FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

COLOSSIANS #7: If We Belong to the Head, We belong to the Body

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Christ is the head of the body, the church. You are part of the body, the church. That’s the deal. That’s part of what you sign up for when you surrender your life to Jesus. Part of trusting Jesus is trusting that he has made you part of his body.

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Colossians  #7.  Colossians 6:18

 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.

In this message, I am going to say some things that may be difficult for some people to hear. I want you to stay with me. It may seem like I am being unrealistic at one point, but hang in there, because I will cover our topic today as thoroughly as I can, including taking into account the reality of this sinful world.

In verse 18, Paul moves from a universal view of Jesus to a more personal one. He is the creator of all things, Lord of the universe. That is true, and wonderful. Even more wonderful is that this Creator God takes a personal interest in you and me. He is the head of the body, the church. He attained resurrection so that he could give it as a gift to us. He is God, and yet, he took upon himself the responsibility to repair what we had broken: ourselves, and this world.

And he is the head of the body, the church. There are two important things for us to understand in this statement. The first is that one metaphor for church is that of a body. This is extremely important, for a number of reasons. Let’s look at the idea in greater depth, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 12:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (ESV 1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

This has huge implications for how we live our everyday lives as followers of Jesus. We follow Jesus as a part of his body. It seems to me that millions of Christians don’t understand this. So many people think that religion is very personal and individualistic. There is a small element of truth in this. We do each need to have our own connection to Jesus, because ultimately, he is the only one we can always rely upon. We each have to receive the grace of God, and not reject it, as individuals. But once we are connected to Jesus, we are also connected to his body. And this connection to the body of Christ – that is, to others who follow Jesus – is supposed to last as long as the connection to Jesus himself: that is, eternally.

I have met many, many Christians who claim they are fine “going solo.” Unless everyone else you know who claims to be a Christian is actually a hypocrite – that is, they don’t really believe – there is no justification for that. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” Could it be any more plain than that? You cannot say to other Christians, “I have no need of you.”

Have you ever met a toe? Just a single toe, wiggling around through the world? Obviously not. A single toe, unconnected to the body will die. That is a biological reality. That is also a spiritual reality. A Christian without regular Christian fellowship will eventually wither away. People have asked me, “Can’t you be a Christian, and not be part of a Church?”

My answer has always been, “Yes, but not for long.”

Some people say, “I am connected to the head, (that is, Jesus) just not the rest of the body.”

All right then, have you ever met a head with a toe sticking out of the side of it? Stay with me here, I know I am being ridiculous – but so are the Christians who claim they do not need to be connected to other believers. Now, if you are a toe, and you are connected to the head, let me ask you two questions: how do you think the head looks to other people? Pretty weird, right? You aren’t doing Jesus any favors, and you aren’t helping him look appealing to the world if you are not connected to the rest of the body.

Second, this: if you are a toe, and you are connected to the head, and nothing else, what is your function? Why is there a toe on the head? How does the toe help out, up there on the head? If a toe is connected only to the head, it contributes nothing to the rest of the body. There is no purpose for it.

Are you starting to get it? The whole idea of a Christian who is not connected to the church is utterly silly and ridiculous. It gives other people  a skewed view of Jesus Christ, and it takes away the purpose that Jesus has for you in blessing others.

By the way, sometimes, I think this is why people are turned off by Christians and churches. Metaphorically speaking, The face of Jesus is covered by toes and fingernails that should be rightly connected elsewhere, but they aren’t, and so the church does not seem to be an attractive place.  Or, even if the face of Jesus is fine, they see a body that is missing feet and fingernails and eyelashes, and think, “That’s a little strange and creepy. I’m not sure I like it.”

Christ is the head of the body, the church. You are part of the body, the church. That’s the deal. That’s part of what you sign up for when you surrender your life to Jesus. Part of trusting Jesus is trusting that he has made you part of his body.

I meet some Christians who say, “I love Jesus just fine, but I really don’t love other Christians.” Listen, brothers and sisters that is impossible. If you love Jesus, you will love your fellow Jesus followers. If you don’t love your fellow Christians, then either you haven’t met enough of them, or there is something wrong in your relationship with Jesus. There are some things in the Bible that are difficult to understand, or are unclear. This is not one of them:

9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (ESV, 1 John 2:9-11)

If you think you are a Christian, and you hate other Christians, then you are mistaken. Being connected with Jesus means you are connected with his body, because he is the head. One sign that you are a Christian is that you love other Christians.

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. (ESV, 1 John 3:11-14)

Now, at this point, some of you may be getting a little nervous. The reality is, you just haven’t met many Christians that you can connect with. You feel like you really don’t love the rest of the body, but you really do love Jesus. What can you do? What does this mean?

If you are sure that you love Jesus, and you are sure that you don’t love other Christians, there are a few possibilities. The first is that you are mistaken about either one, or the other. Maybe you really don’t love Jesus. Maybe you still have not surrendered control of your life to Jesus, and you think you have the right to arrange your life however you want, even if sometimes that goes against what Jesus wants. All Christians fall back into this pattern  at times, but I am talking about something deeper than just falling back into sin from time to time. If you really don’t love your fellow believers, perhaps there is something wrong in your relationship with Jesus.

There is another possibility, and that is that you have not yet found your place in the body of Christ. There are many Christians that I can appreciate from afar, but with whom I will probably never be very close. I love them in the sense that I am committed to their best good because we are fellow believers. But I don’t necessarily enjoy hanging around with them. I believe the Lord has a place for each person who belongs to him, a place of deep, loving community with others. Not all churches are the same, and I think this is by God’s design. If we want to use our body analogy, the hand is made up of all sorts of bones, and tendons and tissues and blood vessels. The knuckle of the first finger on the hand works very closely with the other parts of the hand. It is also connected, ultimately, to the stomach, but the hand and the stomach don’t spend a lot of time together. They need each other, but they are not working together as closely as they are with the parts that are nearest to them.

