Every year on Easter Sunday, Christians all over the world hear sermons about the resurrection. Most of these messages either talk about the past or the future. There are many outstanding proofs that Christ’s resurrection is an actual historical event. I have heard some powerful teachings that leave little room to doubt Jesus rose from the grave. When we study such things, we can’t help but proclaim the ancient saying, “He is risen; He is risen, indeed!”
When we ponder the resurrection, we also think about the future. It means that physical death is not the end. Someday we will own bodies fit for God’s heaven. We will see our loved ones again and behold glory our finite minds can’t comprehend. The scriptures give us glimpses of heaven, but they are shrouded in apocalyptic language. It makes me wonder if any finite image can describe the infinite. Yet, such foreshadows vanquish the fear of death. I have known loved ones who passed on in perfect peace experiencing great glory even before they took their last breath.
The past and the future are part of the good news of Christ’s resurrection, but what about now? If we read Paul, we understand that the power of the resurrection is very much about today and every day. He viewed resurrection from the dead not just as something that happened to Jesus but something that happened to us. Jesus’s death was our death and His resurrection our resurrection. We partake of the glory of the cross and the empty tomb. They are just as much about us as they are about Christ. Death and resurrection is His story, but it is also the narrative that defines us all.
If I asked you how to experience a relationship with God, how would you answer? We might talk about our devotion to the Lord. We think the things we do define our relationship with God (or don’t do as the case may be!). The greater our devotion, the closer we are to the Father. This sounds good, but it should not be our first thought in knowing the Lord. Everything should begin with what Christ has done. The death and resurrection of Christ is the basis of relationship with God. In fact, it is the power to have a relationship with God!
In Romans 6 Paul talks about death and life, but we must not confine these terms to mere biology. They are very much relational. He concludes by saying that through Christ’s resurrection we are alive to God. Jesus came to make us alive to the Father as He is alive to the Father. His mission was to give us a relationship with God.
The Body of Sin and the Body of Christ
Coming to know God is not our accomplishment. It requires transformation. Through Christ what we were dies, and we become something new. The Lord changes us from someone who by nature could not know Him to one who by nature knows Him in everything. We observe this in the Lord’s ministry. He changed the blind into the seeing and the lame into the walking. These were physical miracles, but they were also living pictures of what He came to do for all of us. When it came to God, we were the blind and the lame. Through His death and resurrection, He gave us spiritual sight and the ability to walk in the Spirit.
Paul spoke of this transformation. For example, he spoke of the Body of Christ and the body of sin (1). His terminology has nothing to do with physiological bodies but are states of being. We die to one and are raised up into the other. In the body of sin, we could not know God. We were dead to Him. It is in the body of Christ that we are alive to God as Christ is alive. In Christ we are above all that ruled the body of sin.
Paul relates these realities in other ways. The apostle spoke of flesh and Spirit, the new creation and the old creation. He wrote about being in Adam vs being in Christ. He talked about the world and the kingdom of God.
Also, in the New Testament other writers joined in. We see concepts like the children of God and the children of the Devil, and we see John’s imagery concerning light and darkness. All these ideas are related, and they all speak of God’s wonderful salvation. They help us understand who we were and how astonishingly different is who we have become. They illustrate the exceeding power of the resurrection.
What the New Testament revealed the Old Testament foreshadowed. The ancient Hebrew’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s gift of the Promised Land pointed to redemption in Christ. God delivered His people from a bondage from which they couldn’t escape. Likewise, He gave them a land beyond their ability to grasp. He defeated enemies they could not defeat and gave them a home better than they deserved. This is a powerful image of how God delivers us from the bondage of the flesh to the freedom of the Spirit. Christ is our Joshua who leads us into the glory of God’s promise.
Death and resurrection are about endings and beginnings. The Lord’s death ended what I was, and the resurrection was the beginning of who I am in Christ. How are we to grasp such things? A good beginning is to look at the difference between our old identity and our new. To understand the power of the resurrection we can look at what we were and what we have become. Through Christ, God delivered us from the bondage of the flesh, to the freedom of the Spirit.
The flesh is incomplete, the Spirit complete.
The flesh by nature is incomplete and constantly striving. It finds its identity in self and seeks completion in the finite. Such is the nature of the world. Christians talk about having a sin nature, and we view this as a propensity to choose evil over good. Yet, the nature of the old creation is far more easily understood by looking at self and separateness than at good and evil. Consider the story of the Rich Young Ruler. It gives us an interesting illustration of the flesh.
