COLOSSIANS #23: THE SOURCE OF LIFE

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 There is no life in external things like bad stuff happening, or even good stuff happening.  If we live by our circumstances, or how we feel, we will be constantly going up and down, back and forth. Our text today tells us to seek life in the things of the spirit, not in our circumstances or flesh. We can be OK, no matter what is going on around us, or even in our own bodies. Our life is hidden in Christ with God, and that is where we draw our strength, joy and peace.

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Colossians #23. Colossians 3:1-4

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (ESV, Colossians 3:1-4)

In Colossians 2:11-12 Paul explains that those who trust Jesus have been buried with Jesus by faith, in baptism, and that they have also been raised with Christ. Again, in verse 20, he says, “since you died with Christ, don’t be sucked into living according to the principles of this world.” He has been telling us things to avoid: legalism, religious hypocrisy, trying to justify ourselves to God, or somehow add to what Jesus has done for us.

Now, he begins with the other side of the equation. In Jesus, we died to the basic principles of this world. That means, says Paul, you have been raised with Christ to a new kind of life. Since you have this new life in Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Set your minds on the things above, not on the things of earth.

I want to dive into this deeply, because it is so important. To help us, let’s briefly consider the life of the prophet Elijah. He lived in ancient Israel, during a dark time of history. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. Even so, he hid from the king and queen for most of the time of the drought.

At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.

Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and the cloud formed and a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.

Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.

The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done….ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further. Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about show Elijah His presence.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence.

Many translations say, “a still small voice.” I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The important thing is that when Elijah heard the silent voice, he went out and listened to the Lord. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.

I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.

Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing! But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.

You see what was going on? Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.

We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

Remember how God showed himself to Elijah. He was not in the storm, or the earthquake or the fire. Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still.

This is what Paul is saying to us: “Your real life is in the spirit, through Jesus. Set your mind on spiritual things, not in how your life is going.”

We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn to how cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense.  Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life from Externals.

We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Jesus in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks here on earth. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus  was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). The word for “tested” or “tempted” is the Greek word pronounced “peiradzo.” Some English translations say “tempted” but it doesn’t really mean just temptation to sin. It means undergoing trials to determine an outcome. In other words, this is life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt. If Jesus could not throw a lasso around life and make it behave for him, do you really think you can?

Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – that can be a daunting idea. “You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going live holy again?”

The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life out of our behavior. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.

Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there.  There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.

There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.

The reason there is no life in these things is because they all take place on the outside of us – in our flesh. Paul has been telling us that our flesh is already dead through Christ. We’re done with it. There is no life there. Let’s go back to how human beings are made. The scripture says there are three parts to humans: Body, Soul, and Spirit

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12 (ESV)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

It’s a different Greek word for each one: soma (body) psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). The body is fatally infected by sin. It is going to die. Everyone dies in this way. Sometimes, the New Testament calls a sin-infected body “the flesh.”

The soul is where we have our mind and personality. It is connected both to the body, and also to the spirit. It is the go-between, the middle. You might say the soul is where spiritual battles take place. Our soul can tell our flesh to stop doing something it wants to do, or to keep doing it. I believe that the souls of Christians will be made perfect and holy and complete when they are given new resurrection-bodies.

The spirit is the part of us that interacts with spiritual things. Those who do not trust Jesus have spirits that are dead to God (but alive to the influence of evil spiritual power). When we trust Jesus, our spirits are made alive to God, whole, perfect and holy, and dead to sin. The condition of your spirit, in Jesus, never changes. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely. Your spirit is fine if things are going well in your life. Your spirit is perfect, holy and absolutely fine if things are going badly in your life. If you belong to Jesus, your life – your truest life, your spirit-life is already with Christ in God.

Now we can better understand what Paul was saying to the Colossians, and what God was showing Elijah. Life comes from God, through our spirit, into our soul, and then out into our behavior. If we want true life, we need to fix our thoughts and ambitions and desires upon the things of the spirit. These are what Paul calls “things above.” When we have real spirit life, we are no longer controlled by what the body/flesh wants. One of my bible school teachers put it this way:

“There are two dogs inside of you. A good dog, and an evil one. They are fighting each other for control over you.”

“Which dog wins?” asked someone.

“Whichever one you feed,” she said.

Paul is telling us to feed the good dog by setting our hearts, minds and will upon the things of the spirit. This is one reason that reading the Bible regularly is so important. I started reading the bible daily when I was thirteen years old. I’ve had spells when it wasn’t daily, but in general, I’ve continued ever since. Now, reading the Bible like that did not, in and of itself make me more holy. It certainly did not make God love me any more than he already did, and it didn’t make him love me any more than he loves people who don’t read their bible. But what it did do was to shape my thinking and my emotions toward the things of the spirit. It feeds the good dog, and weakens the bad one.

Paul also tells us that our spirit life, for the time being, is hidden with Christ in God. That means that the condition of your spirit it is not always evident to the world, or even to you. The Greek word for “hidden” in verse three is the basis for our English word cryptic. That means it is sometimes difficult to see or understand.

Paul makes sure, in verse 4, that we know there will come a day when the spirit-life will be fully revealed: fully evident to yourself and to all others. But that does not  change in what is happening with your spirit. It is only a change in that it was hard to see before, and when Jesus returns, it will be fully manifested.

Because we are already perfect and complete and holy in our spirit-self, Paul urges us strongly to seek to focus on  spiritual reality, rather than flesh reality. Let our souls, and then our bodies be influenced primarily by the spirit, rather than the flesh. To do so is not complicated: read your Bible, understanding that spiritual-reality is greater and eternal, while flesh-reality will eventually die. Develop community with other believers who are trying to do the same thing. Pray – have an on going conversation with God all day long. I know of a couple who communicate constantly throughout the day, by phone. They probably call each other dozens of times each day, and often they pass the time while they are doing the shopping or laundry or whatever else, talking to each other even while accomplishing other tasks. We need to do this with Jesus, also. Leave the phone line always open, connected. You can pray while hanging drywall. You can pray while fishing, or grocery shopping, or mowing the yard or entering data. Or, writing a sermon (thanks for that one, Lord.)

Paul says almost the same thing in to the Philippians that he did to the Colossians:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (ESV, Philippians 3:18-21)

Be encouraged. If you know Jesus, all is well in your spirit, not matter what else is going on. You all know that these aren’t just words for me. For five years I’ve felt physically like I have a knife blade broken off in my left kidney. We’ve spent thousands of dollars looking for answers, and received none. But my spirit-reality matters much more than my body-reality. I do get frustrated. I do break down sometimes. But those of you who know me personally also know that my spirit-reality matters more to me than this, and that is why I’m really OK, and will continue to be OK, even if I don’t get healing until I die. This body won’t last forever, but my spirit will. So set your mind, seek, pursue, meditate on, prioritize, things above, things of the spirit, not things of the body and the flesh.

COLOSSIANS #20:THE WRONG WAY TO USE THE LAW

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I think this sermon contains two extremely important concepts; ideas that we will use over and over as we cover the rest of Colossians. Please download the audio and/or save the written version so that you can refer to it again in the future.

Colossians #20  Colossians 2:16-17

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Important concept #1: The Two Ditches.

Before we jump into these verses, we need a broader context about the teachings of the Bible. Martin Luther compared following Jesus to riding a horse. He suggested it is possible to fall off either the right side of the horse, or the left side. In these days, I like the analogy of a road with two deep ditches. You might veer off into the left hand ditch, or the right hand one, and if you do, you end up in trouble. Ideally you stay in the middle, on the road.