The devil is against us. The world is against us. Our own sinful flesh is against us. Should it be any surprise that it is difficult to find a group of fellow-Christians with whom we can really connect? Of course it is going to be hard, at times, to find the part of the body where we truly belong. But it is absolutely essential that we do.

As a pastor, I need to be connected not only with the people in my churches, but also with the leaders of other churches. It took me the better part of twelve years to find good connections with other church leaders near where I live. I went to pastor’s gatherings, prayer meetings, and events for church leaders. I prayed, and I asked around. Finally, at a retreat for men, I met some other pastors and leaders that I can connect with at a deep level of fellowship. I never quit looking. If I was that intentional about finding secondary fellowship (with other pastors – I already had fellowship in my congregation) then it may require some diligence on your part to find your primary fellowship. Do not stop looking until you find it. It is an essential part of belonging to Jesus. If you belong to Him, you belong to the body. If you do not belong to the body, you will not belong very long to him.

In case I haven’t been clear: it is OK if you don’t connect with the very first church you visit. It may take you some time to find “your people” in the body of Christ. But it is not OK to stop looking until you do. This is of utmost importance. Pray for fellowship. Talk to people you know and ask for suggestions. Be willing to give people a few weeks of your time before you decide you can’t connect with them. Also, be regular. You will never develop fellowship with people if you visit once a month. Also, try and meet Christians outside of Sunday morning church. Fellowship will come extremely slowly if you only see your fellow members of the body once a week.

Now, I have been very strong about this as something that we must do. And we must. Some of you reading this may need to adjust your behavior to conform with Christ as the head of the body. But the reason for doing so is because being a part of the body of Christ is a tremendous blessing. Christ is the head of the body because the best thing for his followers is to be a part of that body. When we commit to Christian community as the Bible describes it, it is an inexpressibly wonderful blessing.

I am an introvert. I need to spend time alone in order to regain energy. Even so, I feel tremendously blessed to have genuine, honest relationships with many Christian brothers and sisters. There is no secret in my life known only to myself – I have the kind of Christian friends to whom I can tell everything. I know that I am loved and appreciated. I know many people who won’t let me get away with stupid stuff or pretensions. I have laughed harder and more often with my fellow Christians than anyone else. I have their backs. They have mine. During the best times, I realize that the love and fellowship I feel with my fellow Christians is a true foretaste of the joy of eternal life. In short, the body of Christ is one of the greatest blessings in my life, and has been for decades. It takes work to get here. You sometimes have to work hard to find the right people. You have to be willing to go through conflict with one another, and work through issues together, without running away, or giving up on each other. But when we live in accordance with the head, Christ, being part of his body is one of the greatest joys we can know on earth.

Colossians #6: Created by and For Jesus

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Jesus Christ is God in visible form. Everything that exists was made by him, and for him. This means that our love for nature shows us what it is like to love Jesus. It means that our lives, created deliberately by Jesus, have meaning and purpose. It means that we do not belong to ourselves, but to Jesus, and when we live with Him as our ultimate authority, we are living as we were made to live, and that has many wonderful, gracious, joyful benefits.

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Colossians #6.  Colossians 1:15-17

Before we move on from Paul’s prayer for the Colossians, I want to add one final thought. We have looked at this phrase by phrase, and found many rich applications for us. But we should not forget that this is a prayer. It is a wonderful thing to find prayers like this in scripture, and to use them as “model prayers” when we pray for ourselves, and for others. I might use it in my own prayer time, something like this (read verses 9-14, and then look at the prayer I’ve written):

Lord, thank you for saving me. Let me be filled with the knowledge of your will, and increase in spiritual wisdom and understanding. Especially give me your spiritual wisdom and understanding to deal with the issues I’m having with Joe at work. Lord, please enable me to walk in a way that is worthy to you. Thank you, that through Jesus, I am already fulling pleasing you, but help me to live more and more according to that spiritual reality. Please use me to bear fruit – to help others become disciples, or be better ones. Help me to know you more and more. Lord, strengthen me today with your power so that I can endure and have patience and joy, even in the tough situation I’m facing at work right now. Help me to be more thankful to you; I am thankful that you have qualified me to share in the inheritance of the saints. Thank you, above all, that you have delivered me from the domain of darkness and brought me into your kingdom through Jesus Christ. Thank you for the grace and forgiveness you have given me! AMEN.

I’m sure you can see how easily that might be adapted into a prayer for other people, also.

In verse 14, Paul ends his prayer in praise of Jesus, who is the source of our redemption. He moves smoothly into a brief statement about Jesus Christ, himself. Remember, Paul has not personally taught these Colossians. It seems to me that he is making sure that they hear from him exactly who Jesus is, and what he has done.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Verses 15-20 all go together, and yet each phrase is important, and worthy of consideration. Let’s take a look at just 15-17, which tells that Jesus is himself one of God’s three persons:

He is the image of the invisible God… Paul does not mean “image” as in “a copy.” He means: No one has seen God the Father. He is a Spirit. In Jesus Christ, however, God took on flesh. If you want to see God, the only place to look is Jesus. Jesus is God in a form that is visible to the world.

…the firstborn of all creation…To understand this properly, we need to know about the culture to which Paul was writing. This does not mean that Jesus was the first thing created out all things. In fact, quite the opposite. Jesus was never created. As one of God’s three persons, he has always existed. “Firstborn” had a very special meaning in ancient times. In those days, the firstborn son of a noble father was considered to be, in some ways, exactly the same as his father. If a grown firstborn son of a wealthy family said to a farmer, “I want to purchase 25 cows,” the farmer did not need to follow up, and make sure that the head of the household agreed. To speak to the son was the same as speaking to the Father. Whatever the son did, the father would back him up. Whatever the father wanted to be done, he trusted his son to carry it out. Paul’s readers would have understood this. So “firstborn” to them does not mean, “created.” In means, “exactly the same as; having the same authority; representing the same thing.” If you spoke to the son, you might as well be speaking to father. So it is with Jesus: if you are speaking with Jesus, you are as good as speaking with the Father. Jesus himself made this clear:

7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (ESV, John 14:7-11)

Next comes this: 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

If we had any lingering doubts about whether Jesus Christ is a created being, we have this statement: he the Creator. He is the one doing the creating, not the other way round. Again, John affirms this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (ESV John 1:1-3)

9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. (ESV John 1:9-10)

Just to clarify, later John says that “The Word” became flesh, and he was known as the man, Jesus Christ (John 1:14-18). Now, you can be sure that both John and Paul knew Genesis 1:1-3

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (ESV, Genesis 1:1-3)

If Jesus Christ is the Creator, then he is God. Like John, Paul makes it clear that all things were created through Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ. He mentions things both visible and invisible. Of course in that, we would include physical “invisible” things like air and microbes and energy and subatomic particles. Also invisible, yet very real, are things like love, and joy and freedom and grace. I think Paul also intends to mean that through Jesus, the realities of the spiritual world were created. When he mentions things like “thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities,” Paul is usually talking about spiritual entities: that is, angels and demons, although, when Jesus created them, they were not yet demons. Demons were originally created by Jesus as good angels, but they chose to rebel, along with the former angel, Satan.

One piece of this that I have not thought about very often is that the universe was created not only through Jesus, but also for Jesus. We were made for Jesus. Sometimes, lovers exclaim to each other: “We were made for each other!” With Jesus, this is literally true. We were made for him. We belong to him twice over: he made us for himself, and then he also went and redeemed us for himself.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  Once again “before all things” reminds us that Jesus is God. Only God himself was before all things. Christians have also always believed, based upon this verse, that Jesus Christ is actively involved in the day to management of universe. If Jesus chose to let go, everything would fly apart.

As we speak of Jesus creating everything, and holding everything together, I want to make sure that we understand how to speak about this to others who may not share our beliefs. This verse, that Jesus holds all together, provides us with a very tempting idea. At this point in the development of science, astrophysicists realize that actually, their calculations concerning the universe must be incorrect somehow. In fact, based on our current understanding of physics, the universe ought to fly apart. There is not enough mass in the universe for gravity to work the way it does. Planets and stars should never have formed, because, as far as we know, there isn’t enough mass to hold them together. So, they have come up with two theoretical entities called dark matter, and dark energy, to account for the missing pieces of the current theory.

It is very tempting for us as Christians to say: “Ha! Jesus is what holds the universe together! There is no dark matter or energy, it is Jesus!”

Hear me, my fellow believers: that would be a mistake.

Whatever dark matter and energy are, they are part of the created order. But Jesus is not part of creation. Imagine that we were people inside a painting. Someone has painted us. The role of science is to find out all about what sort of brushes were used, and what kind of paint, and how we hang on the wall, and so on. But the role of Faith is to talk about the Artist. Now, the artist uses brushes, and techniques, paint, and other materials. But those things are his tools and materials – they are not the Artist Himself. You can find out about them without knowing much about the Artist. And it would be wrong to confuse what the artist made with the Artist Himself.

Jesus certainly made whatever dark matter and energy are. He probably (though we don’t know) created them for the very purpose of holding the universe together. But his holding the universe together is a step beyond what can be discovered by science. It is important for us to understand this, because it may be that at some point in the future, scientist understand better what dark matter and energy are. If we Christians are confused between the Creator and the Creation, when that happens, scientists will say: “See, there’s no God! It’s just a subatomic particle.” Confused Christians will have their faith shaken by such things. What we do believe is that whatever substance is holding the universe together, Jesus is the one that created it, and gives it the power to do so. If he so chose, Jesus could let go, and it would all fly apart.

I think a lot of people, if they pay attention at all, have noticed that our world is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place. I love driving through Middle Tennessee, and coming around a corner, or over a hill, finding unexpectedly, a beautiful valley ringed by hills and trees with a  stream running through it. All over here, I see beauty and peace. This is true of many, many places in the world. Human beings see cliffs, and the ocean, and mountains, and empty plains, and great forests, and we love it all. Some people dedicate their entire lives to trying to protect the world from human damage.

But why? Why in the world should we love the physical world? Why does it inspire us, or evoke longing in us? What is that?

I suggest to you that the reason we love the world, and are so inspired by it, is because in the world, we see the reflection of its Creator, Jesus Christ. Jesus made everything there is. The longing we have for physical beauty in the world is first of all a longing for Jesus himself. This should be good news. Loving Jesus is not a feeling that is totally alien to us. The love we feel for nature is, at least in part, a love for Jesus, who made nature.

Let’s look for some application of this truth that Jesus is God made visible, and that he created all things for his own purpose and pleasure.

I think sometimes, I am in danger of becoming a little too casual about Jesus. He is so kind, and so good. He forgives and loves. It seems easy to me to start taking him for granted, and to not give him the kind of respect and awe that he deserves as God, Creator of all things.

It is easy to get the idea that God is there to help us out. Without really thinking about it, we think operate as if God exists for us; that his job is to work on our behalf. But that is the opposite of the real situation. He created us for his own purpose and pleasure. That means many important things. It means that we exist to pleas him, not vice versa. In spite of the fact that many act that way, Christianity is not about getting God to do what we want. It is about God saving us from the destruction we cause when we don’t allow him to lead our lives. And then, it s about letting him fulfill his purpose in us.

It is a wonderful thing that God created the universe in such a way that when we do live with Him as our ultimate authority, we find joy and peace and grace.

Also, the fact that he created us gives our lives value and meaning. You are here for a reason. Someone – the Ultimate Someone – wanted you to exist and to live. That means that you are important, and that your life has value.

Another direction we might go for application is to think about how the beauty of Creation reflects the character of Jesus. If we love nature, then we should look beyond nature to the One who created it. The beauty and joy that we get from nature come ultimately from Jesus Christ.

Colossians #5. Endurance With Joy; Walking By the Spirit

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When we face hardships, struggles and sufferings in the strength and joy that God gives, we show the world that God is good, that he is powerful, and that he loves us. Part of this strength flows to us as we trust what God has already done for us in the spiritual realm. The Bible calls this “walking by the spirit.”

