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?

Revelation #29: 666 – THE NUMBER OF LIES, PEER PRESSURE AND THE SELF

Second beast

Whatever we see as the Supreme Good, unless it is God, is an idol; even if it is our own well-being. Pressure to conform to the culture, enticement to idols, false teaching – all these are the work of the second beast. They aren’t neutral, they aren’t just about fitting in. They are part of the cosmic spiritual battle between the Dragon and those who hold to the testimony of Jesus. The stakes are high.

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Revelation #29.  Revelation 13:11-18

One of the reasons I like to teach the Bible is because I learn so much by doing it. As we have gone through the book of Revelation, my own understanding has been broadened and clarified. Before we tackle the text for today, let me restate clearly my own approach to Revelation for the purposes of this series.

I believe that biblical prophecy often has more than one fulfillment. I mentioned this briefly last time: many prophecies are “now, and not yet.” In other words, we can find partial fulfillments of various prophecies throughout history, but if we treat the prophecies fairly, we also must recognize that, in many of them, there are fulfillments still to come. At the same time, all prophecies also speak to all people, at all times. There are enduring principles, and ever present lessons, even in prophecies about the future.

It is sometimes useful to consider the past fulfillments of prophecies, because it strengthens our faith in the uniqueness and truthfulness of the Bible. But ultimately, the best thing to do with each prophecy is to understand what it meant to the people who first heard it, and then apply that meaning to our own lives today. That is, we should focus on the enduring principles and present lessons. Speculation about future fulfillments tend to separate us from the Scripture. Such speculations rarely encourage us in practical ways in the here and now.

For example, suppose I were to say, “The mark of the beast will be a computer chip, implanted into people either on their hands or foreheads.” How does that encourage us in our daily walk with Jesus right now? And what if my speculation is wrong, and it isn’t anything like that? Or, suppose I am right, but it doesn’t happen until long after we are all dead. What good is that to us in following Jesus today?

I say all this so that you understand why I have not been speculating about possible future fulfillments of Revelation. I think that the best way to get the most out of this book is to focus on what each passage means for us today.

Last time we considered that the first beast (the beast from the sea) represented political power that was set up in the place of God, and used to persecute Christians. It was given power to “conquer the saints.” This seems to me to mean a physical/material conquering; it cannot mean spiritual conquest. This second beast has a more religious flavor. It performs “miraculous” signs, and it is concerned with making everyone worship something that is not God. The second beast is not about overt power used to persecute Christians. It is about lies and deception; it represents false philosophies and religions that are used to lead the world astray, and, if possible, to try and deceive God’s people. It even looks like a lamb – trying to imitate Christ. However it speaks like a dragon – that is, it speaks with the lying voice of Satan.

Remember the letters to the seven churches? Some of those churches faced severe overt persecution (the first beast). But several of them also faced the pressure of lies and false teachings. In Thyatira, the town of “trade guilds,” people were faced with a terrible choice. If you wanted to be, say, a blacksmith, you needed to belong to the blacksmith trade guild (something like a union). In order to belong to that guild, you had to regularly worship the god of blacksmiths. If you didn’t, you could not participate in the economy as a blacksmith. No one would give you any business. Thus, I am quite sure that many of the first Christians to hear this passage were reminded that they were facing a choice between worshipping a false god, or, not being able to “buy, sell or trade.” They would have realized that God knows the terrible situation they are in. They would have felt warned that it wasn’t simply a matter of paying lip service to an idol – if they compromised, and worshipped for the sake of the trade guild, what they were worshiping was Satan’s own beast. They would have heard this passage and understood that what they were going through was part of the cosmic spiritual battle between Satan and the followers of Jesus. There was much more at stake for them than making a living – it was a matter of eternal life or death.

Other churches were facing false teaching and compromise within the church. The Ephesians faced the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea all had Christians who were compromising with the culture, particularly in the area of sexual immorality. This passage says to them that the false teachings and compromises are not benign. They are a really big deal. They are the work of a beast from the pit of hell; they are part of Satan’s strategy in the cosmic battle.

By the way, we might as well tackle the number 666. All kinds of weird and ridiculous theories have been forth about it. The text tells us it is “man’s number.” That is, no matter how religious or supernatural it seems, the source of this false teaching, and even of these false miracles, is not God. Remember that God’s number is seven? Seven represents God’s perfect presence and work in the world (three for the Trinity, and four for creation). Seven represents perfection. What 666 means is imperfection. It cannot reach seven, no matter how many times it tries. It always falls short. Therefore we should not be deceived into thinking that the beast or its teaching represent God’s truth. This is important, because the beast imitates God and Christ. It does false miracles. It takes a little bit of truth, and then twists it into lies that are all the more powerful because they contain some truth.

As we consider what all this says to us today, I feel sobered. Throughout history there have been many key moments in the life of Christianity. I think these next twenty years or so will bring about a massive and unsettling change in Christianity in the Western world; it may be one of those key periods. The spirit of the beast is at work. We are still in the cosmic spiritual battle.

For about three-hundred years Western Culture and the Christian faith were allies to one another. It was easy to be a Christian in Europe and North America, because the culture supported it. That has changed, but many Christians don’t realize it yet. As the change has come, many Christians have chosen to change with the culture, rather than remain with historic, orthodox Christianity. There is great pressure on other Christians to do the same.

