COLOSSIANS #32: THE JOY OF MALE AND FEMALE

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God created our genders deliberately, and with a purpose. The Bible teaches us how to work with that fact in loving each other and following Jesus. The latest science decisively confirms that human beings are gendered to the core. However, because we are all made in the image of God, gender is something even deeper than biology. Women and men are made to relate to one another in a way that shows the world something of the glory of God. This happens in all sorts of contexts, not just marriage.

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COLOSSIANS #32  Colossians 3:17-18

Before we address our specific verses for today, let’s remember the context. Throughout the end of chapter two, Paul was addressing the problem of legalism. Legalism is all about performing well in order to manipulate God into accepting you, and doing what you want him to do. He explained that in Jesus we have died to performing well in order to get God to approve of us. We do not have what it takes to get God to do our bidding. Instead, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God, trusting in what Jesus  Christ did for us, rather than our own efforts. Next, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, detailed several things from which we are free, because of the death of Christ.

Then, in chapter three, he addressed the problem of lawlessness. Because we have died to the things of this world, and because we have already been included spiritually in the resurrection of Jesus, we are called to live a certain way. We are supposed to draw on the life of the Spirit, and avoid the life of our dying flesh, which is incurably self-oriented.

Paul then explained we need to put off our old sinful flesh, and no longer participate in the sins that we used to love, no longer insist on getting our wants and needs met in our way. He moved on in verse 9, and said we have put off the old sinful self and put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of Jesus.

In verse twelve, he started to tell us what this new life looks like. He explained that the character of Christ wants to shine through us, and what it means to live according to the character of Christ. We considered the several aspects of living that way, like having compassionate hearts, and forgiving each other, and so on.

Last time, we considered that everything we do, all that we say and whatever we’re about, we do it in the name of Jesus Christ.

Now, we are going to get specific. We are still talking about what it looks like to let the character of Christ shine through us. We are still talking about how to do everything in the name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit through Paul, now begins to explain what all of that looks like for different groups of people: Wives, husbands, children, fathers, servants and masters.

When we understand the context, we realize that these are not just random, isolated instructions that cropped up out of nowhere. These verses are there to help us think about how we do everything in the name of Jesus in different parts of our lives. They are not given to help the Colossians fit in with culture of their city – nothing at all in this letter is about how they can be better citizens of this world. It is all about living this life with an understanding that we are already full citizens in the life to come.

So, with that understanding, I give you our verses for the next several weeks:

You wives, put yourselves under the authority of your husbands, because this is what is right in the Lord.

You husbands, love your wives sacrificially, and do not cause them to be grieved, or make their lives bitter.

(My own “amplified” translation from Greek, Colossians 3:17-18)

The more direct translation of verse 17 is: “wives submit to your husbands…”

I want us to take our time with this subject. These are short sentences in both English and Greek, but they represent something that is very deep and far reaching. “Jesus died for your sins,” is also a short sentence, but it might take years of thought and study to “unpack” all of the meaning in those five words. So, these verses are also short, but they represent the end-product of a deep and important subject.

In our culture today, verse 17 sounds ridiculously old fashioned. To many people, it might seem oppressive, and even perhaps hateful toward women. When we encounter any bible passage that disturbs us, we can take one of three possible approaches:

  1. We can study and pray and press into what the Holy Spirit is saying through such verses. With the faith that God knows best, and wants to speak to us through the Bible, we humbly approach the text to learn from it. We may be surprised by what we find, or we may find what we want or expect, but either way, we let the scripture set the agenda.
  2. We can decide that we don’t like it, and so we study and think and work on ways to make the verses irrelevant or meaningless to our life today. Or, we might try and find ways to show that the meaning of the verse is something other than what it seems to say so obviously. But we start with our own agenda, and try to make the scripture conform to that.
  3. We simply dismiss the verse. We ignore it, or we simply decide that we are not going listen to it, or apply it to our lives. We might even try to say that it shouldn’t be in the Bible.

Because our culture automatically rejects verses like “wives submit to your husbands,” many Christians have taken approaches #2 or #3. They start with the desire to make the Bible conform to 21st century Western cultural ideas about gender. This is a very flawed way to read and understand the bible. Instead of letting the text lead them wherever it goes, they already know where they want it to go, and so they try to make it go there. Or, they find ways to say that we don’t need to pay any attention at all to such teachings. Christians who want to “neutralize” bible verses like this believe that they are champions of gender-equality, and so they call themselves “egalitarians.” Sometimes they also call themselves “evangelical feminists,” or “Christian feminists.”

Christians who read these verses in a basically straightforward way call themselves “complementarians” because they believe that the bible teaches that men and women were created uniquely different in order complement each other. I believe that gender is all about reflecting the image of God to the world, so I call that idea “imagism.”

I have studied the issues surrounding this verse, and the other verses like it, for a long time. In fact, I wrestled with this subject for fifteen years before finally submitting to what I believe the Bible teaches. I desperately wanted to be able to be an egalitarian in good conscience. I did not want to appear to be oppressive to women, and I wanted this subject to be a non-issue. I wanted to fit in with our culture, including a lot of church culture, and not rock the boat.

Unfortunately, what I have learned convinces me that egalitarians are wrong. Even worse, the way they treat the Bible in order to make it conform to their ideals is extremely flawed, and dangerous to true Christianity. If we treated the entire Bible the same way egalitarians treat just these texts about men and women, it would make Christianity meaningless.

Now, of course, I might be the one who is wrong. However, if I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to be truly open to the alternatives. If I am wrong, it’s not because I have a prejudice against women. if I had any prejudice to begin with, it was in favor of feminism. If I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to diligently study what the  Bible says about gender, nor have I failed to study and understand what egalitarians say, and how they interpret the scriptures. If I am wrong, it is not for lack of wrestling in prayer and crying out to the Holy Spirit to speak to me about this subject. In fact, I have prayed numerous times, over a period of years, “Lord, change my heart and my mind! Show me how I can return to being an egalitarian!”

As I say, all of my study and prayer doesn’t automatically make me right, but  I would like to challenge those who disagree with me to put in some significant time and effort on this subject before dismissing what I say, and to have the integrity to let the texts lead you wherever they go, regardless of whether or not that’s what  you want. If you want to learn more about why I think egalitarianism is such a problem, or if you want to discover, in depth, what the Bible says about gender, please get a copy of my book, In God’s Image,” available on Amazon (kindle version also available). The link will take you there.

Although these are just two simple verses, they represent an understanding of human nature that is rapidly being lost in today’s world. These verses tell us that men and women are different in certain ways, and so as we relate to one another, we should be conscious of those differences, and live accordingly. In short, the Bible teaches that God created human beings in two genders, male and female, and both of the genders are vitally important for human flourishing, and also for showing the world what God is like. Consider Genesis 1:26-27

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

(ESV, Genesis 1:26-27)

You see that God intended human beings to display “his image;” that is, show the world what he is like. It sounds at first like it is only talking about “man,” but verse 27 makes it clear that in order for the image of God to be displayed in the world, both male and female are important and necessary. This comes in the very first chapter of the Bible, and we learn several important things:

  • Human beings are created to display what God is like
  • In order to show the world what God is like, both male and female are necessary
  • Therefore male and female are not the same, and the differences between them are important
  • Since God does not have a body, our gender, to display his image, must be at least partially spiritual.
  • Male and female are therefore equally important, equally valuable.

One of the great weaknesses of egalitarianism is that it confuses “equal” with “the same.” But, if the Bible is true, our masculinity and femininity make us different, and those differences are good and right and important and valuable. We aren’t just androgynous souls poured into either male or female bodies – we are male and female right down to our essence. We are male and female, even spiritually. The way that we relate to each other is supposed to be a reflection of image of God.

I realize that to write this in 2020, I sound like a horrible bigot. This is one of the areas where Western culture has been running away from God at a screamingly-fast pace. Even ten years ago, very few people would have found what I just said to be offensive. Twenty years ago, people would have told me I was crazy if I thought that in the year 2020, people would call me a bigot for saying that the male and female genders were intentionally created by God, and that the differences between the two is profound.

Am I just a bigot? Are Christians crazy to say that men and women are deeply different? Thankfully, whatever the culture says, facts are facts. Today, we know more about the physical facts of being male and female than ever before, and the more we learn, the more it is confirmed that humanity is gendered to the core, and the differences are profound. You can choose to believe the earth is flat, but that does not make it so. You can choose to believe that genders are fluid and there is really no such thing as male and female, but that does not make it so.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a researcher and clinical child-psychiatrist, presented some of the recent research in his 2005 Book, Why Gender Matters. Boys and girls, women and men, are profoundly different at a fundamental, biological level, and the biggest differences are found, not in sex organs, or even hormones, but in our brains. The very tissue of our brains is different, depending upon our sex. Sax writes:

Scientists analyzed thirty samples of human brain tissue collected from different areas of the brain and different individuals. The scientists were not told the sex of the individuals from whom the specimens were taken. But just by analyzing the expression of two different genes in the brain tissue, they were able to correctly identify the sex of every one of the thirty specimens, female versus male. Female brain tissue and male brain tissue are intrinsically different.

Sax cites research that demonstrates that girls and women see color distinctions that boys and men are incapable of perceiving. This is not because of socialization – it is the result of different nerve and brain pathways that are hard-wired by the time babies are born. Every step in every neural pathway from the retina to the brain is different between males and females. That means that men and women literally, physically, see the world differently.

Females have more sensitive hearing. This is simply fact. Also, the mechanisms for sensory perception, particularly pain, are different between females and males. To put it another way, men and women experience pain differently, at a cellular level.

Not only is our brain tissue different, but the brain is organized differently. Men seem to have a distinct division in brain function between the left side of the brain and the right. The left side of the brain, in men, is the center for language. This is not the case for women, who seem to distribute functions equally between each side of the brain.

Dr. Sax, who is both a clinical child-psychiatrist and a scholar, writes:

Girls and boys play differently. They learn differently. They fight differently. They see the world differently. They hear differently. When I started graduate school in 1980, most psychologists were insisting that those differences came about because parents raised girls and boys in different ways. Today we know that the truth is the other way around: parents raise girls and boys differently because girls and boys are so different from birth. Girls and boys behave differently because their brains are wired differently.

Later, he adds:

Human nature is gendered to the core. Work with your child’s nature, work with your child’s innate gender-based propensities, rather than trying to reshape them according to the dictates of late-twentieth-century political correctness.

What is true of boys and girls is, obviously, also true of women and men, perhaps even more so. Our verses today start with that understanding: Women and men are gendered to the core. Therefore, the Bible teaches us how to work with our innate gender-based propensities. In our text today, the instructions to wives are different from the instructions to husbands. God understands our gendered natures – he created them for a purpose! Therefore it should be obvious that men and women need to focus on different things in order love each other well, in order to do all in the name of Jesus.

We have a lot to chew on so far, but we have only just laid the foundation. Don’t worry about the s-word (submit) for now. Instead, for this next week, take time to thoughtfully appreciate the gift of your gender, and also the unique things about the opposite gender. When we do this with an awareness of the Holy Spirit, we can appreciate without either lusting, or wonder without getting frustrated with things we don’t understand.

We are both indispensable to God’s plan to show his glory. Not only that, but each gender needs the other in order to fulfill that purpose. Men cannot display the image of God without women. Women cannot do it without men.

Women: know, and enjoy that God created you to bless the world as a woman. Men: know and enjoy that God created you to bless the world as a man. Both women and men: know that you cannot bless the world the way God intended without your opposite gender.

