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Separation Can Lead to Isolation

Why the Pharisees liked bubbles, and why we should avoid them
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Adventures in Missing the Point". See series.


Imagine a weird world where, before you can be admitted to a hospital, you have to have a clean bill of health. A world where doctors won't see you if you are sick, because they are afraid of contracting your disease. In this place, the only way you can get glasses is to have perfect vision. The only way to get dental care is to have a perfect smile. Think how odd it would be to live in a world where counselors or therapists would only see happy, well-adjusted people.

Imagine a world where people who get lost in the wilderness are required to come down from the mountain and get cleaned up and patched up before the search and rescue team will agree to see them. Where teachers only instruct the wise and knowledgeable. Where restaurants refuse to serve hungry people. Where the thirsty are denied water. Where the lonely are kept in isolation until they make friends.

Is this some kind of world out of the Twilight Zone? Is it some horrific creation of Stephen King? What kind of world would you be in? You'd be in a world where the isolationist logic of the Pharisees was pervasive. And not just the 1st century Pharisees, either, but the 21st century variety as well.

As we have seen in the past several weeks, the Pharisees were convinced that the key to maintaining purity was to live in isolation from those who they saw as being far from God. In fact, the word Pharisee means "separated ones." They stood in contrast to the group in their day known as the Hellenists, who embraced everything about the Greco/Roman world without question. Again, we do not want to be overly critical of the Pharisees, because their initial desire was to honor God.

Is that true of our world? Have we isolated ourselves from the very people we are called to reach? It sure looks that way to me. In many cases, we've turned isolation into a thriving industry. We've got Christian music, Christian concerts, Christian radio, Christian clubs, Christian schools, Christian bookstores, Christian yellow pages, Christian singles networks, and Christian softball leagues. I even heard recently of a Christian nudist camp, but the very thought of it makes me queasy.

What's the motive behind it all? Mostly, that it's so that we can do these things and not run into anyone who's not a Christian. Because, gosh, those people might say a cuss word or want to drink a beer or hold a political opinion or worldview that we disagree with or … what? What are we so afraid of?

But even in addition to fear, we have theological justification for our separation.

Confusion about separation

In the Old Testament, we see several arguments for separation. Leviticus 19:2 says, "Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy." When God's hand of judgment was about to fall, he warned Moses and Aaron to "separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once" (Numbers 16:21). Ezra 6:12 says, "So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate (the Passover meal), together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel." Plus, in numerous places, God commanded his people to not marry outside their own nation.

You can pick up the same theme in the New Testament. Second Corinthians 6:14-17 says:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?
For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them and be separate," says the Lord. "Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."

There certainly appears to be a biblical call to separatism. But there's some confusion. God's design was not for Israel to withdraw from the world, but to serve God as a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:6). Do you remember the story of Jonah? When God sent him to share the message of God, he refused. Because in his mind, the Ninevites were unworthy of hearing about God's willingness to forgive them if they repented. God's call to be separate had been misinterpreted, which led to prejudice and hatred.

In the New Testament, there's this thing called the Great Commission. They are the last words Jesus gave his followers. They represent the main thing that they were to do until he returns: "Go and make disciples." Where? Everywhere. From every nation. How? By teaching them to obey everything he commanded. You can really only do that by being with the people you are supposed to reach and teach. So it looks like we have a problem.

And the problem is complicated because, if we continue to interpret God's call to separatism as we typically do, then Jesus himself violated that call. If by separation we agree with the Pharisees and define it by who we associate with, the places we go, and the things that we do, then how do you explain Matthew 9:9-13? Here we read an autobiographical passage. The author of the first Gospel tells us how he came to meet Jesus:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Three inaccurate definitions of worldliness

Is there perhaps another kind of worldliness than the definition we usually embrace? Let's examine the text and ask some questions. Is biblical worldliness really based on the people we associate with?

In Matthew 11:19, Jesus quotes what people have said about him: "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners.'" Of all the titles the Scripture uses for Jesus, "a friend of sinners" is the most surprising, and the most appealing, to me.

