Few realize that God's Word reveals that Satan the devil has deceived and blinded most of the world. Only through God's calling can that blindness be healed. How does that help us understand who is truly part of the Church?
". . . Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable "(Romans 12:2).
Immediately after the Church began, Peter healed a widely known beggar who had been lame since birth (Acts 3:1-10). This extraordinary event drew the undivided attention of everyone in the temple area. Immediately "all the people ran together...greatly amazed" (verse 11). Peter advised the astonished crowd, "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19).
Paul, on another occasion, wrote to the Christian converts in Rome, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2).
What do these commands— repent, be converted, be transformed —mean to anyone who wishes to be a part of the Church of God?
The word translated repent, the Greek metanoeo, literally means"to perceive afterwards" ( Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "Repent"). It conveys the concept that one must recognize and admit his sins and acknowledge the need to change his mind, heart and behavior.
The word converted is translated from the Greek epistrepho, which means "to turn about" or "turn towards" ( Vine's, "Convert, Conversion"). It indicates that, in addition to recognizing and acknowledging sin, one is taking the necessary action to turn away from sin by turning toward God. This requires doing what is right, not just acknowledging what is wrong.
The word transformed is translated from the Greek metamorphoo. It implies major or total change— a transformation comparable to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.
All three of these concepts clarify the profound change God expects of Christians—a spiritual transformation we commonly call conversion. But no one can bring about such remarkable transformation by himself, through his own power.
The preceding words describe a miraculous shift in thinking and behavior that occurs in people who receive God's Spirit. Only those who are converted—spiritually transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit—are Christians (Romans 8:9).
Why is this spiritual transformation so important?
Our need for spiritual discernment
Paul said, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). God wants all of His people to think like He and Jesus Christ think. Only if we think like Christ will we ever learn to behave like He behaves. To understand how Christ and the Father think requires the transformation of our minds.
People assume that the themes in the Bible are easy to understand, that anyone can readily comprehend biblical truths.
Some are easily understood. But many scriptural themes and principles are also easy to mis understand. This leads to a fundamental problem: A person tends to see what he wants to see.
The Bible is written in a way that makes it ever so easy for anyone to close his eyes to what he prefers not to see and to shut his ears to what he would rather not hear. As a result, he can easily develop a distorted view of what the Bible really says and means.
Paul's letters in the New Testament provide us with an excellent example of this. Speaking of Paul's writings, Peter said they "contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16, NIV).
This is no rare occurrence. Paul's epistles, as well as other parts of the Bible, are commonly misinterpreted by people the world over. They were misunderstood in Paul's day, and they are still frequently misunderstood.
Only people with God's Spirit guiding their thinking can comprehend the biblical message. Those who do not have God's Spirit either fail to understand or simply refuse to accept portions of the Scriptures.
Paul well understood this tragic human characteristic: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14, NIV). Paul's words are clear: One must have God's Spirit to comprehend spiritual truths.
Spiritual blindness hides the truth of God
Generally, the problem is not that the Bible is all that difficult to understand. Rather, those who read it find much of what it says hard to accept, so they interpret it in a manner that is acceptable to them—more compatible with their own views.
Why this self-delusion?
The problem is twofold. First, God tells us: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways...As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Why is this so? Primarily because God's thoughts and ways are based on love— concern for others (Matthew 22:36-40). As human beings, however, we are fundamentally self-centered; we think first of ourselves .
Our natural tendency is to deceive ourselves so we can serve our own selfish interests. Jeremiah 17:9 points out that our "heart"—our basic human motivation and reasoning—"is deceitful above all things"; it leads us into self-deception. We need to recognize in ourselves this common characteristic of human nature and be willing to change it so God can transform us. We need a new way of thinking, a new heart and mind.
Our thinking must be changed by God's Spirit so that our interests will be focused outward, enabling us to love others as we love ourselves. Commending the young evangelist Timothy's loving concern for others, Paul wrote to the Christians of Philippi: "For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:20-21).
Satan's blinding role
Another major reason people get confused and misinterpret the Bible is Satan's influence: "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4, NIV). Isaiah compares this blindness to a "veil that is spread over all nations" (Isaiah 25:7).
Satan misleads humanity by inciting prejudice against biblical principles. To some extent he has, at one time or another, succeeded in deceiving all of us (Revelation 12:9). God's Word warns us that Satan's influence is so pervasive that "the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19).