Let’s call the right-hand ditch “legalism.” If you go this direction, you start to think that following Jesus is all about behaving correctly. The problem is that there is a tiny bit of truth in legalism. Our behavior should change once we have received the grace of God through Jesus. But it changes because God is changing us through the Holy Spirit, not because we have to earn credit from him. If you are in the legalism ditch, instead of recognizing that right behavior is a result of a true faith, you think (maybe unconsciously) that if you behave correctly, you prove that you are worthy of God. Without realizing it, you start to think that God blesses you because you are a good person. Certainly you aren’t like those other people. People in this ditch are sometimes proud (but often they hide their pride behind pious talk and behavior). They are at least as concerned with how other people behave as with their own lives, and frequently they focus not on what is in their hearts, but rather, what they do (or keep away from doing). They think (sometimes only hinting, but not saying directly) that when people suffer, it is because God is punishing them for their sin. This is a dangerous ditch, even more so because many of those who fall into it think that they are good, Christian folks. They are so busy trying to appear righteous that other people might think of them as strong Christians as well, while in reality, they are offending God by thinking that their “righteous” acts amount to anything.

The truth, of course, is that God’s punishment for sin is death and hell, not troubles in this life, and Jesus already took that punishment for those who trust Him. We cannot earn God’s love or favor, and our attempts to do so are offensive to God. All human beings have been judged equally guilty and unworthy, and all human beings are saved only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After receiving Jesus, the good works we do are not about earning anything from God; they are about responding to the new life given to us by the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus.

There is another dangerous ditch – the left hand ditch, which I will call “lawlessness.” This ditch also contains a tiny bit of truth: That Jesus paid all for our sins, and there is nothing we can add to that payment. But “lawless” people take it beyond what it means. These folks think that anything goes. If Christ paid for all my sins, past present and future, then why does it matter how I behave? Why not get drunk, or high, when I feel like it? Why not have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want? Why not get everything I can for myself, and live as comfortably as possible, no matter what that does to others around me? Why pay attention to anything except what I really want?

The problem with the lawless ditch is that it does not recognize that receiving Jesus Christ changes a person. The life of Christ that is in you through the Holy Spirit does not want to get drunk. It does not want to indulge the desires of the flesh. The Holy Spirit is God, and the character of God is holy, not lawless or self-indulgent. Sinning is like throwing pig-manure on the person who saved your life. If you really believe he saved you, you won’t want to do that; certainly, at least, a significant part of you will not want to.

The middle, the safe and good road, I call love. It is love for Jesus for who he is, and what he has done, and love for other people because Jesus loves them too. Love is other focused, not self-focused. Love manifests the character of God. Love puts the desires of Jesus above my own, and the good of others equal to my own.

Starting here, Paul is going to warn the Colossians about the two ditches. He begins with a warning about the ditch of legalism. In Colossae, at the time Paul wrote, the legalists typically felt that everyone should follow Jewish laws. They thought Christians should observe the kosher laws of the Old Testament (what you eat and drink) and also observe the Jewish festivals, the sabbath regulations and so on. These laws are found in various places in the Old Testament, but 2 Chronicles gives us a summary:

At that time Solomon offered burnt offerings to the LORD on the LORD’s altar he had made in front of the portico. He followed the daily requirement for offerings according to the commandment of Moses for Sabbaths, New Moons, and the three annual appointed festivals: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Shelters.(CSB 2 Chronicles 8:12-14)

The disadvantage of taking the scripture verse by verse is that we might forget the context we are in. Paul has been talking about walking in Christ. He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and Christ dwells inside of us, through the Holy Spirit. When we were still dead in our sins, when our flesh was still in control of us, Jesus died for us. One consequence of his death was that the law that rightly condemned us was fulfilled, and so made irrelevant to those who are in Christ. It is no longer a basis for judging personal righteousness. We no longer have to live by it.

“Therefore,” says Paul, “let no one pass judgment you…” The first things he mentions are parts of the Jewish law. These things, along with kosher regulations, and laws about ancient Israel, are just a shadow, pointing to Jesus. The reality of them is fulfilled and found in Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews agrees:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. (NLT, Hebrews 10:1)

Unfortunately, some people are strangely confused about this. I think it is because they are inclined to listen to human beings more than actually reading the Bible. I know a few Christian families who think it is wrong to eat pork, for instance. What puzzles me is that they don’t follow all of the other kosher regulations. They don’t have two sinks, or two refrigerators, or avoid cheeseburgers. Perhaps I am in danger of judging them, but it is very clear here that what we eat or drink has nothing to do with salvation. Trying to follow one small part of the Jewish food laws, as a requirement of following Jesus, is nonsensical.

2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. 4 For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. (NLT, Galatians 5:2-4)

Paul said this about circumcision, but it applies to any part of the Jewish law. We are saved by Jesus, by God’s grace through faith alone. If you think avoiding pork contributes in any way to your salvation, then you must obey every single part of the law perfectly. If you think observing the sabbath or Jewish festivals is necessary for true Christians, then you are obligated to follow the whole law perfectly. No. Paul is clear: these things are a shadow of the good reality. Jesus Christ is the actual good reality.

Now, what all is contained in this? What I mean is, most Christians eat pork, but we still think that committing adultery is a sin. The command about adultery was originally in the Old Testament. So how do we know what we are supposed to follow literally, and what we aren’t? Let’s look at important concept #2: How we handle the “law parts” of the Bible.

If we actually read our Bibles, it isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The New Testament makes it clear that the food laws are not necessary – in fact, it does so in our verses for today, as well as several other places (Mark 7:14-18; Acts 15:1-29; Romans 14:14 & 20). Our verses today also make it clear that we don’t have to follow the Jewish festivals, or sabbath day regulations – these were fulfilled in Christ. All of the Jewish worship regulations are just shadows of the reality in Jesus – the temple, the sacrifices, the priests’ clothing and everything to do with temple or tabernacle worship (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). All of the regulations that were about ancient Israel no longer apply literally. Things about the types of clothing to wear, or stoning adulterers, and so on – these were all given for a particular nation at a particular time in history. They can still tell us about God and point us to Jesus, but we are not supposed to follow them literally.

The moral laws of the Old Testament are different. Jesus, and his apostles, affirmed the moral truth of the ten commandments. These still serve two purposes: 1) To show us that we can’t be good enough, therefore we need Jesus. 2) To show us the kind of character we should be developing as we follow Jesus. In other words, we still ought to do our best to live by these moral laws, because that is what the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of us, wants to do. These moral laws are a reflection of the character of God. When we fail, we fall back on the forgiveness of Jesus, but we continue on away from sin, toward God. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the lawlessness ditch.

So, let’s think about some application of this “let no one pass judgment on you…”While most of us don’t worry about how Jewish we are, there are some of us who became Christians later on in life. We’ve done things in the past that we regret; things we might even feel ashamed of. Sometimes, we encounter Christians who seem to have together, people who have been following Jesus all their lives. These folks should not make you feel inferior, or second class. We all stand on the same ground at the foot of the cross. Let no one pass judgment on you for your past – it is past. You might also make sure that you are not passing judgment upon yourself for your past.

