can embrace messages and messengers that are detrimental to true worship of God. Baalism is not to be permitted under any guise. To avoid someone or something, we must be aware of its existence. We must be prepared to identify it when we see it. We must choose not to embrace, support, or promote it. Their influence must be cut off from our lives and the lives of those entrusted to us. This is not judgmentalism. It is stewardship.
As the church recovers the gospel of Jesus Christ, society will have hope. Changed people will work to change culture. Cultures that reflect the values of the Kingdom of God will flourish for the benefit of all. In these last days, we have the light to dispel all darkness. We have the power to change and the authority to release prisoners. If the world seems too dark, it is beckoning us to step forward with the only power guaranteed to reconcile humans to God and restore them to being free humans. He has come. He has died. He is resurrected. He reigns now. He has given us his Spirit. He has made us partners on earth. That is good news.