COLOSSIANS #16: GROW LIKE A TREE, NOT LIKE A WEED

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Sometimes our  Christian culture can give us the idea that we ought to be constantly having amazing spiritual feelings and experiences. But at best, that idea is distorted. The message of this text – the message of the Bible – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. This applies to both churches and individual Christians. Growth is something Jesus does in us and for us. He uses simple, straightforward means to grow us, and anyone can participate in those means.

COLOSSIANS
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Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

Remember last time, we considered the very important phrase: “as you received Christ as Lord, so continue in him.” Verse 7 is connected to that thought:

You have been and will continue to be rooted in him. You are being firmly built up in faith, you are being established in accordance with what you were taught, and you overflow with thanksgiving. (my own translation/paraphrase from Greek)

The verbs here are all present tense, passive voice. What that means is that they are describing something that is being done to you, and that continues to be done to you. We talked about how we received Jesus not by doing good things, but by trusting that he has already done them. So he is also rooting us (that is connecting us deeply to him). He is building us up in faith, he is establishing us – that is giving us a firm foundation in Christ. All of this is according to what we were taught, that is, according to the Bible. And it results in joyful gratitude on our part.

As we think about all this, a few things come to mind. First, in our mortal lives right now, following Jesus is something of a process. We are being rooted in him, built up in faith and established. It is ongoing. It isn’t that one moment we are godless pagans, and the next we are ready to be missionaries or monks. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is working to enlarge our spirits, to wean us away from our sinful flesh, and to draw us more and more into His abundant life. We should also make sure to understand that these words apply not only to individuals, but also to church communities. People in those days were just as likely to think of themselves in terms of “us” as often, or more, as “me.”

The words used to describe the process are not dramatic. Instead they indicate patient, deep growth. First, we are being rooted. If you think about the plant world, you can’t even see roots growing. That all happens beneath the surface. Roots are vital to the survival of any plant, but roots are not flashy. They are not quick. They grow slowly and hidden.

When we think about the next one, being built up, we can see something happening in that process. However, in Paul’s day, before modern technology, buildings took a great deal of time to take shape. In the ancient Mediterranean world the majority of the buildings would have been made out of stone. The stone had to be cut by hand, hauled by hand, or horse, and put in place by hand. The ingredients of the mortar had to be ground (perhaps with the assistance of a some sort of primitive mill) and mixed by hand. So, though you can see the results of building up, that too, takes a lot of time.

Then we come to being established. Again, this is something we can’t really see. Being established, in this context, means that we are firmly set in Jesus. An established business is one that has been there for a long time, and has roots in the community, and strong financial and marketing practices. An established fact is one that is not in doubt. When we are established in Christ, We have strong spiritual practices (reading, praying, serving), and a meaningful connection to Christian community (church). When we are established, whatever comes, we won’t be shaken from the foundation we have in him.

Being rooted, built up and established is all in accordance with what we were taught. Paul is referring to the teaching of the Apostles, which, these days, we call “The Bible.” The Bible is one of the primary places in which we get to know Jesus, and by which we give him access to our lives. The other ways are based upon the Bible: the sacraments (especially communion, since it happens regularly) and Christian community. If we cut ourselves off from any of these three (The Bible, The sacraments or Christian community) it will interfere with the growth that the Lord wants to provide.

I want us to understand what good news this is. In the first place, these are all things being done to us by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t rooting ourselves, or building ourselves. The Spirit is doing it. All we have to do to receive it is to trust Him.

Now he does use certain methods to root us and establish us in Jesus. But these are not complicated. And if we really do trust Jesus, at least a part of us will actually want to do these things. Anyone can read the Bible, or listen to it in an audio version. Anyone can receive the sacraments. Anyone can be part of a church. It doesn’t require something exceptional on our part to grow in Jesus. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person. We don’t have to have certain kinds of experiences or emotions or passions.

Sometimes, our present Christian culture in the Western world seems to push toward having big, exciting experiences, filled with wonderful feelings. It seems like we are supposed to always feel these amazing emotions toward God. We are supposed to be continually blown away by what God is doing in our lives. Think of a typical worship video. There’s a huge crowd. The people on stage are raising their hands and singing with deep emotion. The music creates a big atmosphere. Cut to the crowd where people stand with their hands up, tears streaming down their faces or kneel, shaking with feeling.

I don’t think that sort of thing is bad in and of itself, but it tends to send a misleading message. It encourages us to think we should move from one high to the next. We think maybe there is something wrong if we aren’t moving in a huge, obvious, upward spiritual trajectory. We think we must be terrible Christians if our faith doesn’t look like those YouTube worship videos.

But that isn’t the case. The message of this text – which is the Bible, not a worship video – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. I have amazing spiritual experiences once in a while. Probably not more than once or twice a year, probably less, and they last only a few minutes. And it might be that Jesus gives me them that often because I’m not normally an emotional person, and he wants me to grow in that area. These spiritual experiences are great. But they are not the substance of my faith. I would grow even without them, because it is Jesus who causes me to grow.

This is really important. Yes, we should be growing as Christians. But the pace and type of growth are up to Jesus. The growth comes not because we earn it, but because we trust him. We may not even be able to see some of it. Think about roots again. You don’t really know how good the roots of a tree are until a storm comes. Then, and only then, you can tell if a tree’s roots are strong or not. If you are worried about the rate of your growth, trust Jesus. Ask him to cause you to grow, and trust him to do it. Don’t fight with him about basics like reading your Bible, and praying, and being involved with Christian community, but understand even if you do all that, you won’t grow unless Jesus makes it happen.

I also want you to think of these things in terms of your local church. It is easy to get impatient with your church. But here, spiritual growth for both individuals and churches is described in terms that are slow, gradual and patient. Yes, there are big, exciting churches out there. It is not my job to judge them but I realized years ago that spiritual reality can be very different from how things look on the surface. Not every big, exciting-seeming church is spiritually healthy or pleasing to the Lord.

I want to consider the next piece: overflowing with thanksgiving.

I think it is clear that thankfulness also has great power to transform our attitudes and thoughts. It is very difficult to be both bitter and thankful at the same time. It is hard to thank God profusely for what he has done for me, and, at the same time, be angry at him. When we thank God, it helps us to focus on what is good, and ultimately on the Good Giver. Being thankful to the Lord for all things, including my pain, has been part of the transformation for me of turning my struggle into a blessing.

But thankfulness is more than just a way to manipulate us into a positive attitude.

Thankfulness is both a result of, and a means to, trust in Jesus. The more we really believe what he has done for us, and learn about it, the more grateful we will be. On the other hand, thankfulness helps us to receive in faith what Jesus has given us. You can’t touch forgiveness with your hands. You can’t touch love, or hope, or grace or joy. But when we thank God for these things, we receive them more deeply in our hearts. Thanking him helps us receive, and also strengthens our connection to the One who gives.