"Sinners" as the Pharisees used the term simply meant anyone who didn't keep the Law of Moses and the traditions of the elders in the way the Pharisees had prescribed. Today, we'd just call them "the wrong kind of people". The ones your mom warned you about. The list of Jesus' encounters with the wrong kind of people in Scripture is long: Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the demon-possessed, lepers, Samaritans, the terminally ill, most of the disciples when Jesus met them, promiscuous women, and a Roman centurion.

If being around sinners was the way sin was transmitted, Jesus would have become one of the most vile men of all time. But, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, we're all carriers of sin. Even if it were possible to completely avoid all contact with sinful people and situations, we'd still sin because the sin-virus lives and thrives right here, in our hearts. So it can't be that mere association with sinful people leads us to sin. There must be more to the definition than that.

What about the places we go? Jesus didn't agree to meet Matthew at some out of the way restaurant where they wouldn't be seen. He went to his home. That was as scandalous to the Pharisees as it would be for your pastor to go to a strip club. There was a direct association with sinful people and the places they inhabited.

The principle is simple: to meet people far from God, we've got to go where they are. Now, let me be quick to say that I'm not advocating going to places where sin is the predominant order of business. It is foolish to go somewhere where your conscience is compromised, where the temptation is too great to bear. Or worse, where you think you are immune to sin.

I had a guy in my small group a few years ago who was a recovering drunk and drug addict. We had been reading a book on evangelism together, one I recommend to everyone called Finding Common Ground. Steve was impressed by the book and, because he had spent a good bit of his working life as a bartender, he decided he was going to hang out at a local pub one night a week at the backgammon table and engage people in spiritual conversations. For some people, that might be an effective means of connecting with people far from God. But because of his background, the guys in the group said, "No way."

Do you know where you can meet people far from God? Basically, everywhere but the church. For us, our kids' schools and their recreational activities have been a great place to meet people who don't know Christ. It's the primary reason we are public school advocates. Community groups such as book clubs, neighborhood associations, volunteer programs at hospitals and nursing homes, service organizations, activities around sports or recreational activities-the opportunities are everywhere.

If climbing mountains is your thing, don't start a Christian climbing club. Go join the local Mountaineer club. If that scares you, take another Christian with you. Don't start a Christian book club-join a book club down at Covered Treasures and bring a Christian worldview to the discussion as you read popular books with other readers. Don't always throw parties for just your Christian friends. Host a block party in your neighborhood every summer and be the one who makes it possible for your neighbors to meet one another. You get the picture.

Is it risky? To some degree. Would it be safer to isolate yourself in a Christian-only world? Probably. But safety isn't the issue. Obedience is.

With all that said, our strategy as a church is not going to be to have more church meetings to talk about reaching people. We just need to get out of the church, out of the subculture, and into the world so we can build some redemptive bridges of friendship.

What about the things we do? Are they the source of our worldliness? Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunk. That's obviously an overstatement made by people who hated him. But it's obvious that Jesus enjoyed a good party, and evidently participated in things that the Pharisees considered scandalous. Yet we know from Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus never sinned: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin."

We've talked in weeks past about the fallacy that righteousness is defined externally. Worldliness is all about the attitude of the heart, not necessarily the things we do.

The example of Jesus

So what made Jesus so winsome to people who were far from God? Philip Yancey asks the million dollar question: "How did he, the only perfect person in history, manage to attract the notoriously imperfect?"

Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that almost everyone (except religious people) loved to be around Jesus. And he loved being around them. When Jesus went to Matthew's house, he was saying without reservation, "I accept these people at the table." As a tax collector, Matthew was perhaps the most despised man in town. He made his living by adding to the tax required by Rome in order to rake in as much profit margin as the community would bear. He was hated by everyone for that reason, but the religious leaders especially hated him for his alliance with Rome, which they perceived as disloyalty to God.

But in this account, Matthew, who may have been the wealthiest and loneliest man in town, saw something in the eyes of Jesus that made him close up his extortion business and never turn back. In his book Extreme Righteousness, Tom Hovestol gives us some insight into how Jesus came to be so adored by people who were rejected by religion.

First, Jesus took the initiative. He invited himself to parties at the homes of people who would not ordinarily have invited him. And they loved him. Something about this disarmed them. I'll bet Matthew had never had anyone invite himself over to his house before.