One of the great areas of compromise is, for us today, the same as it was for the Christians who first read Revelation: sexual immorality. The culture all around them embraced and celebrated sexual immorality. So does Western culture today. Within the church at that time, some people tried to convince true Christians that sexual immorality was okay. That is happening within Christianity today. You may agree with the Bible, or not, but the fact is that it teaches there is only standard for human sexuality. According to the Bible, all sexual activity is meant for marriage between one man and one woman. Any sexual activity outside of that paradigm is called sinful. That is what it teaches. But many Christians today deny that teaching. They aren’t saying, “I don’t like this, so I won’t be a Christian.” They are saying, “I don’t like this, so let’s change Christianity.” I am not exaggerating. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ and several other large denominations are all officially denying what the Bible teaches about sexual morality. They represent tens of millions of people who call themselves Christians. There are millions more who do the same within other churches. It is easy to feel pressured when there are people all around you who claim to be Christians, but deny what the Bible says. It can be very tempted to give in, and go along with the crowd. But to do so isn’t neutral. It isn’t about being “on the right side of history.” It is about aligning yourself with the agent of Satan. It is Satan’s strategy to destroy God’s church.

Even so, going against the grain of our culture’s view of sexuality is already beginning to have economic consequences. Many companies have “diversity policies” which require Christians to agree with them and implement them if they want to have a job there. Sometimes, the policies are fine, and simply require that all people be treated equally, which is a Christian value. But there may come a time when such policies require people to explicitly endorse the lifestyles of others. Not following the Beast can have economic consequences. Simply holding a biblical view of sexuality is now considered bigotry by most of society.

The other area where the early church was threatened, and we are too, is in terms of idolatry. When you worship an idol, sometimes it represents a false god. Other times, an idol is a false representation of the one true God. The second beast encourages both kinds of worship. Some of the idols in our culture we have talked about quite often: pleasure, relationships, status, achievements, money. Anything that we see as the supreme good (other than God himself) is an idol. Whatever we put in front of God is an idol. But there is one widespread idol that not too many people are talking about. It is the idol of the self.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that the text says the number of the beast is “man’s number.” The new religion today is the religion of the authentic self. For our culture, the highest good is to “be who you really are,” and to seek total fulfillment as that person. It is entirely human-centered, literally, self-centered. Anything that gets in the way of a person fulfilling their authentic self is considered “unloving” and wrong. Therefore, there is some agreement with Christianity: that we shouldn’t hurt or abuse others, that we should treat them the way we ourselves want to be treated.

But the central message of Jesus is that the self we are born with is corrupted by sin. It must die; it must be crucified with him. Then we can live our lives not centered on self, but on God, and through God, others. There are rewards for this way of life, but it does mean self-denial. That is directly opposed to the religion of the authentic self. Jesus said:

24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. 26What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26, HCSB)

Even so, many Christian churches have tried to attract members by preaching some version of the religion of the self. At its most basic level, their message is that the best way for the self to be truly fulfilled is to come to Jesus. That is true in one sense, and yet, it leaves the self as the main focus of someone’s life. It still views self as the most important thing; self is still the idol. Jesus is only important as the way to have the best self. That is false religion; the work of the beast. It is subtle, but it leads to worship of a false god.

These messages from our culture are everywhere, and they are relentless. There are elements of truth to these things, and it is very easy to find ourselves going along with it. Our text today says this stuff is very important. It isn’t OK to go along with these things in order to keep the peace, or fit in, or to “try and reach people.” This is part of the cosmic spiritual battle, it is part of Satan’s strategy to destroy the followers of Jesus, if possible. To deny the scripture, or to worship anything other than the one true God is to align yourself with the beast, and he does not have your best interests at heart.

Rod Dreher recently wrote a book called The Benedict Option. In it he describes how radically different our culture is from true Christianity.

The time was coming, … when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

… We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

That was certainly the case for the early Christians. It is becoming increasingly the case for us today. We are not openly persecuted; some of the churches to whom Revelation was written were not either. But the world around us is filled with false teachings and false worship. We must be willing to be different, even to look like fools or bigots. If we aren’t willing to do that, we may find ourselves aligned with the enemies of God.

I realize that this sounds radical. Increasingly, to be a Christian means to be radical. It always used to mean that, we are circling back around to it again. The Apostle Paul wrote about these things in his letters:

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. (HCSB 1 Timothy 4:1-2)

1 But know this: Difficult times will come in the last days. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people! (HCSB 2 Timothy 3:1-5)

This is serious stuff. But if it concerns you, the answer is to look to Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and Life. He has already overcome the devil and the beasts. Stick to him. Get to know him better by reading the Bible. And be prepared to make the hard choices, die to yourself, and live to him. What we receive when we do that is worth far more than anything we lose.

I pray that the Holy Spirit will give us a supernatural strength to make the hard choices we need to make, and to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. I pray that the Spirit enables us to see clearly what is going on in our lives, and in our culture, and recognize the spiritual battle. I pray that he works within us so that we can truly follow Jesus faithfully in all things.