By the way, when I say that, I don’t mean that everyone has to get married, or they won’t be fulfilling God’s purpose. Jesus himself never married, nor did the apostle Paul, and maybe not Barnabas either. Jesus also taught that some people are called to be single (Matthew 19), and Paul passed on that teaching in 1 Corinthians 7.

When it comes to displaying the image of God through male and female, even single people are usually connected to families, and singles also have friends of the opposite sex. The point is, the way men and women interact with each other in all sorts of different contexts shows the glory of God, if we let Him.

COLOSSIANS #31: ALL OF LIFE

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For Christians, all of life is about Jesus. We live for him, we live with him, we live in dependence upon him. It is when we try to compartmentalize Jesus, and have him in just one area of our lives that we turn into religious hypocrites. When are “part-time Christians,” we have times when we act like Christians, and other times when we are not “in Jesus-mode,” and we act differently. This sort of hypocrisy does you no good, and it turns off those who are not Christians.

Tom Hilpert

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 31

Colossians #31.  Colossians 3:17

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

The Greek in this verse emphasizes all things. A literal-ish translation might be “in all things whatsoever…” Maybe another way of putting it would be “in absolutely everything…” Every single area of our lives should be involved in honoring Jesus. There should be nothing at all in our lives that cannot be done in the name of Jesus. If there is, we should either not do it, or change how we do it, so that we can do in a way that honors Him. If you needed any more reminders that following Jesus involves every area of your life, every moment of your life, here it is.

This can be really clarifying. Can I do my work in the name of Jesus? Can I be angry at another driver in the name of Jesus? Can I go swimming in the name of Jesus? Can I fill out a form for the government in the name of Jesus? Can I sue someone in the name of Jesus? Can I ride my bike in the name of Jesus?

Sometimes the answers are obviously yes, and at other times, obviously no. At other times, we have to apply it with careful, prayerful thought.

This will come up a bit later in Colossians, but one helpful question to ask is: “Could I be proud of this job if I was doing it for Jesus?” Because, in fact, you are doing it for Jesus. All things whatsoever, we are to do in the name of Jesus. Life is to be lived because of Jesus. It is to be lived with Jesus. It is to be lived through Jesus.

To be crystal clear: this doesn’t mean everyone should quit their jobs and join a monastery or convent. It means that we are to live every moment of our ordinary, everyday lives for and with Jesus, depending on him as we do. My work as a pastor might be directly connected to Jesus, but I also write mystery novels, and even though they are “ordinary” novels, I need to learn how to write them for and with Jesus, depending on him as I do. I also have had a few years when I wasn’t a pastor. During that time, one thing I did was business consulting. I would travel from business to business, helping them learn to cut costs, work more efficiently, and generally become better at what they did. In general, I think I did it in the name of Jesus. In other words, I tried to work as Jesus would work if he was a business consultant.

For example, on one particular job, I helped an industrial plumbing/welding contractor. I did a lot of good work for the owner in several different areas of his business. I wasn’t teaching him to rip off other companies, I was just showing him what he needed to do if he wanted to stay in business and earn an honest living. In fact, in some instances, I was showing him how to avoid getting ripped off himself. I spent three weeks with that client, and I felt like I could do that work in the name of Jesus. I had helped someone become better at what he was supposed to do.

However, while we were wrapping up the job for that owner, I got a call from the corporate office of my consulting company. They knew I had developed a good rapport with the client, and they thought I might be able to convince him to pay us for more consulting time. They wanted me to pretend that there was still a lot of work to be done, and that we could help him even more if we stayed on longer. The thing is, the owner didn’t need more consulting at that point. We had given him our best help, and more, at that point, would have just been racking up our consulting fees to no purpose. We would have been billing him for “busy work.” It would not have been illegal, but it wasn’t ethical. One of my superiors made it clear that he would be very upset with me if I didn’t make it happen. However, in my understanding, my ultimate boss is Jesus, and I felt I could not rip off the client in the name of Jesus, so I politely failed to make it happen. You might say, I did some business consulting in the name of Jesus, and I also stopped doing some business consulting, also in the name of Jesus. I listened to my earthly bosses and did what they asked as long as I could do so in the name of Jesus. But when I could not, then I chose to do what honored Jesus the most. I was prepared to lose my job over it, but as it happened, I got an offer of a promotion instead.

To be clear, I’m not saying that doing everything in the name of Jesus will always result in you getting a promotion. In some cases it might lead to you getting fired. But we do need to live with an understanding that Jesus has the ultimate say in our lives, and everything we do is to be with and for him. To put it plainly: following Jesus should be a lifestyle.

The alternative – living for Jesus only part of the time – leads ultimately to tedious religious duty and often hypocrisy. If take this approach, we have times when we are living for Jesus, and other times when we are not. One of the problems is, when we are “off” of our religious activities, we say and do things that conflict with who Jesus is, and we could rightly be called hypocrites. Even when we do serve or worship Jesus, we do it out of obligation, and often we can’t wait to get back to our “real life.”

A lot of people prefer fitting Jesus in as just one component of a busy life. They have softball on Thursday nights and Saturdays, date night Friday, work throughout the week, and church on Sunday. When they are at church, they are doing their religious thing, but it never occurs to them for Jesus to be present at work, softball, and date night. Christianity is an important thing, sure, but they want to keep it in a limited place. It’s just one thing, they think, out of many good and important things.

But Jesus rejected the idea of being just one component of life. This is what he says:

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. 26 For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life? (CSB, Matthew 16:24-26)

For those who want to be Christians, all of life is about Jesus. He isn’t just one important piece of a fulfilling life. He is the life. Again, his words:

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

He isn’t part of life. He is the life. So, let’s understand this. Take the lifestyle I described above. It’s still fine and good to play softball. It’s not only fine, but good and right to go to work, and contribute to society, and to support yourself and/or your family. Date night is good, too. But a Christian does all of these same things with an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all. So, at work and at softball, a Christian works and plays in ways that bring honor to Jesus. In the same way, a Christian avoids working and playing in ways that reflect poorly on Jesus.

Let’s get even more specific. A Christian at work can’t be dishonest with her boss, or her clients. She doesn’t get to do shoddy work, either. Maybe nobody at her job cares, but she’s working in the name of Jesus, and he knows and cares, so her work should reflect that, regardless of whether the people around her notice or not.

A Christian at play doesn’t get to cheat, even though it’s only a game, and all his teammates are doing it. He uses the kind of language that honors Jesus and blesses those who hear him (Ephesians 4:29). He doesn’t do this only with the church softball team, but everywhere he works and plays.

Christians on a date enjoy the relationship that God has given them, and they enjoy it in ways that honor Jesus. So, if they are not married to each other, they honor Jesus by staying out of bed. If they are married, they may happily enjoy the gifts of intimacy that God has given to bless marriage. But either way, they recognize that God is part of their relationship; he is there with them, and they honor him by being kind and loving and respectful toward each other, and celebrating the joy he has given them in each other.

Now, we don’t do all these things (or avoid doing other things) because of some legalistic rule book. We do it because Jesus wants to express the power of his life through our lives. This is how Jesus wants to live in you, and through you. I personally think Jesus enjoys it when we do a good job because of him. I think he likes being there when we play softball (or whatever). I’m sure he enjoys date nights and family times, and many of the things we do. He is not asking us to just sit around and “be holy.” He is saying, “In whatever you do, make room for me. Let me be in it, let it be for me, and as you rely on me.”

Let me be honest. There are times in my life where, if this text were describing me, it would say: “Everything whatsoever he does, in word and in deed, he does for the benefit of himself, complaining to God the father that he doesn’t give enough help.” I’m just guessing here, but perhaps  this describes some of you, also. (That was sarcasm. Of course it does. We all fall into this).

Let’s back up and address this. Our natural inclination is to live for ourselves. We require others to treat us according to what we want and need, no matter what might be going on in their own lives. In fact, we often demand it. And we often expect that our own failure to meet the needs of others can be excused because of the struggles we have, even though we don’t give others the same leeway in meeting our own needs. Sometimes we don’t demand our way, but that makes us feel self-righteous, as if we are self-sacrificing martyrs just for not requiring the world to conform to our own desires. This self-centeredness is wired into these mortal bodies that we inhabit. We only live for Jesus to the extent that it does not conflict with our own strong desires.

It’s important to understand how serious this issue is. We cannot do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus until and unless this self-centeredness is addressed, but we can’t seem to break loose. Jesus himself provides the way, as we learned earlier in Colossians:

11 When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.
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. (NLT, Colossians 2:11-14)

When we came to Jesus, he pronounced the death sentence on our own way of living for ourselves. He himself was killed for our sins, and he included us in his own death and burial. Our real life is now with Him. Remember, this section of Colossians that we are in begins like this:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT, Colossians 3:1-4)

We need to remember and recognize that the selfish way of life belongs to a body that began to die the moment it was born. That way of life is passing away. It can’t last for more than a hundred years or so, and often doesn’t make it nearly that long. It is literally a dead end.

However, we can live every moment whatsoever in the name of Jesus when we focus on the new life he has given us. We set our sights on the realities of heaven (that is, the New Creation). We recognize that all of our legitimate needs have been met in Christ, and our illegitimate needs belong to a body that is temporary and dying. We take our needs to Jesus, not demanding, but humbly trusting he will do what is best for us, even when we don’t understand what that is.

The year our son turned five, I saw something interesting happen. Like pretty much all kids, he was often selfish, often very upset when he didn’t get his own way. When he turned five, he was old enough to understand that his birthday was his special day, a day when everyone else would be celebrating him. He looked forward to it. When the day came, he was confident that others would be giving him attention, looking out for him and treating him well. He knew that we might go easier on his behavior. But instead of acting out, he became so kind and gracious. A number of times, something happened that normally would have upset him. One of his siblings accidentally broke one of his toys. He graciously forgave her. Another sibling got upset about something, and he tried to comfort her, rather than getting us to focus on himself. It seemed like because it was his birthday he knew, at least for that day, that his needs would be met, that he didn’t have to worry about himself. So, he was able to let things go, and able to act kind, and unselfishly.

It should be the same with us. The God who created the universe has declared that we are special to him. He has provided all that we need for an eternal life of joy. We can know that we are celebrated, that we are safe. We don’t have to demand that our needs be met, because God has already met all our truest and deepest needs. Trusting this, we can now do all things, absolutely everything, in the name of Jesus.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this is the third time in the last three verses that tells us to be thankful. I have said before that thankfulness opens the door to help us receive the things that God is giving to us in the spiritual realm. I said recently that thankfulness is also the gateway to peace. In addition, thanksgiving is the beginning of what it means to do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus. When we thank him, it helps lead us away from unselfishness. It helps us remember everything good in our lives comes in him and from him, and so encourages us to live more and more not for ourselves, but for, with, and depending upon, Jesus

COLOSSIANS #30: WORD.

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Our lives are to be centered around, and built upon, the Word of God. Let it sink deeply into your bones through music and songs. Let it sink into your mind through hearing and reading and talking with each other about it. Let it be the focal point of your “life together” with your family, and with your Christian community. Let it permeate your life with wisdom by doing what it says. This is no empty or idle word: this Word is Life to us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 30

COLOSSIANS #30. COLOSSIANS 3:16

The word of Christ – let it dwell in all of you richly, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing yourselves with psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, with grace, singing in the hearts of you to God.

Colossians 3:16, my “literalish” translation

I’m giving you my own more or less literal translation again. There are two things that are here in the Greek that most English translations don’t capture very well. Since I am not a professional translator, I did check myself with some of my most trusted language resources, and as best as I can understand, I do have it correct. As I have said before, professional Bible translators are trying to make the Bible readable in English, and you can see that my translation is somewhat incorrect in English, and not as readable as most translations. But there is an important nuance that I want to capture here.