I am not naturally a grateful person, perhaps because I have had so many good things handed to me during my life. But I have found that if I can find some way to start thanking God, even for something quite small and insignificant, it gives the Holy Spirit a crack to work with. Then I gradually become more and more thankful, for deeper and more important things. So I might start as I shower, thanking the Lord for hot water, or even just running water. Then I might thank him that I have the ability to stand up and take a shower. I’ll thank him for water. That might remind me of my baptism, and so I thank him for adopting me as his child and giving me the Holy Spirit. And so on.

Some thoughts for application:

  • Have you been tempted to be impatient with yourself or your church because growth seems so slow? How does this text address your impatience?
  • Have you thought that your spiritual growth all depends on your own efforts? What does this text say to you about that?
  • What are some things that you can be thankful for? Take ten minutes (time yourself!) to thank God for various things, big and small.

COLOSSIANS #14: THE WISDOM THAT COMES ONLY FROM TRUST

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True wisdom comes from trusting Jesus Christ, and anyone can do that. It is a wisdom imparted spiritually, first to our hearts, not our brains. As we trust Jesus, His wisdom and knowledge begin to come out in our decisions, and the way we treat other people, and in our understanding of the Bible.

I don’t mean to say that there is no value in thinking rationally, or getting an education. Those are good things. But we can receive a practical, heart-wisdom from Jesus that the most educated person will never have without Jesus. And our understanding of God, and of his love, begins not when we “figure it out,” but rather, when we really trust him

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Colossians #14  Colossians 2:2-5

1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Colossians 2:1-5, ESV)

Last time we concentrated on verse 1, and examined Paul’s struggle, and how his words about struggle might apply to us. The struggle is real, but it also has a purpose, and, according to the scriptures, we can confidently expect that the struggle will eventually accomplish its purpose.

Paul’s struggle for the Colossians (and others) was for this purpose: that their hearts would be encouraged; that they would be bound together in love; that they would absorb the incredible value of Christ himself, and all that is found within Christ. In addition, this purpose results in something else: if we understand and grasp the incredible value of Christ, we will not be easily led astray. We can live in full assurance of faith, firm, and confident, even in times of trouble; even in the face of those who might want to deceive us.

I don’t suppose there was a worldwide epidemic going on when Paul wrote these words. But it wasn’t terribly long after Paul wrote these words that Christians in this area of the world began to be persecuted. Paul is telling us that if we can truly grasp Christ Himself, and all that is found within Him, we can be firm and secure, no matter what goes on around us, no matter what plausible sounding arguments are used to try and sway us from our faith. That’s the big picture, the framework. With that understanding, let’s take it apart and see everything we can today.

Paul believes that our hearts can be profoundly encouraged. The Greek word there includes the idea of comfort and counsel, of someone walking alongside us. When we know Jesus, in something of the same fashion that we know another person that we are very close to, our hearts receive deep, real encouragement. When we take that “trust fall,” and agree with Jesus that no matter what we see or think, He is in control and He has our best interests at heart, then we receive a deep sense of peace and encouragement.

I am in pain as I write this. I don’t know what the future holds: it might be another forty years of pain. But I have taken the leap of trust, and I know, deep in my heart, that he loves me, and that if it is to be forty more years of pain, that pain will be far outweighed by the grace I receive, both during the pain, and also when it is finally over and I stand with him face to face. My heart is encouraged. Yours can be too. I think however, that it is probably necessary, if you want receive that encouragement, to surrender control to him, and trust, often in spite of the evidence, that He loves you, and is doing for you what is ultimately good, ultimately best.

This is the path to grasping all the riches of knowledge and understanding in Christ. If you think about it, it almost has to be this way, otherwise, only smart people could get knowledge and understanding from God. But if the way to get it is simply to trust, then anyone and everyone who is willing to trust can have the same knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

If that sounds foolish to you, read on. Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians:

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”
20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.
24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.
26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18-29, NLT)

True wisdom comes from trusting Jesus Christ, and anyone can do that. It is a wisdom imparted spiritually, first to our hearts, not our brains. As we trust Jesus, His wisdom and knowledge begin to come out in our decisions, and the way we treat other people, and in our understanding of the Bible.

I don’t mean to say that there is no value in thinking rationally, or getting an education. Those are good things. But we can receive a practical, heart-wisdom from Jesus that the most educated person will never have without Jesus. And our understanding of God, and of his love, begins not when we “figure it out,” but rather, when we really trust him. If you are having a hard time grappling with something in the Bible, the best place to begin might be to make sure you have fully surrendered in trust to Jesus.

Paul does encourage us to use this heart wisdom, and combine it with thoughtfulness. He says that he does not want the Colossians to be easily deluded by plausible arguments – that is, tricked by lies that sound good. I want to identify just two of the plausible arguments that are common to our culture and time in the United States in 2020.

Some of our big “plausible sounding arguments” are quite similar to some of what the Colossians heard in their time and culture. For now, I’ll cover just two. Here’s the first one:

  • Big Lie #1: It is OK to worship Jesus, as long as you don’t claim He is the ONLY path to God, goodness and “heaven.”

In other words, “it’s fine if you choose Christianity as your path, but you can’t claim that it should be the same for everyone.

This was something the Colossians faced, also. Eventually the Christians were persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus – people worshipped all kinds of gods, and they didn’t care. But the culture did care when the Christians worshipped Jesus alone, and claimed that everyone else ought to do so as well. In this day and age, that is also true. People are fine with you being a Christian, as long as you don’t claim that Jesus is the only way for all people. But Jesus himself claims to be the only way for all people.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12, ESV)

Shortly after these verses, Paul is going to teach about exactly who Jesus is. If Jesus is indeed God in the flesh, then He is the God for all people and all times. If He is not, then He should not be the God for anyone.

It’s almost like saying: “2+2= 4 is not always right, for me. That’s your way of doing mathematics. My way of doing mathematics is different.” That’s ridiculous. If mathematics is what it claims to be, then it is true for all people in all times. If it isn’t, then it isn’t actually mathematics.

  • Big Lie #2

Happiness is found by focusing on yourself, and pursuing the deepest desires you have within you. If you have a desire, no matter how weird or different, you should follow it. If you have an attraction or impulse, you should act on it. Nothing you deeply yearn for should be considered wrong. The only wrong thing is to suggest that anyone should control themselves, rather than giving in to what they want.

This lie is at the root of all the debate about Christian sexual ethics; the arguments about homosexuality, sex-before-marriage, gender identity and so on. We Christians have not always relied upon the wisdom and knowledge that is in Jesus. The wisdom of Jesus teaches us to get to the heart of the issue. And the heart of the issue is this: Is Jesus your King, or isn’t he? Does he have the right to lead you down a path where your sinful flesh would prefer not to go? Does he have the right to lead wherever and however he chooses, or not?

The reason our culture hates Christian sexual ethics is because, even in heterosexual marriage, we are called to surrender our desires to Jesus, and allow him to limit them. Our culture wants no limits, and it even views self-imposed limits with suspicion.

