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)

COLOSSIANS #9: REJOICING IN SUFFERING

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

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Colossians #9. Colossians 1:24-26.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2-3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust Him.

COLOSSIANS #8: RECONCILED

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

God did not wait for us to shape up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

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

Paul ends this section with a final thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Colossians  #7.  Colossians 6:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians #6: Created by and For Jesus

photo of mountain under starry night sky
Photo by Marco Milanesi on Pexels.com

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

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Colossians #6.  Colossians 1:15-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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