Bishop's Message

The shadow and the reality

Sep 2004    

RECENTLY I attended a military ceremony that included a video show and a talk wrapped around a Powerpoint presentation. At the end of the ceremony a picture of the state flag was screened while the national anthem was played. The officer on stage turned towards the screen and gave a smart salute.

While taking all this in, I noticed that the officer was standing next to a real state flag, and thought that it would have been better if he had saluted the real flag rather than its flickering image on the screen.

That incident made me realise how much we have become a TV and movie generation, where reality has to be repre-sented to us through screens, even when it is clearly all around us. This happens in church too. I have noticed that when the sermon is screened on TV screens in church, there are people who prefer to look at the screen rather than the preacher him-self. In many churches, the congregation sits in front of a giant screen and watches and responds to the potpourri of images that it is made to carry.

My point is that we often embrace the shadow rather than the substance. This is not only unhelpful but harmful as well, for in its very essence, it is idolatry. And that is why God is clearly against idolatry be-cause it misrepresents reality and, worse, it robs us from truly experiencing God. Idols are both detestable (Dt. 32:16) and worthless (Dt. 32:21). They are hated in heaven and useless on earth. Hence we find idolatry forbidden by Scripture (Ex. 20:4).

Those who had encountered the true God have been deeply disturbed by idolatry and warned people of its dangers. The ancient prophets of Israel spoke against the rampant idolatry of their day. Paul, after having encountered the living Christ, and when visiting Athens, “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. (Acts 17:16). Christ’s disciple John, who learned deeply about God’s love, pleaded with his fellow-Christians, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 Jn. 5:21).

Perhaps most, if not all of us, would say that thankfully we are free from such idolatry. But really? There are subtler forms of idolatry of which we should be aware. Sometimes the idol is not some-thing foreign to God but rather something that is supposed to legitimately represent or remind THE PROBLEM with the Pharisees was that they were the worshippers of shadows. They had taken the Old Testament laws, which were meant to lead them to the divine Law-Giver, and made these laws an end unto themselves. They had created a complex system of Pharisaic laws and had missed the point altogether. They had clung to Old Testament forms of reli-gion, or rather their own distorted versions of them. They had embraced the shadow so much that when the One who caused that shadow to be formed appeared on the scene, they failed to recognise Him and worship Him.

The apostle John described this tragedy when he poignantly wrote, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not recognise Him.” (Jn. 1:11). We can perhaps excuse the other nations if they had not recognised Christ for they were worshipping idols that did not even resemble God. The shadows they clung to could not help them recognise Christ.

But Israel was different. God had consistently and repeatedly revealed Himself to them throughout history. He had spoken and given them His Word. He had given them His Law. He had let them shadow so that when Christ appeared, they could recognise Him. But they did not!

Why did they fail to recognise Jesus as the God who had revealed Himself to them throughout their history? Was it because they had become so used to the shadow that they did not look up to see the one who produced the shadow? Was this the reason why Paul pleaded with Christians who had a Jewish background to cling to the reality rather than to its shadow?

In referring to the Old Testament dietary laws and religious festivals, Paul wrote,

“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:17). Another New Testament writer, referring to the Old Testament Law explained, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves.” (Heb. 10:1).

It is very easy to cling to the shadows that represent God and ignore God alto-gether. Christians have all too often run after the gifts of God and ignored the Giver of those gifts. It is common for Christians to cling to spiritual experiences, idolising them, and even worshipping them more than God. Or we can be so enthralled by our songs and music that our hearts do not go beyond them to the One who is supposed to be the subject of all our music. We can end up idolising the shadows so much that we fail to recognise God when He comes.

But there may be another reason why the Jews, and especially the Pharisees, did not recognise Jesus for who He is. There is a hint of it in the parable that Jesus told about the two men who went to the temple to pray (Lk. 18:9-14). The Pharisee’s prayer was a proud account of how well he kept the Law. But was it to God he was talking? Verse 11 could be translated to read, “The Pharisee … prayed to himself.” How telling!

The problem with this Phari-see was that the shadow he was looking at was not even God’s. It was his own shadow! When he addressed God he was addressing himself. It was self that was on the throne, pretending to be God.

Is it little wonder then, that the Pharisees failed to recognise and acknowledge Jesus as the God of Israel? They failed not only be-cause they worshipped the shadow more than the substance, but also because the shadow did not even resemble God; they were, tragically, worshippers of their own shadows.

FAILING TO RECOGNISE GOD

‘Christians have all too often run after the gifts of God and ignored the Giver of those gifts. It is common for Christians to cling to spiritual experiences, idolising them, and even worshipping them more than God. Or we can be so enthralled by our songs and music that our hearts do not go beyond them to the One who is supposed to be the subject of all our music. We can end up idolising the shadows so much that we fail to recognise God when He comes.’

REACH OUT

A time for sharing

A time for sharing

Aug 2018     The Methodist Missions Society (MMS) held its Missionary Retreat from 26 to 29 June, immediately after the GoForth 2018 National Missions Conference. The retreat is a biennial event during which our missionaries return for a time of fellowship, sharing and learning. Through the teaching on prayer, many were refreshed, led,...
A heart for our pioneers in need

A heart for our pioneers in need

Aug 2018     As we celebrate our nation’s 53rd birthday, let us not forget the less fortunate among our pioneers, who toiled to build Singapore but are now frail, impoverished, mostly alone and in dire need of care. Twelve out of our 19 MWS centres support them holistically through their autumn days. These...