Second, he was willing to interact on Matthew's turf. He didn't start by inviting Matthew to the synagogue. Jesus gave up the home court advantage. He went right to Matthew's home and met his family and friends.

Third, he wasn't repulsed by sin or sinners. I wish the Scripture had given us an example of how Jesus handled the dirty jokes he heard and the offers of things he knew were wrong. The way most of us deal with it-a nose upturned in disgust-immediately lets people know we think they are beneath us.

Fourth, he genuinely liked those that religious people loathed. He offered them gifts-love, mercy, forgiveness, and hope. He had something most of us lack-a self-giving love.

Fifth, he was always completely himself. He had no public image to maintain. He was the same whether in prayer with the Father, teaching his disciples, or dining with tax collectors. In Becky Pippert's classic book Out of the Salt Shaker, she sums it up this way: "Our problem in evangelism is not that we don't have enough information-it is that we do not know how to be ourselves. We forget we are called to be witnesses to what we have seen and know, not to what we don't know. The key is authenticity and obedience, not a doctorate in theology."

Finally, his motive was pure. As we've discussed in recent weeks, Pharisees did the right things for the wrong reasons and wrong things for the right reasons. Some who are zealous about evangelism are more interested in getting some notches on their gospel gun than about caring for people.

So what was Jesus' motive? Look again at verses 12 and 13: "On hearing this, Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'" Connecting with people far from God was what he was sent to do.

A better definition of worldliness

So what does it mean to be "in the world but not of the world"? What is the true definition of "worldliness?" As in everything we've studied about the Pharisees, they defined their standards by externals, not internals. Worldliness is not defined by who I spend time with, where I go, or what I do or don't do. Real worldliness is the life pursuit of pleasure, possessions, and pride.

How does the Bible define worldliness? 1 John 2:15-16 says: "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world-the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does-comes not from the Father but from the world."

John contrasts two ways of life: a life lived for the here and now, and a life lived for eternity. A worldly person lives for the pleasures of the flesh, but the one who loves Jesus lives for the joys of the Spirit. A worldly minded person lives for what he can see (the lust of the eyes), but the one motivated by the love of Jesus lives for the unseen realities of God (2 Corinthians 4:8-18). A worldly minded person lives for the ego (pride of life), but a believer who does the will of God lives for God's approval.

Unfortunately, materialism, hedonism, and egotism may be just as prevalent in the church culture as they are in the culture at large. That is what God has always wanted us to be separate from, not from the people who are blinded by those sins. A healthy worldliness means developing relationships with the people of our world, motivated by Christ's compassion.

Just before the events of his death, Jesus prayed for you and me in John 17:14-18: "I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified."

According to verse 14, we need to remember our true allegiance. The United States has embassies in most foreign countries. The ambassadors we send to those posts must be fluent in the language of their assignment. They must be able to engage and build relationships. But they must also never forget they are citizens of another country.

According to verse 15, we must remember our enemy. You have a spiritual enemy. Satan and the angels of darkness want you to remain in your Christian cocoon, where you are never a threat to their business of keeping people from finding God. The people you meet who are far from God are not the enemy. They are hostages. Victims. They are people who have been brainwashed into believing things that are absolutely false.

According to verse 18, we need to remember our mission. We have been commissioned and sent by God on a rescue mission.

Finally, we need to remember our calling. You've been sanctified, set apart for God. If our church is to ever make an impact on the Tri-Lakes community, it will not be because of a church program (although we will program ministry.) If we are to touch lives, it won't come through an ad campaign (although we'll use tools of mass communication whenever we can).

Our only hope for real impact here is for the 1,200 people who call Tri-Lakes home to find such life-saving joy and hope in Jesus that they cannot help but get involved in the lives of their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens, for the purpose of sharing that joy. It is a relational necessity for every single one of us. I don't want you to leave here today thinking, That's right, our church should be more connected to our world. I want you to leave here thinking, I need to become more connected with my world. There's a world of difference.

So go. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. Be real. Be fearless. And be full of God's spirit as you seek to connect hearts with those who desperately need what only the Father can offer!

Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).

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Sermon Outline:


I. Confusion about separation

II. Three inaccurate definitions of worldliness

III. The example of Jesus

IV. A better definition of worldliness