Month: September 2019

Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ

“Now I rejoice in my suffering 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…” (Colossians 1:24)

Last week in our study through the Book of Colossians, we encountered a phrase that has been somewhat controversial in our efforts to interpret it through the years. There is no commonly agreed upon understanding of Paul’s words.

Through the years, the Catholic Church has used this as a springboard for understanding the teaching of purgatory. The doctrine of a “place” where Christians go after death to “complete their sufferings” before being suited for Heaven is one that Protestant scholars and pastors have long rejected.

So if that’s not what Paul was saying, what did he mean by “filling up Christ’s afflictions?” And what does this say about the reasons we suffer?

  1. It could be a direct reference to the prophecy spoken over Paul at his conversion when Ananias told him that he would suffer many things because of the name of Christ. This was certainly true as we read some of Paul’s more personal sections of testimony and the difficulties he encountered.
  2. Some believe this is a reference to a teaching championed by the Jews that God would only permit so much persecution and suffering by His chosen people before the end (apocalypse) came. The more suffering, the sooner God would bring judgement to the world. This teaching is spelled out more fully in the apocryphal books (the intertestamental) books that we do not accept as authoritative parts of the Bible.
  3. It is certainly possible that this is a reference to the fact that our suffering in our bodies has a direct connection to Christ suffering with us. Jesus is seen as connected intimately to His body on earth, so that every slight, every pain suffered, every effort of persecution was felt by Jesus as well. As His people suffer, so Christ suffered.
  4. It is not a reference to somehow completing something lacking in Christ’s sacrifice and atonement for us. Christ suffered completely, and alone on the cross. We cannot add to the pain inflicted on Jesus on the cross by our sufferings in the present. We are not assisting in the atonement by suffering.
    Paul’s use of the word “affliction” is never tied to any reference to Christ’s atoning work at the cross.
  5. It is absolutely true that the sufferings endured by believers “fill up, complete or round out” the reflection of Jesus in the Christian’s life. Every portrait ever drawn or painted has areas of light and areas of darkness. Both are necessary for a complete picture to be seen. Both sorrow and joy are necessary for the “portrait” of Jesus to be seen in our lives.

Maybe more than any other interpretation #5 seems to make the most sense to me. Our suffering as believers is necessary for the image of Christ to be etched into our lives. Christ is seen fully in our joy and in our tears. We can rejoice in our suffering knowing that, even then, Christ is more fully seen in us and through us as the Body of Christ, the visible representation of Christ, on earth.

And so, with Paul, we can rejoice even in our suffering, knowing that none is in vain; none of wasted, and nothing is random. God always sees to that!

Sermon Notes 04

CHAPTER SIX

Paul returns to a controversial topic with Colossians 2:6 as he says “As you therefore received Christ Jesus as Lord.” Two camps divide on this thought. What is the implication of the Lordship of Jesus?

One viewpoint says there is no other way to receive Christ Jesus than as Lord. How does one come to the foot of the cross and give oneself to the Savior in an exchange of life; His for ours, and not then follow with submitting to His Lordship?

The other viewpoint, while arguable less well-received, is the position that receiving Jesus as Savior and making Jesus Christ Lord are two distinct acts. This viewpoint (as fiercely argued against by John MacArthur and others) separates an otherwise inseparable reality.

A.W. Tozer wrote that “there is a view that is popular in modern Christianity that one may receive Jesus as Savior and then, when it is more convenient, follow Him in Lordship.” This is an untenable position, according to Tozer and many others.

So why was Paul laboring this point as if one were possible without the other. Can Jesus be received in ANY way but “as Lord?” Maybe for Paul it was a reminder that Jesus did not just come to redeem, but to transform. Not just to “justify” us before God, but to transform us in sanctification and discipleship.

Some of the argument is dependent on our understanding of repentance. Has a person fully repented if they have not turned the entirety of life over in Lordship to follow Jesus? Repentance is not just the cleansing of past sins and failure, but also is to be a continuing posture for the person redeemed. We never stop repenting, if repenting truly means more than simply saying “I’m sorry for sin.” Our lifestyle is now one of repentance and turning “toward” Jesus as Lord.