The young man in this story was incomplete. Even though he had it all, he was still lacking. If he was full, he never would have approached Jesus. He was willing to be good to find completeness, but that was part of his blindness. Self was the measure of God in his life. At first glance it might appear the Jesus was trying to get the lad to increase his righteousness, but in reality, He was leading him to lay it down and enter the possibility of God. We can only know the Infinite God when Christ is the measure of God in our lives.
Jesus skillfully used the Law to reveal the young man’s heart. He loved the finite more than the infinite. He sought completeness in finite things, and he could not lay down worldly treasure for heavenly treasure. His money defined him, gave him worth and status, and he could own any material thing he wanted. What a perfect illustration of the flesh! It seeks life in the creation, in self and self-gratification. The flesh seeks life in the finite. It is in love with earthly treasure. The divine nature seeks life in the infinite, the Spirit.
The young man was powerless to let go of his greatest love. Jesus exposed the young man’s condition. He was a prisoner of the flesh, and the only way out was to enter the possibility of God. This is the nature of the flesh and it is why the only escape from its rule is Christ. No amount of will power can overcome it. It is at home in the world rather than God’s house.
We can all relate to the rich young ruler. All of us want to be complete, and we are willing to be good to gain life, but we always fall short. We can’t grasp God because we can’t let go of the world. How many of us make promises to reform and to turn our back on the world only to be lured back in? Why doesn’t God help us be good, so we can obtain His favor? It might seem that the Lord leaves us in a wretched condition. Yet, God will not help the flesh be good. To do so would only feed the ego and increase its bondage. Just as it was with this young man, God exposes the weakness of the flesh not for our shame but for our deliverance. His purpose is not to make the self acceptable but to bring us to the end of self, a place where we have nowhere to go but to Him. He invites us to find a new measure of who we are and of what we possess, and He is that measure. All weakness leads to Christ if we have ears to hear what it is telling us.
The flesh can be good, but it is also capable of terrible evil.
Our paradigm often compels us to look at the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in terms of good and evil, things to do and things not to do. Yet, this passage is far more about relationship with God. The deeds of the flesh are a picture of separateness from God and the fruit of the Spirit illustrates the life connected to God.
Every deed of the flesh comes from a state of incompleteness and self-definition. If we seek completeness and identity in the finite, lust and division will rule over us. We will always need more and sometimes having more means taking from others. Self is king in the world, but the problem is everyone is trying to rule and to be the one who has. When self is the standard, we measure others by self, dividing them into good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable. No wonder the world is in a constant state of turmoil and unrest. It is its nature. It can be nothing else.
The Spirit lives in a realm of completeness and having. Hebrews calls it God’s promised rest. The flesh dwells in a state of always having to do more and have more. Throughout my life I wrestled with thoughts I had not done enough to know God. Those thoughts were especially strong on days where I was too busy or distracted to spend time with the Lord. It was as if some days I deserved God and some days I didn’t. When Moses asked God His name, the Lord responded, “I AM that I AM.” Bad flesh says “No you are not!” And it lives accordingly. Good flesh tries to make God be who He is. I have seen both in my life, but I struggled most with the good. It took years for me to realize that my struggles with God were merely ego. I was making self the measure of God in my life.
This was my great war with God, and I didn’t even notice it was happening. The flesh is blind. It cannot perceive God’s presence. Doing more will never end our feelings of not doing enough. How can the finite grasp the infinite? It takes a change of nature and of paradigm to find rest. So great is this change that doing enough is no longer a consideration. The Spirit lives in a state of having God. It begins its days and ends them with having God not getting Him. The Spirit has no less of God on a busy day than it does on a day of prayer. Likewise, the Spirit is alive to God even in failures. Death has lost its hold in the New Covenant age. It has no place in the heavenly realm, and we are to live as citizens of heaven who are not subject to the powers that ruled the flesh.
The flesh not only has to do more, it must have more. No matter what it possesses, it is in a constant state of needing more. Its lusts are easily aroused. For example, we might enjoy moments of contentment, but we notice something we don’t have on TV, and suddenly we are in a state of incompleteness. Or we see on social media what others possess, and we think they are complete, and we aren’t. Everyone else’s life seems more exciting that our own. They have what we don’t, and they get to do things we don’t get to do. This doesn’t apply just to worldly things. It can apply to religious matters. More, bigger, and better can invade churches with ease. If we had bigger buildings and bigger crowds like other churches! And we try to drag God along for the ride. Certainly, He wants for us what we want for ourselves!
We might think the solution is learning to be content with what we have. We don’t need to fulfill the world‘s finite definition of completeness. The world lies to us, telling us that finite things can complete us. It can take years or decades to come to the end of this illusion, but there is great peace in letting go of the world’s mirages. When we stop falling in love with images that aren’t true, we find the lie was the source of our malcontent. But this is only the beginning. After every death there is resurrection, and where God exposes darkness, He brings light.
