The Matrix of Mission 2

Dallas Willard Part 4 of 13

A series of talks Dallas gave for African Enterprise on his first trip to South Africa in 1985. He works through some of the material that became The Spirit of the Disciplines.


Dallas: The missing element in current practical theology is the body. The secret of the easy yoke of Jesus Christ is to bring one’s body into the practices, which He Himself followed. It is immersion and persistence in the overall style of life characteristic of Jesus Himself; and in this way, the highest ideals of the Christian way for human personality will be realized through gracious fellowship with variation suited to the individuality of the particular disciple. The great acts of humility and faith and compassion recorded of Jesus in the Gospel narratives are in fact only moments in a life of more deeply and more pervasively characterized by solitude, fasting, prayer, service and so forth.  The same must be true of the disciple. [1:02]

But these pervasive practices of our Lord are some of those very activities, which through the centuries have stood as disciplines of the spiritual life and it is reasonable to see these disciplines as the specific factors leading to the easy yoke and the light burden and the abundance of life and power.

We do not suggest any formula for success in these matters. It isn’t’ a matter of something we grind out; it is, and remains a personal relationship but we must remember even of Jesus Himself, it was said in Hebrews 5:8—he learned obedience through the things that He suffered. This connection between the disciplines and the yoke, which is easy and light and the connection then with its abundant life rests upon the nature of human personality. [1:55]

The commonality of His humanity with ours ensures that we must likewise share the disciplines with Him, not because He was sinful and in need of redemption as we are but because He was embodied as we are. His understanding with His Father was “sacrifice and offering thou hast (wouldst) not (desired) but a body thou hast prepared for me,” in Hebrews 10:5. He shared the human frame and as for all human beings, His body was the focal point of His life. [2:32]

It is precisely a recognition and appropriate study of the body and its implications for theology that is missing in current dominant views of Christian salvation and deliverance. Without the body in its proper place, the pieces of the puzzle of the new life in Christ do not realistically fit together and the idea of “really” following Him and becoming like Him seems impractical or an impossibility. That is how in fact the usual Christian sees it at present—a fact which can easily be established if you just ask people how they follow Christ and whether they follow Christ or what following Christ means.

Now this widespread inability or this widespread state of affairs is associated with the common inability of the believer to think of Christ Himself as really having a body with all of the normal functions, which attach to our own; and many feel it almost blasphemous to suppose that He really was like us in all of the normal bodily details and functions. [3:39]

About three years ago, there was a television series produced on the life of Christ, which showed him playing a game of ball with some of His friends—kind of like a volleyball game. I don’t know; you may have seen it and there was outrage about this. [Laughter] Outrage! Do you mean Jesus would actually get out there and jostle someone about? How unthinkable, you see?

Now, really, the classical word for this is Docetism. Docetism is the ancient heresy that Christ did not in fact have a real body at all but only seemed to have one. It remains alive and well today in the hearts of minds of many who say, “Oh yes, He was human as well as Divine” but in fact, do not believe and cannot even imagine that He had a full-fledged human body. They cannot do so because we tend to think of the body and its functions as only a hindrance to our spiritual calling with no positive role in our redemption or in our participation in the government of God. And so long as such a view of the body is held, the easy yoke will remain a lovely dream and discipleship a part time diversion for super Christians. One of our most important tasks is to make clear how and why the body must to the contrary be the primary focus of our share in the process of redemption. [5:15]

Now, with that statement in mind, I want us to turn back to where we left off and this question we must deal with—why do human beings have a body? Why do human beings have a body?

Human beings have a body in order to fulfill their calling as the vicars of Christ upon the earth and more generally, to go back to the Old Testament as the representatives of God in the governance of the earth. I return you to the first chapter of Genesis.  “And God said,” verse 26; “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” [6:12]

Now, this verse tells us in a very simple and straightforward way what it is for us to have the likeness of God. It is for us to have dominion. It is in the having of dominion that we have the likeness of God. No doubt, that dominion which we have was to be exercised in conjunction with the power of God Himself and it is because that conjunction was broken that we live in a world wrecked and ruined where the animals and the plants themselves suffer terribly at the hands of humanity and before nature and before one another. [7:00]



There is a very touching little poem that I love:

Little things, that run, and quail,

And die, in silence and despair!