Most translations make it seem that wisdom is attached to teaching and admonishing each other. In other words, they make it sound like we should teach and admonish each other with wisdom. Obviously, that’s not wrong as a general principle. However, there is a judgment call here in translation, and I think in this case, the more accurate way to put it is the Word of Christ should dwell in us with all wisdom. So, wisdom (in this verse) is about how God’s word dwells in us, more than it is about how we teach each other.

Some of you know that I’m not a fan of the old KJV (King James Version). However, the NKJV (New King James Version) actually gets that part of it quite right, and almost “literal” to the Greek:

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Col 3:16, NKJV

Another way of saying it would be, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly and wisely.”

Wisdom is not just knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge, and to apply it in a right and thoughtful way. Jesus had some very specific instructions concerning wisdom and his word:

7 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

(ESV, Luke 6:47-49, bold and italic formatting added for emphasis)

Jesus makes it quite clear: To have His Word wisely means we do what he tells us to do. It means we must thoughtfully apply His Word to our lives in practical ways.

It’s not complicated. There are two parts: if the word is to dwell in us richly, we have to know it. In order to know it, we must read it and study it regularly and frequently. Secondly, if we are to let the Word of Christ dwell in us with wisdom, we must apply the Word to our lives in diligent, thoughtful ways. We can’t just know what it says, we must also live it, through the help of the Holy Spirit.

It is when Christians fail to apply the Word of God that they give Jesus a bad name. We’ve all met people who know the Bible well, but who are angry, bitter, unforgiving and so on. The fact that they know what the word says but don’t live it often turns people off, and makes them disillusioned with Christianity.

I want to make sure we get the importance of everything here. The text is talking about “the Word of Christ.” What is that, exactly? Remember, when Paul wrote, there was no “New Testament,” because it was actually being written at that very time. By saying Word of Christ, and not just “Word of God,” I think Paul is saying: “all of the Old Testament, plus the teachings of Jesus.” The Old Testament was already complete, and we have all sorts of evidence that the first followers of Jesus believed it to be God’s Word. Paul is saying, “the teachings of and about Jesus Christ are also part of God’s Word.” I doubt Paul knew that some of his own writings were going to be included in a “New Testament.” Even so, it is clear that fairly early on, Paul and the other Apostles had a set of core teachings given to them by Jesus. The New Testament is simply the written record of the teachings of Jesus handed down to us through the Apostles. The apostles wrote about the importance of the Word of God, and speaking prophetically, their words also refer to the teachings of Jesus which they passed on to us:

12 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.

(ESV, Hebrews 4:12)

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(ESV, 2 Timothy 3:14-17)

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(ESV, Romans 15:4)

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, 21 or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

(ESV, 2 Peter 1:20-21)

Colossians tells us to let this Word of Christ dwell in us richly with wisdom. What that means is that the Bible should shape our lives. It should be one of the primary forces that influences who we are and how we live. Our verses today also give us some practical ways to let the Word dwell in us richly with wisdom: “teaching and admonishing yourselves with psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, with grace, singing in the hearts of you to God.”

I am still using my own translation. It says (literally) teaching and admonishing yourselves. Paul is writing to them as a group of people, and I do think he means that we should be teaching, admonishing and encouraging one another in the Word. Obviously, that is what I am doing right now by writing this. But I also think he means that we should each individually be involved in personally learning and growing in the Word of Christ. We should be teaching ourselves, and getting the Word into ourselves through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

In the Psalms, sometimes the psalm-writer speaks to his own soul:

5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
6 The LORD preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to your rest;
for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.

(ESV Psalm 116:5-7)

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation 6 and my God.

(ESV, Psalm 42:5-6)

It is a good thing to “speak the Word” to yourself. In fact, I often read the Psalms out loud, so that I get the Word not only “in my head,” but also in my ears.

So, we have a responsibility to others, to encourage them to let the Word dwell in them richly with wisdom. We also have a responsibility to our own selves to do the same. It is no accident that the Holy Spirit tells us through these verses to use psalms, hymns, and songs in connection with helping the Word to dwell in us richly with wisdom. When we sing, we are “preaching” to each other, and also to our own souls. Sometimes music helps the Word to sink deeply into our hearts in a unique way.

By the way, it is possible to “sing the psalms.” People have done a great deal of work to create versions of each psalm that can be sung to various hymn tunes. If you are interested in singing the psalms, please check out: http://psalms.seedbed.com/  I have no connection with this site and I get nothing from them for my endorsement. I just think it is a terrific, free resource for helping the word to dwell in us richly.

In addition to singing the Word, we must also read it, or listen to an audio version of it. But it goes far deeper than simply reading a chapter a day or something like that. Our lives are to be focused on and built around God’s Word. It should be something we talk about in our families. It should come up as a normal part of conversation with our fellow Christians. It should be with us at home, and when we travel. Moses spoke the Word of God to the people, and then added this:

18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,

(ESV, Deuteronomy 11:18-20)

We are to lay up the word of God in our hearts and souls. We aren’t supposed to literally bind them on our hands, but God’s word is supposed to let them affect our actions ( that is the meaning of “bind them on your hands”) and our thoughts (the meaning of “between your eyes”). The Word is supposed to be present in our homes, when we are resting, and present when we are walking and traveling. It accompanies us to sleep, and greets us when we rise. As we go about our normal lives, God’s Word should be in the midst of us. We should be thinking about it, learning it, listening to it, and talking to others about it.

Later Moses emphasized again how profoundly important God’s Word is:

5 And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. 47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life.

(ESV, Deuteronomy 32:45-47)

It is no empty or idle word – it is our very life. I am going to quote to you from one of my own books:

Imagine there was a food that would make you lose weight, and help you maintain your ideal body weight. Suppose that same food cured cancer, and prevented any new cancer. It would help you sleep well at night, and give you energy during the day. It would help your body regulate your hormones properly, and be a big factor in preventing heart disease. Eating this food would be the best single thing you could do to maintain or gain health. If you ate this food regularly, long term, you would lead a healthy, vigorous life well into your nineties.

Now, there are two catches. The first is that you have to eat this food regularly, and long term, for the health benefits to really kick in. Second, the food has a funny taste. It takes a little getting used to. But there are all sorts of people and books that are available to help you appreciate the strange flavor, and learn to actually enjoy the way it tastes. Millions of people testify that after eating it regularly for a long period, they actually love it.

You struggle with your health in all of the areas helped by this food. But when a friend asks if you eat this miracle-food regularly, you say, “Yeah, I know I probably should, and I do occasionally, but I just can’t get over the flavor.”

To quote Forrest Gump: “My Momma always says, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’”

Reading the Bible is the single-best thing you can do for your spiritual life and health. Sometimes, at first, it isn’t fun or easy. But if you do it regularly, and for the long term, it will profoundly shape and change your life for the better. It will build up and secure, not your physical health, but the eternal health of your very soul. The benefits of reading the Bible far outweigh those of a super-food that will only keep you healthy for ninety years or so.

Far too many people say, “I know I should, and I do occasionally, but I just don’t have the time.” Or, “…but I just can’t get into it,” or, “…but it’s kind of boring to me.”

Once more, I remind you of Forrest Gump’s mother. This is foolishness. If you want to be a Christian, you must immerse yourself in the Bible. It is life to you.

If you are struggling in your life as a Christian, is it possible that at least part of the problem is that you spend very little time reading, learning and soaking in the words of the Bible? If you don’t have much peace, or joy or love in your life, could it be that part of the issue is that you are starving yourself spiritually, by not reading the Bible regularly?

Now, I want to make sure you understand, I am not saying that reading the Bible will automatically cure every mental and emotional obstacle you struggle with. Sometimes the Christian life is just difficult. But even then, the Bible encourages us by reminding us that following Jesus does indeed involve suffering and loss, and giving us hope to persevere. And often times, we make it unnecessarily and especially difficult for ourselves, because we do not spend much time or energy dwelling on God’s very Word to us. (Tom Hilpert, Who Cares About the Bible, pg 183-184)

Let me make sure we have the basics down. The Bible is not a magic eight ball. We should not just flip it open, and start reading at some random place. The Bible is made up of 66 individual books within the whole Bible. The best thing is to read it book by book. If you have not regularly read the Bible, I encourage you to start with one of the books of the New Testament. Pick either Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. On Monday, read Matthew chapter 1. On Tuesday, read chapter 2, and on Wednesday the next chapter, and so on. Each day before you read, ask the Lord to speak to you. You may be aware of him speaking through the Bible, or you may not. The influence and message of the Bible gets more powerful the more time you spend with it, so don’t stress if at first you don’t get a lot out of it. Stick with it. It is your life. When you finish with Matthew, start reading Acts, and then Romans, and then the next book all the way through to the end. Over time, you will begin to develop a more spiritual mind, and you will become more sensitive to God. But it happens with time and regular, frequent reading. This is not a quick fix for anything. The bible should be a lifelong spiritual diet. I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten in the last month, but I know that each one has played a part in nourishing my body. I know I enjoyed the curry I had last week more than any other food I’ve had in a while. That doesn’t mean I stop eating anything but curry. It doesn’t mean that only the curry helped my body. The spiritual food of God’s word is like that. It is all nourishing. We may remember some parts more than others, but it s all good for us.

My dear friends, the Word of Christ is your life. Have you ever wondered what life is all about? This is it. Center your lives around God’s word. Let it sink deeply into your bones through music and songs. Let it sink into your mind through hearing and reading and talking with each other about it. Let it be the center of your “life together” with your family, and with your Christian community. Let it permeate your life with wisdom by doing what it says.

COLOSSIANS #29. THE KEY TO MEANINGFUL, LASTING PEACE.

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Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best. But Jesus offers us peace in a different way. The way of Jesus to surrender control to him. This requires that we trust him. It means we must trust him to have our best interests in his heart, and the best interests of those we love. It means we must trust that he is able to what is best. It means we trust that his timing is better than ours. It means we must trust even when – no, especially when – we do not understand what he is doing.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 29

Colossians #29  Colossians 3:14-15

14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.

Starting in verse 12, we were told to “clothe ourselves” or “put on” seven different aspects of the character of Christ. This is what it looks like when Christ lives both in each of us individually, and among us corporately:

Compassion, kindness, humility, patience, gentle restraint (meekness), bearing with one another and forgiving each other. Paul caps off this thought with the following:

“And above all these, the love; it is binding all together to perfectly complete the purpose.” (my “literal” translation)

By the way, when I offer my own translations of various Bible passages, I am not claiming to be a better Bible translator than those who work on the major English versions. Sometimes, however, those who create translations cannot get at the “feel” of the Greek text, because to do so would not be proper English, and more than a few sentences of it would be hard to read and understand. The main thing I want us to see is that love not only binds people together, it also fulfills the purpose of the character of Christ in Christian community. The idea here is very much like the one that Jesus spoke very plainly

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV Matthew 22:34-40)

Paul summed it up like this for the Galatians:

14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV Galatians 5:14)

He explains more clearly for the Romans:

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV, Romans 13:8-10)

In other words, if we really love another, we will be compassionate and kind with one another; we will be humble, patient, meek; we will bear with one another and forgive one another. Love is at the heart of the character of Christ, and so love – and all that loving each other means – perfectly fulfills Christian community.

The next line is this: “And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.”

There are two ways in which this peace should be applied. The application is peace among members of the church. There can be no doubt that this is part of Christian peace. The Holy Spirit is speaking through Paul to Christians who are members of house churches. They are actively involved in a small Christian community. He says that peace should rule between members of these communities – because we together, as one body, have been called to peace. To look at it another way, if we put into action all of what Paul has been saying so far about having compassionate hearts, being kind, gentle, forgiving and so on, we will be at peace with one another.