The measure of the what the Spirit has is Christ. We must be careful not to misinterpret this statement. It does not mean that God will fulfill the endless lusts of the ego. It means the infinite is the measure of our life not the finite.
The Spirit is rich, and such should be our mindset. We are not beggars when it comes to God’s glory. This is part of the power of the resurrection. It has raised us from the filthy rags of self-righteousness to being clothed with Christ. It has raised us from being strangers to God to being of His household. We were once dead to the infinite, now it is our life, and that life is abundant. The state of the Spirit is completeness, lacking nothing. Needing more of God became a thing of the past when Christ rose from the grave. Part of going from flesh to Spirit is leaving needing more behind and living in the reality of having Christ.
When Paul wrote his letters, he never had the mind of a beggar concerning the church. He had the mindset of the children of God. He regarded the church as rich in God’s grace and glory. Were they somehow better than we are today, or did they see more clearly?
The flesh cannot see who God is because it fixes its eyes on self. It cannot know God’s riches because its sets its heart on finite things. When the Lord removes the veil of the flesh, we see. Everything changes including who we are and what we have. We perceive that incompleteness was an illusion. We are complete in Him. This is where the Spirit lives, in the realm of having, not in the realm of striving.
We might conclude the mindset of completeness will lead to a lack of ambition or even more sin. Some believe that where grace abounds sin abounds. Yet, it is those who possess the kingdom of God who change the world not those who beg for it. We hear countless messages on our need to do more, so God will do more. Yet, where have such messages gotten us? It is said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. The cure for insanity is not applying the same mind only with more zeal. It is finding a new mind. This is the power of the resurrection to give us the mind of Christ.
Completeness in Christ leads to fruit of the Spirit. The traits Paul lists are not things we do to obtain God but things we do because we have God and participate in who He is. Paul chose his words carefully in this passage. He uses the word “deeds” when talking about the flesh and “fruit” when talking about the Spirit. Thus, the fruit of the Spirit does not come from the Law but from relationship with God.
The flesh has false gods; the Spirit worships the true God.
Can the flesh experience a relationship with God? We have seen that the flesh is dead to God and not conscious of the infinite. Yet, the ego can be religious. However, it worships a god created in its own image, a god who fulfills the ego’s desires, a god whom we must earn.
False gods are a big topic in the Old Testament. God told His people to forsake idols and follow Him alone. In fact, this was the first of the ten commandments. Yet, God’s people were unfaithful time and time again. They were under the Law and thus trapped in the old creation. They were a living illustration of the ego’s inability to love God. One could ask why they went after idols when they had the true God. The flesh is far too in love with self to worship the Lord. Following false gods is the nature of the flesh. It cannot help but do so.
The most notorious false god was Baal, the Canaanite god of storms and fertility. In I Kings 16 Ahab became king of Israel. He and his wife Jezebel lead the entire nation astray. Baal became the people’s chosen god. Elijah, one of the remaining servants of the true God, challenged Ahab and the false god, Baal.
We are familiar with the story of the encounter at Mt. Carmel. Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest. They would build an altar, place a sacrifice on it, and the God who sent fire from heaven to consume the offering was the true God.
The prophets of Baal put on quite a show to move their god. They danced, yelled, screamed, and even cut themselves to get Baal to do their bidding, but Baal proved to be a mere illusion with no power at all. The prophets of Baal were a picture of the flesh and its false gods. The ego will put on a show to get what it wants. Contrast this with Elijah who went to the mountain not to do his will but to do what God commanded. He was an instrument of God. The false prophets wanted to use Baal as their instrument to expand their own egos. Elijah cooperated with God with a simple prayer, and the fire came from heaven.
Idols such as Baal are easy to spot. Other false gods appear as an angel of light and are harder to discern. We are convinced they are real, and they will deliver what we want if we do what they want. Consider the Pharisees of Jesus’s day. They claimed to worship Yahweh. These men appeared to devote their lives to His service, spending two days a week fasting and paying their tithes to the penny. They had great zeal for the Law, even counting their steps on the Sabbath to make sure they didn’t work. Everything about them looked godly, but did they know the true God? Jesus said their father was the Devil! The Pharisees were among the Lord’s greatest enemies. They too were the embodiment of the ego. Void of the Spirit, they had only dogma and rules. In their opinion they had God, but they were the blind leading the blind. We can only conclude that they had a false god just as much as the Baal worshipers, a god created in their own image.