The combination of deception and prejudice against God's ways has warped the spiritual character of mankind. "There is none righteous, no, not one," wrote Paul (Romans 3:10). "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (verse 23).
Paul explains that all have "walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others" (Ephesians 2:1-3).
This may shock you, but it's true: All of us, you included, have been blinded and deceived by Satan's pervasive influence. We all need to repent, abandon our personal prejudices and accept the authority of the Bible. We must begin to read it with understanding.
Tragically, someone who is deceived doesn't know he is deceived. The Bible describes people's prejudices against God's truth as a hardening of their hearts: "They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts" (Ephesians 4:18, NIV).
Their understanding is hindered by the hardness of their hearts. That's why Jesus told His followers, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given" (Matthew 13:11, New Revised Standard Version). Jesus knew that all but a handful of people could not really understand the significance of His message—and so it remains to this day.
Christ reveals why people become hard-hearted. When faced with truths that do not fit their prejudices, they shut their ears and close their eyes. They harden their hearts by choosing not to understand matters that are contrary to their own opinions.
Jesus clearly explains this: "And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: 'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them'" (verses 14-15).
Jesus explained Satan's deceptive role in nurturing this blindness: "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in the heart" (verse 19). Satan acts quickly to mislead and confuse those who are inclined to hear the truth by influencing them to harden their hearts and refuse to listen.
Only God can heal spiritual blindness
It is extremely difficult for many people, especially those with strong religious convictions, to acknowledge that they may not correctly understand much of the Bible.
Our tendency is to cling to what we have first learned. We tend to be prejudiced against anything that would attempt to correct our own views. Becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ begins with repentance— recognizing where we are wrong and changing our beliefs and behavior. But, before we can repent, God must open our minds. He must grant us spiritual understanding of our prejudices, sins and other weaknesses.
Jesus said that "no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him," and "no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him" (John 6:44, 65, NIV). We need God's help in changing our hearts.
We all, to some extent, tend to be righteous in our own eyes. We naturally assume that our own ways are good and fair. The writers of the Bible, however, knew better. They warn us, for example, that "there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25, NIV). Just because we believe something is right doesn't mean it is right.
Even if our ideas and beliefs appear right and good to us, we should be willing to reexamine them in the light of the Scriptures. Unless we carefully compare our beliefs to God's revelation in the Bible, we risk allowing unrecognized assumptions to harden our hearts and blind us to the truth.
When comparing our beliefs with the Scriptures, we should keep these human tendencies in mind. Our inclination toward self-deception, coupled with Satan's pervasive, deceptive influence through the world around us, is a major barrier to our understanding the Bible. It is all too easy to read our personal beliefs into God's Word and overlook biblical truths that challenge, and can correct, our own ideas.
Blindness obscures meaning
This was the problem of many of the Jewish people of the first century. They thought they understood the Scriptures; they believed they were living by them. In reality, however, they were deceived by their own preconceived notions. Paul explains that "their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted...Even to this day, when Moses is read [referring to the opening books of the Bible], a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns [ epistrepho, converts] to the Lord, the veil is taken away" (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
Paul was describing normal, sincere but spiritually blinded religious people of his day who regularly heard the reading of the Holy Scriptures. They closed their eyes to passages that pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. Why? They blocked them from their minds because that knowledge was unacceptable to them. Their prejudices controlled their thinking. They read the Scriptures or listened to leaders in the synagogue read them, but they missed the point.
Their example warns us against doing the same thing. Everyone needs God's help to recognize and face ways or beliefs that seem right but contradict God's Word. Everyone must turn to God for help to accept, understand and apply the Scriptures to his life.
The true Church of God comprises people whose minds God has opened to see their own shortcomings—their misdeeds and prejudices. Only if we are willing to repent—if we're inclined to change our innermost thoughts and attitudes as well as our actions—can we become true disciples of Jesus Christ.
When we study God's Word, we should emulate King David's attitude when he prayed: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24, NRSV).
Our prejudices are usually too deep for us to root them out by ourselves. Remember, Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him" (John 6:65, NIV).
It takes a miracle from God for us to properly recognize some of our deeply rooted prejudices. It takes strength from our Creator for us to be willing to change them. Without His help, we could never recognize and awake from the spiritual blindness and prejudices that separate us from God.
