Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

Shadow, Substance, and the Lego Vatican in Philadelphia

In recent days, the pope made a historic visit to the United States. One of his stops was Philadelphia, where a Catholic priest had built a replica of the Vatican out of Legos. If I took you to Philadelphia and showed you the Lego Vatican and said, “Look! It’s the Vatican.” You might reply by saying, “Well, it’s a model of the Vatican.”

“No, no, no! This is THE Vatican. See the courtyard and the columns? The dome, the piazza, and all the people? The nuns? And look – the Pope is here and he’s even waving to the people.” If I said that you would know that I was either delusional, lying, or maybe a bit of both.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a deep-dive of Colossians. I’ve taken a slow and Spirit-led (and also very non-linear) approach to studying this book. It has long been one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, and I am finding a vast richness and untold treasures as I have dug in and allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal things to me.

One of the more significant passages in Colossians 2 has struck me recently:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

With the things of God, there is shadow and there is substance. These themes run throughout Scripture:

  • The temple was a shadow of the reality of heaven and eternal life (the presence of God in and around humanity).
  • The Old Testament high priests were a shadow of our great high priest, Jesus Christ.
  • The Sabbath is a shadow of our eternal rest found in the work that Jesus did on the cross.

There are many more, but I think you get the idea. Now, if this is unfamiliar to you, please bear with me and hopefully it will become more clear.

The Shadow Points to the Reality

The things of God which are a shadow point to the reality. The shadows themselves are not the true things; however, they are often mistaken for things which have true substance. This was the problem with the Pharisees. They took the things of God which were shadows and built a religion out of them. Their understanding was limited and much of what they saw was not the true reality.

Take healing on the Sabbath, for instance. It was forbidden by the Pharisees. Why? Because it was considered work, and God had told them that the Sabbath was a day of rest. There was to be no work. When Jesus came, he healed people on the Sabbath. Again, why? Because he understood the reality of the Sabbath (that it was a shadow of things to come). God is for His people and He is working to restore all things back to Himself (See Colossians 1:20).  This is just one way that Jesus demonstrated that truth.

As impressive as the Lego Vatican is (it does have a waving pope, by the way), it is not the real thing – it’s merely a representation of a greater reality. That’s what the shadows are as they relate to the things of God. The shadows are a representation of a much grander reality, and we must come to know the reality, or we will be left (like the Pharisees) holding up the obscure things as those with substance.

The Substance Belongs to Christ

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).

Because Christ dwells within us, we have a vast wealth of resources at our disposal.  I have said before that although we have an inheritance of princes and princesses, we often live like spiritual paupers. That’s because we live by shadows and forget about the true substance. (The reality is that many Christians have been taught more about shadows than substance. It likely isn’t even your fault.)

The things which have substance are Christ’s alone. Colossians tells us that the great mystery of the ages is not just found in Christ, but it is Christ Himself. If that’s not enough, the mystery is also referred to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Can there be a greater mystery? How Christ could dwell in us? It is almost unthinkable. But that is the greatest reality. Christ dwelling in His believers.

One of the most challenge things for me in my spiritual journey has been to sift through the shadows to find the true substance. It is a journey that God is hammering into me at this very moment, and it is one of my favorite times in all my years of following Christ.

Leave the shadows behind and follow what’s real. You will not regret it.

What other things can you think of that are mere “shadows” of things to come? What are you holding on to that’s merely a shadow of the truth? (Feel free to share in the comments below.)

What God Sees: Empty Shell or Beautiful Butterfly?

What God Sees: Empty Shell or Beautiful Butterfly?

I had to make a quick trip to Austin for work last week, and since it was last-minute and within driving distance, I decided to skip the flight and hit the road. Within the first hour and a half, I saw the first of a number of things that would not only catch my attention but begin one of two patterns that would continue throughout my eight hour drive (and, yes, that is driving distance in Texas!)

I noticed a large manufacturing plant that had shut down a few years back. It was now just an empty shell of a place. A number of buildings, both small and large, once bustling with people and movement, now sitting silent and motionless.

“What a shame,” I thought to myself. A waste of resources, space, and material. Who knows what will become of that place? It’s especially a shame because of the hundreds of men and women who struggled to find jobs after it had abruptly closed its doors, a number of whom I have met.

One man, Martin (name changed), told me how he had worked there since his teenage years (he was now well into his 60’s), didn’t have any degree or certification and wasn’t sure what he would do or even how he would pay his bills. The local Workforce organization was offering assistance to a lot of these individuals, including paying for education programs, and Martin was supposed to begin one of those in Amarillo, but he never started.