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Colossians #5. Colossians 1:9-14

9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (ESV) Colossians 1:9-14

Last time we focused on verses 9-10, and the fact that true salvation through faith in Jesus results in a changed life. I want to point out, that the idea of changed life is encased, before and after, with the truth that it is  God who does the work to create that changed life. We can say “no” to him, and stop the process. But it is important for us to understand that we don’t achieve a changed life from within ourselves. We don’t get it by trying harder. We get from God himself, when we trust him fully. We obey the commands of scripture because we trust. Another way of saying it is that obedience is the result of genuine faith. If we have an obedience problem, it is most likely because, deep down, we have a problem trusting that God is good, and all powerful, and he loves us.

We talked about what it means to be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, and that such a thing is a gift of God, from the Holy Spirit. We talked about the importance of walking in a manner worthy of the Lord. Next, Paul prays that the believers would be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy. I want us to pay attention to that little word, for. In Greek, it is the word eis, occurring here as an accusative preposition. What that means is that it indicates the purpose of something. You see, we might be tempted to go a certain direction when we hear: “strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might.” We might think that this means we Christians are to move from victory to victory. It might sound like we have God’s glorious might so that we ourselves should become mighty and glorious. I have heard Christians who talk as if following Jesus means that everything in life just gets better and better, and you suffer less and less. You go from victory to victory, and the picture of “victory” is more or less, “everything goes well for you.” But it is very clear here that the purpose of our strengthening, the purpose of God giving us his glorious power is so that we might endure with patience and joy.

Enduring with patience and joy implies first of all that there is something to endure. Generally, that means something difficult, since we don’t talk about “enduring” the best day of our lives. Also, what we must endure requires patience, which again, does not sound like one great victory after another. Finally, it seems like what we are called to patiently endure might not normally be thought about as joyful. In simple terms, Paul is praying that the faith of these believers would strengthen them to face trials, sorrows, suffering and difficulties in a way that shows Jesus to the world.

Some of you know that I experience a great deal of physical pain almost every single day of my life.  It is true, that if I were to be healed miraculously, many people would praise God. But I am convinced that more people have been blessed by watching how Jesus strengthens me with endurance, patience and joy in suffering than would have been blessed by my miraculous healing. Through the endurance, patience and joy God has given me, the world sees that Jesus is sufficient and good, even in the middle of hard times. That is a powerful testimony; I think more powerful than many more obvious miracles. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the obvious kind of miracles, also. But we sell God short when we forget that he can heal and strengthen us from the inside in ways that are truly miraculous.

All of us face difficulties of one sort or another. We battle the sin in our own flesh. We are tempted, and lied to, by the devil. We live in a sinful world. Sometimes, one, or all three of those things makes life extremely difficult and trying. The promise of scripture is not that we never face trials, but that, when we do, we can press in to the goodness, power, strength and love of God.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (ESV, Isaiah 43:1-3)

Sometimes we do pass through the waters, or the fire. I am in the fire right now. I am in pain as I write this, the same pain that has plagued me every day for four years now. God meets us in the fire and in the flood. His mighty power will strengthen you, and you can endure. Not only that, but you can endure with patience. Wait, there’s more: you can endure with patience, AND joy. The promise is here in scripture, and that should be enough, but I add my testimony. Those of you who know me personally know that it has been true in my life.

Those who know me also know that I am not walking around, pretending everything is great. Of course I struggle. I’m not talking about a fake happiness, or pretending nothing is wrong. But on the whole, the mighty, glorious power of God gives me strength to endure with patience and joy. I believe with all my heart and soul that God is good, he is powerful, and he loves me, and the pain cannot shake that. In fact, through my pain, I know it better today than I did before the struggle began. Many people ask me how I do it. I don’t. God does. And what he has done for me, he will do for you, if you let him.

The next phrase from the text is: giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

Certainly everything we have talked about so far is worth giving thanks for. But there is more. He has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. If you think that you are not qualified to be a saint, you are both right, and wrong. No one is qualified to be a saint. No one deserves the inheritance that is given to us in Jesus Christ. But God has qualified those who trust him. So it is not our qualification that makes us worthy to be saints, or share in the inheritance of Light. It is God himself who makes us qualified. Paul explains briefly how:

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

In the Greek (as in English) both of the verbs “delivered” and “transferred” give the sense that this is a done deal. It is an action that is completed. I know that we look around us, and say, “it doesn’t look complete to me. It looks like I’m still in between. I’m still being delivered, and being transferred. But that would not be the correct interpretation here.

This is a very important concept. The Bible teaches us that we live in two worlds at the same time. This is possible, because there are three distinct aspects of being a human being. We have bodies. We have souls. And we have spirits. Our bodies are fully in the world we see. Our bodies have not been delivered – they suffer the effects of sin, and will eventually die because of it. Our spirits, however, have already been delivered from darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom of light. If you are a believer, your spirit-person is already perfect, already holy and blameless; it’s a done deal. Your soul connects your body to your spirit. This is where the main battle is fought. Your soul is connected to your spirit, which is “already there.” It is also connected to your body, which will never be perfect, and never be in heaven. Your soul is where the tension is.

So when we hear these things, we have to understand it really is true. You (your spirit-person) has already been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus. It is already done. Yes, this mortal body will have to die. Yes, there is still  struggle going on in your soul. But in your spirit, it is a done deal. A lot of what we call Christian living is all about believing that this is true, and allowing what has been done to your spirit to flow down into your soul and body, so that you are influenced by the spirit, rather than the flesh. This is what the Bible calls “walking according to the Spirit.”

Another way the Bible describes it is like this:

11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Romans 6:11)

I think we have several important things to meditate on throughout this next week.

  • What are the struggles that you face? Have you availed yourself of the strength of God to allow you to endure with patience and joy? What are some ways that you might do that more?
  • It is God himself, through Jesus Christ, who has qualified you to be a saint, to share in the inheritance of the kingdom of light. Do you believe this? If not, what are the thoughts that you need to battle in order to trust that this is true?
  • Do you know, that if you are a disciple of Jesus, your spirit-person has already been fully transferred from darkness to light? What are the things that will help you believe this truth, and walk according to this spiritual reality?

Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope.

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Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope. Colossians 1:3-9

When we truly hope for something important, that hope creates fellowship with others who have the same hope. Therefore, when the grace and love of God are poured into us, they create a kind of fountain that first fills us, and then pours out of us into our relationships with other Christians, and then fills the church (our fellow Christians) and pours out into the world. That is God design. If the fountain doesn’t seem to be working, the first place to check is the source: our own connection to the love of God in Jesus.

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By the way, I take all of the five verses above in one piece, because, in Greek, they are on sentence. There is a lot to this sentence (paragraph, in English) but all of the thoughts hang together. The ESV translation captures this quite well. Obviously, as we discussed before, Paul has never met most of the Christians in Colossae. But here he points out that because of their common faith, it is appropriate for Paul to give thanks for them, and it is appropriate for all Christians to love even those believers whom they have not yet met. It is worthwhile to notice that the Apostle Paul often gives thanks when he writes. But we should also notice that his giving of thanks is very specific. He thanks God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not thank “the universe,” nor does he just feel vaguely thankful. He is thankful to a specific person, God, that is, the Father of our Lord Jesus (not a pagan god, nor some god-principle). He is thankful to the One the Bible describes as the only true God.

Second, Paul is specific in what he is thankful about. In all his letters, he is especially thankful when he hears that people are putting their trust in Jesus, and receiving the salvation that comes only through him. I think it is often helpful to be thankful for little things, like warm biscuits, and fresh cold water, and good friends and a working vehicle. However, none of those things is guaranteed in life. We can be rightly grateful for them. But we may not always have them. But there is one thing that is guaranteed. One thing, if we want it, is ours forever, and can never be taken from us. There is one thing for which we can give thanks, no matter where we are, or what is happening. That one thing is the love of God given in and through Jesus Christ. Every single person, in every time and place, from a cold dungeon to a sumptuous palace, can thank God for his love given to us in Jesus. God’s greatest gift to us is himself. If God is, well, God, then He is simply the greatest, most wonderful thing in the universe. He gives us many other things, but he also gives us what is best: Himself. He does it through Jesus.

I have said before that giving thanks has real spiritual power. One of the primary ways we can truly “take hold of” some of the “abstract” gifts of God (like love, peace, joy and so on) is to thank him for them. So, one of the primary ways to receive more of Jesus in our lives is to thank God for Him. Paul knew that, and did it regularly.

Paul is thankful for their faith in Jesus, and for the love they have for the saints (remember, that means, all Christians) because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. When we put our faith in Jesus, we gain an everlasting hope. One of the results of that hope is that we learn to love the other people who share it. Not too many weeks ago, we spent time thinking about the hope we wait for in the new heavens and the new earth. This is the hope Paul is talking about. The hope of having our sins and mistakes wiped away beyond memory, and being made perfect, to fulfill every purpose for which we were created. The hope of being completely and utterly known, and still loved. The hope of eternal, abundant, fulfilling, joyful life in the New Creation. The hope of being with Jesus, and our other loved ones, forever.

Hope brings people together. This might surprise you, until you think about it. Have you ever been a fan of sports team, hoping your team will win the big game? When the game is on, and you are gathered with others, don’t you feel a kind of fellowship with those who, along with you, hope for your team to do well? You have a warm fellow-feeling, even with people you don’t know, if they root for the same team. Hope creates fellowship. Also, the more important the hope is to you, the stronger you feel fellowship with those who have the same hope. Elsewhere Paul writes this:

5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (CSB Romans 5:5)

Before we move on, I want point something out. Most of the verses in the New Testament that talk about loving other people are written to tell Christians to love other Christians. Now, it is certainly not OK to hate anyone. Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies, and even to pray for those who persecute us. But Christian love begins with love from and for Christ, and moves from there to love for other Christians. If you love those who are not  Christians, but fail to have love for your fellow-believers, something is wrong. Imagine a fountain that bubbles up into a small bowl at the top. The water fills that bowl, and then spills into second, larger bowl below it. It fills up the second bowl, and spills out over to a third, even larger one below that. That might work as a picture of Christian love. The first bowl is ourselves. The love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5). The second bowl is other Christians. The love that God gives us, spills over into love for others who have the same hope. Next, together, the love that Christians have for each other spills out into love for the world – including those who are not Christians.

Now, if we try to take short cuts on that process, it doesn’t work. If our own bowl is not full of God’s love, we will have nothing to give to our fellow Jesus-followers. Our bowl is the smallest. Loving the world is too big a task for individuals on their own. It needs the second bowl – the combined love of the fellowship of believers – to love the world.

Also, Jesus was very clear – one sign to those who do not know him is that those who do know Him will love each other. People will see quite quickly how we Christians treat one another.

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (CSB) John 13:35

Think about it. If I see a group that sort of barely tolerates each other, that’s not something I want to be a part of, even if the group claims to love me. If they don’t truly love each other, the moment I become a part of them, I will no longer be loved them. You see? So we must love each other, or we cannot hope to love the world.

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother or sister is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (CSB 1 John 2:9-11)

John writes this because if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts, we will naturally love our fellow Christians. The two go hand in hand. Let me be really clear. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the solution is not to try harder. The solution is to connect more deeply with the way God loves us, and hope we have together in Jesus. The more we really trust how much God loves us, the more real our future hope is to us, the more we will love our fellow believers. The first will cause the second. And the more we love our fellow believers, the better we can together love the world.

Paul mentions that this very thing is happening both with the Colossians, and around the world. As a result, the gospel is bearing fruit. There are two kinds of fruit that come about. The first is inner growth. Paul says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in you. That means that it is causing them to grow inwardly. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. (CSB Galatians 5:22-23)

These are things that grow inside us as individuals, and which we practice in our relationships with each other. I would add, based upon many other texts, that we also grow in knowing what the Bible says, and what it means, and how it applies to our lives. There is also growth in the sense of learning to say to “no” to the ungodly world, the devil and our sinful flesh, while we say “Yes,” to God, more and more.