Certain groups of believers say that we must not use musical instruments as part of worship. Others say we must follow certain liturgies and prayers when we worship. Some say we must not drink a single drop of alcohol. Others insist that true Christians worship on Saturdays, not Sundays. Others claim we must celebrate the traditional seasons, fasts and feasts of the historic church.

Paul says none of these things can be an occasion for passing judgment upon Christians. These things are not the substance that is Christ. They are external. They don’t affect a person’s heart. They may be useful, or they may not.

Let’s make sure we understand. So for example, if someone does not want to use instruments in worship, we should not pass judgment upon them. If someone wants to use traditional liturgies and church festivals, or even ancient Jewish festivals, we should not judge them for it. By the way, those of us in the House Church movement should be careful not to become judgmental of others. We know that House Church is Biblical, and we know how many tremendous advantages it has. But it is not commanded by scripture (nor, of course, forbidden). I might think you’re missing out if you don’t do house church, but I can’t say it is the only right way to do church. I cannot pass judgment on you if you don’t want to do church that way.

I want to add another thing. If someone says: “No one must use musical instruments in worship” or, “no one should eat pork,” or “Everyone should use this kind of liturgy,” we can judge their words. We aren’t passing judgment on them as people, but we can say: “No, that isn’t what the Bible says. You can choose to be that way if you like, but the Bible does not say you have to. It certainly does not say I have to.” We should not allow someone to judge us for such things.

One reason I love Lutheran theology is that it is very Biblical. Many centuries ago, the first Lutherans put forth this teaching in their own words:

“We believe, teach and confess unanimously that the ceremonies or church usages which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God, but which have been introduced solely for the sake of good order and the general welfare, are in and for themselves no divine worship or even a part of it…

We believe, teach and confess that the community of God in every locality and every age has authority to change such ceremonies according to circumstances as it may be most profitable and edifying to the community of God.” Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article X, paragraphs 1 & 2).

This verse is supposed to be freeing. The Gentile believers in Colossae felt second class, and Jewish folks didn’t mind them feeling that way. But they (and we) have all the fullness of Christ living in us, and in Christ lives all the fullness of God. All basis for judgment against us has been taken away and nailed to the cross. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

Some Questions for reflection:

  • What things make you feel like a second class Christian? Why do you think you feel that way?
  • What unimportant things are you tempted to use as a basis for judging other Christians?
  • What unimportant things have been used to judge you?
  • Which “ditch” are you tempted to veer towards: that of legalism, or lawlessness? Why do you think that is?

COLOSSIANS #17: THE PROBLEM OF RELIGION.

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This is the sort of thing that gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into the “religion” trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we do this, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. We’re just trying to use God to get what we want. This is not the way of Christ.

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Colossians #17  Colossians 2:8-10

Be warned: don’t be carried away through philosophy, or empty lies, along with traditions that come only from human beings. These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ. In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.(Colossians 2:8-10 my translation/paraphrase)

There are all sorts of different philosophies and lies and human traditions that might lead us away from Jesus. I have mentioned two of them before. One is the lie that Jesus is just one of many ways. “You can’t be so exclusive,” say those who advocate this. “Jesus may very well work for you, but how can you expect everyone in the world to believe in what is after all, a religion of Western culture? People in other parts of the world are very different from us, and we need to accept that Jesus just might not ‘work’ for those people.”

This attitude, though it sounds enlightened, is actually very ignorant. Though Western culture was shaped by Christianity, the Christian faith was not produced by Western culture. In fact, today, most Christians in the world do not live in Western countries anymore. There are more Christians outside the United States and Europe than in. Christianity “works” in Nepal, New Guinea, Malaysia and Madagascar. People follow Jesus in the huge cities of Asia and the savannas of Africa and the mountains of South America. South Korea sends missionaries around the world, as does Brazil and even Bermuda. To say that Jesus “doesn’t work” for other cultures is to ignore the fact that there are Christians from virtually every culture and country in the world.

Another big lie we recently considered is that human sexuality is all about our own personal preferences, and God doesn’t care about it. But God gives the commands about sexuality to protect us, and allow us to thrive. The thought that these commands are “outdated” is the lie that is currently destroying Western culture. When sex is disconnected from loving marriages, the result is millions of children who are either not really wanted, or who are raised in chaotic, unstable homes, and they become profoundly damaged emotionally (and sometimes physically). The backbone of any stable civilization is the family, and our current attitudes toward sex are destroying it. In addition, women become more vulnerable, and more likely to be seen as sex-objects than people. We also damage our own emotional wellbeing when we have multiple casual sex partners.

But we have considered those before. I want to add another lie that has sometimes tempted me. I am an intellectual person, and I have great respect for modern science. But some scientists (certainly not all) have little or no respect for Christianity, and they claim that you cannot believe both the Bible and modern science.

This is a lie. It is not a choice between the two. God speaks most clearly through the Bible, and nothing he says or does will contradict that. Everything we need to know for spiritual life and truth is in the Bible. And contrary to the popular belief, there is nothing in the Bible that contradicts science. God also uses even those who are not believers to accomplish his purposes and reveal some of his more “general” truth.

For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about electricity. We don’t need to know about it for the healing and salvation of our souls. People lived without using electricity for thousands of years. But the Bible does tell us that God made everything there is. Therefore, we know that God made electricity, and it is not wrong to find out about how it works, and how to use it. God has given some people the ability to that, for the benefit of all people. The truths about electricity are God’s truths (since he created it) but we don’t need the Bible to discover them. On the other hand, we don’t need to know anything about electricity to be saved by Jesus Christ.

Modern science was made possible only by the worldview of Christianity, which taught people to believe that the world was orderly, and that human thinking is rational and can be used to discover the world around us. It is no random occurrence that modern science arose from the only culture that was shaped by a Christian worldview.

In addition to the lies of those who are not religious, it seems like Paul might be warning particularly about people who are insisting on certain kinds of religious practices. He talks about external circumcision (a religious practice of the Jews) as opposed to “circumcision of the heart.” He talks about “the written code, which was against us.” And he concludes in verse 16:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, ESV)

We will cover all of that later on, but for now, we should understand that it possible to be led astray even by people who call themselves religious. Elsewhere, Jesus warns us about “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” (Matt 5:17) and Paul says to Timothy:

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth.(1 Timothy 4:1-3, NLT)

Timothy was in Ephesus at the time Paul wrote that, and Ephesus was relatively close to Colossae, the place to which this letter is addressed. So I think now Paul is talking about not only lies of an ungodly culture, but also lies that come from those who claim to be Christians.

I want us to pay close attention to something from verse 8:

These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ.

There is a gigantic difference between “the basic principles of the world” and “the way of Christ.” The Greek phrase “basic principles” was used in ancient Greece in three related ways. One meaning is that of “elemental spiritual forces.” This would refer to pagan religious practices and or demonic forces. Another way is it used to mean the elements of which the earth is made. A third way in which this phrase is used to describe a sequence of events. In this last meaning it would be something like this idea: “If you do A, you will get B.”

I think Paul intends two parts of the meaning here: both the idea of demonic spiritual forces, and also the idea that the way to practice religion is to: “Do A, so that God must give you B.” He uses the same Greek word in verse 20:

20 If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. (Colossians 2:20-22, CSB)

There (in verse 20) the “elements of this world” lead people to say “Do this, and don’t do that, in order get what you are after.” In verse 8, he calls this “human traditions” and in verse 20 he calls them “regulations,” and, “human commands and doctrines.”