The second way peace should be applied is within the heart of each individual Christian, because he says that peace should rule our hearts.

Before we go on, let’s talk about what exactly the bible means by “peace.” I think there are three parts to it. First, peace means the absence of strife and worry. In other words, if you have peace, you will be free from conflict, and free from worry, or anxiety. This should be obvious. If you are at peace with someone else, you are not fighting with them. If you are at peace within yourself, you are not worried or agitated.

Second, peace is also the positive presence of calmness or tranquility. Peace is a powerful force that brings rest and quiet confidence into our hearts.

Finally, when the bible talks of “peace” it is often referring to our relationship with God. Peace with God means we are no longer “fighting” with him, or at odds with him. We know that because of Jesus, all is well between us and God.

I think it may be helpful to understand what prevents us from having peace. First, deep in our hearts, we have decided we will do everything we can to get what we want, even if it is not what God wants. For whatever reason, in some area of our lives, we have decided that what we want is non-negotiable. We don’t mind using God to try and get it, but if he won’t help us, we plan to make it happen anyway. Sometimes, maybe it is not something we want, but it is something that we are afraid of. It works the same way, however: we have decided that we must prevent something, even if God has decided to allow it. If God won’t get with the program, then we’ll try to stop it on our own.  

If we are doing anything like this, peace will never rule in our hearts. All the pressure is on us. It is all up to us to either prevent the bad thing from happening, or make the good thing happen. Even if we enlist God’s help, we will not permit him to be in charge, because we must determine the outcome. If we let God be in control, he might allow an outcome that we think is unacceptable.

From all of this it is clear that one the great barriers to peace is our demand that we must be in control. The beginning of peace is to give up control. The Holy Spirit makes this clear by saying “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” It is something we have to allow. We have to stop preventing Christ’s peace from entering.

I want us to dig deeper. Why must we be in control? What is it inside of us that wants to take over, and do all that we can to get our own desired outcome? Selfishness might be part of it. But I think the deepest problem is this: we don’t really trust God.

One of my own biggest barriers in the past was that I thought if I let God be in charge of my life, he would make me miserable. I would have live somewhere I didn’t want live. I would have to do things I didn’t want to do. Now, there is a certain kind of truth to that. I am by nature introverted and selfish. When God called me to be pastor, I had to open up life not only to God, but also to other people. I had to have more chaos in my life, and some heartache that maybe I could have avoided (watching people I had grown to love as they made bad choices). But when I surrendered fully to the Lord, I found tremendous joy in his will for me. I see how empty and vain my life would have been had I insisted upon my own ways. God may have you go through something, or do something, that you don’t want right now. But when we surrender fully to him, when we trust him and give up control, there is a joy that outmatches the hardship.

I certainly never wanted five years of unbelievable pain (I still sometimes say to myself: “This is unbelievable!”). But I have found joy in the midst of this pain. It is not as hard as it sounds, because, by and large, the peace of Christ rules in my heart. I am literally squirming in pain as I write this. Even so, I am at peace. I can’t imagine how angry and depressed I would be if I was still trying to control the outcome of this pain; if I did not trust Jesus fully in the midst of it.

Another issue in trusting God is that sometimes we are not fully convinced that he is good, and that he is working for our good. We think maybe we know better than he does.  We think maybe if we let go and trust him, he may not prove trustworthy. And as long as we insist upon our own expectations and desires, it will indeed often seem like God is letting us down. But when we fully release ourselves in trust to him, we will find that He is indeed good, and his ways are best.

This is not complicated. It is often hard to do, but it is not difficult to understand. If we want the peace of Christ, we must give up on trying to control life, and we must trust Jesus to do what is best, when it is best. We must give up upon insisting that we get we want. We must also give up trying to control things by preventing anything negative from happening. We have to trust God more than we trust ourselves. We have to recognize that if we have Jesus, everything else is ultimately OK. We will certainly have times where we do not understand what God is doing (or why he is not doing something). But we have to trust even when we don’t understand.

I know this is hard to do at times, but we also need to remember that our own sense of being in control is an illusion. You can’t actually prevent a loved one from getting sick. You can’t actually prevent your child from being killed by a drunk driver. You can’t actually insure that you won’t get ALS, or Alzheimer’s. Jesus said:

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV John 14:27)

How does the world offer peace? Only through control:

Are you afraid of being alone all your life? A dating app will help you get control. Afraid of being judged for how you look? We’ve got your health clubs, your make-up, your clothes, your hairdresser, everything you need to get control of the situation. Afraid of getting sick? We’ve got your supplements, your diet programs, your exercise regimens, pharmaceuticals, and much more. Most of it is only $19.99. Are you worried you’ll be stuck in a terrible marriage? Our divorce lawyers will help you take back control. Concerned about finances? We’ve got spreadsheets, tax advisors, financial planners, investment opportunities and much, much more.

Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best.

But Jesus gives peace in a different way. He says “Let me handle it; I will take care of it it my way. All you have to do is trust.”

The Holy Spirit tells us to let peace rule our hearts. This is the opposite of us being in control. It is no mistake that right after, he adds, “And be thankful.” Thanksgiving is a gateway to peace. When we thank the Lord, we are recognizing that he is in charge, and that he is trustworthy to do for us what is good. If you are struggling to give up control, struggling to trust God, I highly recommend developing a habit of thanking God for everything.

When I get up in the morning, I’m usually pretty miserable. I don’t sleep well, so I’m very tired. The night time is my longest stretch between doses of pain medication, and I’m usually in a lot of pain. So I don’t feel thankful at that time of day. But you know, I can thank Him for coffee. I wouldn’t survive without it at this stage of my life. Then, of course, electricity is required to make coffee (we don’t have gas appliances), so I can thank him for electricity. Kari usually greets me right away when I get up, and I can thank the Lord for her. Basically, what I am saying is that we should start with anything at all we can think of about which to thank the Lord. As we thank him for little things, more things keep coming to mind. If we do this consistently, it becomes a wonderful habit, and it helps us to trust more, to give up control more, and therefore to allow the peace of God to rule our hearts.

In addition to thanksgiving, reading the Bible is helpful for letting the Peace of Christ rule our hearts. There are more than 80 verses in the New Testament alone about peace. I want to leave you with a few to meditate on:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Philippians 4:6-7. Note that thanks-giving element in there!) 

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (ESV, Romans 15:13)

23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it (ESV, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #27: FORGIVING EACH OTHER

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Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us. If we are struggling to forgive, the cross of Christ can help us. It shows us not only the seriousness of our sin, but also the seriousness of the sin committed by the person who hurt you. In the cross we find both justice and grace.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 27

Colossians #27. Colossians 3:13

 There is one final thing that I did not yet cover in the overview of how Christians are meant to treat one another: Forgiving one another. This is an extremely important topic, and many people either don’t know, or don’t fully understand what the Bible says about it. We will spend the next two weeks considering it.

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, tells us that we must forgive as we have been forgiven by Jesus. This idea is repeated consistently throughout the New Testament. The Lord’s prayer is really a way of praying. We aren’t just meant to repeat the words: Jesus teaches us the kinds of things we should regularly pray for. So, with “hallowed be thy name” we learn we should pray that the holiness of God is manifested in the world, and in us. “Forgive us our debts, and we forgive our debtors” tells us that we should regularly confess our sins, asking for forgiveness, and also that we should regularly forgive those who hurt us. Matthew’s version ends like this:

12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (ESV, Matthew 6:12-15)

That’s right. “Thine is the kingdom…etc” is not in the Bible. What is at the end of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” is an additional thought about forgiving others. Jesus says that if we refuse to forgive, the Father will not forgive us. Here is another one about forgiving in the same way we have been forgiven:

32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Ephesians 4:32)

Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness. He wanted to know if there was some sort of limit he could put on forgiveness:

21 Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven. (CSB, Matthew 18:21-22)

Seven was considered a special number in Jewish culture. It is the number of perfection, the number of God, a holy number. Though in the Greek could be the number 77, there is a more likely way to understand this, given the culture they were in. It is much more like “seventy times seven.” Even then, Jesus did not mean 490 times. The first people who heard Jesus would have understood that he meant: “a perfect number multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.”  In plain language: “an unlimited number of times.” In current language it might be something like this:

“How many times do I need to forgive? A thousand times?”

“I don’t say a thousand times…I say a thousand times a thousand! That’s right a million times, or even more!”

Right after this, Jesus told a parable about forgiveness. I’ll adapt it to our current culture:

There was a guy named Joe who got drunk, and drove his car into another vehicle. The other vehicle was carrying a wife and three children. The wife and two of the kids were killed outright, and the third child was left unable to walk for the rest of her life. The drunk driver, Joe, had a  minor scratch on his arm, and was otherwise unhurt. The husband and father of the devastated family was a man named Rick. When Joe sobered up, he was taken to court. The evidence against him was overwhelming. He knew he was drunk when he got into the car. He resisted all the attempts of his friends to drive him home, or call him a ride. He was guilty as sin. But he begged for leniency. At his hearing, Rick, the husband and father of the family that was devasted by the accident, pleaded on behalf of the drunk driver. Rick himself was a judge, and he begged his fellow judge to let Joe go with just a warning. He told Joe  he forgave him. The judge was moved, and dismissed Joe’s case.

A week later, a teenage driver – the son of one of Joe’s neighbors – backed into Joe’s fence. The kid was still learning to drive, and it was just inexperience. Joe’s neighbor, and the teenage boy, came and apologized to him. The family was struggling financially, but they promised Joe they would pay him back, just as soon as they got the cash. Joe refused to accept the apology, and told them that if they didn’t pay him immediately, he would sue them. They couldn’t, and so Joe sued them for the damage to his fence, and also for emotional damages amounting to five thousand dollars. When the case came to court, Joe found himself standing in front of none other than Rick, who was the judge assigned to the case.

Now, how do you suppose that Rick would respond when he judges the case? What would he think about Joe? How would you feel about Joe? Does Joe deserve to win his case? Doesn’t the fact that he himself was forgiven mean anything about how he ought to treat others? Shouldn’t it mean something?

Part of what makes us so angry about this story is that Joe is taking full advantage of the forgiveness that was given to him, but is absolutely unwilling to extend any grace to a teenage boy for a far smaller offense. If Joe continues to insist on suing his neighbor, do you think he should still be forgiven for his crime?

Jesus tells us that when we refuse to forgive others, we are acting just as offensively as “Joe” in the his parable. It is outrageous that we would beg God for forgiveness, but then refuse to forgive someone who hurts us.

One of the terrible things about what Joe did, was that by his negligence, he destroyed human lives. He ended the life of three precious people, two of them children. His actions devastated the lives of two others – the child who will never walk again, and Rick, the husband/father who lost his wife and two children, and now must care for his one disabled child. Joe’s crime strikes at the heart of things that we hold precious, and that is part of what makes us so angry about it.

God is the most precious thing in the universe. When we sin, we are striking at the heart of all that is good, right, beautiful and precious. It is like painting graffiti all over the Sistine chapel ceiling, or dumping toxic waste in the Grand Canyon, or hurting a child. That’s how serious sin is, because God is more precious than all of those things put together. The fact that God forgives us is HUGE. There is nothing bad that anyone could do to us that compares with the evil of our sin against God. Therefore, when we refuse to forgive someone after we ourselves have been forgiven, it is outrageous. The Bible is crystal clear. When we refuse to forgive others, we cut ourselves off from the forgiveness that is offered in Jesus.