Little things, that fight, and fail,

And fall, on sea, and earth, and air!

All trapped and frightened little things,

The mouse, the coney, hear our prayer!

As we forgive those done to us,

The lamb, the linnet, and the hare –

Forgive us all our trespasses,

Little creatures, everywhere!

(By James Stephens)

The world is not meant to be like it is; it was meant to be handled in a different way and through generations of corruption and history and failure on the part of man to live as the Lord of the universe in conjunction with the God of the universe. It has come to the sad pass that it is in. [7:51]

God gave man a body, created man in the way He did in order that man should have a small share of relatively independent power. A body is a localized or centralized mass of power that has a relative degree of independence. You always have to put it relative because if you take it as is impossible out of its connection to everything else, it has no power at all and can’t do anything.

A body is a localized or a center of power that has a relative degree of independence. If you drop a brick on your foot, it can hurt it. While that’s a relative degree of independence given the general framework of laws that govern things like bricks. Hmmm? It’s not—because there are many ways you can stop that from happening so the independence is really quite relative. A plant, a seed, a grass seed, has some degree of independence and if you have to keep your lawn free of weeds, you understand that that independence can be pretty tenacious but none the less, you can do something about it. [9:17]

The human being has in addition to the powers, the independent powers that are present in material things generally a direct power over it’s own body. It can lift its hand. It can talk. It can think. In some measure, it can feel. It can will. The power that is in this body is in some measure at the disposal of my will and if I am wise and if I am obedient and if I am alive unto God, what I will do with that little power that I have is put myself in connection with the Kingdom of God. I can use that little power to put myself in connection with the Kingdom of God; and when I have done that, then my powers are immensely greater.

That is why the passage I read through yesterday—he that is least in the

Kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. (Matthew 11:11) It’s because of the relation. This is not only true in the spiritual realm. A man un-aided can jump a fence about maybe 7 feet high. With an appropriate pole and practice, he can leap over 18 feet high. Put him in an airplane and he can jump over an ocean. You see all of these are matters of putting ourselves in the right relationship to the relevant powers. [10:50]

The remarkable thing about man that distinguishes him from everything else is the vast degree to which he can use his little power to come in contact with the powers around him and you see, when you understand that, then his initial job description here, which I repeat. “ . . . let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth along the earth . . .” (Genesis 1:26) That makes perfect sense once you understand that man’s primary ability is to work with other powers which are around him. That’s his primary ability. That’s what distinguishes him from all other beings that we know of—even angels are inferior to us in certain respects and this is mainly through the fact that they do not have a body, which brings them into relationship to the material universe in the way we have. [11:52]

You see these bodies are not insignificant things. They are the work of God. They are expressions of the logos and they have a precise place, which we must understand, and our faith must rise to take hold of if we are to live in the Kingdom of God and be disciples of Christ indeed.

It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we bring our bodies in a right relationship to all of these powers around us and see, the grandeur of man is so great.

The philosophers in the middle Ages used to say that God has hidden the nature of the human soul from him in order to prevent him from being so proud that he would be irredeemable. And did not John say, “Beloved, now we the children (sons) of God, it doth not yet appear what we shall be . . . ” (1 John 3:2) We can’t begin to understand the greatness of our calling. Heaven is going to be a wonderful thing. I’m looking forward to it. And when the time is right, we will be ushered into something so incredibly grand because then we will be able to understand and see this world which we only get glimpses of here now, you know? [13:17]

If you go back to the 6th chapter of Hebrews, you see talking there about tasting “ . . . the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” (Hebrews 6:5) We just get a little taste—just a little taste. We can’t stand much more than that.