But it is a lie to believe that to live with self-discipline is wrong. It’s a lie to believe that we shouldn’t trust that God wants the best for us when he prescribes limits for us. It is exactly the same lie that led Eve to commit the first human sin. There was one limit in the garden of Eden: don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The devil came to Eve and convinced her that God was withholding something good from her, that this limit was evil. Our temptations to live for whatever “feels right” to us are exactly the same temptations, and they come from the same source.

If we surrender to Jesus in trust, that means that he has the right to ask anything of us. It means our choices are defined not by our own desires, but by what Jesus desires for us.

Far too often, people think they want to have Jesus, and also want to run their own lives however they please. They want to have Jesus, but they don’t want to give up things they think are just as important, or even more important (in their minds) than Jesus. Jesus encountered a person like that once. It was a rich young man. He was willing to do a number of things to follow God but there was one thing that he didn’t want to give up. Jesus identified it easily:

22 When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.23 But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.” (Luke 18:22-23, NLT)

This isn’t a universal command for every person to sell all they have. But it is an example for us, that teaches us that if we want to follow Jesus, we cannot make anything more important than him. We are called to have Jesus as our greatest treasure, and also as our Lord and King. He is patient with us, but if we ultimately insist on withholding from him something that he asks, we will, like the rich man, go away sad.

What Paul is trying to tell us here is that Jesus is worth far more than anything he asks us to give up for his sake. As we learn to trust Jesus, we also learn to value him more than anything else in the world. Paul says that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself spoke in parables about how when we receive him, we get the most valuable treasure in the world, a treasure that is worth more than anything we might give up for it.

 44 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.
45 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. 46 When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it! (Matthew 13:44-46, NLT)

Paul himself made that sort of trade long before. He told the Philippians how it was for him:

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him (Philippians 3:6-9, ESV)

In Jesus are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We get that treasure when we trust Jesus, even when we don’t understand. Often, understanding follows trust, and we gain practical wisdom about how to live. When we are surrendered in trust to Jesus, our hearts are profoundly encouraged, and we have the ability to identify the lies of the world and the devil, and to avoid falling into their traps.

As you reflect on God’s word today, here are some questions for application:

  • What is your greatest obstacle to trusting Jesus?
  • What lies are you tempted to believe?
  • What would help you to remember and believe that Jesus himself is a treasure greater than anything else in the universe?
  • Think about and describe a time when trusting Jesus has led to practical wisdom or understanding that you might not have had before?
  • What do you treasure about Jesus? What would help you to consistently seek him as your highest treasure?
  • What is the Lord saying to you through the scripture today?

COLOSSIANS #13. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL: AND SO IS OUR HOPE.

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Colossians #13  Colossians 2:1

 1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3, ESV)

As I write this, the covid-19 craziness is spreading all over the globe. Italy, Spain and several other countries are in full lockdown. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future. Even if you don’t fear getting the virus for yourself, the extreme measures that have been taken could seriously affect our lives for some time to come. I have been suffering a surprising and inexplicable pain for more than five years. If I have learned anything from it, it is that if my hope is truly, fully grounded in Jesus, suffering, uncertainty and hardship will be used for my good. I can deal with whatever comes, if my hope in Jesus is solid.

One of the ways to cultivate that hope is by immersing ourselves in God’s Word, the Bible. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate, I think, to take this time to do that every day on our own, and every week together.

With that in mind, let’s continue in Colossians chapter 2.

Paul has been talking about how he is working, and yet it is Christ who works through him. In chapter 2 verse 1 he assures them that his toil is for the sake of the Colossians, also for the other Christians in their region (Laodicea was nearby, to the north of Colossae, a journey of a day or two). I want to make sure we don’t rush over something here. Paul says that he has a great struggle for these Christians. His struggle did not involve physically being with them. It did not involve him working with them personally. It’s not like he is there personally leading them closer to Jesus. In fact, he freely admits that he has never met any of them face to face! How then, can he be struggling on their behalf?

I think that there are three pieces to Paul’s struggle. In the first place, Paul’s ministry was always aimed to benefit the entire church of Jesus Christ, wherever they were. He taught people who could teach other people, so that men and women that he didn’t even know could hear the gospel from someone besides himself. He was building not one local church, but a whole movement.

As part of his work for the church-at-large, Paul also labored at the writing of letters like this one, so that the true teaching of Jesus could be spread by the written word. The writing of these letters was no small thing to Paul. There was no text messaging, no email, no mass-produced paper or ink. In the ancient world, a letter was a very big thing, and often people would labor for days over a letter. You wouldn’t want to waste ink or paper until you were perfectly sure what you wanted to say.

Let me describe a typical letter-writing process from that time and place. Paul apparently had some issue with his eyes, so typically, one his companions served as an amanuensis (think “secretary”) to do the actual writing. Paul would speak out the words he wanted to say. His “secretary” would  probably have used a large flat container of wax. The words were carved into the wax. Then, it was read back to Paul, and he could decide if he wanted to make any changes, or rearrange any of his thoughts. They would correct grammatical errors, typos, and clarify things. They might make two or three versions of the letter in wax (or sometimes, they may have used chalk and slate, if it was available). After Paul had everything the way he wanted it, the “secretary” would carefully use ink and papyrus to copy out the finished product. The whole process could take days. I can testify myself that good writing is hard work. It isn’t physical labor, like building a house, but anyone who has ever written a book knows that it takes a great deal of mental and emotional energy, and a lot of self-discipline. The word “struggle” certainly applies. I might say, with Paul, “I want you know, brothers and sisters, what a labor and struggle of love it is to bring you these messages.”

Second, Paul struggled in prayer. Later in the letter, Paul writes:

12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. (Colossians 4:12, ESV)

The word “wrestling” above is the same Greek word as “struggle” in 2:1. (For language geeks, 2:1 has it in the form of a noun, and in 4:12 it is a verb). I said a minute ago that writing can be hard work. So can prayer. It can, in fact, be a struggle to pray. Paul was deeply engaged in prayer for all of the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. He didn’t just say, “Jesus, please bless the Gentiles.” Here is an example of how he prayed for people:

15 This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength (Ephesians 1:15-19, CSB)

 

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21, ESV)

12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. 13 May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, CSB)

11 In view of this, we always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and by his power fulfill your every desire to do good and your work produced by faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, CSB)

4 I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. (Philemon 1:4-6, CSB)

Prayer is no small thing. Jesus told us to pray, and gave us the Lord’s prayer as format. In case you didn’t know, the Lord’s prayer is not just “a prayer.” It is an outline, teaching us how we should pray. We are told to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and if He needed to do that, then we need it even more. The early church devoted themselves to just four things. The word “devoted” means that they persisted in it, and were deeply committed to it. One of the four things was prayer.