When we look at Baal and the Pharisees, we label them the bad guys. We are not like them. We are the good guys, right? One of the most stunning revelations of my life was to see my ego in both the Pharisees and the worshipers of Baal. I put on the show for God, and I wanted Him to do what I wanted just as they did. My flesh follows false gods just as much as theirs did.
When I was in college, I read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. There are many interpretations of what this story means. Some believe the great white whale represents God and trying to capture Him leads to destruction. I rebelled against this reasoning, thinking those who think this did not know God like I know Him.
That was a long time ago, and in my later years I understood the wisdom of Melville. Only, it is the pursuit of our false gods that leads to destruction. God will always be the untamable white whale to the flesh. Pursuing him leads to the end. Elijah destroyed the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, and the Pharisees met their doom at the hands of the Romans less than a generation after Christ rose from the grave.
I think we too can pursue a false god, a god whose measure is self, a god we seek to control. That god is really the ego. The death and resurrection of Christ frees us from our illusion to serve the Living God. It makes us alive to the one who is true and dead to the false gods of this world.
Sometimes the Lord lets us pursue our false gods, like the prodigal son, he lets us go, knowing full well where we are headed, the end of our self-righteousness and the end of lusts. In other words, our destiny is the pig pen, a place of having nothing. It is as unavoidable as Captain Ahab’s fate in Moby Dick.
Yet, is the pig pen a bad place? No! It is a sacred place, for it is there that everything changes. It is there we meet with the true God. Here the cross becomes a thing of beauty and an instrument of our freedom rather than something we avoid. It is here we rejoice in Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ!” It is here we behold our deliverer, the one who defeated the ego and its false gods that we might be whole.
People often look at me with puzzled expressions when I tell them their relationship with God must die. “How can that be?” they ask, “My relationship with God must live at all costs!” Yet, when we see our relationship with God was based on self and self-gratification, we reach a very important end. It is the death of the old relationship. The power of the resurrection does not mean that our old relationship is new and improved. It means we are raised into Christ’s relationship with the Father. After such a revelation we dare not think of our relationship with God without thinking of Christ.
God vs. the Ego
We have laid out a snap shot of the ego or flesh (To read more, click here.) We might think it is our responsibility to master it. Perhaps God gave us the Law to help us do so. Yet, Paul said the Law only strengthened our transgression. It increased our bondage to the ego rather than setting us free. The Law is good, a reflection of God’s character, but the commandment can only strengthen the self not destroy it. It makes who we are and what we do the measure of God in our lives and thus leaves us with a finite measure of the infinite. It cannot be so!
Men like the Pharisees were enslaved to the good side of the ego, the one that tries to be like God. Men like the prophets of Baal were trapped by the ego’s focus: “What’s in it for me?” When we understand these things, we can grasp Paul’s words, “Who can save me from this body of death?” The flesh was a state of existence just as the body of Christ. Yet, its nature, that of self, prevented escape. Death and resurrection was the only way out.
In the old testament we see how God won many victories. The scenario was usually an all-powerful enemy threatened God’s people. The ancient Hebrews would cry out to the Lord. God would at times send a champion like David, or He would tell the people to stand back and watch the Lord deliver. The enemies, no matter how powerful, always got obliterated.
We read these stories and wonder what they say to us. Perhaps they are telling us that no matter how big our problems are, God is bigger and will provide. That is true, but I think the narrative has a deeper meaning.
The flesh by nature opposes God. It does it in good and evil. It is the enemy of God, the foe we cannot conquer. The giant killers such as David were types of Christ. David killed a monster named Goliath. He too was a picture of the ego, boasting in his false god and in his own strength.
Christ, like David, put the beast away. Only Christ overcame the ego through self-sacrifice, the epitome of the divine nature. At the cross Christ exposed the monster for what it was, and when He died, the body of death died with Him. He gave up everything so we could have God as our everything. His death and resurrection is the path from flesh to Spirit and from the finite measure to the infinite. He came to give us God, and it happened at the most unimaginable place and in a way the ego could not comprehend. Such is the glory of God, the glory He gives to us.
Christ’s empty tomb means we are alive to God and are partakers of Christ. Through Him we comprehend that which was unknowable, the height and length and breadth of the love of Christ. All of life has become an experience of God, a meeting place where the two become one. The body of sin is no longer our home, but the body of Christ. Everything has become new. So, let us set our hearts to live in what is so, laying aside the illusions of the past. Our lives are meant to be filled with glory and praise. When we realize that the resurrection is not just about the past or future, but about today, we see it can be no other way. Through Christ life reigns and death is beneath our feet.
(1) John A. T. Robinson’s book The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology is very helpful in understanding Paul’s body terminology. It is difficult reading, but well worth the effort.