Hard to Change? Changed by the Spirit!

Opinions are easy to form and hard to change – just because people themselves are hard to change.  Just before Easter in 2011 a journalist by the name of Mungo MacCallum wrote a very opinionated article:

There are some weeks when the stars just align, and this is one of them. Three great myths to be celebrated in the space of seven days – it doesn’t get much better. The first was the foundation Christian myth of Easter, the ultimate happy ending. According to the best source available (the Bible), the story is that sometime over 4,000 years ago an omnipotent and benevolent God created heaven and earth, saw it was good, and created a perfect man and woman to live in it. But they broke the rules by eating an apple, so God decided that he could never forgive them or any of their descendants, who were now steeped in irrevocable sin. To prove his point, he sent floods, fire and brimstone and numerous lesser torments, but some humans, suffering from what would now be described as Stockholm syndrome, still believed he was good and kind. And at last, he found a way to forgive them for their unforgivable sin. He sent them his only beloved son on the condition that if, and only if, they tortured him to death would they be forgiven. And they did, so he gave them the choice: the ones who still didn’t love him would burn in hell forever, but the faithful would live happily ever after – and he did mean ever. Well worth celebrating with a big show at Homebush and a few chocolate eggs. . . . ” 

“Listen to the sermon as you read it below. 
 It’s only 25 mins long

Is it possible to change a man who views God in this rather ridiculous way? Then again, is it really possible to change anyone at all? Let’s think about this.

How do you change someone?

It seems the common way for us humans to try and change a person is to change their outward behaviour, the way they act, and through that maybe to change their mind, the way they think.

Psychologists’ work with people in order to change their behaviour and often use a technique called Behaviour Modification. It involves Operand Conditioning and both Positive and Negative Reinforcement. The simplest description of Operand Conditioning is that people will perform voluntary actions to get something they want or avoid something they don’t want.  Reinforcement answers the classic question of “What do I get out of it?” when applied to behaviour. Positive reinforcement is the addition of a pleasurable experience in reaction to something someone has done.  Negative reinforcement is the process of changing behaviour by taking away any unpleasant consequences if the ‘right’ behaviour is performed. The reverse of that is the nasty option of trying to force change by actually applying a negative consequence when the ‘wrong’ practice occurs – aversion therapy.

But unfortunately merely changing behaviour does not change deep motivation because motivation is something that comes from within a person’s mind – what they think comes from what they are. Indeed, Jesus said, “as one thinks in the heart, so are they”. And that’s hard to change!

Our readings today are – Corinthians 5:11-21; Acts 4:1-22

Religious Behaviour Modification

In the time leading up to Jesus’ coming the Jewish religious leaders were very much into Operand Conditioning and Positive and Negative reinforcement. They taught that the way to have God’s favour was through the performance of rituals and ceremonies. If you did this and did it properly, then God would give you His blessing. If you kept all of the Scribal Laws, the Traditions of the Elders – the whole 600 or so! – then God would bless you. If you didn’t, then you would suffer the consequences. We all know of religious effort, and that even with this, it is hard to change.

Of course, at the back of all that religious conditioning was the thought and belief that God was only speaking through the official priesthood, and to question the priesthood was held to question God himself. That’s what we come across in Acts 4 where we find the Jewish priesthood in strong reaction to God’s new covenant ways. Almost as strong a stance as poor old Mungo’s above – something that’s very hard to change.

A wonderful healing – God’s intervention for change

Peter and John have been involved in the healing of a crippled man and have then taken the opportunity to tell the people about the salvation that is available through Jesus, the man whom the religious leaders had crucified with the help of pagan men.

Now, in the hearts and minds of the high priest and his cohorts (who were Sadducees), that was a slur that must be answered because in their opinion to question their actions was tantamount to questioning God. So high-minded were they that even bending their even to listen to another view of God, and by reaching by him through grace, was a thing hard to change. Instead of listening, the wealthy, aristocratic party of the Sadducees was intensely annoyed by Peter’s sermons. Primarily they were offended by Peter’s emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection because they did not believe in life after death. And, since they were wealthy people who lived in comfort, prestige, and power, the last thing they wanted was any disturbance of the way things were. It was to their advantage to stay on friendly terms with the Roman government. They were also extremely fearful that Peter’s preaching would provoke the wrong kind of attention from the Roman authorities.

They also probably thought that they could stop all this Jesus business by simply getting rid of the men who were talking about him, preaching His name. And so they put them in the jail overnight and then brought them in to face the 70 men who comprised the Sanhedrin. One question is all they asked Peter and John. But what a question! By what power or what name did you do this? (Acts 4:7). How did you make this change – this impossible change, this unheard of miracle of healing? It’s not just hard, it is impossible with man alone!