Paul was probably also referring to their “receiving” as hearing the Gospel from Epaphras. “As you therefore received it…” with eagerness, with faith, with confidence. So continue in that same course and attitude as you had at the first.

But this could also have been a slap at the Gnostic heretics. The idea of “Lordship” had strong overtones, not only in religious circles, but political ones in the Roman Empire.

For the Roman, faithful to the empire, only the Caesar was called Lord. It implied ownership of and oversight of everything within the sphere of the empire.

The Gnostic heresy had reduced Jesus to a part of the puzzle, but Paul here reminds the Colossians that Jesus is OVER the puzzle; He is Lord of all…not a piece of life’s puzzle but the reason for it…and the Maker of it!

This verse is actually an excellent summary of the entire book of Colossians. (Lucas, BST). What does it look like to “live in Him?” When we “receive Christ as Lord,” there are demands this places on our lifestyle and choices, decisions, and thinking. We “live” in Him, but what are the implications and outworkings of that?

Lucas suggests that Paul is actually laying out three principles of Christian development here.

As you received……so live in Him

As you were rooted….be built up

As you were taught…be established.

We received Christ as Lord through no good work on our part. God does the work of opening our eyes, and minds, and hearts to Who Jesus Christ is. We received Christ the Lord by grace, but then we are to go on from there and LIVE in Him. What does that look like?

We are to be rooted in the truth….and so be built up. Our Christian growth depends, not just on our receiving Christ as Lord, but we are also to “earth” or “root” ourselves in the truth. We are to embrace the systemized teaching of Jesus Christ and the doctrine taught by the apostles, this Gospel “once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)

We are to be taught…and so be established. We are to be established, like a strong tree deeply rooted and stable, and now as a building that is constructed.

We received; we are rooted; we are established in Christ. (BST)

“As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord…” (so Melick offers). The positioning of “Lord” at the end of the phrase is only done here by Paul in all of his epistles. The positioning emphasizes “the Lord.” Using the word “received” with its object being “Christ Jesus” is also an unusual positioning. Normally “received” has to do with “teaching,” or “doctrine” or “Gospel.” The implication of this is that the Colossians actually embraced HIM, not just the teaching about Him.

This is one of the oldest and simplest statements about what it means to be a Christian: “You have received Christ Jesus the Lord.” The journey for some from initially hearing and being exposed to Jesus/the Gospel to committing to become a Christian is on average four years. (Tidball, The Reality of Christ). We are not just “receiving a new teaching” or “embracing a new lifestyle” as we come to Christ. We are receiving HIM into our lives, a life eternal, a spiritual power and dynamic, and out of that decision we will live a different kind of life.

“As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in Him…” (2:6). We are making no cavalier or thoughtless decision when we say YES to Jesus. Paul puts no barrier in the way of that process: no formulaic prayer, no church or denominational issue, no promises to be made by us. Simply “RECEIVE” Him.

But once we have received, we must then also “LIVE” in Him. There is no way a person can be married and RECEIVE another into their lives without being changed by that transaction. As imperfect an analogy as that is, it makes the point that some change is expected.

Think then how deeply the change will be when we receive Christ. We are to LIVE in Him, being “rooted (earthed) and built up in Him…” (2:7)

We have two metaphors at work in this statement. One is taken from agriculture; the other from construction. But we are to be “rooted” (“once and for all having been rooted”) in Christ, and allow (as a new plant would do) our roots to grow deeply into the soil of Christian truth. At the same time (and in relationship to the depth of our root system) we can be “built up” in Him. The deeper the roots, the more solid the foundation and the taller the building. We grow taller as we grow deeper.

But we are also to be “strengthened.” Our strength is tied to our faith, but not just to our faith as in the faith that saves us. That faith is a gift, and is a constant, and cannot be forever lost. This is a reference to “the faith,” or the systematized truth of the Christian life. While we cannot lose “faith,” we can lose “the faith” by adulterating it with false teaching and watering down its truth.