I think this is as much about the way the things work as it is some sort of deliberate “punishment” from God. In the first place, if we are refusing to forgive someone, it is likely that we are convinced of our self-righteousness. If we can’t let go of what someone else has done to us, it seems unlikely that we are deeply connected, with both humility and gratitude, to what God has done for us. Think about the story I told (an adaption of the one Jesus told) about the drunk driver Joe, and the man Rick, whose family was killed by Joe. Part of what is so outrageous, part of what makes us angry when we hear it, is that the “Joe” character clearly has no appreciation for the forgiveness that Rick and the judge offered him. How could he really know he was forgiven by them, and still behave in that way toward his neighbor? The answer is: he couldn’t. The only way he could be so mean and petty toward his neighbor is that somehow, he doesn’t really understand, accept, or appreciate what Rick and the judge have done for him.

There are three possibilities for why Joe remained so mean-spirited, even after he was forgiven. First, he may not really believe that he is truly forgiven. His heart remains hard because he doesn’t really accept that his own wrongdoing has been washed away. He may not have forgiven himself. So he still lives under a cloud of condemnation and self-loathing, but it is based on the fact that he has not accepted the gift that was offered to him, he is not connected to the reality of the gift. So, just as he has rejected forgiveness for himself, he also rejects the idea of forgiving another.

Second, he may not believe that what he did was so bad. He might be somehow trying to justify his actions, and if he is doing that, he can’t receive forgiveness, because that would mean he was guilty, and needed it. He says to himself, “Sure, maybe I had a few drinks, but I wasn’t out of control. I bet that woman was looking at her cell phone, and she was the one who caused the crash. They just chose to blame me, because they think she was such a nice person.” Or, he might say, “My wife left me two months ago. I had to drink, it is the only thing that helps. If anyone is to blame, it’s my own wife for treating me so badly that it drove me to drink.” There are dozens of ways Joe could find to justify himself, or minimize his own blame. As long as he is denying responsibility, he must also deny the forgiveness that is offered to him. If he accepts the forgiveness, it means he must also accept that he was to blame.

 Third, he may utterly reject the whole thing. He says: “It’s big pointless, stupid world, and bad things happen. I just happened to be involved in it, but I don’t accept these judgements that someone else is putting on me, about what’s wrong, or what’s right. Wrong and right don’t even exist. It is what it is. We live in a random universe, with no “God” in charge. No, I won’t let them try to feel better by blaming me. “

So it is with us. The only way we can persist in not forgiving others, is one of those three possibilities: 1) We don’t really, truly trust that our own sins have been completely forgiven. Or,       2) We justify our own sins, and either claim they aren’t so bad, or insist that there are good reasons we have to sin the way we do. We are self-righteous, and don’t accept blame. Or, 3) perhaps, we reject the idea of sin, God and right and wrong altogether. 4) Or, perhaps it is a combination of all of these things.

Think about it another way. We have our “spiritual fists” clenched tightly closed around the hurt that someone caused us. That means that our spiritual hands cannot, at the same time, be open to receive what God offers. Either our hearts are open to forgiveness, or they are closed in unforgiveness. They can’t be both at the same time. The bottom line is this: Our experience of being forgiven by the Lord should make a difference in our willingness to forgive others. If it doesn’t, perhaps we don’t really understand, accept, or truly believe the grace God has given to us.

Imagine a Christian woman who does ministry in the prison system. She tells a murderer that he can be forgiven for his sin of murder. She tells drug dealers the good news that Jesus has wiped all of their sins away. But at the same time, she holds a deep grudge against her sister-in-law. She has never forgiven her, because the sister-in-law didn’t come to Thanksgiving Dinner at her house five years ago, and made some comments about the lack of cleanliness in her kitchen.

How can this be? How can we say a murderer can be forgiven, but not a relative who has insulted us? Surely, this woman cannot be truly connected to the grace that God has given her, the grace that she proclaims to criminals. How could she believe her message of forgiveness for murderers, but, at the same time withhold forgiveness for family members who hurt her feelings?

Sometimes, we withhold forgiveness because the person who hurt us has never said sorry. This might be the case of the woman with the irritating sister-in-law. But the text says, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive.” How has the Lord forgiven us? Did he wait for us to say sorry? No!

6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son (NLT, Romans 5:6-10, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Christ loved us and forgave us long before we paid any attention to Him. It is true, the forgiveness offered through Jesus will not help us if we refuse to repent. But as soon as we turn to him, we find that forgiveness is there waiting for us. So, perhaps someone has hurt us. If we forgive them, and they don’t care, it may mean that the relationship remains strained. But for our part, we must let go of what they have done wrong. We must not hold it against them, and we must not hold on to grudges, or anger or bitterness.

I want to say one final thing. This might seem really difficult. We might think: “I know I’ve been forgiven, and I am grateful, but I have so much hurt and anger against this person, I just don’t know what to do with it all.” The key to all this is to consider what Jesus did on the cross. The cross shows us the seriousness of our own sin – that is the punishment we rightly deserve – to die the death that Jesus died, and to suffer in hell. It also shows us the seriousness of the sin of those who have hurt us. That is also what the sins of others deserve, including the sins that others committed by hurting us. God takes seriously the pain that others have caused you. He declares it deserves a humiliating death by crucifixion. If our sin was punished in Jesus, can we not see that the sins of our fellow Christians was punished the same way? Satisfaction has been made for that thing that was done to you. It has been declared utterly wrong, and it has been punished, on the cross. Find peace in the sacrifice of Jesus, which shows us both the depth of sin, and the depth of grace.

There is plenty for us to chew on right now. Next time we will talk about what forgiveness for those who hurt us really looks like. Does it mean we have to open ourselves up to be hurt again? Does it mean that we are saying that what they did to us was OK? How can I find it in me to continually practice forgiving others? What exactly must I do (or not do) when I forgive someone? How can I let go of the hurt and anger?

COLOSSIANS #26: LIVING THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST IN YOUR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others. Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all?

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Colossians #26.  Colossians 3:1-14, especially 12-13

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

We are now deeper into a section of Colossians that tells Christians how we are to act. But we need to remember the basis for the way we act. It is not in order to get God to let us into heaven. It is not to prove our worth in any way, or get God to be pleased with us. Instead, we behave in certain ways because God has already forgiven us, and imparted to us the character of Christ. This section of Colossians shows us what the character of Christ looks like in each one of us. Particularly for this time, it shows us what the character of Christ looks like as we live in community with other Christians.

In several key places Paul has given us reminders that our behavior should be the result of what God has already done for us:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him Colossians (2:6)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (2:9-10)

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

So again here, Paul gives us the reason for our changed behavior:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on…

We relate to one another as the New Testament tells us to because we are God’s specially chosen people. He has made us holy, and he loves us dearly. Therefore, this is what it looks like to reflect the character of Christ that God has already given us.

Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others.

Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all? Since Jesus is now in us,  through the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we just sort of “naturally” behave according to God’s intentions? Why all these verses about what to do, and what not to do?

I think there are three things that might help us with this question.

In the first place, in this mortal life, before we enter the New Creation, we live under the influence of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, we are not in neutral territory. There are other influences on us, telling us lies, making us feel left out, encouraging our sinful impulses. Even if we “naturally” know how to live in the character of Jesus Christ, there is tremendous pressure to live for ourselves, or for the things the world values, or according to the lies of the devil. With so many voices speaking loudly against the things of God, it is important for us to have clear guidance about how to live, so that we know what is true, right and good, and what is not.

There is another thought. Picture a dog with its food. Imagine trying to train the dog to share its food with other animals, or even just other dogs. For many years we had a wonderful dog, named Mario. He was a truly sweet-natured animal. He was kind and protective, not only toward the humans in our family, but also toward all of our (many) other animals. I had no qualms leaving him alone with our three year old daughter, or even little babies. But there was one thing that brought out savagery in Mario, and that was if any other animal approached his food dish when he was eating. My point is, it would be difficult to train most dogs to share their food. It’s unfortunate, but true, that really the only way to do it would be to make the dog so afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t share, that it obeys the master’s command to share. In other words, the dog never actually learns to want to share. It merely learns that it is more painful to be selfish than it is to share. To put it another way, the nature of the dog does not become sharing. The nature remains selfish. Only its behavior is conformed to the master’s desire.

In contrast, picture training a young child to share her toys. This is also challenging, and in some ways, much more difficult than training a dog, because you don’t want to use fear or coercion, and you want not just a changed behavior, but also a changed attitude. However, there is something in the child’s nature that is not in the dog’s. It is possible for a child to learn to enjoy sharing, to want to share. But even though that potential exists in her nature, it takes teaching and training to bring it out. So, our nature, because of Jesus, has been changed from one like a dog’s, to one like a child’s. Even so, we still need teaching and training to learn how to use the potential of our new nature.

Here’s one more analogy that may help. The entrance requirements for the United States Air Force Academy are extremely high. You have to be smart, and prove that you can do well academically. You have to prove that you have leadership potential. You have to prove that you are person of character and integrity. You have to have sponsors – including a member of congress. Now imagine a young cadet. He has the smarts. He has the leadership potential, the character, and the sponsorship. He is fully qualified. He has what it takes. He has applied, and he has been accepted. So now, he is cadet in the Air Force Academy. The fact that he has what it takes is now taken for granted. However, he must now learn how to use what he has. Even though he is accepted as a cadet, he must learn to apply what he “has” to being an officer in the Air Force. And the process doesn’t end when he graduates. Once he graduates, he becomes a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He has the commission, he is an officer. Even so, has really only just begun to learn how to work and live like an officer.

So it is with us, who have trusted Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have what it takes. We are fully qualified to in God’s kingdom, to manifest the character of Christ. We have been accepted. Even so, we still need to learn how to use what we have been given. We need to learn to live according to the grace we have been given.

We have been  talking about what it means to live out the character of Christ. First, Paul explained some things to put away from us: sexual immorality, covetousness (greed) malice, obscene talk, and so on. Now, he is telling us something to “put on.” So, first, he covered the negative: “Don’t do certain things,” and now he is talking about the positive: “Do these other things.”

The things we are to do are focused on our life together with other believers. It is not wrong to treat strangers this way, but this text, and many others like in the Bible, assume that we belong to small group of other Christians – that is, a house church. The way we treat others begins in the house church. It doesn’t end there – we should treat all people well – but it starts with us learning to live with each other in the love of Jesus Christ. If claim to love “the world” but don’t actually live in loving relationships with other believers, we will be hypocrites. Also, when we understand that this was first to be practiced among a group of other Christians that was small enough to fit in your living room, things make more sense. It is difficult to have a compassionate heart for all of the other 4,987 members of your mega-Church. In fact, when we try to apply it too broadly, Bible passages like this one become meaningless. How can you be kind and humble and meek and patient with hundreds of people whom you don’t even really know? No, Christianity was always meant to be practiced primarily with a small group of others who became your spiritual family. The word “family” is meaningless if we apply it to so many relatives that we are talking about hundreds of people. The things that go along with our understanding of “family”  necessarily mean a fairly small group of people. It should be exactly the same with “church.”

I am not saying it is wrong for mega-churches to exist. But where they do, they ought to get their members into small groups where real-life faith can be worked out together in real community. Many of the best mega churches do exactly that. But until and unless you get involved in a small Christian community where you know everyone, and they all know you, these teachings in the New Testament will be quite difficult to actually apply to your life.

The first thing is “compassionate hearts.” A more literal translation might have something like: “compassion straight from your guts.” The word used for “heart” is actually “internal organs” and it means a deep, powerful feeling. Compassion means that you “feel alongside with” another person. Sympathy means you feel for someone, but compassion is feeling with. Thankfully, other parts of the Bible explain this clearly:

5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV, Romans 12:15)

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. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

3 Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (ESV, Hebrews 13:3)

We are supposed to be so connected to the other Christians in our local Christian community (that is, our house church) that we “feel with” them. If they are happy, it should cause us to be happy. If they are suffering, they should know that we are so connected that we hurt too.