The apostles believed that prayer was one of their most important responsibilities. When the church came to them for help in ministry to the poor, this is what they said:

2 The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4, CSB)

Prayer is vitally important, and Paul engaged in it so deeply that he called it part of his struggle.

There is a third element that I think Paul was referring to when he said that he was engaged in struggle for these Christians he had never met. The third thing is this: Spiritual warfare. In Ephesians, Paul writes:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. (Ephesians 6:12, CSB)

 

8 Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. 9 Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kind of sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9

I would remind us who are afraid at the current world craziness, that Christians throughout history have faced tremendously difficult times. This is nothing new, and Jesus is, and always has been a certain, sure, hope in times of trouble. I have been in pain for five years, and you can’t accuse me of having never faced hard times. I know it is easy to say. But I have lived in suffering, and found Jesus to be up to the challenges I face.

Another Spiritual warfare verse:

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. (1 Timothy 4:1-2, CSB)

In John 14:30, Jesus refers to the devil as “the prince of this world.” There are many other verses like these. Now, the idea of spiritual warfare is not intended to be an excuse. We don’t get to say: “The devil made me do it!” We are still responsible for what we do, or don’t do. However, we need to be aware that we don’t live in neutral territory. The world around us is under evil spiritual influence, spirits that do not submit to God. Our own flesh was born in sin and tends always to rebel against God. And the devil himself, along with his demons, constantly lie to us. They try to discourage us, daunt us and scare us. We are in a war. We should have a wartime mentality against our flesh, against the godless influences of the world, and the devil. We should not be surprised when it is hard to follow Jesus well, and we should not be ignorant of the reasons it is hard.

Jesus said some very important things just before he was arrested. Here is one of them:

3I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV)

If someone says to you that being a Christian is easy, they are either just ignorant, or lying. Jesus himself said we would have trouble in this world. Peter writes that we shouldn’t be surprised at trials. James says we should rejoice when we have them. Do not expect that following Jesus should make life go well here and now.

There is a joy that comes with following Jesus, and a sense of “rightness” and goodness about life. We have vast resources of love and courage and strength that are available only in Jesus. But following him does mean that everything will go well in life. Quite the opposite. The struggle is real, and should be expected. We need to plan and act accordingly.

At the same time, we don’t need to be afraid. We will have trouble in this world, but Jesus also promised that at the very same time, we could have peace in Him. Seek it, and you will find it.

IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL

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I’ve been recently convinced that I need to start writing about my pain. Ultimately, what follows will be a chapter in a book. Perhaps it can be helpful to those who are concerned about what the future holds in these uncertain times. Sorry, no recording this time. This week, this is what I have to offer:

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Oh, my brothers and sisters who are in pain and suffering, my heart cries out with you.

I know your confusion, your hurt, your anger at God, your frustration when others don’t understand. I know how insensitive well-meaning friends can be, hurtful without even realizing it. I know the dark lonely hours you spend, wondering if it will end, why it won’t end, why won’t God just do something?

This is for you. This is for me. This is for your loved ones who suffer with you. This is for us.

This is also for those who watch our suffering and don’t understand. You have compassion, but you don’t know exactly what to think, or how to act around your struggling friends.

This is also for those of you who secretly suspect that there must be some reason, perhaps a hidden one, why other people suffer and you don’t. You may not say it, but it crosses your mind that perhaps we suffer because of hidden sin, or because we spoke bad things into our lives. Perhaps we poor souls failed to follow the simple rules for godly living that will result in peace and prosperity for everyone wise and disciplined enough to stay on the path. To you, especially, I say: pay attention. Your souls are in grave danger. Give up pride, seek humility, read on and learn, lest you find your hands empty on the only day true rewards are given. I don’t give such warnings lightly.

Let me begin with my story. To be clear, I don’t think I have suffered more than anyone else. I am not competing with anyone here to see who has it worse. If you want to claim your suffering is worse than mine, I won’t argue one bit. I freely admit that I know dozens of people that I would never want to trade places with. That’s not what this is about. What I do want you to know that, at least in some way, I do know what suffering is. I am in it, even as I write this.

I am in pain.

Physical pain. Severe, constant, relentless, unending pain.

It started with a kidney stone. Not all kidney stones are equally bad. But the worst kidney stones, what I call “the real kidney stone experience,” is generally the worst pain anybody ever experiences in one’s life while remaining conscious. I have spoken with several women who delivered babies without any painkillers, and who have also had kidney stones. They report that the kidney stones are far worse. I’ve spoken to war veterans who were shot, and shredded by shrapnel. They report that kidney stones are far, far more painful than combat wounds. I have had several surgeries, including the kind where they make a large incision, and the post-surgery pain never remotely approached the real kidney stone experience.

A “real kidney stone” produces a pain so severe that if you can’t get relief within an hour, you desperately hope, and even pray, that you will die quickly. It is pain to the point of insanity. This is what I call 10/10 pain. If you have this level of pain, you seek medical help immediately. If you think you can go without medical help, you are not experiencing 10/10 pain. According to some doctors, most people don’t experience that level of pain ever in their lifetimes.

I have experienced it at least five times.

Due to two small tumors that developed when I was about thirty-five years old, I began to pass kidney stones roughly every six months. This went on for more than ten years until the problem was finally detected, and the offending tumors removed. I have passed somewhere around twenty-five stones.

Not every stone I had reached that 10/10 level of pain, but, as I mentioned, four of them did (more on the fifth time momentarily). The others may not have reached that level of insanity, but even a level of 7/10 puts you in a place where most of your energy and time is devoted to dealing with and riding out the pain. At that level, you might be able to watch TV, or play a mindless computer game to try and distract yourself, but meaningful work or interaction is not possible for more than a few minutes at a time. Most people take strong drugs if things get to 7/10. If those don’t work, the next step is the emergency room. By 8/10, and certainly by 9/10, everyone is heading there.

It took weeks at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic to identify and correct my tumor problem. My body finally stopped producing new stones, though, at that point, I still had several more in my kidneys waiting to pass. The Mayo clinic also explained what was causing the continuing pain problem.

All of that severe, intense pain that recurred regularly for more than ten years gradually changed my body. It did two things. First, it caused a rare kind of physical damage that cannot be surgically repaired. Second, it damaged my nerves. The end result is that even though I no longer produce them, I still feel the same pain as if I am passing kidney stone. I feel this pain all day, all night, every day for the past six years. That’s 2,190 days of kidney stone pain, or 52,560 hours, but who’s counting?

Of course I take pain medication for it. If I didn’t, I would have been dead a long time ago. What I have now is a virtual kidney stone that will never pass. That means the pain will never end. Medication does not really remove the pain. Most days I live at a 5/10. That’s halfway to insanity. On an average week, my pain creeps up to 7/10, or 8/10, two or three times. This is while I am taking pretty significant pain medication. Once in a while I’ll experience a few good days, where I might get down to four out of ten. Three out of ten is as rare as the Minnesota Vikings going to the Superbowl. This is not a low level of pain, pain I can ignore. If I take nothing for it, I end up in the emergency room. The last time I waited too long to medicate, I hit 10/10 pain for the fifth time.