Driving by, I wondered what had happened to him.

As I continued my long drive, I saw a number of houses and buildings that had been abandoned over the years. Gaping holes where windows and curtains used to fill. Overgrown grass and weeds jutted through loose boards and cracked brick.

One town had even re-purposed a building and put up a sign on it welcoming people to their town.

But how do you resurrect something that’s dead and gone? Lifeless? Worthless?

And that’s when it hit me. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Because I want to share with you the other pattern that I began to notice.

I had been listening to a couple of podcasts as I was driving, and after turning them off, I just began to pray, “God, show me what you want me to see today.”

I started to notice butterflies. Lots of butterflies. I’ve driven a lot in my lifetime, and I have to say that I can’t remember a time when I’ve noticed more.

Most of them were flying right in front of my car (and no, no butterflies were harmed in the making of this post).

My daughter loves butterflies and so I thought of her and knew that she would love seeing all of them.

After a couple of hours, both the abandoned buildings and the number of butterflies stood out, so I knew God was trying to tell me something, but I just didn’t make the connection right away.

What could empty houses and abandoned buildings have to do with butterflies? You might already see the connection. I didn’t at first.

I thought about transformation, about metamorphosis. How a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, emerges from its cocoon and flies away. Only to leave what?

An empty shell!

That was the connection. The cocoon. What happens to it once the butterfly leaves?

It’s empty. Hollow. Lifeless.

What once held life is now motionless and silent. Abandoned.

That’s when God began making the connections.

When we put our faith and trust in Jesus, we become a new creation. We’re the butterfly. At least that’s how God sees us in Christ.

Yet, so often, we still see ourselves as the empty shell. Ugly. Worthless. Barren.

Only those are not God’s thoughts toward us.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2)

What we’re seeing when we look at the empty shell is what Scripture refers to as the Old Man.

What the devil tells us is that is who we still are. God sees so much more.

He sees a new creation because we ARE a new creation. The old is gone. It was crucified with Jesus.

So then why do I still struggle with…

Pride?

Lust?

Porn?

Anger?

Depression?

Self-hate?

Poor self-image?

Imagine a butterfly once emerging from the cocoon trying to re-enter it and live there. You would think the butterfly were a bit off.

That’s exactly what we do, though, in our Christian walk. We receive this new life in Christ only to try and live it out in the empty shell.

The other thing we do is to try and “earn” being a butterfly. It would be like this same butterfly going to sleep in the cocoon every night praying that he would become a butterfly the next day.

Of course, that illustration is ridiculous. If we could see that butterfly and talk to that butterfly (and they could understand us of course), we would tell that butterfly, “But you are a butterfly. You can’t change what you already are! There’s nothing you could do to make you any less of a butterfly or any more of a butterfly. Why are you praying to be a butterfly? You are a butterfly! Now get out of that cocoon and be a butterfly!”

Believer, are you beginning to see?

You are the new creation. You have been transformed. Morphed into a new creature.

So, start living as a butterfly. Believe that’s how God sees you because that is who you are.

Nothing you can do will make you more of a new creation, and nothing that you can do will make you less of a new creation.

Stop trying to live out of the cocoon.

Stop seeing yourself as the empty shell (that old self is dead and buried).

Stop praying to be a butterfly.

You are a butterfly.

You are not worthless and lifeless.

You have Life living inside of you.

Believe.

Have faith.

Be the butterfly.

It’s Not About Punishment

“Go to time out!”

“Do you want a spanking?”

“Wait ’til your father gets home.”

These are typical sayings and thoughts when we think of discipline.  Maybe we’ve been on the receiving end of some of these disciplinary actions, or maybe we’ve said some of these things as we doled out some discipline ourselves.  More often than not, we associate discipline with punishment.  Even when it comes to our relationship with God.

“Uh oh.  You just lied in church – better not stand too close.  I might get taken out with you!”

True discipline, however, is an act of love.  It has nothing to do with punishment.  Punishment creates fear.  Discipline is different – much different.  At least it should be.

I love Matt Chandler’s definition of discipline:  It’s a vision of something in the future that results in action in the present.  Therefore, everything that we do with our children (and everything that God does with His children) falls under discipline and not punishment.  1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  Discipline involves a shaping of something now with a vision of how we want it to look at some point in the future.

It’s like a sculptor who sees what he wants to accomplish and begins to chisel away at the marble.  It’s a slow process.  A painful process at times.  But it’s not about the sculptor punishing the marble.  The sculptor has a vision for what he wants the marble to be.  Something beautiful.  A work of art.  Something that people will look at and take notice.