It is precisely there that we have the ability to build spiritual “muscle.” We can “bulk up” our faith by adding knowledge and aligning life with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. (2 Peter 1)

It is here that many fail. We want this part of the journey to be automatic, too. But it is here that discipleship becomes a necessity. In discipleship, we are introduced to and deepened in “the faith.” And it is here, again, the church has sometimes let down.

We must disciple our children, since we learn that by age nine or ten their worldview is set. They are making important and life-altering decisions out of a worldview that may NOT be Christian.

Parents must learn the art of discipling. Students need to be discipled. Adults must be discipled. Seniors must be discipled. It is here that the faith of the church is strengthened.
To stand firm in the day in which we are living, and to oppose the false doctrine and religious systems that would challenge our faith it is more important than ever.

But finally we are to be thankful. One of the primary marks of a mature Christian’s faith, according to Paul, was gratitude. We are to “overflow” in gratitude for the gift of salvation and for our growth in that grace. Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of the true followers of Jesus. The Gnostic teachers obviously promised their followers an “abundant” or “overflowing” life. Paul is saying, “You are to overflow…in gratitude for what God in Christ has done for you!”

Paul’s First Defense of the Faith

There are three primary warnings issued by Paul in Colossians:

1) Don’t let anyone kidnap you! (2:8)
2) Don’t let anyone condemn you! (2:16)
3) Don’t let anyone disqualify you! (2:18)

In Colossians 2:8-15, we encounter Paul’s specific defense against the threats encountered by the church in Colossae. These were the threats that were attempting to lead them out of freedom and into captivity. “Don’t be taken captive by anyone…” Paul warns them. And if we are wise, we will hear and heed the same words of warning.

We do know that at least one threat was the insurgency of the Gnostic heresy. This has already been discussed at some length. Then, there was the threat of human traditions. Finally we encounter with Paul what he calls “the basic (elementary or elemental) principles of the world.”

The Gnostic Insurgency: “Deceptive Philosophy”

Paul first of all tackles what he calls the “hollow and deceptive philosophy” that was being presented to them. What all this philosophy entailed we cannot be certain. But we know at least some dimensions of this was the philosophy of the Gnostic system.

Lightfoot translates this verse “I wish to warn you against anyone who would lead you astray by specious argument and persuasive rhetoric.” (Colossians 2:8). People who fall prey to “questionable arguments and persuasive speech” are those who are weakest in the faith.

Often cults and other anti-Christian groups attack the marginal believers; those who are not grounded and rooted and established in the faith. They are the “low hanging fruit” that are the easiest to reach for those with a “new” take on the faith.

The Colossian Christians were awash in different and “new” philosophical thinking. The trade route that Colossae occupied, both by road and by sea, brought people with new ideas, new thoughts, and new philosophies. Their arguments were “persuasive” and their rhetoric attractive.

Such threats are always present in the church of every era. We have our own particular “philosophies,” including the Prosperity Gospel movement. This movement is attractively packaged with clever rhetoric and charismatic personalities. But the content of this viewpoint is “specious” and “hollow.” There is no depth; no substance to it. Yet many are led astray by this modern day heresy.

Usually there is enough truth and enough mentions of the name Jesus to make it sound plausible, and even difficult to oppose. Who doesn’t want to get rich and never suffer? But this argument has led many out of a solid, Biblical-based ministry to follow its hollow philosophy.

The Jewish Threat: “Traditions of men”

It is commonly believed by Bible scholars and students that Judaism was a very real threat to the Colossian congregation. Most likely the Colossian congregation was populated by those with Jewish backgrounds.

As such, the Jewish community (remember, about 50,000 strong in the Lycus Valley) would have had a dramatic pull on those who had left the synagogue to follow Jesus.

Their demand that God’s followers must be circumcised was part of what Paul spoke about later in verse 11 when he said, “and you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands…” This would have stood in dramatic conflict with commonly held Jewish teaching and practice.

When the Jews left Egypt for the Promised Land, and before they entered it, they were marked and identified as unique by the mark of circumcision. In its day, it had a place and even was a necessity.

But we have entered the Promised Land through Christ. Our identity is not in circumcision or in any religious observance that can be performed externally. It is an inward circumcision, one of the heart, and this circumcision is effected by the Holy Spirit. As this happens, it will have outward effect, and so identify us as one of God’s people.

