COLOSSIANS #20:THE WRONG WAY TO USE THE LAW

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

Colossians #20  Colossians 2:16-17

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

Important concept #1: The Two Ditches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Questions for reflection:

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

COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

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

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

COLOSSIANS #18: THE KEY TO NEW LIFE

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Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.

COLOSSIANS #17: THE PROBLEM OF RELIGION.

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

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Colossians #17  Colossians 2:8-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLOSSIANS
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Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts for application:

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

COLOSSIANS #15: GRACE FOR THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

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

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Colossian #15  Colossians 2:6-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23, ESV, italic formatting added for emphasis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #14: THE WISDOM THAT COMES ONLY FROM TRUST

woman lying on area rug reading books
Photo by Renato Abati on Pexels.com

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

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

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Colossians #14  Colossians 2:2-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Big Lie #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Colossians #13  Colossians 2:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Another Spiritual warfare verse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Colossians #12. Colossians 1:27-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later on in Colossians, Paul says these things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Piper puts it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, from John Piper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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