There is an outward kind of fruit, and that is: new disciples. The gospel makes us grow inwardly, and also it grows outwardly, by adding more people to those who have the hope that is found in Jesus alone. Paul says that all over the world, more people are coming to know Jesus. In fact, as we grow inwardly, that causes to treat people differently, and also to motivated to share with them the grace we have received from God.

Did you know that, just as it was true when Paul wrote it, it has been true throughout all of history, and is true even today? I live in the Western World, where Christianity has begun to sort of “age,” and perhaps show signs of decline. But the fastest growing religion in the world today is still Christianity. Though we don’t notice it in America, there are other places in the world where Christianity’s growth is dynamic. In the past, America, and Western Europe sent missionaries all over the world. Today, many of the places that used to be mission fields have such strong churches that they are sending missionaries themselves. I have personally met missionaries from Korea, China, Japan, Brazil, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Bermuda, Tonga, and probably a few other places I have forgotten. Christianity is not, by any means, in decline, when you consider the worldwide picture.

Paul ends this sentence by praising Epaphras, who was the missionary to the Colossians. It is good and right for them to recognize and honor the one who brought God’s word to them.

Some areas for application: Should we consider making it a regular practice to give thanks to God for Jesus, and our salvation? What kind of difference might that make in our day to day life of following Him? Do we love our fellow-Christians? If we don’t, then answer is not to beat ourselves up, but rather, to dig more deeply into the that hope we share with all believers. Finally, is the gospel bearing fruit in your life? I am not concerned about the amount or “size” of fruit in the lives of disciples. I think the real issue is, is there any kind of fruit from the gospel in your life? You see, God is the one who provides the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7: John 15:4). How much, and in which ways, we grow, is up to Him. So the issue is simply this: if you have truly believed the gospel, there will be some fruit in your life, however small. It is usually best to ask a trusted Christian friend about how they see the fruit of gospel in you. We tend to either minimize, or exaggerate what God is doing.

Pray and meditate on these these things now.

Colossians Part 2: IN CHRIST, IN THE WORLD

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Colossians, in many ways, is all about what it means to be in Christ, and, at the same time, in the world. We generally understand the second part. We know we sin. We know we hunger, thirst, and experience pain and sorrow. We also experience joy and happiness in the world. But we often struggle to know what it means to be in Christ at the same time. This is one of those cases where we must first trust it is true before we can begin to experience what it means. God is calling us to trust him when he says we are holy, and that he offers us the same Grace and Peace that are found in Jesus Christ.

COLOSSIANS PART 2: COLOSSIANS 1:1-2

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

The letter begins with Paul who also says Timothy is also writing. There are two reasons that Timothy is mentioned. In the first place, from very early on, Paul was a mentor to Timothy. He regarded him almost as an adopted son, and he appeared to be grooming Timothy to replace himself when he died. So several of his letters are  sent from both Paul and Timothy. Also, Timothy already had a special connection and ministry to the City of Ephesus, which was the only big city near Colossae. The Colossians might have already known who Timothy was. In any case, this is not just Paul’s letter, it is a letter containing true Christian teaching, approved not just by Paul, but by the other Christians who were with him there in Rome when he wrote.

The second reason Timothy might be mentioned is that it was probably Timothy who actually physically wrote the letter, while Paul dictated. It appears that Paul dictated most of letters, while others did the actual physical writing of what he said. So for example, at the end of the book of Romans, Paul is greeting the Christians in Rome, and then there is this:

22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (ESV Romans 16:22).

Tertius doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t compose the letter; it is just that Tertius is the one who took Paul’s dictation.

Often, Paul wrote a line or two of greeting in his own handwriting, even when the rest of the letter was dictated. Consider these examples:

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (ESV. 2 Thessalonians 3:17)

21 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. (ESV. 1 Corinthians 16:21)

11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 (ESV. Galatians 6:11-12)

Remember, the manuscripts that we have today are copies of copies, so we don’t have an actual sample of Paul’s handwriting. But it appears that he was a little self-conscious about it. Personally, I think he had problems with his eyes, which made it difficult for him to write well.

Let’s move on.

2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

I want to say a word about gender language here. I remember a time, when I was growing up, that the normal usage in language was to write “he/him/his” when the person involved was generic – that is, it could be either a a male or a female. So you might write: “A traveler could very easily lose his luggage in place like Baghdad. He should never take his eyes off his bags.” Now, the traveler could be male or female – it didn’t matter. This was not offensive to anyone at the time. Everyone understood you had to use some kind of pronoun, and he/she was awkward, so it was “he.” However, these days, we have become extremely sensitive, and easily offended, so that sort of thing doesn’t fly anymore. Even so, English still does not have a singular generic and neither does ancient koine Greek. So, when it says, “brothers” everyone in those days would have understood that this included both men and women. Almost every time it says “brothers” in the New Testament, what it really means is “fellow Christians, both male and female.”

So Paul writes this to “the saints and faithful fellow Christians in Colossae.” I don’t love how this sounds in English, because it makes it seems as if we have two groups: saints, and then faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. Actually, it leaves room for a potential third group: fellow brothers and sisters who are not faithful. However, Paul clearly did not intend us to think there was a such thing as a Christian who is not faithful, and he did not even mean us to think there is a difference between “saints,” and “fellow Christians.” The Greek word for “faithful” could actually be translated as “believing.” The word “and” is actually a very flexible conjunction, and in this context, I don’t think it means “in addition to.”

So, I think what Paul means to say is this: “I write to the saints – that is, those who put their faith in Christ.”

I don’t want to breeze over the word “saints.” According to the Bible, every Christian is a “saint.” The word “saints” in Greek (agiois) is literally “holies.” If you have surrendered your life to Jesus, you are a “holy one.” This is not a special privilege given to people who have proven themselves to be a cut above the rest. This is the title given to every single person who has faith in Jesus. If you are in Christ, you are a “holy one.” When you trust Jesus, you receive the very holiness of Jesus. This is going to come up again, later in Colossians.