If you want to try and experience what I feel on a minute by minute basis, trying lying flat on your back with your knees up. Tuck a golf ball just below your rib cage, two or three inches to the left of your spine. Now, rest all of your torso weight on that golf ball. That might approximate my daily, 5/10 pain experience. I am a strong, stoic person, so I may not be admitting to how much pain I really have. My wife tells me that I typically undersell it.

There is a reason I am emphasizing how bad my pain is, how difficult my daily life is. I want you to understand that what I go through is almost unbelievable, because what I want to say next is even more difficult to believe, but it is far more important.

I am so thankful to God for this pain.

I am closer to Jesus because of this pain.

Now, I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Of course I struggle. Sometimes, I just don’t know how I can get through a day. I write a little. I try to go for a short walk. A car ride of more than forty-five minutes is certain to ramp up my pain something fierce. Sometimes playing a simple computer game helps distract me enough push the pain back just a little. I spend most of the time sitting or lying with a hot bag of rice on my kidney, which is the only thing that sort helps, besides medications that I should only take when I’m desperate. And I get desperate too often. I worry about getting the medications that keep me sane – many of them are controlled substances, and sometimes doctors make mistakes and that leads to lapses in getting what I need.

I want to be writing. I want to write this book. I want to finish the fifth in my mystery series. I want to write a book about house church. Meanwhile, I know I am called to feed the sheep of Jesus by teaching them Word, and by teaching them how to learn the Word for themselves. How can I do these things, things to which I feel strongly called, if all I can do is writhe in pain?

I need to remind myself to stop thinking in days. I need to remember to think moment by moment. Now is a good moment. A combination of things is keeping it at 5/10, and possibly I’ve had a few minutes of 4/10. I’ve just written five hundred words in one sitting. Before the pain, that would about a quarter of what I would have called a decent writing session. Maybe I should call that win for these days. Even now I feel the pain, crouching like a menacing shadow just beyond the light. It is growing. This good moment clearly has an expiration, and it isn’t far off. Soon it will be back to the grind.

But before I quit, I want to make sure you understand something of earth-shaking importance: There is something greater than the pain, something so good, so true, that even though the pain does not become less, it becomes less important.

Because I have been afflicted, I have experienced the love of God in a more deep, intense way. I am more certain than I have ever been of his love for me, and of mine for him. Experientially, I belong more fully to Jesus than I have ever before. This is not in spite of my suffering, but because of it.

I recently heard someone comment on the hymn, “It is Well With my Soul.” She said, “I wish I could have that. It just wish that it could be well with my soul, no matter what is going on.”

Brothers and sisters, today I do have that. It is well with my soul, in the middle of this moment-by-moment struggle, in the middle of five years of disappointed hopes and dead ends, and unanswered prayers. It is well with my soul as I cannot help but grunt or sigh in agony. It is well with my soul, though the prayers of thousands on my behalf have not been answered as asked. It is well with my soul as I toss and turn and squirm and try desperately to get comfortable to grab few hours of restless, unfulfilling sleep. It is well with my soul as I watch my writing career slowly grind down and lose momentum, because I do not have the energy to fight with this pain and do everything else I want to.

What I am about to say might require some major readjustments in your thoughts and attitudes. Especially, it  might require some adjustments to your heart.

It can be well with your soul too.

 

COLOSSIANS #12: THE POWER AND PURPOSE TO BE WHO WE WERE MEANT TO BE

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The only way to become who you are truly meant to be is to surrender your heart and life to Jesus. He is the creator of your heart, and only he knows completely who you are, and what you are meant to be. Looking inside of you, or following your heart, will not be enough. Adolf Hitler had a clear vision of who he was and what he was meant to be. He followed his heart with strength purpose and authenticity; and he was totally evil. Only Jesus can help us to be fully ourselves without becoming monsters.

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Colossians #12. Colossians 1:27-29

27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. Colossians 1:27-29

Last time we examined the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We found that it is not so much that we live our lives for God, but rather that Jesus Christ lives his life through ours. Our part is, in one sense, to get out of the way, and to not hinder the Life that Jesus wants to live through us. Now, in verse 28, Paul clarifies and expounds on this.

First, Paul says that he proclaims Christ, warning all people. The Greek word here  could be translated several ways: admonish, reprove,  caution. The idea is speaking to someone with idea of correcting a problem, or warning about some danger.

In our day and age, preachers and teachers seldom warn or admonish. The most popular preachers at the biggest churches, the ones you see on TV and on the internet, generally avoid telling people things that they don’t want to hear. They frequently have interesting messages that tend to affirm people and make them feel good, and they stay away from controversial or difficult topics.

But Paul is not just telling people what they want to hear. He isn’t agreeing with the culture, or affirming their basic self-centeredness. He is confronting them with the truth of Jesus, and the first part of the message of Jesus is that all human beings must repent.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

Repentance is a central part of the message of Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, part of the job of Christian leaders is to warn those who are not repentant. Many verses all over the New Testament tell us that leaders must correct, rebuke and warn. This is an integral part of what it means to proclaim Jesus Christ and his message. The grace and truth of Jesus confront us with our need to change. I believe that many, many of those who call themselves pastors and preachers in this day and age have been failing to warn and admonish. Warning and admonishing is not necessarily an effective church growth policy. People can misunderstand, and leave. Sometimes people understand perfectly, but they are still offended by the warnings, and they still leave. Yet, this is what Christian leaders are called to do. We are not called to create large churches, we are called to proclaim the message of Jesus.

Paul also engages in teaching. I have recently mentioned the importance of that ministry, so I won’t go into that again here. He adds that he warns and teaches “with all wisdom.” The word “all” here means, “all sorts.” In other words, all truth ultimately comes from God and agrees with the Revelation of scripture. Paul uses any and all means to communicate the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ to the world. When he was in Athens, he quoted from Greek poets. When he preached to Jews, he used the wisdom of the Old Testament. I often use analogies and illustrations and stories when I teach, or even movies or songs. All of this is appropriate, since God is the source of everything that is actually true and good. Don’t be afraid if you feel like God touches you through a “secular” song or movie, or book. All wisdom that is actually true and wise comes ultimately from our God, and all of it can be used to help us in our relationship with Jesus. I do want to make sure and add, however, that the ultimate revelation from God is the Bible alone. Confucius had some God-given wisdom, as did Aristotle and Socrates. But they also wrote things that were wrong. We cannot accept every single thing that they say. Instead, we should evaluate it against what we find in scripture. All wisdom and truth must be judged against the Bible. The Bible is the final standard for God’s Truth. It should be our first source, and the source that judges all others.