Paul was saying, in essence, that the traditions of men (i.e. the Jewish traditions) were not required to have a complete faith. They were just that: traditions. And they have no power to help us and no power to penalize us if we refuse to follow them.

“According to the rudiments of the world…”

The third threat Paul confronted was almost certainly mystical teachings which may or may not have been related to the Gnostics. The word “rudimentary” or “elemental” is a word, in the Hellenistic world of the day, to mean “the spirits of the world.” The NIV translates this phrase “the basic principles of this world,” but probably doesn’t go far enough.

This would have been a warning against following those who believed the stars or heavenly bodies controlled life. These were the superstitions of the world, like doing or not doing things on certain days.

Paul quickly turns to affirm that Christ is exalted “over every power and authority.” (2:10). And not only is that true, but since “in Christ dwells all the fullness of the godhead in bodily form, you have been given fullness in Christ, Who is the head over every power and authority.” (NIV).

In other words, spirits whether embedded in the earth and rocks and trees and plants and storms, or angels that dwell above you, can control your life. Jesus Christ created them, and He is the One Who has authority over them.

We seem to have an unbroken stream of entertainment offerings that focus on demonic spirits that control and take over lives of people, sometimes children and sometimes adults. There is a fascination with these kinds of movies and themes, and maybe a hidden fear is living in some that says, “Could such a horrible thing happen to me?”

The Bible does not “debunk” the reality of the unseen spiritual realm, whether heavenly or demonic. It simply says, “whatever is out there, God has control of it.” Whatever seeks to overwhelm or overtake your life, the One in Whom is all authority dwells within you.

So unless we can come up with some demonic or spiritual force that can overwhelm the Son of God, Who has placed Himself inside of the believer, there is no way such a thing can happen. That spirit would have to be so supremely powerful as to be able to send Jesus running!

In Haiti and other countries oppressed by the practitioners of Santa Ria, Voodoo, or other forms of witchcraft, we find people who are tied to these “elemental spirits” they believe they can control. Their practices are very much rooted in superstition, and no doubt have demonic forces empowering some of their activity.

Sadly some in those countries, sometimes even believers, think these forces can control their lives, usually for evil. To live in a world dominated by forces unseen where they feel powerless and fearful gives us something of the flavor and influence that the Gnostic and mystic practitioners were steeped in. They were revered for their mystical, occult, and magic powers.

But no such power, in heaven or earth, the Universe we see or the unseen world we don’t, now has or will ever have anything like that kind of power and authority! Jesus is Lord over all!

In summary, the philosophical threat Paul was confronting had three primary characteristics:

  1. The philosophy was human. It “depends on human tradition.” This is man’s attempt to control his world with a nonrevelational approach. It started with man, and always ended with man. You cannot start with man and end up with God!
  2. The philosophy was elementary. Originally this term referred to the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. Usually these were seen in conflict with each other. Sometimes these “elements” were signs of the zodiac or the powers that ruled the planets. Normally in Jewish teaching of the day, the “elements” referred to supernatural beings or demons. In Galatians, Paul called them “no-gods.” (Gal 4:9). Often Paul considered these spirits as angels that sought to control man.
  3. The philosophy was non-Christian. It was not “according to Christ,” and therein lay the danger. It was completely antithetical to the teaching of what Christ did on the cross to accomplish salvation.

Collectively, these three dangers comprised the “Colossian heresy.” (NAC, V 22)

The Presentation of Christ as Redeemer (Colossians 2:9-15)

The primary error of the Gnostic heresy was its effort to teach that the “fullness of God,” (literature of the time shows they frequently used the term “pleroma,” or fullness) was in fact distributed among heavenly powers.

Jesus, in their teaching, was one dimension of that. Paul corrects this view powerfully in his assertion that “the pleroma (fullness) of God in bodily form lives in Jesus.” Jesus is the pleroma. There is no other. In fact, he emphasizes the fact by a modifying word “all.” “All the fullness of deity dwells in Jesus.”