So, I think what he is saying is this: “Be careful not to be deceived by religious traditions, and religious talk that sounds good, but is not the way of Christ.’ What sorts of things is Paul talking about? Remember that phrase “elemental principles” or “elements of this world” refers to the idea that if you do A, you get B. Now, this is a powerful lie because it has elements of the truth. If you get drunk at night, you’ll most likely have a headache in the morning. If you treat people badly all the time, most likely those people won’t help you when you need it. If you spend more than you make, you will end up in financial trouble. So, in some instances, it is true that if you do A, you will get B.

But Paul is talking about this idea being used to more or less manipulate God into blessing you. For example, many people think that if you live a good life, then God has to bless you. Many religious people – people who claim to be Christians – say this.

Another example of this idea is that if you pray hard enough, or you pray in exactly the correct way, God must answer your request more or less exactly as you presented it. People who fall into this sort of deception treat the Bible as if it is some sort of legal document that we can use to argue our case in a spiritual court to force God to keep up what we think of as his end of the bargain. Or, some folks think it is some sort of code that must be unlocked; if we can just figure out the right way to do things we can manipulate God into doing what we want. In other words: if we do A, then God must do B.

This is the sort of thing gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into this trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we treat religion this way, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. Though many would not consciously say it, those who operate this way are not God’s people, put on this earth for His purposes; instead they become servants of our own desires, and God/religion is just a way for them to achieve those desires. One of the reasons this is so dangerous is because on the surface, we can look like good, religious people. We can do and say mostly the right things. But we are doing things the way of the world; we are trying to get what we want in the time and in the way we want it.

But Paul says this thinking is the way the world operates. We humans want to control our own destiny, and often our religious efforts are just one way that we use to try and control our own lives. Paul says this is not the way of Christ. What is the way of Christ? Paul tells us:

In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.

Christ is the fulness of God in a human body; and we have the fulness of  Christ in us. Therefore, in Christ, we already have everything we need. We don’t need to manipulate. It is pointless to do A in order to get B, because we already have all the “B” we need. It has been freely given to us in Christ.

Paul is going to return to this theme again and again in Colossians. He’s already said that we are holy and blameless in Christ. Now, he says we are filled with Christ, just like Christ is filled with God. That’s a huge statement. I think a lot of the time, it is very difficult for us to believe. I understand the problem, of course. The problem is that we don’t feel like we are filled with the fulness of Christ. We don’t feel like we have everything we need.

This feeling arises, I think, from three things. In the first place, we don’t always recognize that our feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. Feelings do always correspond to truth. You can feel worried when there is absolutely nothing to worry about. You can feel fearful when you are perfectly safe. You can feel a very deep desire for things that will ultimately be bad for you, and hurt you. You can feel like Christ is absent when in fact, the scripture right here says he is filling you.

A second problem is that we often don’t truly know the difference between what we need and what we want. I think human nature has a way of accumulating habits and little luxuries, and becoming so used to them that we think of them as needs, rather than what they really are, which is strong preferences or very useful conveniences. Even when something is useful, that doesn’t automatically make it a need. For instance, a microwave is very useful and convenient. Many people might think of it as a basic need, but I didn’t actually have the regular use of a microwave until I was almost thirty years old, and I didn’t die. I didn’t even suffer. If you can live without it, it isn’t actually a need.

The same thing is true with spiritual and emotional things. We aren’t good at distinguishing our needs from our wants, so we think we don’t have what we need from Jesus, when the truth is, as long as we have Jesus, we can get along without many of the things that we want, the things that comfort us.

I have found both fasting, and my experience of intense chronic pain, to helpful in distinguishing between wants and needs. When we abstain from food for the sake of prayer, we are learning in a very concrete way that we need Jesus more than we need anything else, even more than food (or whatever you may be fasting from). Suffering teaches us the same sorts of things. When you suffer, you realize that you can actually get along in conditions that you might have previously thought intolerable. And when you realize that, you recognize that we don’t actually need many of the things we thought we did. Suffering clarifies things for us. It sharpens our need for Jesus above all else.

The third issue is this: we are complete, without need in Jesus…in our spirits. This “being filled with the fulness of Christ” is a spiritual reality. But our flesh is not in sync with our spirit. Imagine you are driving in your car, listening to the radio. The station that you want to hear is broadcasting. Every bit of the music and talk that the station is producing is crystal clear, and is available to anyone who wants to tune in. But your radio doesn’t work right. The music and talk sort of comes and goes, and gets fuzzy and blurred with static. It’s not the problem of the people putting on the radio program. It’s not even a problem with the radio station. The problem is with your particular radio receiver. The program is totally available, but you can’t always get it loud and clear.

That’s how we are spiritually. We are filled with the fulness of Christ in spirit. But our flesh is like that faulty car radio. Even though the whole program is available to us, we can’t always tune in, and sometimes, things seem a little fuzzy and full of static, and we don’t get it loud and clear.

Unfortunately, this will be at least partially true until we die. When Jesus gives us our new resurrected bodies, they will be totally in sync with spiritual reality. But for now, we can do some things to help us tune in, to help us live in the reality that all the fulness of Christ has been given to us. There’s nothing new here: pray, read your Bible and “do life” with other Christians. I know I keep saying those things over and over. I’ll keep on saying them until I’m convinced that everyone who reads these message is doing these things on a regular basis.

When Spiritual things are not loud and clear, we can still trust that they are there, and God is delivering us grace and life, even when we can’t hear it well. We don’t need to control things by doing certain rituals, or saying certain things in exactly the right way. In Christ, we already have all that we need. Let us trust it to be true, and begin by thanking him for it.

  • What are some of the lies you are tempted to believe? What reminds you of the truth?
  • What are some ways that you are tempted to “manipulate God” into giving you what you want?
  • How can we live in the fulness of what we have in Christ? What does this even look like?

COLOSSIANS #15: GRACE FOR THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

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Our lifestyle of being in Jesus is based on exactly the same facts as our salvation. We now live in the same way. We stop trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We trust that Jesus is, and will be, at work within us according to his promises, and that his work, not our own efforts, will make us into the people that God desires us to be. Trust does require a sort of surrender, that is, we need to lean into Jesus, to learn to rely upon him more and more. But we walk in Him the very same way that we came to him in the first place: by trusting in his grace for everything we need.

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Colossian #15  Colossians 2:6-7

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Colossians 2:6-7 is easy to read, but there is a wealth of grace, wisdom and knowledge in this one sentence. It is important for us to pause and understand the huge significance of it says, and what it means.

As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.

We have two, almost opposite problems when it comes to verses like this. But the solution to both problems is the same. In the first place, sometimes people act as if receiving Christ as Lord is no big thing. Some people may think of receiving Christ as Lord as sort of like something on our to-do list:

  • Fill the car with gas
  • Reserve Hotel for Vacation
  • Accept Jesus as savior
  • Take out garbage

It is something we have to do, we think, of course. But it’s just one of many things. We have busy lives, after all. So we “walk in him,” the same way as we received him, which is, he doesn’t really have much to do with anything in our actual lives.

My Dad tells a story about when we were living in Papua New Guinea as missionaries. A friend of his was teaching on the Island of Karkar. The island is basically just a large cone-shaped volcano sticking out of the ocean. It was a very active volcano that occasionally killed people with poison gas. While this missionary was teaching, there was an earthquake, and they could see ashes and gasses spewing from the top of the cone. The missionary paused and said, “Why don’t we pray about the volcano?”