You remember that John said that of Jesus, the Father does not give the spirit by measure unto him but he does to us. (John 3:34) To us He measures out a little teaspoon full and that’s enough to reign us if we aren’t careful because it will just be so grand and glorious but Jesus was perfectly safe with it and we can grow more and more as we realize that the reason we have a body is so that we would have a little degree of independent power where we could stand and choose to serve God or not serve God.

When we serve God, it is still our service. It is His power but it’s our choice. It is our thought. It is out action and by using the power that is available to us in our bodies, in ourselves as independent beings; we are able to integrate ourselves into the power, which is the Kingdom of God. [14:35]

Let me just make sure I’ve got this said right and read you this statement: In creating human beings in His likeness, that they might govern in His manner, God gave them a measure of independent power. There was in man the dust and the divinity, the breath of life in conjunction with which all of the elements of man came together and he came a living being. They absolutely—the individual man that was created could not resemble God in the close manner which He intended nor could we be co-workers with God without this independent power and the locust or depository of this necessary power is the human body. And this explains in theological terms why man has a body at all. The body is his primary area of power, freedom and therefore, of responsibility. [15:32]

Well, things did not go well and the body became perverted and distorted and we find the most acute description of the body in Romans, the 7th chapter—the body in its fallen state—and I want us to look at that a little bit. I want here again to emphasize the importance of understanding the statements here in a very literal sense.

Paul is writing about the problem that the individual experiences when they have come to the point to where the have a sense of the two ways and the two powers that they might choose and of course he is aware of the power of sin that is in his members and he is in a bind because the things that he knows he should do, he doesn’t do and he’s puzzled about this. [16:33]

He says in verse 16 of Romans 7—“ . . . I consent unto the law that it is good.” That’s a crucial move and you can spend your lifetime trying to write theological treatises about what’s going on here and it’s been done. There are many, many books that have been written on trying to puzzle all of this out. [16:54]

Let me just say to you that if you want to understand this passage, you have to understand that Paul is writing about the active process of Christian experience—the active process of Christian experience. He is dealing with the question of “What do you do?” Not with the question, “What has been done?” And if you try to look at this and say, “Well, where is Paul?” You will be endlessly confused.

Paul is the whole complex of conflicting tendencies that we see here and Paul is in the process of defining who he will be. And here is what he says, “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” (Romans 7:17) This is a resolve on Paul’s part. This is a decision as to who he will be. He says, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me: but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (Romans 7:18) Now, that statement, “to will is present” but how to perform is the focus, which we must take now for a few minutes.  [16:07]

We are told that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We need sometimes to point out that there is another road, which is paved with the bad ones. It isn’t as if the bad ones were good. Bad ones don’t get you to Heaven and we mustn’t draw that implication. The point of the saying is simply that intention is not enough.

If I intend to play a Beethoven sonata on the piano, it will do me no good unless I put that intention into a certain process whereby I am able or enabled to play it. I cannot translate the music from my perceptions of the sheet to the piano. I can’t do that. It has to go through my fingers and how am I going to get it in my fingers? I must get it in my fingers by practice and that is the only way that I can get it in my fingers and until it gets in my fingers, I hope you will not come to hear me play because it will be a disaster. (Laughter) [19:21]

And that’s true of anything that involves a complex process of learning—almost everything we learn to do as human beings is learned through a process of practice; and isn’t it interesting that we think that somehow that should not be true to the following of Christ. It should not be true when it comes to loving people and listening to them and being able to be with them not only in a way that’s not harmful, but in a way, which is actually beneficial. But I say to you, it requires practice because in our flesh are things—in our body, in our members are things which go the other direction. He says, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do. Now, if I do what I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” (Romans 7:19-20)

I want to tell you that the sin which “dwelleth in me”—that is in my members is a real thing and it takes the form of habits that shape my face and my tongue and my legs and my whole body so that I automatically respond in ways, which are harmful. Paul uses this marvelous phrase, “vessels of wrath.” A vessel of wrath is something that’s full of wrath and you only have to bump it a little bit and the wrath pours out—all the touchiness and pride, the swelling that is in human beings. You see, that’s something that is literally in them and it isn’t just in their spirit. It’s in their body and if you look at them, you will be able to see it. [21:06]

You know, there is this thing called body language? Body language is a very real thing and the body language is nothing but the expression in the forms and motions of the body of the meanings that really form our personality and we read one another very well, dear friends. We read one another very well and usually what we tell one another with our body or very often what we tell one another with our body contradicts what we are saying with our mouth. See?