Kindness is the next thing listed. There is no mystery here, I think we all know what it is. Again, our biggest need is not to understand it, but to actually practice it with other believers, first, and then, also the world. I think one of the easiest ways to be either kind, or not, is in our words. Sometimes it feels so satisfying, so powerful, to say unkind things to or about another person. But this is not what the life of Jesus in you wants to do. A kind word at the right time can build up a person more than we can possibly imagine.

Humility is all about allowing  God (not ourselves) to defend our “rights,” and to trust him to make sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Even if that doesn’t take place in this mortal life, we trust that God will make it right in the New Creation. With that sense – that we don’t need to defend our own rights, or pride, or honor – we can deal with each other humbly. We don’t need to insist upon our way, nor make snide comments when our way is not taken, and things don’t go smoothly. We can be right without rubbing the faces of others in that fact.

Meekness is a word I’ve struggled to define for many years. The closest I can come is a mix of gentleness and humbleness. Humility and meekness do not mean that we have to look down upon ourselves, or believe that we are always wrong, or not worthy of respect. If you look at the life that Jesus lived on earth, we can see what both humility and meekness look like. Jesus was (and still is) King of the Universe. Yet, he did not insist upon his rights, or his own way. He dealt gently with people who did not respect him – and there was, literally, no one worthy of more respect. He presented the truth clearly, but did not try to force anyone to comply.  He did, at times, force people to make a decision about Himself. Even then, he gently spoke to them until they had to face up what he was saying about himself. At that point, they had to choose to either believe, or not, but he did not force them to believe.

Jesus was, by definition, always right, but he did not rub anyone’s face in that fact. He knew who he was, certainly. He didn’t feel badly about himself, nor have low self-esteem. He didn’t pretend he was wrong. But he didn’t either insist that everyone recognize his rightness, or give him what he truly deserved.

I think we all know what patience is. But I want us to think about what it means to be patient with each other in Christian community. It might mean smiling and waiting it out when someone tells you the same story you’ve heard fifteen times already. It could mean remaining calm and hoping for the best when someone in the group fails to make the best choice – for the twentieth time in twenty days. It means everyone sticking with each other even when it seems like things aren’t going anywhere. It means sticking with individuals in the group when they continue to struggle with the same things for months – or even years – at a time. It means continuing to commit to the group even when there is a season when it feels like you aren’t getting a lot out of it. Your presence there may be the main reason someone else is getting a lot out of it, and what goes around comes around – but not usually very quickly.

Bearing with one another. No one is perfect, but when you get to know a group of people really well, you find that they are all a group of especially imperfect people. We need to bear with one another’s idiosyncrasies and bad habits, and socially awkward graces and body odor, and bad cooking and so on.

We have plenty to chew on for this time. Ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say to you right now? How does he want you to take action on these things? How is he calling you to trust him today?

 

COLOSSIANS #25: HOW DOES CHRIST-IN-YOU WANT TO RELATE TO OTHERS?

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COLOSSIANS #25. COLOSSIANS 3:6-11

6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

We are continuing from last time, when Paul started warning about the dangers of lawlessness. We need to remember that we don’t avoid sin, or do good, so that God will accept us or forgive us. Our acceptance and forgiveness are already assured by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus and what he has done. But just as in a marriage we live not just for ourselves, but also with and for our spouse, so it is with God. We live not for our own selfish desires, but with and for Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us. We have entered into a kind of spiritual marriage. Earthly marriage changes the way behave. So does this spiritual marriage. But we change (in both cases) because of love.

[By the way, the Bible often says things like “brothers” when it means “both men and women.” It says we are all “sons of God through Christ Jesus,” because there was a special significance attached to sons, but the concept applies to both men and women. Women need to learn to understand that these concepts are not about gender, but about who we are in Christ. So now, men need to understand the same things when it comes to the concept of spiritual marriage. We are all (both women and men) the Bride of Christ. It is not about gender, it is about the kind of relationship we have with Christ.]

Last time Paul listed some of the changes that take place because of our spiritual marriage to Christ, and they were changes in our desires, and how we acted (or did not act) on them.

Now Paul continues and talks about how our relationships with each other should change. In the first place, we must put away all anger and wrath. I might have translated these words, anger and rage. Paul says we should “put them away.” The Greek does not mean “put them away” like putting away socks that you will use again. It means, “send them away from yourself;  distance yourself from them.” Now, the truth is, at times Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5). So, not all anger is sinful.  Paul says it this way in Ephesians 4:26-27:

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Clearly there are times when anger is not sinful, since God himself gets angry at times. Of course it is right to be angry about injustice. Who would not be angry to hear about someone abusing a child, or stealing from the poor, or treating someone like  a second class citizen just because of their ethnicity? Who would not be angry if someone wrongs them badly?

But we must set a limit to the anger. Paul says, deal with it before the day is over. We are not to nurse anger, or feed it, or dwell on it. Get it out of your system, and send it away. Sometimes, to do that, you might need to express your anger to the appropriate person. Do so as soon as you can do it calmly, and then be done with it.

Malice is the next thing we are to send away. Malice is when you are deliberately trying to hurt someone, whether through words or actions. It indicates evil intentions. Sometimes people who are malicious may ask a question or say something that is technically innocent (on the surface) but it is said to hurt someone.

Slander is actually the Greek word from which we get our word “blasphemy.” Slander/blasphemy is saying something about God or someone else that is not true. I think it includes incidents where you say something that you don’t know to be true. In other words you are telling a lie or something that you know might be a lie about God or another person. So, perhaps I wonder if someone is having an affair. If I tell others that this person is having an affair, when I don’t know it is true, that is slander/blasphemy. Paul doesn’t mention gossip in this context, though he does in other letters. Gossip is repeating a fact that is not yours to repeat. So, to use the affair example, if I know for certain someone is having an affair, it is still not my business to talk about it with someone who does not need to know it.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is obscene talk. He says something like this also in Ephesians:

29 No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. (CSB, Ephesians 4:29)

I am both astounded and disappointed at how many Christians completely ignore both our verses today, and Ephesians 4:29 above. I have met probably more than a dozen pastors, and know of many others, who freely swear, tell dirty jokes and generally use foul language. They tell me that they are just trying to relate to “the people.” By this logic, they should commit adultery so that they can help adulterers!

A lot of people use foul language more or less as a habit. You get used to using certain words, and they sort of slip out of your mouth before you realize it. I am not deeply concerned about this, though, I think our scripture today is telling us that it isn’t a neutral habit and we should do what we can to change it. I think Ephesians 4:29 (above) gives us the important thing: the way we talk should uplift people and give grace to those who hear. I think we can say that in general, the F-word does not give grace to those who hear, nor do any of the other words. I think it is safe to say that the life we have in Jesus is not consistent with dirty jokes, or suggestive sexual language, or racial slurs, or insults, or demeaning labels. I think a big part of the problem is this: if these things come out of you, that means they are inside you in the first place. Jesus put it like this:

14 Summoning the crowd again, he told them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
17 When he went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated” (thus he declared all foods clean ). 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23

Another thing Jesus said:

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (ESV, Matthew 12:33-35)

I’m not trying to make anyone feel terrible about themselves. But what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what is in our hearts. Again, swearing is sometimes nothing more than a bad habit, and you shouldn’t stress too much about it. But it is a habit that you ask the Lord to change in you.

When I’m working with someone, and they hit their finger with a hammer, and they swear, I don’t think much about it. But when someone hits himself and does not swear, that gets my attention. In some jobs or circumstances, you can say a lot by not saying certain things, if you catch my drift. Many times, I have ended up having spiritual conversations because people noticed that I don’t swear. I will freely admit that it is easy for me not to swear, because I never got into the habit in the first place. But I think our language can say something about Jesus to other people. More often than not – maybe 75% of the time, at least, I find that those who don’t swear are Christians.

The final thing Paul puts here is “do not lie to another.” Part of the Greek word for “lie” is “pseudo.” The word goes beyond simply telling  a lie, and includes any kind of deception or falsehood and could even include “putting on a false front,” or hypocrisy. This is really important. We cannot grow together as a community if we are not honest with each other. Sometimes we are afraid of honesty, because sometimes it brings conflict. But listen, dear friends, listen well: Conflict is unpleasant. But when you have walked through conflict with someone else, and resolved it, you are closer than you would ever be if you never had issues. We are God’s children together forever, so there is no question of conflict destroying your Christian community, provided we go about it in a godly way. And so honesty, even when it leads to conflict, leads ultimately to greater love for another, and a greater sense of support and encouragement.

Verses 9-10 are extremely important in order to put all in this context:

…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

This is the key. Remember, this all builds upon what we have already learned. I don’t want anyone to confuse all these commands with some kind of legalism. Instead, these things are a guide. They show us what the character of Christ looks like. They show us how to put to death the old person, and let the new us, in Christ, be manifested more and more. We are being renewed in the knowledge in the image of our Creator. This isn’t about following rules, it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to renew us in God’s image. In a sense, it is about “unpacking” the gift of Christ in our everyday lives.

This also gives us a diagnostic tool. If there continues to be anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, if we continue to deal with others in hypocrisy and deception, then there is some sort of problem. The life of Christ is not flowing out into our souls and then changing how we live in the body. The problem might be that we don’t truly believe who Jesus Christ is, and what has done for us. It could be that we are feeding our souls with the things of the world and flesh, instead of the things of the spirit, like the Bible, Christian fellowship, prayer, worship and music.

I am quite sure that the actual Colossians, the first readers of this letter, would have understood these things to be especially important to how the lived in Christian community with each other. That is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write verse 11:

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

In Paul’s world, there were many divisions and distinctions between people that threatened real Christian community. Greeks considered themselves to be cultural elites. Jews thought they were better than all others, because their ancestors were chosen to be God’s people. “Barbarians” had a different meaning than we might imagine. It meant nothing more or less than someone who didn’t speak Greek, and was therefore not part of the Greco-Roman culture that dominated that area of the world in those days. Scythians were the real barbarians. They were white-skinned Europeans who lived far to the northeast, in crude huts, with a brutal, primitive, savage tribal culture. Perhaps a few made their way into the civilized world of the Mediterranean and became Christians. Slaves, were not exactly the sort of slaves that lived in nineteenth century America, but their freedom was certainly limited. We will talk more of slavery later in the letter, but in some ways, the big difference between slave and free in those days was that slaves had less money.  All these were ways of dividing people from each other in Paul’s time. But the Holy Spirit, through Paul, says, that these are meaningless distinctions. The only important thing about all people is where they stood in relationship to Christ. There is only in Christ, and not in Christ. And in Christ, there is no distinction worth mentioning.

In our day and age, we are tempted by divisions also. Some people consider themselves intellectuals and elites, and they might be tempted to think of themselves as better than others. Some might have a strong religious background, and so look down on people who only started following Jesus after many years without him. Some might be Westerners: part of the Western European culture that has dominated the world for the past four hundred years or so. Others might be from non-Western countries. Others still might come from very primitive places in the world. Some might be in economically difficult situations, while others have more money than they strictly need. Unfortunately, in America, as other places in the world, we also allow ethnic differences (which some people call “race”) to divide us.