Holiness is a concept that we don’t talk about very much. Of course, part of it is a sort of “goodness” – an unusual, special kind of goodness. Part of being holy is also about being different. Holy things are not like every day things. Holiness makes something special, set apart.

Many years ago, a friend of mine – let’s call her “Jane” –  had the experience of being made into one of God’s holy ones. We were praying for every individual in our house church meeting. For each person, I was praying, “Holy Spirit, pour out yourself on [this person].” When we came to my friend Jane, I paused. She was not yet a Christian. My theological side thought, “The Holy Spirit cannot come into Jane, because she hasn’t yet received Jesus.” But, I thought it would make her feel awkward if I prayed anything different, so I asked the Holy Spirit to pour himself into Jane, also. Afterwards, she said to me: “When you prayed that prayer, He really did!” You see, when I asked the Lord to do that, Jane believed that he did do it. And by that believing, she received it.

She went home that night, and said to her boyfriend, “Honey, I love you, but we can’t sleep together anymore, or live together, until we are married.” When he asked why, she said, “Everything is different. I have the holy Spirit in me now.”

That’s exactly the heart of holiness. When we belong to God, everything is different. We aren’t like everyone else in the world. God lives inside of us through his Spirit, making us holy, set apart, different. When my friend Jane believed this, it became a reality to her. Listen – brothers and sisters in Christ – it is also a reality for each one of us. I know we see things that appear to contradict that reality. But God’s word is more powerful than those temporary setbacks. When we believe we are holy, we begin to act like we are holy – just as Jane did. And God says it, so we ought to believe it.

There is another thing about the people to whom this letter is written. Greek, of course, has different rules than English. This opening phrase does something interesting in Greek that it cannot properly do in English. Let me try to give you  sense of it.  Paul says he writes to the:

In Christ holy-ones, that is, the believing brothers In Colossae.” These believers are right in the middle of two important places. They are In Christ, and they are In Colossae. Literally, in the Greek, they are in between Christ and Colossae. This is kind of picture of where and how we live out the Christian life. We Christians are in Christ, and we are also in the world. We have a heavenly home. Our future is in heaven. As we will see later in Colossians, in some ways, our life is already in heaven, in Christ. And yet we also live right here on planet earth where we have to pay bills, and eat, and where we can still find joy and happiness. The whole letter of Colossians, in some ways is about what it means to be In Christ, in Colossae. Though we aren’t in Colossae (any followers in Turkey, please give me shout!), thankfully, the Colossians were human beings, and human nature doesn’t change that much. In this letter we will find valuable lessons about what it is to be In Christ, in whatever situation we find ourselves. I am in Christ, in Lebanon, TN. You might be in Christ, in Southern CA, or in Chennai, India, or anywhere else. The things that the Holy Spirit said to the Colossians will help us still today. We are in Christ, and In the world. Following Jesus is really all about figuring out what it means to be both of those things at the same time.

For myself, and most of those I know, the primary difficulty is about what it means to be “in Christ.” We  know we are in the world. We know we sin, we know we get hungry, and have needs, and experience sorrow and pain. But we are different from those who do not yet have Christ. We aren’t only in the world. God calls us his holy ones. At the very end of verse two, we are offered grace and peace from God our Father. That offer comes through Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ. So, for those who are in Christ, we have the very grace and peace that God the Father gives Jesus his son.

I mentioned the story of what happened when one woman who believed it. She was in the world, for sure. She had her struggles with addictions, immorality, anger, selfishness, depression, all of it. But when she believed that she was in Christ, when she believed that God had made her one of his holy ones, it changed everything.

So today I ask you: believe it. Count on it. God has granted you grace and peace. He has made you one of his holy ones, part of his family. We can count on this, not because or our own strength or any kind of quality in ourselves. We count on it because of Jesus. I paraphrase Martin Luther when I say: “If I look at myself, I cannot see how I could possibly be saved. But when I look at Jesus, I cannot see how I could possibly not be saved.” Our faith is sure because of Jesus. Though we are in the world, we are in Christ Jesus.

As we close today, I want us to meditate on what it means to both in Christ, and in the world, to be one of God’s holy ones. Hear the Father’s welcome: “Grace and Peace to you, my child!”

 

 

Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

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It is important for us to understand the world that these Colossian Christians lived in, so that we can see why Paul wrote what he did, and how they would have understood and applied it to their lives.

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Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to the Christians in the city of Colossae. Colossae was a relatively small town in an area of the world that we would now call southern Turkey. It was three to five days’ journey east from the large city of Ephesus. In order to understand this book of the Bible, it is important to know a little bit about the kind of world those Colossian Christians lived in.

By that point in history, virtually all of the land within two-hundred miles of the Mediterranean sea had been conquered first by Greeks, and then by Romans. Though there were still local customs and languages, for the most part, everybody spoke Greek, and participated in what we call “Greco-Roman culture.”

Colossians has a lot to say about worshipping God. A big part of that culture was about worshipping various gods. The chief god was Zeus, and his wife was Hera. Apollo was the god of healing, among other things. Hermes was the god in charge of messages and communication. So, if you sent an important letter, you might make an offering to Hermes to make sure it was favorably received. If you wanted healing, you went to the shrine of Apollo. Athena, besides being a goddess of war, was in charge of weaving and pottery, so if you were a craftsman in these trades, you probably worshipped her. In fact, many trades (like baking, blacksmithing, leather working) had guilds, and one of the main things you did in your trade guild was come together and worship the god who was in charge of your trade. Colossians also mentions drunkenness, and sexual immorality. Often times, worshipping the various gods involved feasting, getting drunk, and then having sex in the temple or shrine of the god you worshipped. Generally, they were not having sex with their spouses in this context. So, Paul writes about sexual immorality.