The island’s residents were puzzled. “Pray to God? About the volcano? We don’t pray to God about that. For that, we pray to the spirits of the volcano.”

The missionary was puzzled. “Well, what do you pray to God about?”

They shrugged. “White people stuff. Missionary stuff.”

They had somehow got the idea that Christianity was not about real life, not about all of life. Instead, they believed in God just for one narrow purpose. It did not affect how they lived the rest of their lives.

We can laugh about primitive people praying to a volcano, but sometimes, we do the same thing. We believe in God for heaven, and for church stuff. It’s one narrow thing: our eternal future. When we have this attitude, Jesus doesn’t have much to do with the way we live. But that was never the case for the first Christians. It is not the teaching we get from the Bible. Receiving Christ as Lord changes everything. Everything we do is now related to the fact that we have Christ as Lord. Our relationships are now lived out in the context of the fact that we belong to Jesus. Our decisions are deeply influenced by the life of Jesus in us. Life becomes about receiving from Him, and loving him back. Jesus becomes the primary influence in all of life.

Receiving Jesus is a bit like getting married. You don’t get married, and then just go off and live the way you did before. No, after you get married, you do life alongside your spouse. You are no longer just a “me,” you are half of an “us.” Some things remain more or less the same, of course. You still go to work. You still do a lot of the things you used to. But now, another person enters as a major factor in all of your decisions. You can’t just decide to take a job in another state; no, you have to talk to your spouse and listen to what he or she says. You don’t just spend the evening however you please without first talking to your spouse to see how he or she would like to spend the time. Ideally, a lot of that time is spent together. You love your spouse, and you like being close to him or her, and so you try sincerely, but not perfectly, to live with your spouse in a way that make him or her happy. Usually, when I do that, I find that my life is happier also.

By the way, this is one of the reasons that the Bible tells us marriage is so important. It is a picture of our relationship with God. When we don’t value marriage as a solemn, joyful, lifelong commitment, we start losing our understanding of what it means to be in Jesus. Even as I write this, I know that some people don’t “get it” when I use the illustration of marriage. This is a terrible tragedy. Married people owe it not only to themselves, not only to their children, but to all people, to make their marriage more important than anything but God. When we do so, it is a beacon to others, showing what it is like to be loved by Jesus, and to love him.

So it is with Jesus. When you receive him as Lord, you are not longer just a “you.” You are now in the family of God, in a way that only comes with receiving Jesus Christ.

10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. (John 1:10-13 NLT)

Now, you no longer just live however you please. You “do life” with Jesus, and with his people, who are now your brothers and sisters. Jesus is now a major factor in all your decisions. You talk to him and listen to him (through the Bible, and other Christians, and His Holy Spirit) before you make major decisions. You love Jesus, and you like feeling close to him, so you try, though not perfectly, to live in a way that makes him happy. Thankfully, doing that also makes you happier.

If you don’t really understand all I have written so far, go back and read it again, slowly. If you still don’t quite get it, please contact me, and we can have a conversation about it. This is vitally important.

Now, there is another, vitally important part to this. Some people do take receiving Jesus as Lord seriously. We know what a big deal it is. But then somewhere we get the mistaken idea that we are saved by grace, but after that it is up to us to perform well. In other words, God gives grace to save us, but daily living in Christ comes about mainly by our efforts.

But once more, listen to what Paul says: As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.

How is it that we received Christ the Lord? There is only one way that people can receive Jesus: by trusting him. When we received Jesus, we stopped trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We stopped thinking that we could somehow manage to behave well enough to please God, or make up for our sins. Instead, we believed that what Jesus did for us was enough, and that it is the only thing that is enough to make us right with God, right with ourselves and right with the world and other people. We gave up on ourselves, on trying to control outcomes, and trusted Jesus with our eternal future, and also our present life here on earth.

So, once we have trusted Jesus in this way, how are we to live? What comes next? The answer is quite simple: we continue in the same way. In the same way that you received Jesus for salvation, now continue to walk in Jesus; that is, continue to live, continue a lifestyle.

Our lifestyle of being in Jesus is based on exactly the same facts as our salvation. We now live in the same way. We stop trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We trust that Jesus is, and will be, at work within us according to his promises, and that his work, not our own efforts, will make us into the people that God desires us to be. Trust does require a sort of surrender, that is, we need to lean into Jesus, to learn to rely upon him more and more. But we walk in Him the very same way that we came to him in the first place: by trusting in his grace for everything we need.

I have said before, and I will say it again, probably until my dying day: belief comes first, and then behavior. In other words, we behave based upon what we believe to be true. If we believe we are saved by grace, then gradually we will begin to become gracious people. We will eventually begin to behave according to character of Christ because we believe that Christ is, in fact, doing his work in us. The more we trust him, the more we become like him.

There are many verses in the New Testament telling us about how Christians should behave. You may not have noticed this, but almost invariably, those verses come only after we learn who Christ is and what he has done for us. This is true in our present book, Colossians. We’ve been taking things slowly, let’s remind ourselves what Paul has already said:

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. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23, ESV, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Christ has reconciled us to himself. We are presented as Holy and blameless. We live as we were saved: by trusting that Jesus has already done it. We have nothing to prove. Jesus has done all of the proving already. The “if indeed you continue in the faith…” comes only after “you…he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

And in this text today, we learn how to continue in the faith: the same way we began it: by trusting in the grace of God given to us freely in Jesus Christ.

For me, there is no greater deterrent to sin than being close to Jesus. When I lean into his grace I don’t have to work hard to avoid sin – I just don’t want to sin so much. Please understand, I am not claiming to be without sin myself. I know I am a miserable sinner, no better than the worst person alive. But I find that this miserable sinner is slowly, imperfectly, sinning less and less as he trusts Jesus more and more.

Let’s think about marriage again, marriage as God intends it. It is a sacred covenant relationship. Marriage is not just finding “the one” who will fulfill all our needs. That idea has led to countless divorces, once one partner stops meeting the needs of the other in the way the other demands. It isn’t a contract that can be broken or renegotiated. I have no idea whether, after 27+ plus years, Kari has done more for me, or I more for Kari. I hope neither one of us ever thinks that way. We love each other. We entered a sacred covenant, and it is not about keeping track of who owes whom.

In love, we do seek to fulfill the needs of the one we marry, but it is because of love, not obligation. Now, it is true, there are times when being married is work. That is because, like following Jesus, marriage requires us to die to ourselves so that we can love another person. We find many opportunities in marriage to do something that is loving and pleasing to our spouse. This sometimes means not doing something we might otherwise be inclined to do. We put their needs in front our own: we die to ourselves. Sometimes, as I have said, this is hard work. But even though it is hard, we do it out of love. Whether we always feel it or not, we recognize that we can help the happiness and well being of our spouse. So we do it. And we are not doing it in fear that otherwise we will be divorced. We work hard out of love. And there is tremendous payoff in living with your spouse like this. After almost 28 years, I can say the joy and satisfaction we have in our marriage is wonderful. Not perfect (no marriage is) but very good. It has been a labor, but a labor of love, and that labor of love has benefitted each of us.

So it is with Jesus. We enter into a sacred covenant relationship with him. We follow him, we do the things that the Bible talks about, not because we are afraid, or because we feel that we owe him (though we do owe him our very existence), but because we love him, and because we are secure in the knowledge that he loves us. We don’t keep score anymore, in order to know if we are doing OK. Instead, we trust his love for us.