I was sharing with someone a phrase from the Spanish writer, Unamuno that I recently came across that was so very, very good. He said, “We ought to pay less attention to what people are trying to tell us and pay more attention to what they tell us without trying.” You see, very often and always it’s what they tell us without trying which is the real message. [22:02]

That’s why Jesus said every idol word will condemn you. (Matthew 12:36-37) It’s the idol words, which reveal the condition of the soul, and the person who is sitting tightly on all the evil in their soul, in the moment they are off guard, the idol word comes out—there it is. It need not be a word. It may be an eyebrow. Eyebrows are very powerful things—foreheads, grimaces, lips, shrugs—they are powerful things. We just run right through people with these. I’ve seen people that could kill with an eyebrow, not to mention a tongue, you see? (Laughter)

And the tongue has to be reformed by all of the meanings. You know, there is a marvelous phrase in the 31st chapter of Proverbs about that wonderful woman. It says the law of kindness is in her tongue. (Proverbs 31:26) Isn’t that beautiful? Not in her head. It isn’t that she intends to be kind. Oh, it’s right there in her tongue. It’s in the hand. It’s in the arms. It’s in the posture. Love and hope and faith and openness—these are things, which are in the body and on the other hand, all of the evil that comes to rest in the body is present in the body. It takes shape; it’s gone before you can do anything about it. That’s what Paul is talking about. [23:30]

Our bodies have to be reformed. Our personalities have to be reformed through practicing the righteousness which is in Christ as we follow Him in the full agenda of His life—what He did when He was off the spot as well as what He did when He was on the spot. And when we take that full lifestyle of Christ and we say, “Yes, Lord we will go with you into solitude. We will go with you into fasting. We will go with you into silence. We will go with you into service. We will go with you into witness. We will go with you into all of the dimensions of study. Jesus was a great student, you know? And He studied the Bible. [24:10]

You will remember that when He came to read that great commission from Isaiah in Luke 4, I believe it is, He had to unroll the scroll until he found the place that He wanted to read it. He was a student of the scripture. Now, you say, why didn’t He just rip it off and quote it? Because, He was a man like we are. He wasn’t some little marionette, some little robot; He was a man and He studied and He disciplined Himself to study and He knew the scripture through His study. And when we follow Him in all of these dimensions, then by grace, met with our efforts, our bodies take on a new form.

I tell you, if you watch people, you can see it happen. If you are with them over a long period of time and you see someone come from a life of awful sin or of nice sin; there are both kinds—just like there is clean dirt and dirty dirt—[Laughter]—there is nice sin and there is awful sin. And you watch it and some of the most difficult forms of sin are the respectable forms—very respectable. Respectable people are the ones that arranged for Jesus to be killed. Very respectable and to see that broken down and brought to a tenderness and love and openness and real faith and hope—real wanting people to be comfortable and loved and accepted. That’s a wonderful thing. That’s a transformation in the body. That’s a transformation in the body. And until it hits the body, it isn’t real. Oh, there may be something insipient there that is important but it has to be worked through. It has to be worked out all of the way. [25:59]

Now, I want to just say a few words before I wrap up our discussion today about the flesh, and if you wish, a few words in favor of the flesh because the flesh takes such a beating. And you know, it isn’t the flesh’s fault. There is nothing wrong with flesh. Flesh in Biblical usage seldom means indeed the mere physical substance that makes up the part of the body. That term is sometimes used as the equivalent of meat for example to designate a passive material that might be cut up or eaten but flesh is generally spoken of in the Bible as something active—a specific power or range of powers that are present in a body of a certain type. [26:44]

For example, we read in Genesis 7:15, the animals “ . . . went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him (up) in.”