Peter’s answer

It is in Peter’s answer to this question that we see God’s way of changing people; he changes their thinking, he changes people from within, in their depth, in their heart.

To show this we should look at Peter before and after Pentecost.  Let’s go back perhaps two months to the morning of Jesus’ arrest.  Peter is at the house of the high priest looking on at what is happening to Jesus and he is confronted by a servant girl, who tells the people around her that Peter was with Jesus.  He denies it point-blank. Then a bit later someone else says the same thing. Again Peter denies it. A third time Peter is challenged about being one of Jesus’ disciples and he denies it a third time (Luke 22:56-60).  Peter was scared stiff; Peter was afraid; Peter wasn’t going to stand up for Jesus – his concern was for number one, to protect himself.

Skip forward those two months and see him standing in the Sanhedrin and listen to him as he answers the religious council.  This is a very different Peter! This is not the scared man! Yes, he looks the same, but inwardly something has changed his mind, and he’s thinking in a different way. What changed him?

The thing that has changed Peter is that God has filled him with the Holy Spirit. The change in Peter is so amazing that Luke wanted Theophilus, the bloke he’s writing the book for, to know what brought about the change! Luke wanted the early Christians to know what brought about the change! Luke wants us to know what brought about the change in Peter! Peter’s attitude to God had changed because he is now filled with God’s Holy Spirit. He now had the power within to confront those religious bigots that day. He now had power to witness before those who put Jesus to death. How does this power work? 

It’s like the way that a hydro-electric scheme works. It’s easy to think that the power comes from the water flowing over the wall of the dam but it doesn’t. The generating happens deep within the structure where turbines powered by tons and tons of water coming through pipes work the generators that transform the power of the water motion into electricity, quietly and without notice. That’s how the Holy Spirit’s power works! Quietly and without notice, the power of the Holy Spirit transformed a person from within and changes them from being religious, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, to being a born again follower of Christ. That’s what happened to Peter – he’s been changed by the Spirit.

A different message – change from within

And because he had been changed his message was different too.  His message was not like that the Sanhedrin believed in, so it was not about keeping rules and regulations – it was about what God had done in Christ. Too often in our day the preaching and teaching in many churches is just like that of the religious people of Peter’s day – not focussed on Christ but focussed on making people feel good by being religious. That was the message of the Pharisees! That was the message of the Sadducees! And that’s why they would have nothing to do with Jesus!

Jesus words, and Peter’s message were so different because they were about a new a man, about Jesus himself. So that Jesus’s words to those first apostles were that when they received the Holy Spirit they would not be witnesses to religion but witnesses to him.   He was the message and he still is the message. 

So Peter’s answer to their question, although at first focussed on the kindness shown to the crippled man, finishes by saying that it’s by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God has raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed (v10).   In other words, this man has been made well because he has been changed by the Spirit. Peter is so sure of this that he even berates the Sanhedrin for rejecting Jesus who (as the Psalmist says) “is the stone you builders rejected but which has become the capstone” (v11). He then finishes his statement before the Council by saying categorically that: salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved (v12).  What he’s really saying is that since God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and since he’s made him head over the kingdom of the redeemed, then Jesus is the only way to heaven and the confession of his name is the only hope of salvation from sin and judgment. Believing into that and confessing Jesus is the way to the change that salvation brings. That’s what brings about change

No other name: the power for change

This claim of Peter’s is not just a claim limited to the Jews of Peter’s day. No, he says, the reason there is salvation in no one else is that “there is no other name under heaven”. Not just no other name in Israel, but no other name anywhere under heaven, including the heaven over Australia and the heaven over Iraq and the heaven over New Zealand and the heaven over America!  It is the only name given among men [all humanity] by which we must be saved. There may be some who would like to say; “Yes, Jesus is the source of salvation, but you don’t have to know him in order to benefit from the salvation he offers. In other words, if you are a faithful Muslim or Hindu or Jew or animist, you will be saved by Jesus. There is salvation in no one else, but you don’t have to believe on him in order to be saved by him.”