Paul says that purpose of this warning and teaching is “that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” I want to bring out some shades of meaning from the Greek here. When Paul says he want to “present” everyone, there is the idea that people being presented are firmly in a certain condition. They are standing, or existing, in a state of maturity in Christ. Picture a graduation ceremony. Each graduate has completed the course of study, and is ready to move forward.

The word “mature” is the Greek word telos, and the idea behind it is that some thing or person is fulfilling its purpose. A hammer being used to pound nails is accomplishing its telos. It isn’t just what we call maturity, it is the idea that a person is finally being and doing what they were made to be and do. That’s what it means to be mature in Christ.

I want to make sure we don’t misunderstand this. The text makes it clear that the purpose for which we exist is fulfilled only in Christ. You see, these days, we are all about being “who we were meant to be.” But the scripture makes it clear here that the only way to be who you are meant to be is to submit to Jesus Christ. He is the one who created you in the first place. He is the one who has the master plan for each person, and how each person’s role relates to everyone else’s role.

This is extremely significant. Many people think their purpose is to pursue whatever they feel deeply. But the human heart is deceptive and changeable. We do not clearly see our own failings, and we so easily lie to ourselves to pursue whatever it is we want. Sometimes the things we want change drastically as we grow older. Sometimes, perhaps, we want the same thing consistently, but what we want is wrong. As far as I know history, Adolf Hitler was “true to himself.” He was honest about what he wanted, and he pursued what he thought was his destiny with strength, purpose and authenticity. Even so, he was thoroughly evil. Hitler is an extreme example, but it is true that a great wave of unhappiness is in the world as a result of people trying to “be true to themselves.”

The only way to really “be true to yourself” is to follow Jesus. He is the creator of your heart. Only he can lead you, only he can truly fulfill the purpose of your life. You don’t accomplish your purpose by getting to know yourself better, you do it by fully surrendering yourself to Christ.

Paul’s own telos, his purpose, is to help others grow in Christ. His next statement is also very important, because it shows us something about how to live and grow in Christ. After looking at the Greek, here is how I would paraphrase verse 29:

For this goal I wear myself out, agonizingly struggling with the tremendous energy that God himself energizes powerfully in me.

You see two pieces here. Paul is toiling, but he is using not his own strength. The energy with which he toils is power that comes from God himself.

There’s an old phrase that some people find clever: “Are you working hard, or hardly working?” Actually, in Christ, it is both. Paul works hard, but, it is God who works though him. Next time you hear that phrase, let it remind you of the truth that if you let him, the Lord will work through you. Paul teaches the same thing to the Philippians:

12 Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. (NLT, Philippians 2:12-13)

He tells us to work hard to show the results of our salvation. That sounds like it is all up to us. But then he adds that it is God who works in us, both to give us the desire, and the power to please him. We work hard, and yet, at the same time, it is God working hard in us and through us. Paul works hard, but it is God’s energy within him that does the work.

I think the key to all this is to be willing. Part of being willing is making our bodies and minds available to God.  For example, one part that is essential for us if we are to mature in Christ is to read the Bible. If you aren’t a reader, listening to the Bible is just as good. God will not take over your body, make you walk over to the shelf, take down the bible and open it up. You have to do that part. Or, you have to call up the audio Bible on your phone and start it playing. But then, once you read or listen, what you get out of it is up to God. This may surprise you, but the Bible is very clear that results are God’s business, not ours. You need to put the bible into your mind and heart by reading or listening. But the second part – the growing and learning and changing – that is what God himself will do, in his own way, and own time.

I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten during the past month, but even so, those meals nourished my body. In the same way, the scripture I’ve read during the past month has nourished my soul. Sometimes, I can feel my soul being built up as I read. Sometimes I can’t. But I give God my time and willingness, and he provides the growth in his time and way. I read the Bible almost every day. Many days, what I read does not stay in my conscious mind for very long. But after 35 years or so of regular Bible reading, God has implanted his word deep in my soul, and he uses it to bear fruit on many occasions. How it bears fruit, and when, is up to him. My part is to give him my time, my eyes and my mind. In fact, here is some of what I’ve read during the past month:

4 [Jesus said] Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. (NLT, John 15:4-5)

That little piece, which I read a few weeks ago, is bearing fruit right now in this sermon. And it isn’t the first time I’ve read it, nor the first time it has helped me and others. It reinforces what Paul says in our text for today. Our first task is to make sure we are closely connected to Jesus.  Next, we make our voices and hands and minds available to him. Finally, we leave the results up to him.

So it is with everything. Jesus want to love and bless and my family through me. I have to give him my time and my words, but the way those things bring blessings to them are up to Jesus. I have to be willing to spend time with other people Jesus has put in my life. I need to be willing to speak, or help them in practical ways. But even as I give my time and my physical actions, it is  God who uses those things to bless others. I have been saying “I,” but truthfully, this is for all of us. It isn’t just for preachers: Paul made that clear in the Philippians verse I quoted above, and Jesus made it clear in the John 15 verse I just gave you. This is how we live. We use our voices and minds, and hearts and bodies, but it is God working in and through us at the same time.

Later on in Colossians, Paul says these things:

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV, Colossians 3:17)

3 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (ESV, Colossians 3:23-24)

We work, but God works through us. One of the biggest benefits here is that we can have peace by trusting that the results are up to God. I had to study to prepare this sermon. I had to put in a fair amount of time. I had to use my mind, studying the Greek, and remembering other verses that relate to this text. I read some things written by other believers. I used my abilities as a writer to organize these thoughts, and put them down, to the best of my ability, so that others can understand what this scripture means. In a little while, I will record a spoken version of what I have written. The whole process often takes in excess of 30 hours. But now that I am done, I trust that the Lord will do what he wants with it. If it touches your heart in any way, it is because God is working with his energy. Yes, I had to give my energy to God for this, but any positive effect is God’s responsibility. I can relax and trust that He will indeed bless someone through this. I’ve done my best, out of gratitude toward Jesus. He will take it from here.

In the spoken versions of all my messages, I begin with a prayer. The prayer is usually something like this:

Holy Spirit, Thank you for your Word. I pray right now that you will use me to help us understand your Word better. Use the scripture, and what I am about to say, to bless us, to change us, to draw us closer to you. If you need to, change what I am about to say. Or, change what people hear me saying so that we all hear your voice, and are brought closer to you. In Jesus’ Name, AMEN.

I pray that for each message. But really all of us should pray something like as we begin each day. We are here to be used by him, and the more we are his instruments, the more we fulfill His good purposes for us.

Why don’t you let him take it from here?

COLOSSIANS #11: THE LIFE!