I want to speak, very briefly, about racism. This scripture shows us that it is a sin when we use peoples’ ethnic background or appearance as a means to judge them, put them down, or divide us from them. Paul says very clearly that these things don’t matter: in Christ, we are all the same. In Christ, the important thing is that we belong to Him. I think there has been some confusion about this. Sometimes, in the United States, it seems like we are supposed to be especially sensitive to a person’s ethnic background. The Bible seems to be saying the opposite. I’m not saying we should insult each other with racial slurs. Obviously, the rest of this passage calls that sort of thing sinful. But I am saying, that in Christ, race is not important. Any way we have of making it important pales in comparison to the oneness we have in Christ.

Sure, we can celebrate the heritage of our historical cultures, but in America, even that sort of thing has had the tendency to divide more than to unite. In Christ there is neither black nor white. The idea that blackness or whiteness is somehow important, is, I think, one of the great lies of the 21st century. Let me put it this way: anything that starts you thinking about “them” and “us,” can become a real problem. I realize that racism is a thorny and difficult issue, which I will not solve here. However, I have seen race relations between blacks and whites deteriorate during my adult life, and that deterioration was accompanied by the idea that we should be especially sensitive to a person’s race, as opposed to simply striving to see every person as a person, regardless of his or her appearance. Also, when I was young, tension between American Asians and American whites was almost non-existent. However, as our culture has drawn more attention to race, and insisted upon “sensitivity,” racial tension has grown up between these two groups, where previously there was very little.

What we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years has surely not been working. Could we find a better place than scripture for guidance? In Christ, there is no black or white, Asian or Native-American, man or woman. Christ is all, and is in all. None of these things are supposed to matter. None of them should make any difference to the fellowship we have in Jesus.  None of them may be used as excuses for anger, rage, malice, slander, obscene talk or deception, or anything else that interferes with our one-ness in Christ.

What if, in listening to this message, you realize that engage in some of these sins, or allow these differences between people to be important? What then?

First, do not panic. The presence of sinful flesh does not, all by itself, mean that you are not a true Christian. But a true Christian responds to sin by repenting, and giving Jesus permission to change him or her. Repentance is not about generating will power in order to avoid sin in the future. But repentance agrees that what the Bible calls sin, is in fact, wrong. A repentant heart wants to change, and gives God permission to work so that it can be changed. The main questions are: do you agree with God that your behavior needs to change? Do you give him permission to change you? Do you believe that he can and will change you through the power of the Holy Spirit? Will you try to go along with the changes he wants to make in you?

The change may not happen as quickly as we think it should. That’s fine. I don’t think it is up to us evaluate how much and how fast we change. But, is there any movement in a direction that looks more like Jesus and less like your sinful flesh? We don’t get to decide how much progress we make, only that there is movement in the right direction. The good news is given to us right here in these verses:

you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

And…Christ is all, and in all.

For anyone who is in Jesus, the putting off of your old self and the putting on of the new is a present, spiritual reality. You are being renewed in knowledge after the image of  God. Maybe not as quickly as we think it should be, but it is happening to us, and our main job is to not fight with God about it, but let him do it. For those who are in Christ Jesus, he is all to us, and he is in all of us.

COLOSSIANS #24: THE TRAP OF LAWLESSNESS AND THE SOLUTION OF LOVE

god's love

How can we avoid legalism, and trying to earn points with God, but also avoid lawlessness and sinning?

The answer is love. Love is at the heart of Christianity because love is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and what it means to have faith. Love not fear, nor selfishness, is what changes us and radically influences our behavior.

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Colossians #24. Colossians 3:5-7

 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. Colossians 3:5-7

We are taking things in small bites, but it is very important to remember our overall context. Paul started this section by saying: “In the same way you received Christ, now walk in him.” He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ; and the fullness of Christ dwells in us. Through faith, by God’s grace, we were buried with Jesus by baptism, and raised to new life. Our old life, the sinful flesh, has been put to death. Paul then began to discuss one potential problem in the Christian life: the issue of legalism. Legalists don’t fully believe in the work of Jesus. They think perhaps that they can add to what Jesus has done. They want to be in control of their own fate, and they often want to control the behavior of others. But Paul demolishes legalism by reminding the Colossians that in Christ we have nothing left to prove. We can’t be righteous enough to please God. We don’t follow God according to the ways of the world.

Last time we talked about the amazing truth that our real life, our true life, is found not in external things, but in Jesus Christ. It is already there, waiting for us. It will be fully revealed in all its glory at the same time that Christ is revealed in all of his glory. This is because part of the glory of Christ is what he has done for us. Real life comes from God, into our spirits, and from our spirits into our souls, and from our souls, it influences how we behave.

So, while some of this might be hard for us to hear, let us not forget the message of grace and life that the scripture has been hammering into us for many weeks now. Context is everything.

With all this in mind, Paul now begins to address a second potential problem in the Christian life: lawlessness. Remember the picture of following Jesus as a road? On one side of the road is a deep and dangerous ditch called legalism. Now, Paul begins to address the deep and dangerous ditch on the other side of the road: Lawlessness. In many ways, lawlessness looks like the opposite of legalism. Instead of following rules, like legalism, lawlessness rejects any kind of standard for behavior at all. A lawless person might think like this: “Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus did everything for us. There’s nothing for us to do. Therefore, I can live in whatever way pleases me best. I know I’m not married to this person that I’m attracted to, but I can’t earn points with God anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and have sex with her. And with anyone else I feel like.” Lawlessness says: “Paul just wrote that restraint and self-discipline don’t help us in our relationship with God, so I’m not going to restrain myself at all. If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I can get something I want, I’ll get it. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it.”

Lawlessness is lazy, and, above all, self-centered. Like legalism, the heart of lawlessness is being in control. Lawless people might think that they are the opposite of “in control,” but behind the “anything goes” behavior is an attitude that says: “No one can tell me what to do, or not do.” Like legalism, lawlessness says, “No one is the boss of me. I’m in charge of my own life, so I can do what I want.”

Unfortunately, most public schools in America, along with most universities, indoctrinate young people with the ideas of lawlessness. They tell people that the most important thing is to be true to yourself. In other words: “Make sure that you do what you really feel like doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Do not accept any standard for behavior except what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone else impose any kind of standard on you.”

Legalism had a tiny bit of truth behind it. So does lawlessness. It is true that Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. If we trust Jesus, we are thoroughly forgiven, and we can’t add anything to what Jesus has done for us. In Jesus, our sins are not counted against us, and the righteousness of Jesus is counted for us.

But we need to understand something: if we truly believe this, our behavior will change. If we truly love Jesus, the most significant part of us will not want to sin at all. If we belong to Jesus, we have accepted him as our Lord and King, and we have given up the right to live for ourselves.

I’ve used this illustration before, because the Bible uses it in many places. Picture a marriage. Two people love each other, and they agree to give up their lives as single people, and from their wedding day forward, they make a new life together. Part of marriage means you give up some of the independence you had as a single person. Now, you organize your life not only to please yourself, but to please the two of you together. When you were single, you might have gone out with your friends, and stayed out late. But when you are married, you decide together what you will do with your time. You don’t stay out all night unless you have talked it over and agreed with your spouse. You don’t spend your money as if it was all your own. You prioritize together how you as a couple will allocate your resources. You do things for each other and with each other because you love one another. Sometimes, you do things you would rather not do because you love your spouse. At other times, you might refrain from doing something you would like to do, because you love your spouse. You don’t behave in these ways because there are laws about marriage. You do it because you love your spouse. And you behave in ways that are loving sometimes even when you don’t feel all sorts of loving feelings, because you have made a commitment to honor and value your spouse.

Now, if you were a legalist, you might say: “I must sit here and listen to my spouse talk, because if I don’t, I must not really be married.”

There is no love there, only fear and obligation.

If you were a lawless person, you might say: “I don’t feel like sitting here and listening to my spouse talk, because I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to go watch TV because that’s what I really want to do right now. Besides, even if I don’t listen to her, we’re still married, right?”

There is no love here, either, just self-centeredness.

This is why I say the good, true road of Christianity is love. Love eliminates both legalism and lawlessness. Being a Christian is all about receiving the love of Jesus, and loving him back. And because of his love, also loving our neighbors. Love changes us. It reorients us, reorients our lives, toward the one we love. Love affects how we live, and the choices we make. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really love.

This has to be really clear: we don’t change our behavior in order to become acceptable to God. Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. But once we trust Jesus, once we believe what the bible says, our behavior will change, because we grow in the love that Jesus has for us, and the love we have for him. If our behavior does not change at all, not even a little, perhaps we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Jesus.

When Paul was speaking about legalism, he talked about some of the things that we died to: false humility, working to get God to accept us, and so on. Now, Paul is telling us about a whole different category of things to which we have died: the things of the flesh. He starts with five. These five are all about things that we might wrongly desire: sexual immorality; moral impurity; evil passion; lust; and covetousness.

The word for “sexual immorality” is the very broad Greek term porneia. Porneia means “any sexual activity apart from that between a man and woman who are married to each other.” To be specific, it includes: sex between people who are not married at all; sex between people who are not married to each other; homosexual sex; prostitution; sex between more than two people, rape, etc.

Moral impurity catches pretty much anything left after porneia. Just in case you have someone (for instance, like former President Clinton) who wants to argue about what exactly “sex” means, this Greek word covers basically any other kind of immoral thought or behavior. We might throw pornography of all types into this category also.

The next term is “passion.” The Greek word used does not always mean something negative, but in this context, it is safe to assume that Paul means any kind of ungodly passion, and probably passion with immoral sexual overtones.

Following that, Paul mentions evil desire. Sometimes, this might be translated “lust.” This is desire for something more than, or in addition to, what you actually need, and it includes a demand that the desire be satisfied, even if it is wrong. You can lust, or have evil desire, for all sort of things, including (but not limited to) food, power, money, sex, control, or material things.

I want to pause before we move on. The problem with all of these things is that they are corruptions of things that would otherwise be good. The Bible teaches us that sex between married couples is a good thing, and in fact, it says very clearly that married couples should not withhold sex from one another (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But Jesus teaches us to avoid corrupting and debasing God’s good gift of sex. Passion is often a good thing. But when the passion is directed to an object or person that it should not be, it becomes a sin. Desire is good. It is the same word used when Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples. But evil desire is for something that should not be desired.

The final sin in this set of five is “covetousness.” The idea behind it is that you want something that is not yours to properly want. That could be money, it could be a relationship, it could be a certain status or possession. The ten commandments give us some examples of the ways we might covet:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV, Exodus 20:17)

I’ve never coveted a donkey in my life, though I may have come close with a cow or a goat. But the idea of house or spouse is helpful. Your neighbor’s spouse is not available for you to want. Neither is her house, or car. You want something that should not belong to you anyway. You wish you could take it away from someone else, and have it for yourself. That is covetousness.

In verse six we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of such things. This is important. Sometimes, the attitude of lawlessness is that sins are not such a big deal anymore, because Jesus has forgiven us. But Paul is telling us that these things are deadly. Those who do not turn to Jesus will be under the wrath of God for such things. They aren’t something to play around with.

Each of these five sins refer primarily to strong desires for things that we should not desire. Let’s make sure we put in this context. Last time, Paul said that our real life was in Christ. Right now it is hidden, but it is no less real for that, and one day it will be fully manifested. We learned that we should seek life in Christ, not in external things, not in things that will wither and die anyway, things that will never satisfy us. So, now Paul is saying, put to death your habit of seeking life in the wrong places. These five sins: sexual immorality, impurity, evil passion, lust, and covetousness, are all ways in which we seek to find life. When we engage in such things, we are seeking life in the flesh, in things where there is no life. Paul says, “put those habits to death, where they belong. They are dead ends; worse, they are roads leading to even more death. Seek your life in Christ, and be done with seeking it in things like that.”