Or in Psalm 56:4—“ . . . I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.” Or yet again, in Isaiah 31:33 or 31:3—“Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit.” (Isaiah 31:3) This is at a time when a horse was one of the most recent developments in weapons of warfare and people were very frightened of them as amassing in war and so it was important to say they were just flesh and not spirit.

And again in Galatians 4:23—“But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh . . . “ without assistance from the promise of the God who is spirit. And these passages along with many others illustrate the basic scriptural sense of the term flesh. They do not pre-suppose that flesh is something evil. Flesh is not evil. Flesh is good. [27:51]

I would like to give you just a brief quotation from the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, a Russian philosopher. He says, “The lower nature when it occupies its proper place in the hierarchy of the universe is not itself evil. This is not evil. Flesh is not evil for it belongs in the divine world. It is only when it usurps the place of something higher that it becomes untrue to itself and then evil. Animal nature certainly has its place in the scale of values and an eternal destiny but when it takes possession of man, then man submits his spirit to the control of the lower elements and then it does indeed become an evil thing. For evil is a question of the direction pursued by the spirit, not the constitution of flesh itself.” [28:43]

We have to be very careful with this because it’s impossible for us to put the flesh in the right place if we don’t understand that the problem with the flesh is not its inherent nature but the use to which the human being puts it and the place at which it might exalt it.

Here’s a standard statement about the flesh which I think is quite wrong—“Flesh stands for human nature as the fall of the first man effected it, crippled, disordered, no longer answering naturally to reasonable control and therefore ever afterwards a source of rebellion—a thing which the unaided human mind and human will is unable to dominate. Left to itself, this fallen human nature is a source of sin.” I certainly agree with that last sentence but I don’t equate flesh, be hence the flesh is not the same thing as fallen human nature. [29:38]

The Biblical correlate of fallen human nature is rather the world as described in 1 John 2:16—“ For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Fallen human nature is a certain manner in which the good powers deposited in the human flesh at its creation are twisted and organized against God through processes that are social and historical as well as individual and possibly even chemical and biological. The effect of the fall was to lead us to trust in the flesh alone, to not see fit to acknowledge God any longer as Paul says in Romans 1—since we now suppose like Mother Eve that there is no God to be counted on in living of our lives and so we must take things into our own hands. And that’s where the flesh gets out of control.

This is what it is to be carnally minded. It is the carnal mind; not the flesh, which the carnal mind solely minds that is at enmity with God. The carnal mind is at enmity with God. It cannot be subject to the law of God.

By contrast, the promise of old was that the spirit would be poured out upon flesh. That flesh also can long for God. Psalms 63:1—Come to God. Psalms 65:2—Cry out for God. Psalms 84:2—Bless His holy name. Psalms 145:21—and even along the lines suggested above not see corruption, nothing comparable of course is ever said of the world. [31:23]

So, we must understand this about flesh because if we don’t, our faith will be hopelessly hindered in our efforts to bring together our activities in such a way that our bodies can receive that full redemption that will make mission inevitable and bring the power of God to bear upon the world. We must believe that it is in our bodies that God would dwell—that that would be the temple and that way we can take Him where we are which is where He wants to be as we are citizens of Heaven in this world. We bring that Kingdom through our body.

Peter is a beautiful illustration of this as he is in so many things and I close just by looking at the passage in Matthew 26:41 where Jesus, after He has prayed in the Garden. He had brought His friends there because He thought they might be some consolation to Him, but it turned out that they were very heavy with sorrow. They didn’t understand what was happening and they had a feeling that it was going to be bad. From what He had said, they couldn’t see how it could be good. Jesus went to pray and they went to sleep in verse 40 and Jesus returned and said, “ . . . Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40-41) [32:44]

Now, what we have to understand here is that Jesus is not just scolding them. You know, like we might say, “if you had the brains God gave a goose, you would stay awake . . .” or something like that. [Laughter] No, no! He’s not saying that. He’s giving an intricate diagnosis of their condition. You see He gave them a discipline because a discipline is something we undertake in order to achieve indirectly what we cannot achieve directly. He said, “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” They did not watch and they did not pray and they entered into temptation and they flunked the course. “Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation.” [33:31]