More than physical healing – a name that brings salvation

But that is not how God sees it! They asked, “By what name, or power….”. So God, through Peter focussed on the NAME of Jesus. Look what is written: for there is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved. He is saying something more than that there is no other source of saving power, that you can be saved by under some OTHER name. The point of saying, “There is no other NAME,” is that we are saved by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus. His name is our entrance into holy fellowship with God. The way of salvation by faith is a way that brings glory to the name of Jesus. A bit later in this book Luke quotes Peter saying: All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43).  Peter is saying that the name of Jesus is the focus of faith and repentance, and in order to believe on Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, you must believe on him, on his name. What Peter means is that you must have heard of him and know who he is as a particular man who did a particular saving work and rose from the dead, and receive as that saving Christ and Lord.

With Jesus

So how did Peter know all of this? It’s because he had been with Jesus. See what v13 says: When they saw Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary, men, they were astonished, and took note that these men had been with Jesus. Being with Jesus was what changed them because being with Jesus meant being baptised with the Holy Spirit. And guess what? The Sanhedrin can see the change. They can see how bold and brave Peter and John are and they can also see the evidence of the power that is in them – the once crippled man is standing there with them. What are they going to do?  They are going to try to change them back to being religious and to being obedient to the religious hierarchy of the day.

That’s the way that mere religionists operate – they try to engineer a change in outward behaviour. So: …they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (v18).  But they hadn’t counted on the power of God’s Spirit in these men; they hadn’t counted on the fact that they had been with Jesus, and been changed by the spirit. What had come over them, onto them, into them, is the power of the Holy Spirit. And so they were confronted by the answer that Peter and John gave them: Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (v19-20).

A changed allegiance

What they are saying is that because of Jesus and His gift of the Spirit within them, not only they had changed within, but they also had a new and overriding allegiance. No longer were they just men who took everything that the priests told them as being God’s truth; no longer were they going to go along with a religious system that tried to control them by the imposition of rules and regulations that told them how they were to think and act; no longer were they going to overlook the gross distortions they saw between what the religious leaders said and what they did. Their eyes had been opened because they had lived with his Son and had been taught by him and had been filled with his Spirit. Their allegiance now was to Jesus Christ, God’s Son and everything they did from now on was going to bring glory to him. And we read that the Sanhedrin didn’t know how to punish them because all the people were praising God for what had happened (v21).  And we know what had happened! A 40year old man who had been crippled from birth had been miraculously healed. He had been changed by the Spirit – he would never be the same again.

The lessons to learn – change in us, change towards others

Now what this means for you and me is that if we have received Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour then we too have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we are changed. We are no longer bound by the rules and regulations of the Old Testament but we are bound by the bonds of our love for Jesus Christ. And that must affect the way we interact with those who are fellow Christians and with those who are not Christians. Let’s look at these two relationships separately.

  • First, our relationship with those who have received Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is to be on the basis of Christ’s command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  What that means, and we really need to take this to heart especially when we are upfront, is that we should not seek to impose our own form of rules and regulations onto our brothers and sisters. That’s what the Pharisees did!  That’s what the Sadducees did! But Jesus never did that and if we want to be truly spiritual we need to be more like him – willing to put ourselves down so that he may be lifted up. That’s what Jesus meant when he said: Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). That’s the change that happens when we love each other as Christ loved us – we will be willing to lay down our life for our brothers and sisters.
  • Second, our relationship with those who are not Christians is to love them as we love ourselves. Jesus, when asked about the greatest commandments, said that the first was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And he said the second is to love your neighbour as yourself. What an amazing change would happen in society if we did that. I wonder if my love and your love for those outside of the church shows them how much we love Christ?

A reply to a doubter

I began by quoting from an article written by Mungo MacCallum.  Here’s how I replied to his article. ‘For someone to comment on the ‘Christian Myth’ without knowing the facts seems odd. For example, the Bible never talks about an apple – it mentions the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Also, the Bible doesn’t say that God decided that he could never forgive them. What he said was that if they ate that fruit they would die and death and decay would become the norm. Further, to show humankind that they were still loved, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, died on the Roman cross to take away death from all who believe in him. That’s the Easter message. So, Mungo, please get your facts right and listen to God – you may learn that he is not a big bad boogie man but a God of love and grace as millions of people down through the years, and even now have found.’ It’s hard to change a mind like Mungo’s – but with facts (truth), honesty, and openness, we can come to the great change of mind that we all need if we are to find and enjoy life in Christ Jesus. 

Let’s do it! 

It is God’s grace to us that He is in the business of changing people’s attitudes to him, and to others, and he does it through the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that message he offers forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and when we accept his forgiveness and his gift we are changed by the Spirit. Let’s live as changed people, changed by the Spirit.  Yes, it’s hard to change ourselves, but with God “nothing is impossible”. It’s never too late to change.

Original: Grahame Daniel, May 2020

Edited for online publication

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