We don’t live for Jesus. He lives his life through our lives. He expresses his purposes and glory through each of us in unique and important ways. This takes a lot of pressure off us. Mainly, we simply need to trust him to do it, and make ourselves available to him. This is the meaning of: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

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Colossians #11. Colossians 1:25-27

Paul has just said that he rejoices in his sufferings, and that he is engaged in suffering for the sake of the church. He continues:

25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (CSB, Colossians 1:25-27)

Paul records that God had a special plan for him to serve the church by making known the Word of God. Paul’s call was, in some respects, unique. God called him, and several other apostles, to teach and write the very words that would become scripture to us. But in another respect, there are others whom God has called, in a lesser way, to make the word of God fully known. This is a special call, given to some, not all, to teach the Bible to others. One reason I point this out it because in certain places, this idea has been lost, and it hurts the church. Where I live and minister, it is often called “the Bible Belt,” because Christianity is strongly rooted here. But often, though it is strongly culturally rooted, the Bible is not well understood, and there are many people who take it upon themselves to “become a preacher.” Many of these people are neither called by  God, nor properly equipped, to make the Word of God fully known, and they sometimes do great harm.

Martin Luther and those who led the Protestant Reformation taught about the “the Priesthood of all believers.” This is often misunderstood. What it means is that every believer has direct access to God, and every believer is called to use his or her energy and abilities in God’s service. It does not mean that all believers are equally called and equipped to teach God’s word to others. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul makes this clear.

4 There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. 5 There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. 6 God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. 7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. (NLT 1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

29 Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? 30 Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! (NLT, 1 Corinthians 12:29-30)

I think that at times, at least in my area of the United States, these things are not considered carefully enough. If someone is to be a teacher of the Word, he should be called, trained, equipped, and have the explicit approval of a church. In addition, the church needs every kind of gift, not just the gifts of Bible teachers. There are some who seek to become preachers who are depriving the church of their other, better gifts and calling from the Lord. I also want to make sure that we understand every gift is important and significant. Being a teacher of God’s word does not make me better than someone who, for instance, is called to glorify God through his work as a mechanic.

Paul says that part of his call is to make known “the mystery, hidden for ages and generations.” He often uses the term “mystery.” Although we get our English word for mystery directly from the Greek word here (mysterion), Paul’s meaning is slightly different than we might think. He doesn’t mean that it is a puzzle that needs to be solved. He means two things: First, that human beings cannot understand it or know it unless God reveals it. Second, he means it is a truth that has been hidden until a particular God-appointed time for it to be revealed.

Paul is talking about the gospel, and all of the meaning of it. The idea that God would enter the world and die in order to save his people was not something that ever entered the imagination of human beings. But even more, Paul lays out specifically the unique thing that was hidden for ages, and now has been revealed by God’s grace: “Christ in you, the hope of Glory.” This is a very theological phrase, but stick with me. There is something extremely important here, something that can make a real difference in our lives now, and for eternity.

Many Christians use this sort of terminology: “Jesus lives in my heart.” That is true. But sometimes, we get the idea that Jesus is like a roommate. We think of it a bit like this: Jesus is there, relaxing, his arms up on the couch, hanging with us. He’s there to comfort us when we’re down, or give us advice when we remember to ask it. Sometimes, he’ll warn us, other times, tell us we’re fine. Overall we get the sense of Jesus just “chilling” somewhere inside of us. But that isn’t really the Biblical picture. The Biblical picture is that Jesus Christ expresses his life through your life, and mine. That is what the phrase means: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Now, I want to be clear. We aren’t living for Jesus. We are letting Jesus live through us. The first one still relies on our own flesh-based efforts – we have worthy goals that we are accomplishing (or not) by our own effort. The second one is about completely relying on Jesus to do it. We have to give him our response – we have to say “yes” to Him and let him use our arms and legs and words, but we recognize at the same time that it is His Life flowing through our unique body and personality.

Jesus lived this way in his own relationship with the Father, while he was on earth. He said:

 “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.”  (John 14:7, HCSB)

The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works.  (John 14:10 HCSB)

In that same passage, Jesus himself gives us a clue that he will live the life in us, just as the Father lived the life in him:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me  will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12)

We often think this means we will imitate what Jesus did. I think, in light of the rest of the New Testament, that it means Jesus will live his life through us.

Either Jesus will do it as you let him, or you are on your own. Letting Jesus live through you calls for faith that in our passage today: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So maybe you are in a situation where God is calling you to speak and act in love toward another person. You don’t feel very loving. Maybe some people wouldn’t even pray. They’d just grit their teeth and try to be loving. Maybe others would pray something like this: “Lord, give me the strength to love this person right now.” But that isn’t exactly right either. That means we are still living the life ourselves, even if it is with God’s help. I think our attitude should be more like this: “Lord, I don’t feel loving. I can’t love this person right now. You do the loving through me. I am willing for you to do that. I make myself available to you for that.” And then we trust Him to come through.

Maybe you need to forgive someone for something they have done to you. This is often one of the hardest things to do and let go of. Many times, we try to do it on our own strength. Sometimes, we begin to get a glimmer of a clue, and we say, “Lord help me to forgive them.” Again, the focus of that prayer is still myself and my own performance.

Remember what Jesus prayed for those who crucified him: “Father forgive them…” We often think of this as Jesus asking the Father for forgiveness on our behalf. And perhaps that is what it was. But what if it was the human-nature of Jesus, who was dependent on the Father to live his life through him, asking the Father to do through him what he, the human-nature of Jesus, could not do on his own? Given the verses in John above, that is a real possibility – this was Jesus, praying in dependence that the Father would continue to work through him and speak through him even in this extreme and terrible situation.

And so we can say, “Jesus, I feel bitter toward this person. I can’t forgive him myself. Even so, I give you permission to forgive through me right now. Lord forgive him – through me.”

Do you see how this could change everything? Our performance could never, will never, achieve our salvation. Jesus did that on our behalf. But our own performance will also never be enough live the Christian life either. Just think of it: It is the CHRISTian life. It is his life. He is the one who will live it. Our part is to allow him to; to respond when he speaks through the bible or in our hearts; to let him have our arms and legs and mouth and thoughts and the rest of us, so that he can life our life. This is why Paul puts it like this:

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Rom 12:1-2, ESV)

We are to present our bodies to Jesus, so that he can use us. We are to let him renew our mind, to transform us from the inside out so that we can hear and respond to Him living his life through us.

One of the wonderful things about this, is that we do not lose our person-hood when we do this. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the goal is to completely lose yourself into a kind of cosmic one-ness. But the Bible teaches that as we become one with God, we retain our individual personality, and in fact, he has plans and purposes for our unique individuality. This is where we come back around to the first point: we all have unique callings and giftings. Each one of us is important and significant.

Jesus wants to express his life through all these unique people. No one personality could possibly show all the many facets of Jesus’ power, His creativity, His person, His purposes. That’s why Paul says “we are the body of Christ, all of us parts of it.”

Jesus wants to live his life through me because he can show others some of his words and thoughts in a unique way through me. He can think and write through me in a way that he can’t through anyone else. Jesus wants to live through Kari because he can make a unique kind of music through her, songs that he can’t make through anyone else. I’m not saying we are better than anyone else. But we are different from everyone else. So are you. You get the picture?