And ultimately, we know that he wants us to do these things because he also wants the best for us. And we cannot doubt his love for us. He didn’t just die to his own desires for a moment. He literally gave up his own life for us.

When you are concerned about whether or not you are being good enough, remember: we walk in faith the same way we came to Jesus in the first place. That is, by trusting that he has done all that is required from us. The more we really believe that, the more we will act like we are indeed, in a covenant of grace with God, a special relationship, almost like a marriage. And the more we see it that way, the more we live as God intended.

I need to make sure this is very clear: Even “living as a Christian” comes about not by us trying harder, but by us trusting even more in God’s grace for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #9: REJOICING IN SUFFERING

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Jesus promises a future so good that our present struggles are tiny in comparison. He promises His own presence to be with us, and to strengthen us to endure suffering. He promises to take our present trials, and turn them into future blessings for us. All this means that we can truly rejoice in our sufferings.

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Colossians #9. Colossians 1:24-26.

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, 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, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. (Colossians 1:24-26)

I am typing this on my laptop computer. The laptop is being supported by a large book called “The World’s Great Religions.” This has me thinking: Christianity is unique among the world’s great’s religions for many reasons. One of the ways Christianity is so different is because of how our faith helps us come to grips with suffering.

Hinduism tells us that suffering is all our own fault. It is karma in action. Every person suffers because of what they did, either in this life, or in some previous life. Buddhism tells us that suffering is meaningless. It is an illusion. We should not let it bother us. Islam and Judaism tell us that suffering is something to be endured patiently. It is evil, but God can help us through it, and we will be rewarded if we endure it well.

Only Jesus Christ makes it possible to actually rejoice in our sufferings. Paul’s statement here that he rejoices in his sufferings is repeated in many other places in the Bible. The bible teaches us not only that Jesus Christ can help us as we suffer, but also that suffering can be a source of joy and blessing:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3)

You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials (1 Peter 1:6)

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12)

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah (1 Peter 4:12-13)

4I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. (2 Cor 7:4)

I could add a number of other verses. I could also add my own testimony. As I have surrendered in faith to Jesus, my sufferings of chronic pain have become for me a source of blessing and joy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love to see the pain end. There are days when it is a real hassle, and I get a little crazy trying to figure out how to cope. But I can also say that I am truly grateful for the pain. It has brought me closer to God. It has broadened and deepened my perspective on many things. I say, without hypocrisy, that my suffering has been a blessing. Though my pain is often difficult, Jesus has removed all evil from it.

One thing that can help us to rejoice in our sufferings is an understanding that this world is not all there is, and because of that, our struggles in this life are not as powerful or significant as the all the good that is coming to is in the future. Imagine you have an old-fashioned scale for comparing weights. There are two sides to the scale. On one side, place all of your struggles and sufferings. On the other side, place all of the blessings that God has given us through Jesus Christ, including our future eternal life. All of the good we have in Jesus Christ far outweighs all of the sufferings we experience in this life. Paul says that there is no comparison between the two:

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

The good does not always outweigh the bad if we are only looking at this life. We must include eternity in the calculation. That is part of what Christianity is about. We can rejoice in sufferings because we know that this life is not all there is, and what we have coming is far, far better than anything we have yet experienced.

We will indeed find in the future that things are so good, the pain that we experienced in this life doesn’t even matter in comparison. But there is even more. We find not only that the good far outweighs the suffering, but also that the suffering provides some of the “raw material” that God uses to create future good for us. In other words, God doesn’t just “outbless” the suffering, he actually takes it and turns it into goodness for us.

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18)

To share in the glory we must share in the suffering. That means that suffering is not just an evil to get through. Suffering is actually the means to glory. When we suffer as we follow Jesus (whatever the cause of suffering) God actually takes that suffering and turns it into future glory and blessing for us. Suffering  here and now creates blessing for us in eternity.

We have a glimpse of this when we consider the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ suffered terribly for our sins. On a spiritual, or metaphysical level, his suffering was unbelievably worse than we can even imagine, for the Bible appears to suggest that he suffered the eternal torture of hell. But the very source of his suffering – the cross – is the very source of his victory and glory. Without the suffering, there would be no glory. Without the pain, there would be no healing. Suffering and glory are deeply connected.

So we rejoice in sufferings because they are small compared to future blessings. We rejoice also because our sufferings are actually turned in to some of those future blessings for us. There is a third reason to rejoice in sufferings, and that is that God is with those who suffer in a special way. In Philippians, Paul writes:

10 My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death (Philippians 3:10)

Paul seems to be suggesting that suffering creates a special kind of fellowship with Jesus himself. The promises of scripture never guarantee that we will not have to suffer – quite the opposite. But the bible does promise that when we suffer, he is with us.

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. (Isaiah 43:2-3)

God is with us when we suffer. Jesus was the only one who had to suffer alone. On the cross, in order to carry our sins, he was entirely alone. All others are comforted, if they are open to it, by the presence of God with them in suffering.

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I want to add another thought. Some people are not sure what sorts of suffering “count” as suffering for Christ, and what is only ordinary hardship that is found in this life. Let’s do a thought experiment to help understand this.

Imagine you are an American, and you take your family to Indonesia to be missionaries. You are there because you are serving the Lord. While you are there, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? It seems reasonable to say so. You are in Indonesia because you are serving the Lord, doing what he has called you to do. Following his call on your life led you to be exposed to malaria. If you had rejected his call on your life to be a missionary in Indonesia, you would not have been exposed to it.

Now, what if you are a Christian who was born and raised in Indonesia? You are following Jesus, and he leads you to be a carpenter, raise your family in faith, and be the Light of Jesus to your friends and neighbors. While living your life in your own country, surrendered to Jesus, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? I would again say yes. You, too, are serving the Lord the way he has called you to. You too, are living a life of surrender to Jesus. When we belong to Jesus, everything we do, and everything we experienced occurs in Jesus, and for Jesus.

The apostle Paul lived his life for Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 11:16-29, he mentions some of the ways in which he has suffered for Jesus. He certainly includes various persecutions in his sufferings. He also mentions being shipwrecked. He counts dangerous river crossings as part of his trials endured for the sake of Christ (2 Cor 11:26). He adds danger from robbers, from wild animals, from cold and exposure, and from traveling through the wilderness. He counts hard work as part of his suffering for Christ, as well as sleepless nights and going without food and drink.

When Paul was in prison in Rome, the Philippians sent him a gift. The gift was delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. After Epaphroditus arrived in Rome, he got sick. He became so ill that he nearly died. His sickness was not the result of persecution. There is not mention of the fact that it came from some moment when Epaphroditus was doing some amazing act of ministry. It was just “ordinary sickness.” But Paul describes it like this:

29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

Epaphroditus was living his life in surrender to Jesus. Therefore, when he got seriously ill, Paul describes it as nearly dying for the work of Christ.

My point is this: If you allow it, God will redeem all suffering. It isn’t just special, “holy circumstances” that count as suffering for Christ. Whatever trials come your way as you live in Christ are counted as suffering for Christ. And these are the trials – often ordinary, everyday hardships – in which we can and should rejoice.

