“For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (Romans 8:5-10 HCSB)
I think that one of the greatest technological achievements of my lifetime is the Global Positioning System, or GPS. As most of you know, it is a series of low orbit satellites that are used to triangulate your position within approximately 16 feet. There are new versions of this technology being deployed, right now. But the current system works quite well, is easy to use and accurate enough for most uses. The newer version will greatly enhance the accuracy and the United States military has current access to a much more advanced system that provides almost pin-point accuracy.
When I say accurate enough for MOST uses then it implies that there are some uses of a GPS system where a much more accurate position is truly needed. For example, I have heard of how some snow plow operators in far northern areas use a GPS based system to guide them for snow plowing when they are unable to “see” the actual road. This system is used to guide the plow operator when he/she is unable to see the road due to deep snow or blizzard conditions. Sounds pretty cool, literally. Brrrr. But can you imagine trusting your life to a system that can only pinpoint your location to within 16 feet when you are driving along a road with a sheer drop off of several hundred feet or more? I think I would want something that is MUCH more accurate, in those conditions. Wouldn’t you?
Now, imagine a spiritual positioning system that could guide you in your relationship with God. That is what Paul is describing in our focal passage. GPS: a God Positioning System, if you will. This GPS is not satellite based but is based on the presence, power and authority of God’s Spirit within you. Let’s take a look…
Last week we considered how God did what was needed for us to have a relationship with him (https://wp.me/p5mod1-8IU). If you didn’t catch that, go back and read that post. God DID it! Not you. Not me. We were incapable of pulling ourselves out of this hole – this spiritual mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, so God did what was needed. Jesus became what we are (human, frail, weak) so that we might become what He IS (godly, righteous, child of God)! Let that sink in, for a bit.
But Paul isn’t finished. Not by a long shot. Jesus didn’t just come to redeem us, to make us sons and daughters of God, He came to make us holy, righteous and obedient. This isn’t just some exercise in a heavenly judicial setting to declare us righteous, He came to transform us. To change us from the inside out. We truly are new creatures in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 HCSB)
As mentioned, the Global Positioning System is a really cool thing, but it needs a few more pieces to make it useful. For one, your GPS device can only use the GPS satellite signals to calculate your relative position based on those signals. How helpful would it be if your GPS device simply displayed that data. For example, my current position according to GPS is:
Latitude: 35.434789 / N 35° 26′ 5.24”, Longitude: -97.005556 / W 97° 0′ 19.999”
That helps, doesn’t it? Interesting data, but only if you are able to take those coordinates and plot them on a map to identify the approximate location. What we’ve been able to do using GPS coordinates and mapping software is to take the raw data and make it useful and meaningful. For example, I can ask Siri to find a particular location, business or address and give me directions. She looks up the location, calculates a route relative to my current location, then gives me turn by turn directions through voice interaction. In fact, I do that quite often. An extremely useful application of those confusing numbers.
By now, you might be wondering why I’ve converted my sermon into a science or social studies lesson on the GPS satellite system and geolocation technology. Well, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is our guide for all things related to God. The Holy Spirit is our spiritual GPS. Without Him, we would be wandering around trying to find God, understand things related to God, and struggling to be obedient to God. Jesus put it this way:
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” (John 14:26 HCSB)
“Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send Him to you. When He comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment: About sin, because they do not believe in Me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see Me; and about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.” (John 16:7-11 HCSB)
Ok, so what does Paul mean when he tells us that “those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh but those who live according to the Sprit, about the things of the Spirit”? That determines the “location” we’ve set with our spiritual GPS. When we “think” on the things of the flesh then we set our minds, goals, thoughts, and desires on the things of this world and the things our “human nature” desires and craves. To put it another way, if I want to get to my office from my house then I have to primarily go west and set my destination for that location. I cannot get to my office by going primarily east.
I know, some of you are thinking “well, if you go far enough east then you can get there.” Yes, but I’d be crazy to go that route, right? Right? That would be crazy. I’d be going about 24,860 miles out of my way to get to my office. That’s not crazy, that’s just plain stupid. My office is just 40 miles from my home, why would I go an extra 24,860 miles to get there. That’s often how we try and justify our journey to God, too. Well, I can still get there if I take MY route. It just takes me longer and is more scenic. No, some routes are just wrong. Our culture puts it this way, “all paths lead up the same mountain to God.” Not necessarily. Most paths lead us away from God, not towards Him. In fact, Jesus said that He was the only pathway to God: “Jesus told him (Thomas), “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 HCSB) You might not like those words, but they aren’t mine – they’re His!
Ok, so Paul says that the mind-set, focus, worldview, life goal or direction of the flesh is death, but the mind-set, focus, worldview, life goal or direction of the Spirit is life and peace. Why did I include all of those other words? Paul simply says, “those who live according to…” To live according to something is to use it as your guide, map or life goal. If you live according to the flesh then your life goal or focus is to satisfy your personal needs, desires, wants, passions and feelings. It means to focus on those things that are “of this world” or are human, earthly, natural or physical. By the way, this IS the focus of our culture. Our culture is focused on two things: ME and NOW. While there are some cracks forming in that rock-hard focus of our culture, it is still primarily focused on what I need, what I want and living life in the moment.