Knowing how God enables people to overcome spiritual blindness and come to Christ—as repentant and committed Christians—is key to understanding how God's Word distinguishes those who are the people of God from those who remain spiritually blind.
Powerless without God's Spirit
God warns us not to trust our own understanding in spiritual matters (Proverbs 3:5). With only our natural abilities we are simply incapable of properly understanding many aspects of God's Word. Paul explains why we cannot trust our own minds: "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 whose lives are in the flesh are unable to please God" (Romans 8:7-8, Holman Christian Standard Bible). They lack power to control their human nature.
This is why so many people who read the Bible will not accept what it says. Even though they don't recognize it, they harbor an ingrained hostility toward anything that represents divine, absolute authority over their lives.
Paul explains that God's Spirit is the only remedy to the human problem: "But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you" (verse 9). Only with the understanding and strength God provides through His Spirit can we gain the spiritual strength to overpower the dominance of our fleshly nature.
Without the help of God's Spirit, a person's spiritual perspective is distorted by the pulls of his fleshly nature and the influence Satan exerts in shaping his beliefs and values. Even those who have considerable knowledge and understanding of God's ways and try by their own strength to obey Him (like Jesus Christ's own disciples before they received the Holy Spirit) are severely limited in their ability to resist the pulls of the flesh.
Jesus had to warn His disciples: "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41).
Even after his conversion, Paul cited himself as an example to explain how extensively human weakness controls behavior: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it"(Romans 7:15, 17-18, NRSV).
But, with the help of God's Spirit, Paul saw that he could successfully resist the pulls of his nature (2 Timothy 4:7-8). As he explained, "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2).
Paul pointed out that, "at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6, NIV). His death made it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins and receive the Holy Spirit—giving us the spiritual power from God that we need to combat the weakness of our flesh (Acts 1:8; 2:38; 2 Timothy 1:7).
A spiritual transformation
The Church of God is made up of the people who are spiritually transformed by the power of God's Spirit. Here is how Paul sums it up: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:13-14).
This power of God dramatically changes the human equation. His Spirit transforms a person's life. It enables us to override the pulls of human nature and live as God commands. God's Spirit is the single most important component in a Christian's life.
The presence or absence of God's Spirit is what determines whether a person is a servant of Christ—a true Christian. "Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His" (Romans 8:9).
Those who have received God's Spirit constitute the spiritual body that is the Church Jesus founded: "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Corinthians 12:13, NIV).
God's Spirit provides great power
Through the Holy Spirit, God the Father and Jesus Christ provide the power for true Christians to do the good works—to bear the fruit—expected from them. "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Peter 1:3, NIV).
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide us "into all truth" (John 16:13) so we can know how to serve God according to His will. His Spirit makes it possible for us to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ" (Ephesians 4:15).
Paul talks of God dwelling in us through His Spirit: "And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22, NIV). The Holy Spirit is the direct presence and power of God working in His people. Paul admonishes Christians to "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV).
God's Spirit leads to obedience
The transformation of the people of God through His Spirit is a transformation of the heart, the innermost being. Instead of hard-heartedness and hostility to God's laws, they gain an obedient spirit because God works in them; He dwells in them (1 John 3:24).
The presence of a will to obey is so central to the definition of a Christian that the apostle John boldly states: "The man who says, 'I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" (1 John 2:4-6, NIV). This is plain language indeed.
Jesus emphasizes that those who have not received this obedient spirit from God respond to His commands quite differently: "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men" (Mark 7:6-8, NIV).
Any who do not have an obedient spirit adjust God's commands to accommodate their own nature and reasoning. Jesus continues: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that" (verses 9-13, NIV).
Those who do not have God's Spirit find it easy and convenient to disregard the biblical instructions they dislike. They devise their own traditions, giving the appearance of obeying and honoring God while sidestepping the intent of His instructions. Jesus said such worship is in vain— useless and empty (verse 7). Such people have eyes that can't see and ears that can't hear (Romans 11:8).
God's Spirit, however, dramatically changes the attitude, outlook and spiritof His people. They earnestly desire to obey God, and He gives them a humble, obedient attitude and approach toward Him and His Word. They can willingly and faithfully obey His commandments (Revelation 12:17). They have received from Him the power of the Holy Spirit to combat Satan and their own nature.
In short, they are the transformed, special people of God.