Let the Spirit speak to you about this right now. Think of some area of your life, or in the life of someone you care about. Picture putting that suffering into some kind of container, and then deliver the container to Jesus. Let him take it. He will walk with you. He will give such a future that this problem seems small. He will take that container of suffering, and change it into eternal joy and blessing for you.

Trust Him.

PREPARING FOR SECOND CHRISTMAS

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Sometimes it can feel like the Christian life might be a bit repetitive and boring. But we cannot live on continual excitement. We have to keep returning to get our spiritual fuel replenished, and sometimes that involves very ordinary, everyday sorts of things. Part of being ready for Jesus involves being faithful, day in, and day out. If we seek Him, he has the resources we need to remain faithful and ready.

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Advent, Week 3. Matthew 25:1-13

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This the the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

Back in those days, weddings were a very big deal. Many people were bone-cracking poor, but a wedding gave them a genuine reason to celebrate. In addition, most people were likely to get a lot more food at weddings than they usually would. In some cases the feast would go on for seven days, so those who were lucky enough to partake, may have counted on a wedding to help them through hungry times. All in all you might say that folks looked forward to a wedding the way we might look forward to… Christmas. Interesting, right?

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. After that year was concluded, there was a procession, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (not exactly bridesmaids as we think of them, but close enough). The “bridesmaids” all carried lamps, or torches made from oil-soaked rags. Generally, these lights burned for about 15 minutes. When the bridegroom came, they formed a lighted procession around him, which traveled to the home of the bride. While they went along, others joined them, it became kind of a traveling party. They arrived at the Bride’s home, and she joined her husband, and from there, they all paraded joyfully back to the house of the groom. Immediately, the feast and week-long celebration began.

Jesus describes ten bridesmaids. They probably had their lamps lit in expectation of the bridegroom, because he says “they went out to meet the groom.” But he was delayed. Remember, this is a third world country, two-thousand years ago, before the invention of clocks or watches. Things happened when they happened. Usually, they happened on the correct day, but it was very hard to nail people down to specific times. Anyway, while they waited, either their lamps went out, or they eventually put them out. The groom was so long in coming that they fell asleep. When at last he came, they lit their lights again. Five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil, and their lights were replenished, and ready to burn for as long as was necessary again. But the five others had no light left. By the time they had found oil, it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

Jesus tells this story as part of his teaching about his eventual return to earth. Most parables are told just to make a few simple points, and this is no exception.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message is here simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the Ultimate Wedding Feast, the return of Jesus.

Often, when you start your spiritual life with Jesus, it is very exciting. It changes everything. Sometimes, we experience a renewal of our faith, and that is also very exhilarating. But we can’t live on excitement forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. At some point, the rubber meets the road. The bridesmaids were thinking, “I thought something was supposed to happen by now. This is dull, and boring.” It’s easy for us to begin to feel that way, spiritually.

However, we need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. Going to work, coming home, running errands, spending time in Christian Fellowship, serving others. It can feel like we get stuck in a rut, sometimes. And sometimes we do get in an unproductive rut. However, far more often, it is not a rut, it is just real life, and we need to be faithful, patient and persevering.

To make it through times like that, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we have seen somewhat recently, the apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

We know the basics, right? We need to be regularly reading, or listening to, the Bible. We need to be regularly connected with other Christians in genuine fellowship, and worship the Lord together with them. We need to allow the Lord to use our lives to serve others. Some of that is what feels like a rut, sometimes, but we cannot hope to keep our lamps full without these things.

There are other things that can be added to these to help us. I think these others things could be different for different people. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, or “The Pursuit of God” by AW Tozer, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I have also found that the Lord often refills me through new music. I get refilled by being in nature, by thinking and writing.

Other folks get refilled in different ways – by exercising, or by making something with their hands, or writing poetry. For some it comes through times of concentrated prayer and fasting. Fasting is always good to try, if you are really stuck. Others, obviously, find it very useful to listen to sermons on the TV, radio, or the Internet. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

Finally the time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

GIVING THANKS FOR THE BAD THINGS

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THANKFULNESS 2019

This will not be a normal, full-length sermon. I want to spend this week in Thankfulness. Although Thanksgiving is not one of the feasts given in the Law of Moses, it is certainly a Biblical idea. Look at a small sample of verses about thankfulness from the New Testament:

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. Taking it one step further, to having a feast-day for thanksgiving is only natural. It should never be consider necessary, however: Jesus has done all that is necessary. But a festival of thanksgiving can certainly be useful in orienting our hearts toward God in the right way.

This year, I want us to spend some time in real thanksgiving. I’ll offer some thoughts to help keep us focused and oriented. Many people have discovered that thankfulness can absolutely transform your life. So, for example, say you have a job that you really hate. But, if you start each day by thanking God for the things you don’t hate, you find that it balances out the negatives in your life, or at least, it does to some degree. I often start my thanksgiving with something small, like hot water as I take a morning shower, and towels, and coffee. The more I thank the Lord, the more I think of other things I can thank him for. Many, many people have found this sort of thing to be very helpful in maintaining a peaceful heart and positive attitude.

I want to challenge us this year to take it one step further. I speak from personal experience when I say that I have learned to thank God even for things that I really, really don’t like. To do so, is an act of trust. When I thank God for something that I wish he would change, I am acknowledging that He is in control, and I am not. I am reorienting myself around the truth that he knows better than I do. I am agreeing with his Word, that:

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

This can be tremendously freeing. It can create a vast reservoir of peace and joy in your life. I know this to be true, because I have experienced it. In my struggle with chronic pain, I began to find real peace and joy when I started to thank God not, in spite of the pain, but for the pain. At the same time I began to thank him for all of the other stupid stuff that was going on my life that I wished was different.

When I started doing this, it was  pure act of will. I said, “I think I need to do this Lord. So, I don’t feel thankful, but even so, I am thanking you for this pain.” I went on and thanked him for financial hardship, and several other things. One of the first times I did this, Kari and I did it together. I won’t say we ended by feeling truly thankful, but we did start to feel a little bit more peace.

As it became more of a habit, I can now say that I am truly thankful for the pain (not just in spite of it). The pain is still there. I still have to figure out how to cope with it. But the fact that I am suffering is not a source of angst or frustration with me. God is working through it to create the best possible outcome for me, and I am so thankful for that.

So, this season, won’t you join me? Join me not only in focusing on the good things, but also in thanking God for the things we wish he would change.

I recognize that I didn’t arrive at this point on my own. It was a gift of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, empowered me to begin thanking him in this way. If you are willing, he will give you the same gift. Let’s ask him to do that right now, so that we can begin to experience the height of joy and depth of peace that thankfulness can bring.

COLOSSIANS #8: RECONCILED

 

 

Even though we were hostile toward God, and alienated from Him, he gave his life to restore us to Himself. He is the Lord and Master of the universe, and when we receive him, he also becomes the Lord of our lives. Though this can be scary, we can trust his love for us, because he loved us before we cared about him. Continuing on in faith means that trusting Jesus is not a single, one-time thing, but, rather a lifelong journey that affects every aspect of our lives. When you receive Jesus, the “truest you” has already been made holy and blameless. That reality is more powerful than our experiences of struggle here on earth.
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Paul is moving in a clear direction. He starts with Jesus as the Creator of all things. He is God in a visible form. He holds the highest rank in the universe. Then, Paul gets more personal. Jesus is the head of the body, the church. We are related to him. He is not just chief of the universe, he is our chief, our leader. Paul moves from the impersonal toward more and more personal. Jesus is not only our leader in the church, he is our leader in resurrection. In verse 19, Paul makes sure we understand, once more that if we are looking at Jesus, we are looking at God himself: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” After this reminder, he gets even more personal. Jesus is not just the Creator, not just the highest rank in all creation, not just the leader of the church, but also, it is through Jesus that we are brought close to God. He is the one who has reconciled us to God. He is our savior.