Legally I am told the word “all” is defined as “including everything and excluding nothing.” There is nothing about God in His nature, His character, or His being that is excluded from Jesus. Everything is included in Jesus. Lightfoot characterizes this as “in a bodily manifestation.”

Wiersbe interprets this to mean “all of God’s divine being and attributes” dwell bodily in Jesus. “Why,” Paul can be heard asking, “would you need anything else?”
If Christ is Creator (and He is), and all the fullness of God indwells Him (and it does), what else could we possibly need? Because in that “pleroma,” that “fullness,” Christ has come to “fill us full” with His fullness.

The fullness of deity was every bit God. However, Paul avoids the thinking of modalism in not saying Christ was all deity. The Father and Spirit are equally divine. Christ embodies the fullness of God, but does not exhaust the dimensions of deity. The Father and the Spirit still are active. The distinctions of the Trinity remain intact.
Though we will never exhaust the wonder and fullness of meaning of God’s fullness indwelling Jesus, we have to go one step further with Paul, because “you have been given fullness in Christ!” (2:9)

All that is in Christ now is filling the believer. This does not imply that any man is elevated to the level of Jesus Christ, nor that it means that we somehow become deity in this process. But as in Christ, the fullness of God dwells in bodily form, now Christ dwells in the believer. In the “form” of Christ, we have the reality of God. This passage reflects some of the highest Christology in Paul’s writings. (Melick)

These thoughts and Paul’s teaching here sets the table for the most mind-churning reality, that this One Who is the fullness of Deity bodily, Who is God embodied fully in flesh without diminishing either, now has taken up residence in us.

No other epistle delves more deeply into this “mystery” of being “in Him,” or “in Christ” that Colossians. This particular section uses that phrase seven times. The indwelling Presence of Jesus Christ in the believer is one of the hallmarks of this epistle.

Numerous times before this verse Paul has referred to the believer as being “in Him.” Now He reverses the reality slightly (holds it to the light in a different way) and says “and He is IN YOU.” This “in Him-in you” relationship is a philosophy that no man, no matter his level of brilliance, could have arrived at. There is no logical way that a human mind could generate the idea of this reality, that somehow God could not only dwell with or dwell among His creatures, but could actually embody them fully.

Scores of books have been written seeking to understand this. An entire movement broke out in the nineteenth century centered on this thought, led by Andrew Murray and other writers and preachers. But none have gotten to the bottom of understanding this truth. It is a mystery that can only be proclaimed, but not fully explained.

But with the “pleroma” of the One Who has all authority given dwelling with us, Paul dismisses any attempt to relegate Christ to a lesser being than He is. Gnosticism was one among countless attempts through the centuries to try and do this.

FF Bruce reminds us that Paul’s emphasis here was to point to Christ’s dominance and ruling over every power, every so-called spiritual authority, and every spiritual authority. None are exalted over Him. He is the ultimate and final ruler over them all. So Paul’s eagerness that the Colossians not be “taken captive” by those who would sweep them away through persuasion, threat or fear. The final authority lives in them through the Presence of Christ. There is none greater.

Before Paul returns to a final statement about spiritual authorities that would seek to usurp the place of Christ, he turns to deal with the essential matter of our salvation. Salvation, you remember, has three component parts:

Justification: Being declared “not guilty” by the verdict of God, the Judge of the Universe. “Who can bring an accusation against us? It is God Who justifies.”

Sanctification: The ongoing process of being conformed to the likeness and image of Christ. We grow in grace by learning and obedience and living out our faith. No one ever fully completes sanctification. It is a lifelong process.

Glorification: This is the final and eternal stage of salvation that happens when the believer is taken into the Presence of God at death.

Therefore it is true and proper that we can say “We have been saved “(past tense) through justification. We “are being saved” (by sanctification ongoing and “we shall be saved” at the final stage when our bodies rest in death and our spirits fly into God’s eternal Presence. And one day, even our mortal earthly body will be glorified (made like Christ’s).

The Implications of the Hidden Life

In 2:11-15, Paul turns to dealing with the implications of what it means to be “in Christ.” Along the way, Paul confronts the Jewish critics who were seeking to “take captive” the Colossian believers but seeking to return them to Judaism and its legalistic forms.

