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~ The Roadmap of the Way ~

In the Bible, between the Acts of the Apostles and Christ’s Revelation to the apostle John, rests the letters to the early churches and its leaders. Interestingly, the order in which they were written coincides with our personal spiritual journeys. They were a roadmap for the post-Pentecostal developing church. They are also a roadmap for our own spiritual journey.

During the first years of the Gospel’s proliferation, Christianity was still a subset or sect of Judaism. Jewish people were evangelizing Jewish people. In a vision, Christ made it clear to Peter that the Gentile people were also to be inheritors of the Gospel, the Good News. In the non-Jewish Christian communities of the Galatia region, many Jewish hard-liners were spreading the word that Gentile converts needed to follow Jewish law to be true Christians. One can imagine the confusion for many, especially since obedience to Mosaic and Levitical law was held to be the means toward redemption.

So early on, only fifteen years after Christ’s ascension and the Pentecost, Paul wrote a strongly worded letter to the Galatian community, opening with "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7, NIV).

Paul was telling them, and us, that faith, not legalism, is the way of Christ and redemption. That’s where we all must begin our faith journey.

About the same time, just before AD 50, James penned an instructional letter that provides balance to what Paul wrote. James concentrated not on what needs to be believed through the vision of faith but on how to apply faith in manifested action and work. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:18b-19, NIV).

As we each personally grow into faith, the evidence of faith’s existence in us must be as a shining light in the world. “O Lord, handle me like a flaming torch and throw me into the night’s darkness.”

Our next period of spiritual development may well take us to Corinth. This city was on a strip of land between two oceans. The shipping industry valued Corinth as a trade route because it would save time (and money.) The city built a track on which ships and their still loaded cargo could be transported across land from sea to sea. The international world commerce and culture literally moved through Corinth and its own culture suffered because of it. The Corinthian people had a world reputation for being immoral and corrupt. In their day, people would insult others with the phrase, “You’re acting like a Corinthian.”

The Christian community today is infused with the trappings of a post-modern, antichristic culture. Like Corinth, through our personal spaces the world is moving its cargo. We must not yield to the temptation to share in these goods. Paul’s message to the Corinthian Christians is for us: Don’t be like the world parading through your world – maintain your separation and spiritual integrity.

About five years after Paul wrote his letters to Corinth, he produced a more formal treatise on this issue of faith and redemption along with Christlike living to the Christians in Rome. His letter to the Romans is a provocative reminder to us that the only way to God is through a way of living, manifested faith.

Given our spiritual growth thus far, there often comes a time when we are feeling self-assured. We then may take stock (and entertainment) in weaving our own philosophical twists and intellectual propositions into the pure Gospel. We then are vulnerable to falling back into believing that a good practice of ethical principles and religious regulations merit us righteousness. We may begin to trust in our goodness over that of God’s. This is what was happening to the church in Colosse.

Paul told them (and tells us) to avoid complicating and adding to the profound but simple truth of the Gospel. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hallow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8, NIV).

If we achieve success in integrating all these Pauline teachings in grace and humility, we will hear a message of commendation. Paul wrote such to the Christian community in Ephesus about AD 60. In essence, he said “you are doing okay...keep on the course and spread your light and love to others."

About the same time, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in Philippi, the first European church located on a plain in northern Greece. The Philippian Christians were especially generous and attentive to Paul’s needs, providing him financial and moral support during his missionary travels. This thank you letter of Paul’s, full of joy and gratitude, was written from prison (as was his Ephesians letter) with a Roman guard shackled to him. “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9, NIV). May we all be blessed with the ability to both write and receive such a letter. It is a wondrous affirmation of our spiritual maturity at this point.

But it is at this very point when troubles disturb our contentment. The apostle Peter addresses this in his two short but intense general letters to Christians facing increasing persecution and assaults of false doctrines. Peter tells us difficulties are increasing but we must hold to the faith and endure. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (1 Peter 4:12-14, NIV). Most of us are in those times right now.

Five years after Peter’s letters, the wonderful expository to the Hebrew Christians was written, reminding us to focus on our Christ, the Truth Incarnate, and not on rituals or works of righteousness.

Thirty years later, Jude steps in with his exhortation to be responsible and proactive; that grace isn’t an excuse for taking things in stride.

At the same time, around AD 90, the apostle John wrote three letters telling us to adhere to the original, pure Gospel, ignoring the false and misleading teachings creeping in (a tendency we continue to resist two thousand years later) and letting the church leadership take care of the political power struggles. “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7, NIV).

 Jesus declared the way is narrow and few find it. But those who choose to embark on this redemptive challenge and self-denying journey are not left on their own. There is no need to formulate our own opinions as to interpretations of the way, only to go off and start another new denomination among the over two thousand already in existence. Solomon noted “there is nothing new under the sun” and Shakespeare reflected, “There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than contained in your philosophies.”

Every question we have, every challenge we face, every personal insight we think is enlightened, new or special, has already been thought, expressed and addressed by Christ, His apostles, the early church doctors, the desert contemplatives, and the thousands of Spirit-led scholars and people of faith.

The roadmap of the narrow way is well designed and perfectly reliable. There’s a joke in the American culture about men not ever wanting to stop and ask for directions. In the spiritual realm, this is a fatal trait. We don’t have to do it on our own. We are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Many went ahead on the road before us and left clear directional markers. And this “communion of the saints” is on the road with us, saying, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21, NIV). Thank our Lord we are instructed to “lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5b).

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Prayergear.com © October 17, 2003

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