He wanted to do justice to Peter. Peter really did love His Lord. He really did intend to die with Him. He had sworn that He would die with Him but when the time came, the things that He would do, He did not and the things that He would not, He did. Simon slept. Simon swore; swore! “I will die with you!” But then Simon slept. He was confused and He was worried and then, the Simon who was sleeping, when he was awakened, fumbled about and took the sword and chopped off someone’s ear and Jesus had to calm him down and put a stop to it because he was going off in all the wrong directions. But, you see, he didn’t know anything else to do. The only thing—that was in his hand and he grabbed the sword and chopped the ear. Poor fellow; Jesus fixed it, I think as I recall and rebuked him for doing indeed all that he knew to do and we read these sad words in Matthew 26:56—“ . . . all the disciples forsook him, and fled.” All forsook Him and fled.

Well, actually Peter was better than the others. His legs did stop running before the others stopped running but it was good that he should turn but he soon began to have problems with another part of his anatomy because when he got inside where they were waiting for the trial of Jesus, a little lady came by and said, “You’re really one of them.” [35:27]

And you know that story how on three occasions, he denied and finally culminated his denial with a big curse and the cock crew but God wasn’t done with Simon. He was going to be a rock after all and in the hours and days which followed, Peter was subjected to experiences which synthesized what he had gathered from his years of companionship with Jesus on the road and drove it deep into the governing tendencies of his body. He beheld the death and the manner of dying of his great friend whom he had confessed as the Messiah. He encountered Him alive beyond the grave. He now understood that he and the church were to exercise a transcendent power, which could not depend upon having a government or Kingdom in the ordinary sense because it was literally God government.

And, as we are told in the 1st chapter of Acts, they would not receive a Kingdom but they would receive power. And now Peter was getting in a position where he could handle that power. The old hand which automatically reached for the sword to kill and the legs which spontaneously took flight—the detestable tongue which had forgot its inspired confession of the Messiah and as with the life of its own denied all relationship to Jesus cursing God to prove it—now, all were different. [37:03]

Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples. Peter stood—the little band of outlaws and took leadership and as the promised power poured in from Heaven filling the room and bursting upon the city, it fell on Peter with both legs and mouth, now strong with the spirit. Where His spirit had been, now his body was and the scripture says they were convinced by his arguments and they accepted what he said and were baptized and that very day about 3,000 were added to their number.

These remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to prayers and many miracles and signs worked through the apostles made a deep impression on everyone. The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common—sold their goods and possessions and shared—they went as a body to the temple every day, met in their houses for the breaking of bread. They shared their food gladly and generously. They praised God and were looked up to by everyone. [38:08]

Now, dear hearts, we are talking about mission now. Hmmm? We are talking about mission. Day by day, the Lord added to their community, those who were to be saved. [38:21]

Peter stays; now he is a rock—petros—call him Rocky! [Laughter]  That’s what Jesus called him—Rocky! Living in dynamic interaction with God in His Kingdom through the Holy Spirit, the church could not but conflict with those who thought they were already in charge of the world.

Persecution broke out as a matter of course and blood ran in the streets. The church was scattered but we read in Acts 8:1—“ . . . except (for) the apostles.” They stood. They stayed. Public attacks, beatings, imprisonment, threat of death did not move Peter from his course.

If you read the story, you will see that he was often confused and he was still not entirely untroubled in his walk of faith but on the whole with a very little exception, his flesh remained strong in behalf of the spirit. And when he finally met his cross in Rome, tradition tells us he requested to be nailed to it upside down, not regarding himself worthy to take the same posture in death as his old friend and Lord, Jesus Christ who was still with him. [39:40]

It is in Peter and in his kind that we begin to get a glimpse of what is really possible for human life and of what the grand restoration of human life to its proper center in the spiritual life could mean for man’s divine calling to have dominion over the glorious earth for its good and for the pleasure and glory of God.  Amen!

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