He can show his compassion to people through you in a way that he can’t show it through anyone else. He can make a beautiful painting through you that he can’t make through anyone else.

I’m a poor craftsman, but at times I am forced to do farm or home-improvement projects. I have  dozens of tools. Each tool is there to do my work. They all express my will and purpose (or they would, if I was any good), but each one expresses it differently. The saw expresses my purpose in a way that looks completely different from the hammer. But they are both used to create what I am building or repairing. A tool that tried to be both and hammer and saw at the same time probably wouldn’t be very useful for either task. Even the hacksaw has a task that is different from the wood saw.

I am not asking you to try to be good on your own. I am asking you to trust Jesus to live his life, to express his life, through you, as you. You don’t have to become someone or something else – Jesus has already done all the becoming for you. He wants to use the unique person that he has made you to be. Your part is to trust that he wants to do it; to let him do it; and to trust that he is doing it, and the results are up to him.

COLOSSIANS #10: FILLING UP WHAT IS LACKING IN SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST

person s hands covered with blood

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When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

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Colossians #10. Colossians 1:24-26 (Part B)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Colossians 1:24-26

This is the second sermon on the same set of verses: Colossians 1:24-26. If you have not read the first sermon on this passage (Colossians #9), please go back and do that now. Some of what we learn in this sermon absolutely depends upon what we already received from the previous one.

We began last time by examining Paul’s words: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Those are powerful words. Until we understand how it is possible to rejoice in our sufferings, we cannot understand this next phrase: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

If you stop and think about it, this is a very puzzling phrase. What does it mean to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? How can Christ’s afflictions be lacking? Does this mean that the death of Jesus is not enough, and we need to suffer in order to be saved?

Paul uses some unusual language in this little phrase, but there is one other place that uses almost exactly the same Greek wording. That other verse comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Philippian church collected some money and sent it Paul  to help support him as he worked for the kingdom of God. Paul was in Rome at the time, a long way from where they lived, so they sent the gift with a man named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus arrived in Rome with the money, and he also assisted Paul in the work, but at some point, he got sick, and almost died. Paul says that he considered this sickness of Epaphroditus to be suffering for the sake of Christ, and he wrote this:

Therefore, welcome him in the Lord with great joy and hold people like him in honor, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up what was lacking in your ministry to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

The phrase “to make up for what was lacking” is almost exactly the same in Greek as our verse today where he says, “I am filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Epaphroditus was not persecuted.  “He came close to death for the sake of the Lord” because of an illness. This should show us that anything and everything that happens to us as we try to live for Jesus is “for the sake of the Lord.” His suffering was no less suffering for the Lord, even though it was not persecution, but “ordinary sickness.”

Next, let’s consider how Epaphroditus “made up what was lacking” in the ministry in the ministry of the Philippians to Paul. He didn’t raise the money himself. Also, Paul does not mean that Epaphroditus added the last, needed twenty dollars. What was lacking in the Philippian gift was a person to deliver it, to make sure that Paul got it. Epaphroditus made up for that lack. He provided the delivery, and the personal touch. He personally represented the love and fellowship the others felt for Paul.

So when Paul says he makes up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ he does NOT mean that the suffering of Jesus was not enough to bring forgiveness of our sins. The whole New Testament is quite clear that the death of Jesus was entirely sufficient to forgive our sins, to make us holy and restore our relationship with God:

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. (NLT, Hebrews 10:11-14, bold formatting added for emphasis)

18 Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. 19 Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. (NLT, Romans 5:18-19)

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. (NLT, Romans 8:1-4)

So, the sufferings of Jesus are entirely enough to save us. We cannot add to the salvation that Jesus obtained for us. His sufferings are not “lacking” in power to save us. But there is one thing that Christ did not accomplish while he was here on earth. He did not tell every human being about himself. He gave that assignment to the apostles, and to the whole church. Therefore, what “is lacking” in Christ sufferings is that not everyone has heard about those sufferings, nor understood what they mean. Just as the Philippians needed someone to deliver a generous gift, so Jesus needs Paul – and us – to bring the good news of his gift to the world. What is lacking is, in essence, the delivery of the gift.

Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament, take it for granted that bringing the good news to others will involve suffering.  Epaphroditus became physically ill while serving Jesus, and it is counted as suffering for the sake of Christ. So, in essence the sufferings of Christ – in his body, the church – will not be complete until all the world has heard the good news.

John Piper puts it like this:

What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others…

…Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Let me give it to you in a different way. When people suffer, mostly, they just want it to stop. Suffering is seen as universally bad. Suffering creates problems for most people. Many people even turn away from the idea of God, because they feel that a good God would not allow anyone he loves to suffer.

Certainly, the Bible says that God the Father loves his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus Christ experienced a terrible, eternal quality of suffering that we can only begin to guess at. However, The suffering of Jesus was an act of love, because it saves those who trust him. The suffering of Jesus also shows us that Jesus was looking beyond temporary pain into eternal glory.

When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

I am utterly convinced that many people have been encouraged by seeing me navigate this life of pain in faith. I think it has had a deeper impact on both me, and others, than there would have been from a miraculous healing. When people see that even in my suffering I find Jesus to be a good, all-sufficient savior, then I am, in a sense presenting the sufferings of Jesus to them. Because I am a  member of the body of Christ, it is not my suffering, but the suffering of Jesus.

Again, from John Piper:

Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”  Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Suffering is an opportunity. It provides us with a chance to experience the grace of God in a special way. In addition, it allows us to present the worth of Christ to the world in a very compelling manner.

Just a few weeks ago, a prominent Christian singer from Bethel church lost her two year old daughter to sudden death. This was a terrible tragedy. It was also an opportunity for God to give that family special grace, and for them, by trusting that grace, to show the world the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. Instead, they chose to very publicly pray for the resurrection of the child. Though I have my small share of suffering, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a young child suddenly. I am not judging them, but I want us to use their example as a thought experiment.

Suppose God had answered their prayer for the resurrection of their child. What then? Yes, it would be a great miracle. But it would also leave hundreds of thousands of other stricken parents wondering why God did not choose to raise their child. It would tend to make people believe that the value of trusting God is mainly in what we can see, mainly in him making our lives better here and now. But that is not a Biblical viewpoint.

What if these parents had responded differently? What if they had immediately leaned into the grace of God to trust, even when they cannot understand? What if they had been able to say, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever experienced – and yet, I find that God’s grace is enough. I don’t understand, but I trust him, anyway.” I believe that would have been more powerful, and more helpful to others, than the resurrection of a single child among the millions of those who die young and tragically.

Between these past two weeks, we have learned that it is possible to rejoice in suffering, and also that suffering is a means by which God’s people can show the world that He is good, and He can be trusted. It would be foolish to go and look for ways to suffer. However, if and when you do find yourself in hard times, press into Him, trust Him. Once more, I leave you with one of my new favorite bible quotes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)