Paul also says: “This is how you used to be. You used to do these things, but now, in Jesus, all of that is changing.” I don’t want to gloss over verse Sometimes after people become Christians, they feel bad about what they did in the past. But that is over. The new reality is Christ. A few verses later Paul writes:

You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV, Colossians 3:9-10)

That reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Yes, I know we still sometimes fail and fall back into evil desires. But our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Our flesh (as it is right now) is destined for destruction – the part of us that wants to sin is as good as dead already. We need to remember that the part of us that wants to go on sinning is no longer who we really are. We are now holy and blameless in Christ. We are in a spiritual marriage with Jesus.

Meditate on these things right now. What does it mean to put to death the things of the flesh? One nuance of “put to death” in Greek is “deprive of strength or power.” I think this is a helpful thought. What gives these sorts of sins strength or power, and what takes power away from them? How will feed your desires for the things of God, and starve the desires of the flesh?

What does it mean to put off the old self, and put on the new? How will you do that in the coming days and weeks? How will you avoid both the trap of legalism, and the trap of lawlessness?

And finally, how will you help your brothers and sisters in Jesus to do the same?

COLOSSIANS #23: THE SOURCE OF LIFE

green leafy plant starting to grow on beige racks
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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 #21: EYES ON THE PRIZE

men and woman in red tank top is ready to run on track field

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Colossians #21. Colossians 2:18-19

We are continuing from last time. Paul set the stage by telling us to continue to walk in Jesus in the same way we received him: that is, by grace, through faith, not trusting in our own goodness or good works, but trusting Jesus to be enough. He reassures us that we have all the fullness of Christ living inside of us, and in Christ is the fullness of God. Then he again reassures us, telling us that through grace, by faith, we were buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to new life. Our sins have been nailed to the cross of Christ, and so have all the judgments that were against us.

Remember that last time we talked about the picture of a road: the good, safe road is love for Jesus, and through Jesus, love for others. On one side is the ditch of legalism, and the other, lawlessness. In our verses today, Paul is continuing to warn about legalism.

Last time we considered Paul’s exhortation to not let anyone judge us for things that are neither commanded, nor forbidden, by Christ or his apostles. These sorts of things include worship ceremonies, food and drink, church festivals, the day of the week that we worship, and so on. Now, Paul continues his exhortation:

18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.(Colossians 2:18-19)

In verse 16, Paul says, “let no one pass judgment on you.” Now he says, “Let no one disqualify you.” There is a difference in the two. I think it’s worth thinking about. Last time we talked about judging and being judged for things that don’t matter. Now Paul is taking this attitude: You already have the prize: Jesus Christ. Everything you need is found in that prize. Therefore, don’t let anyone suggest you don’t have all that you need already to be a Christian. Don’t let anyone put doubt in your mind about whether or not you’ve been given the prize. Don’t let anyone shake you loose from the prize that you already have.

Paul talks about a certain kind of person who might try to say that you have been disqualified. This is someone who insists upon false humility. The NIV translates the Greek this way, while other versions use “asceticism,” but I think false humility captures the sense of it.

This is a tricky one, because true humility is an important part of following Jesus. Just as Jesus knew who he was, yet felt no need to rub the noses of others in it, so we should be the same. We don’t need to insist on our own way, even if we know we are right. We don’t need to insist on receiving the honor that we might rightly deserve. We should delight in honoring others, even if we don’t get the honor we think we should have. We don’t have to pretend to be less intelligent, or weaker, or less attractive than we are, but neither do we need to insist that everyone recognize these things. We can be humble in this way because we know that God knows who we are, and nothing we do escapes his notice. Through Jesus, he honors us, even when others fail to do so when they should.

And we should live with a recognition that everything we are, and everything we are capable of doing, are gifts from God, not something we somehow got for ourselves. It is not as if we were smart, or beautiful, or strong because we designed our own physical bodies. This is true, even when we have worked hard to use what we have. For example, say I have worked hard to study the Bible and be good at teaching it to others. But I was given the ability to learn and understand, and without that gift, my hard work would not have amounted to much. If I had not been given the opportunity to take time to learn and to have good people to teach me, my hard work would have come to nothing. Even my own motivation and self-discipline to work hard was originally given to me by God. This is true of each one of us, no matter what area of life we have become good at. True humility recognizes these things.

It might be helpful to use the road analogy. This is a smaller road, the road of true humility. On one side is the ditch of no humility (overt pride) and the other is false humility. So, false humility is something different from the real thing. False humility is a tool used by some to try to either shame or control other people. It can be very dangerous, because it is also, often, very subtle. Someone who is humble in a false way puts their pious Christian behavior on display. It is hard to argue with them, because they seem so spiritual and right. They might even say words that are good, but you can see from their tone that something else is going on. They often find ways demonstrate (sometimes without even saying it) that you aren’t as religious as they are. Some of these people might also insist upon some sort of outward pious behavior. This could involve telling people that they must fast at certain times, or implying that they ought to pray a certain way, or do certain specific good works. Usually, you will feel like you have to do these things in order for such a person to accept you as a real Christian. Now, it is good to fast. It is good to do good works. But we cannot insist upon certain fasts or certain good works. Especially, it is wrong to think that those things earn us special favor in the eyes of God.

Paul warns about two additional types of things that such people might be involved in. First the worship of angels. This is more or less a literal translation of the Greek, and it leaves us a with a slight problem. Does it mean that certain people worship angels? Or does it mean that some people claim to know how the angels worship God, and insist that we should worship the same way?

We might not be wrong to take it both ways, but I lean toward the second, for various reasons. In the first place, Paul is talking to Christians, and Christians are pretty clear that we must worship God alone, and never worship anyone else, not even an angel. In the Bible, several times, angels themselves told people not to worship them. (for example, Revelation 19:9-10)

Paul has been talking about things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and the way we worship falls mostly into that category, so I think that this the point here. We know that there are some things we should do as we worship (like praising God, and praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper) but the way we do those things is more or less up to us, as long as we honor the Lord. We are certainly never told to find out how angels worship, and then to imitate that.

The next thing Paul warns about it someone who has an unhealthy obsession with visions, and is probably proud about the visions and spiritual experiences she has had. As I describe this, keep the idea of the ditches in mind. All of these things might be done in healthy ways that honor God and encourage other Christians. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. At the same time, many people do engage in behavior that seems spiritual on the surface, but is full of false humility, real pride and with no true connection to Jesus, the head of the body.

Let me describe some of what Paul is warning about. For several years, I tried to be a part of a certain pastors’ group. I never felt comfortable in that group. One reason I didn’t like it is because whenever we met, it sounded to me like the pastors were boasting, under cover of false humility. They might say things like this:

“We felt like we ought to hold a revival. We brought 176 souls to Jesus in one week.  All we were doing was stepping out in obedience to the Lord, and he provided.”

When I write these words, I realize that you can’t hear the tone of voice, or see the expression. But when it was spoken, it was clear that this person was proud as a peacock about the revival, and felt pretty sure that 176 people came to the altar because he was the best preacher this side of Memphis. These are spiritual words. We should be glad that 176 people came to Jesus (if in fact that’s truly what happened). He gave lip-service to the idea that it was God who did it, but he made sure to not only tell us the number of people, but also to emphasize his own act of stepping out in obedience. This is someone who uses spiritual words and spiritual activities to build himself up, especially in contrast to others.

Another time we pastors were gathered around a meal, and someone volunteered to bless the food. His prayer probably lasted three minutes, which is a long time when you’re hungry, and completely unnecessary for a table prayer. Certainly, the “thank you for the food part,” took less than ten seconds, and the rest of the prayer was spent on other things. Mostly what I remember is that his prayer proved that he was eloquent, and spiritual, and that he had a great speaking voice. It felt like a competition, and he had just thrown down a challenge. He even sort of smirked when he was done, sort of like: “Try and beat that, fellas.” That was the last day I spent with that gathering.

Now, it is good for pastors to gather together. It is good to talk about what’s going on with our ministries. It’s good to pray. But we can do that in a way that is genuine and that builds each other up. Or, as with my experiences, we can engage in false humility.

I was part of another prayer group for about two years. I really connected with some of the people there. But prayer became a performance. Everyone began to pray very long prayers, with many words where few words would have been sufficient. Their attitude was something like, “Why use two sentences when we could make it last five minutes?” Their voices trembled with emotion, and their words were replete with thick eloquence. In short, they were showing off. Every week I thought of what Jesus said:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (ESV, Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus says, don’t do that, don’t be like them, yet these Christians did that again and again, every week for the two years I was with them, and presumably much longer.

Let’s cover the next thing Paul mentions: an obsession with visions. I believe in the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit today. I believe the Spirit empowers miracles of all kinds – everything that we see in the New Testament is still happening today, and can still happen among you and I. But once again, there are ditches here. One ditch is to say that God does not speak in any way at all except through the Bible. The other ditch is to become obsessed with the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. People who are obsessed are often much more interested in the supernatural activities than they are in the fact that the Spirit of God lives inside those who trust Jesus, and has power to change lives from the inside out. They are very concerned about the outward, dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while they do not cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their own daily lives: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

The Spirit of God will never contradict what is written in the Bible. So, if someone speaks about a vision that does not seem to be in accordance with the Bible, then that vision is not from the Holy Spirit.

Some folks may have prophecies or visions that don’t directly contradict the Bible. However, they seem to give as much, or more, weight to the visions as to the Bible. The fact that they have a supernatural experience makes them feel superior to those who have not. Their focus is not on Jesus, and not on the Bible, which reveals Jesus to us. Instead, their focus is on their own special revelation, which, even if it is genuine, is not as important as the Bible.

I want to speak about a few more types of people who might try to disqualify us (or make us believe we are disqualified) from the kingdom of God. For instance, I know a couple of people who live by faith in a fairly unique way. They don’t have regular jobs. They wake up in the morning, and look for whatever opportunities the Lord seems to be putting before them, and, as best they can, they follow his leading. They have some amazing and wonderful stories of God’s work and provision. There are also problems and pitfalls with this sort of life that, sadly, these people seem blind to. They might empty their bank accounts for a homeless person they just met, but then they go home and refuse to help their families with simple household chores. They are focused on big dramatic gestures, and they are easily bored or irritated by the ordinary things involved with following Jesus every day.

Related to this are people who feel a certain kind of calling on their lives, and then they try to impose their unique calling onto everyone else. The two I mentioned above seem to think that everyone should live the way they do. Here’s another example: suppose I am called to overseas missionary work. If I was an immature Christian, I might think that my passion for missions means that every single Christian should be a missionary. If I met someone who claimed to be a Christian, yet they weren’t missionaries, I would judge them. Now, I could make a pretty good case from the Bible that missions is important. But I might overlook the fact that if everyone went overseas as missionaries, there would be no Christians left in my home country to lead people to Jesus, and, also, no one left to give financial support to all the missionaries.

We are all called to follow Jesus. Certain parts of following Him are the same for every single person. But we are also all unique members of the body of Christ. Just because one person is called to a certain type of ministry and lifestyle, does not mean every person is:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:14)

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. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:17-20)

Our text here is to remind us that we should not let such people disqualify us. They aren’t better Christians than you, because you, dear friends have Jesus. Jesus is the sum total of what any of us has – no Christian has any more, or any less than Jesus. Long winded eloquent prayers do not make us into God’s favorite disciples.  Supernatural experiences and visions cannot replace the everyday, ordinary life of following Jesus, and they sometimes even hinder people from day-to-day discipleship. Don’t be fooled by their cloak of piousness. You, dear friends, focus on Jesus. He is the head from which the holy body is nourished and grows. If you want true life, abundant, everlasting life, spend your time, energy and strength on Jesus, getting closer to him.