But why? Why is a mind-set or worldview that is focused on our physical needs or desires wrong or harmful? Because it is hostile to God, unwilling and even incapable of submitting itself to God. Paul sums that up by stating, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” This is really where most non-believers begin to pull back from the principles of Biblical faith. As I’ve mentioned before, you can believe in God and even embrace the facts related to Jesus identity and redemptive work but if you refuse to submit to His authority and Lordship, then you are not a Christian. It is possible to be a nice, humane, kind, spiritually minded, moral individual and be in opposition to God’s authority over you. The world is full of them. Morally good individuals who are unwilling to submit to God’s authority. Hostile towards Him and His demands, expectations and authority.
This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about your physical needs. In fact, He cares deeply.
“No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money. “This is why I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? …So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat? ’ or ‘What will we drink? ’ or ‘What will we wear? ’ For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” (Matthew 6:24-25, 31-33 HCSB)
Did you catch that? “For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father know that you need them.” Three things to note: Jesus (1) refers to them as idolaters, (2) who eagerly seek these things; and (3) God knows you need these things. They’ve made these things their god, thus He calls them idolaters. And they “eagerly seek” these things which indicates their primary focus and goal in life. While Jesus uses “money” as the focus of that passage, I hope you realize that ANY other subject of our desires can be placed in that same position and passage. Anything that assumes the position of authority in our lives other than God is idolatrous and makes us hostile towards God and His authority over us.
I want to take a moment and address a growing trend in our culture that is directly related to our focal passage. Pauls states, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Gospel truth, but not received well by those obedient to the flesh and modern culture. One way that is often cited to deal with this truth is to claim that some “modern beliefs” are not specifically condemned by Christ. For example, some claim Christ did not specifically condemn homosexuality so it must not have been considered sinful by Christ. Yet, Christ never rejected the Old Testament law and specifically said that He came “not to destroy but to fulfill” the law (see Matt. 5:17). An argument that Christ must be in favor of something based on His silence on that subject simply doesn’t work. Christ never specifically condemned many sinful acts like slavery, rape, child molestation, pornography, or spousal abuse. Yet, I doubt any of us would want to argue that He was in favor of those things simply because He was silent on those subjects.
However, I want to end this week by focusing more on how Paul does deal with our expected obedience to God. I’ve spent quite a bit of our time pointing out that a mind focused on the physical or fleshly desires cannot please God, but Paul says: “You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you.” The mind-set on the Spirit is life and peace and, as followers of Christ, the Spirit of God lives in us. I started out talking about GPS coordinates, map software and how foolish it would be to try and get to my office that is 40 miles west of my home by driving east – and that is really Paul’s point. You cannot get to where God wants you to be, life and peace, by following the map laid out by the needs and desires of the flesh. You MUST follow the map and path laid out by His Spirit.
If I were to request directions to my office on my smartphone, the path provided would likely be the most direct and fastest route available. However, some mapping software now has the ability to take other factors into consideration along that route and to suggest changes to that route as conditions warrant. For example, the fastest route for my commute is along a path using I-40 west to I-44 north near the Oklahoma County Fairgrounds to North May Avenue. However, if an accident occurs along that route then it might be quicker to take I-235 or I-35 and a slightly different route to avoid the traffic backup caused by the accident.
In life, we tend to choose the path that is the fastest and the most direct route for our goal. However, God has different priorities than we do. His path for my journey through life might include some intentional detours that involve encounters that seem like distractions and are very time consuming, to me, but are designed to teach lessons about Him, His goals and purposes for my life. Those might involve a few “accidental” encounters and God appointments along the way. In fact, I’m quite certain that the journey along God’s path for my life WILL include some of those – perhaps, many of those encounters. We need to pay attention to those encounters, listen to those lessons and then act in accordance with His will and in response to His Spirit guiding us. I promise, a God honoring response in those encounters and circumstances will be quite different from your initial gut-reaction to them.
Let me end with an example. I mentioned above that our culture often dislikes Jesus’ expectations of obedience and absolute Lordship over their desires, goals and personal lives. To be honest, we often resist that, too. I’ve often cited the example of Jesus response to the Scribes and Pharisees in John 8 to the woman caught in adultery they brought before Him. They demanded and expected a strict interpretation and application of the law to her sinful actions, but He didn’t respond that way. He asked them to judge her based on their own merit and innocence or guilt. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Let me be very clear here, Jesus did not dismiss or condone her sin but He did refuse to condemn her and stone her. Instead of condemnation, He offered grace. He didn’t reject the law and say she was innocent and sinless and that adultery was permissible, but He did offer grace and forgiveness. The one who was sinless, worthy and capable of throwing the stone, didn’t.
I suspect, we would have expected God’s path to have taken the path of condemnation and stoning. It didn’t. It took a detour into grace and forgiveness. Does that mean that the Old Testament was wrong? No, but it was often neglected and misunderstood and Jesus showed us how God intended for it to be applied – faithfully, obediently, but with grace and mercy for those who fail. Jesus point should be clear, the religious elite standing around the woman expecting her to be stoned were just as guilty and in need of being stoned. The one worthy of condemning her offered her grace and forgiveness, we should do the same. Not because we are worthy of condemning anyone, but because we have received grace and mercy and must pour it out on others if we hope to continue to receive it. Now that’s a detour that God often inserts into our path… do you follow it? I hope so, it brings life and peace.