What is God shaping us for?  What end does He have in mind for us?  Hebrews 12 is a great passage that deals with God’s discipline.  If you read it, here’s some of the things that you’ll begin to understand about discipline:

  • God disciplines those He loves
  • Those that aren’t disciplined aren’t considered legitimate sons/daughters
  • The purpose of God’s discipline is for us to share in His holiness
Just like the sculptor wants others to notice his work, so God wants those who don’t know Him to look at those of us who do and exclaim, “Look what God has done in their life!  What an amazing God!”  Our holiness results in His fame.  We are the representation of God in this world.  Discipline is part of that process.
Don’t believe me?  Then, go to your room! [And read Hebrews 12 – you’re not in trouble.  It’s for your own good.]

Cutting Back

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve become really bored with TV. There are so many channels but there’s little of value that is worth spending time watching.  I don’t think that I can give it up all together. (Hey, I still have to watch some college football and a show or two that I find entertaining).  But, I want to make better use of my time:  spend more time with my kids and wife, more time studying God’s Word and really digging deep, more time planning ways to reach out in our community, and more time building a business and ministry that I’m really excited about.  These are things that are worth spending time on.

What about in your life?  What’s worth giving up for something of greater value?  If you looked back on your life in 10 or 20 years, what is something you wouldn’t regret giving up for something you would like to gain?

Jesus gave up His position in the heavens to come to earth and sacrifice Himself for us (see verses below).  There was and never will be a greater sacrifice.  For me, giving up a few hours a week of television seems like a no-brainer.  It’s still tempting to sit down and flip on the tube and veg out, but I am quickly reminded as I see what isn’t on how wasteful it can be.  There’s a lot more useful things I can do with my time.  Plus, when my kids are older and don’t want to spend time with me, there will be plenty of time to watch all those seasons of 24!

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

First Church of IKEA (i.e., Designer Church)

This week I returned to my old stomping grounds in Dallas, Texas.  My wife and I lived in Carrollton and Arlington while we were still dating and for the first few years of our marriage.  It’s amazing how things have changed just in and around our old apartment complex where we used to live in a relatively short amount of time.  We also visited an area of town known for it’s high end shopping and stores and restaurants.  I had my first experience in an IKEA store, which upon entering, my wife declared, “Welcome to the mother ship of shopping!”  Boy, was she right!  Rows and rows of things that you never knew you needed until they were displayed in an oh-so-friendly manner.  And, there was room after room of all kinds of things for your home.  We wound in and out of the aisles and I realized that they were herding us in one direction like a cow heading towards the branding chute.  But, I was so amazed by all the products and displays that, hey, I didn’t really mind all that much.  And, I have to say, the prices were really good on a lot of things.  And, there was all kinds of furniture and closets and kitchens that you could design on your own or with the help of one of the associates.  Closet systems, tables, entire kitchens, even entire homes could all be designed to your liking.

As we were leaving, I thought about how our churches have become much like my experience at IKEA.  We try to offer something for everyone.  We try to offer the slickest, coolest kids program in town.  Our youth program is second to none – complete with video games and their own worship experience.  We have every kind of small group imaginable.  Our programs reflect our culture much of the time, and dare I say it, maybe even more than they reflect the heart of Jesus?  We want to reach people and think that by offering all these programs and a “build your own church experience” mentality that the people will come and we’ll be able to speak to them and share the Gospel.

We tend to ask the questions, “What do people want?  What will bring them into the building? What can we offer them to keep them?  How can we draw people into our building?”  But, how many times do we stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus want?  How can we go outside of the building to reach people?  How do we meet people where they are like Jesus did?  What will make the people want to go out of the building and share the Gospel and serve Jesus and the community?”

To be fair, I believe that many of these pastors and people running these programs have great hearts and want to do the right thing and want to reach people for Christ.  But what Gospel are we presenting to the people who walk through the doors?  Are we presenting a “Choose your own Gospel adventure…” Or are we presenting the way of the Cross?  Are we presenting the “Lay it all down because that is what Christ has asked us to do” Gospel?  Or do we continue to present a “Come to church, give more money, and bring more friends” because that’s what a good little Christian does kind of Gospel?  Much of the time, though, it seems we continue to ask the wrong questions.  How would our experience of church differ if we started asking different questions?  Maybe some of it would look the same.  Maybe a LOT of it would look very differently.  But, the first step is to start asking different questions.  

And leave the design-it-yourself experiences to IKEA.  Because, let’s face it, they do a great job at it!