In addition, the Greco-Roman people had a fascination with what they called “mystery religions.” Anything strange and mysterious and weird drew their attention. And, of course, there was a great tolerance of any sort of worship or religion. It was no big deal if one man preferred Apollo, and another Zeus. People didn’t care. But what was not tolerated, what eventually led to persecution, was when Christians said everyone else was wrong. As long as you could agree that your religion was one of several dozen equally valid ways, there was no problem. But it was thought arrogant to claim that your religion was the One True Way. Sound familiar?

The one exception to these sorts of religions was Judaism. Jews worshipped only the one God, and they had a special dispensation by the Roman government, so they were tolerated. By this point in history, however, Jews did not live simply according to the Old Testament. They had developed an elaborate system of laws and theology that went far beyond what the Old Testament teaches. Christians, of course, worship the same One God, though they did not add all of the things added by the Jews, and added instead, the wisdom and truth brought by Jesus Christ.

So, when Jews and Christians met each other, they had this in common: they worshipped only the One true God as revealed first in the Old Testament. They shared some of the moral values that no one else in the culture had. In some times and places Jewish people, recognizing the common ground they had with Christians, sought to turn the Gentile Christians into Jews. In other places, they condemned Jewish Christians, claiming they had fallen away from Judaism. They wanted to make Christians live according to the Jewish laws – even the ones that weren’t in the Bible. Paul writes about this sort of thing in this book of Colossians.

Paul talks about the roles of women and men in the family and the church. Women in that culture were not as free as they are now, but were not as oppressed as some people might think. For example, a woman named Hedea won the war-chariot race in Corinth in the year 43. If a woman won the race, it isn’t a stretch to assume that more than one woman participated. War chariot racing is a violent, physically demanding sport, but apparently, women did it. In many places, the New Testament talks about prominent women who had enough influence to get Christians kicked out of local towns. Lydia was a businesswoman; no mention is made of a man in her life. She appears to be self-sufficient, and no remark is made as if that was particularly unusual. In the first century, in Ephesus, there was a woman holding a position something like what we would call “superintendent of the school district.” Many women had work that required them to travel around the town and do business.

In Rome, at least, marriage was becoming a farce. Divorce was rampant. Men and women swapped wives and husbands like they were at a flea market. There is a marriage record of one woman marrying her twenty-third husband. For the man, she was his twenty-first wife. It was a time and place where sexual immorality was common, and marriage was just not valued. Again, sound familiar?

So we need to understand that Paul’s words about marriage and family were not simply re-affirming what everyone around there believed. They were counter-cultural. Radical, even.

One final cultural thing we should understand: slavery, since Paul briefly mentions that, also. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two types of slavery. The first is what we usually think of when we hear that word. These were slaves used to mine precious minerals, or to work on the Roman war galleys. They were treated little better than animals. They were people who were wholly under the control of their masters, and they were treated horribly. This is not the type of slavery that the New Testament (or Colossians) writes about, since there were no such slaves living in the towns and cities of the Greco-Roman world. Most of these were captured in war.

There was, however, another kind of slave. They were “bound” into service to their masters with a legal agreement. But this situation was much like the position of indentured servant that was quite common among white Europeans during the American colonial period. Certainly, they weren’t free to leave their masters without a change in the legal situation. Certainly, they had fewer rights than legally free people. But it was nothing like the race-based chattel-slavery that took place in America during the nineteenth century. Some translations of the Bible translate this type as “bond-servant” which is probably a better term. There were huge numbers of this sort of “slave” in the world at this time. Many of these people were “slaves” only for a period of their life – ten or twenty years. Most of them reasonably expected to – and did, in fact – gain their freedom at some point in life. They were paid for their work, which basically defies the description of “slave.” They could own property themselves – in fact, there are records of slaves owning slaves! They could marry, and have families, and their “owners” could not separate them from their families.

In those days, a slave with an important job for a wealthy, noble family, was often far better off than a free person trying to make a living on their own.

Now, let’s talk about the specific reasons Paul wrote this letter. As far as we know, Paul himself never went to Colossae. For a time, he planted house churches in Ephesus, and apparently, a man from Colossae, named Epaphras, visited Ephesus while Paul was working there. Epaphras became a Christian while he was in Ephesus, and then returned home to Colossae, where he started teaching people to follow Jesus. Many people there became Christians, and one or more house churches were established there. We know that one of the Christians was man named Philemon, and another one was Philemon’s bond-servant, Onesimus.

A few years later, Paul was a prisoner in Rome, under house arrest, with a fair amount of freedom as he awaited an audience with Caesar. This man Epaphras came to help and encourage him. It appears that Paul had a long talk with Epaphras about how things were going with the church in Colossae, and Paul wrote this letter in response to that conversation.

There were already several people in Rome with Paul, including the slave named Onesimus. In addition there was a man from Ephesus named Tychicus (tik-ki-kis). Tychicus is mentioned several times in the New Testament. It appears that he often traveled with Paul as part of his ministry team, and Paul thought very highly of him. After the arrival of Epaphras, Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians (the one we have in our Bible) and possibly another letter to Laodicea, which has been lost. By the way, I like that we know that. It shows that God was in control of what went into the Bible. Not everything Paul wrote was supposed to be part of the Bible, so God, in his providence, allowed that letter to be lost, while, in his providence, others were preserved.

In addition to that lost letter, Paul also wrote this letter to the Colossians, and a letter to Philemon, whom I mentioned above. That letter is also part of the Bible. Tychicus was given the task of carrying the letters to Ephesus and beyond, and also encouraging the Christians in those cities.

All right, with all this background, I want to do something a little different. We will take the text piece by piece, as I normally do. However, it is very helpful to have a sense of the whole thing before we examine each little part. Therefore, please end your time by reading the entire book of Colossians at one sitting, right now. It took me eleven minutes to do so out loud in the spoken version of this sermon. If you prefer to listen to that, it starts at 26:11 in the recorded sermon. As you do so, write down anything that strikes you, and especially, jot down any questions that come up from what you read. However, jot quickly, and keep reading, so you have a sense for what the whole letter feels like.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today through the text!