This is the wonder of Jesus – he is both Higher and more Majestic than we can imagine, and yet, at the same time, he  cares for you, personally. He is Lord and master of the universe, and also, the one who loves you, personally. He inhabits and fills the entire cosmos – and yet he also makes his home in your very soul. The very leader of the world is also your friend.

Sometimes people make a distinction between Jesus as savior, and Jesus as Lord. There are Christians who appear to believe that you can receive Jesus as savior, but still not have him as Lord. Paul reverses this. He makes sure we understand that first, Jesus is Lord of all: Lord of All Creation, Lord of the church, Lord of Us – only when we have that straight does Paul talk about Jesus as savior. He is not savior unless he is Lord. If he is not Lord, he cannot be savior – the two go together. What this means practically is this: If you want to be a true Christian, it means surrendering your entire self – your will, your heart, your mind, your life – to Jesus. This doesn’t earn salvation, but it is the only way to receive salvation. If we retain control, we are not trusting Jesus, and if we don’t trust Jesus, we aren’t saved.

Now, I don’t mean that we do this perfectly. But it is our intention to let Jesus have our lives, even if in reality, we sometimes try to regain control. Failing is normal. But you cannot say, “I’ll take salvation please, but I withhold the right to live however I want to.” Salvation involves giving up on ourselves, and putting all our hope in Jesus. Paul makes sure that we know that Jesus is worthy of our trust. He is creator, chief, first in all things. He went through death before us. He went through resurrection before us. He does not ask of us anything that he himself did not do first. We can trust him with our lives, because he has already done all that we needed.

Paul says that the Colossians were once hostile and alienated in their minds. This is true of us, even if we have followed Jesus for as long as we can remember. We were born with a spiritual genetic defect called sin. Our condition at birth was alienated from God, and hostile in our minds. That is every single human’s “natural condition.” Children do not need to be taught how to be selfish, or mean, or angry or how to lose self-control. All of that comes naturally. But children do need to be taught how to be kind, to share, to think of others and how to control themselves. Every single human being is born alienated from God, hostile in mind to him.

God did not wait for us to shape up:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (ESV) Romans 5:6-11

Here in Colossians, Paul describes that process in more detail:

22 [you] he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him

When Jesus died physically by crucifixion, there was something else going on spiritually. In the spirit realm, he included all those who would trust in him in his death and resurrection. When Jesus died on the cross, for all intents and purposes, our sinful flesh was punished and killed along with Jesus. Through faith, this is the truth: we died with Jesus on the cross. Our sin was punished on the cross by his death.

Being born in sin, we were helpless to do anything to make ourselves better. Jesus did that for us. We don’t deserve it. We cannot earn it. There is nothing in the universe more valuable than the life of Jesus, so there is nothing we could possibly earn or borrow or even steal to pay for our salvation. We receive it as a gift, or not at all.

By the way, this is why Christianity is the source of the concept of human equality. The teaching is that we are all equally lost. No one can claim to be intrinsically better than anyone else. And our salvation is not earned, so not even anyone who is saved can claim to be a better person – we are what we are by God’s grace alone. The death of Jesus declares that we are equally helpless. It also shows us that he puts such value on every human being that he was willing to give his own life to save us. At the foot of the cross, the ground is perfectly level.

Jesus reconciled us in order to present us to God as holy, blameless and above reproach. This is already the second time we have encountered this idea in Colossians, and we aren’t out of the first chapter yet. It will come again later on. We live in two worlds at once: the physical world, and also the spiritual world. In the physical, natural world, we look around and say, “I am not holy and blameless. I am not above reproach. So this text must be wrong.” But in the spiritual realm, you already are holy and blameless and above reproach. The bible teaches us that the spiritual, unseen world is greater, and more permanent than the world we see.

It’s a little bit like the movie, the Matrix. People are living lives, falling in love, fighting, struggling and so on in a world that is imaginary. They are wired to a virtual reality. It looks and feels real to them. But if they could escape, they would find there is a more powerful reality, and what happens there can change everything in the virtual world. For our purposes, the physical world is like the Matrix, and the spiritual world is the “real world.” Paul describes elsewhere like this:

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 4:17-18)

The things that are seen (the physical world) are transient. That word means, “temporary, of short duration. Not permanent.” But the unseen world – the spiritual realm – is eternal. It lasts forever. So when we look at ourselves in the physical realm and see someone who is far from holy, we need to understand that such a thing is temporary. Yes, for now, for a short time, we don’t look holy and blameless. But in the spiritual realm, the world that lasts forever, we are already holy and blameless. And that realm is greater, and lasts longer.

Paul ends this section with a final thought:

23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (ESV) Colossians 1:18-23

You are reconciled to God, you are holy and blameless and above reproach before God, if indeed you continue in the faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel. It is important for us to understand this. Being reconciled to God and being made holy and blameless are things that come through Jesus Christ alone. We receive them by trusting in Jesus. If we were to shift our trust from Jesus onto someone or something else, we cannot receive these things. It is not that we earn them by trusting Jesus. It is not that God punishes us by taking them away if we stop trusting Jesus. But Jesus is the only way to receive these things. So, if we refuse to get them through him, there is no other way to get them.

Imagine a beautiful island in the ocean, with some of the most stunning scenery in the world. There is no bridge to it – it is too far out into the ocean. There is no airstrip on the island. It is privately owned. The owner welcomes guests, and he accommodates them, provides rest and entertainment and delicious food, all for no charge. Regularly, he sends a ferry to the mainland to pick up whoever wants to come. But some people don’t like the look of the ferry: they think it doesn’t look comfortable enough for their tastes. Some people think it doesn’t look seaworthy, and they don’t trust it to keep from sinking. Others just don’t want to travel by sea – they’d prefer to fly. But this island is private property. The Owner doesn’t have to allow anyone at all to come there. If you want to go, he has provided the ferry. If you refuse to take the ferry, then there is no other way to get there. He isn’t mean or exclusive: anyone who wants to can use it. Many have, and they’ve told others that it is just fine. But if you reject the only way to get there, you have excluded yourself from the island. Everything is free, but you can’t receive it unless you take the ferry.

So it is with Jesus. We must continue on in faith, because without faith, we cannot receive all that Jesus does and is for us. Paul says we must continue, because it isn’t a one time deal. It is not all like buying a ticket for heaven, or life insurance. No, if we truly trust Jesus, it changes our whole life. It effects how live and the decisions we make for the rest of our lives. If it does not have that effect on our lives, then I question whether or not we truly believe it. I don’t mean that we will suddenly behave perfectly. But when we truly believe something this big and important, it will have an effect on us. It won’t make us immediately perfect in this natural world, but it will begin to work on us.

For now, I want us to focus on this fact: In the eternal spiritual realm, you are already holy and blameless. You are above reproach. That “you” is more real and permanent than the “you” that keeps failing. Jesus has given those gifts to the spiritual you, and he wants them to define who you are. Trust him!

FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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SINGLE SERMONS
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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.