“In Christ: His Death, His Burial, and His Resurrection”

Paul deals first with the issue of circumcision. In the Old Testament, the rite of circumcision was an identifying marker for His chosen people. But with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the marker for His people became being “in Christ.”

Old Testament circumcision cut away a small piece of flesh from a man’s body. Jesus underwent a circumcision of the entirety of His flesh for us on the cross. His body was “cut away” into death. Therefore no external marking is necessary to identify us with Jesus. With the arrival of the Holy Spirit, Christ is now in us.

“In Him you were circumcised….by the circumcision of Christ made without hands, by the putting off of the body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.”

As His flesh died on the cross, so ours must die in crucifixion of our self. And since we are dead, we are also “buried with Him in baptism…”

The necessity of baptism has been a subject of much debate throughout the years. Is it a symbol? A ritual? A cleansing act? Is it necessary for salvation to be effected?

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, a statement of common beliefs held by the Southern Baptist Convention, says this about baptism:

VII. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. (Baptist Faith and Message 2000)

So Baptist belief is that baptism is not a sacrament (an act that imparts grace to the one who receives it), but is a symbol of the act of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

In fact, baptism properly administered, is an incredible picture of the Gospel. It is a visual portrayal of Jesus’ passion. As the one who has professed belief in Christ stands in the water, they are saying visually “I believe Jesus died for my sins.” Then, when they are placed under the water, they are saying, “He was buried.” And finally, coming out of the water, “and He rose again on the third day.”

But not only is the Gospel being proclaimed in baptism. The reality of our union in Christ through our faith in Him is also being proclaimed. The testimony we are sharing is, “In Christ, I was crucified. In Christ, I died and was buried. In Christ, I have been raised with Him through faith in Him.”

Baptism, therefore, is a proclamation of what the Gospel IS, and a proclamation of what the Gospel DOES. Baptism is certainly an important aspect of and, in fact, is the public profession of our faith. But we will not add baptism in the category of “necessary” for salvation since to do so would seek to add to what Christ has done for us on the cross.

“As the burial of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:4) set the seal upon His death, so the Colossians burial with Him in baptism shows that they were truly involved in His death and laid in His grave. It is not as though they simply died like Jesus died, or were buried as He was laid in the tomb…The burial proves that a real death has occurred and the old life is now a thing of the past.” (Peter O’Brien, WBC)

“…in which (in Him) you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, Who raised Him from the dead.” (Col 2:12 NASB)

“Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him. The death He died, He died to sin once for all, but the life He lives, He lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”(Romans 6:8-11)

We must never forget that we actually have participated in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ! Our fullness includes this reality, and is born out of it. It should dominate all that is in us!

In Christ: Delivered from Death and Bondage (vv 13-15)

“Dead” is an apt description for the state of every person who is apart from Christ. They may look alive, but spiritually outside of Christ, every person is dead. Ephesians 2:1 states, “…and you were dead in (because of) your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.”

This word captures the reality of sin’s severity. “The wages of sin is death,” we read in Romans. Death was promised to Adam and Eve as a result of their rebellion against Him and disobedience in the Garden. Something that is dead cannot reproduce life. So every person, tied by the cord of the human race to our first parents, can only receive death from them. “In sin was I conceived…” the Psalmist says.

But this death is something that, while not physical YET, is a part of every human being’s existence. We are spiritually disconnected from our Creator, and alienated and hostile in mind against Him. We are also continually alienating ourselves from one another, thus providing that we have a problem we cannot cure ourselves.

We were dead, lifeless, and empty living in darkness. Without Jesus, we can do nothing to receive life. Only in Christ is this possible. Kent Hughes reinforces this idea:

“There must be a sovereign communication of life from God. When Elijah stretched himself upon the dead boy, his heart beat against the stillness of the boy’s chest until it kindled life. Even so, Christ must lay His life on our deadness, and then comes life!” (Hughes, Colossians).

Now our life is no longer empty. We are no longer in darkness. We are no longer lifeless. There is LIFE, LIGHT, and FULLNESS in Christ alone!

Not only have we been set free from death, but we have been set free from the bondage of our guilt!

“God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross. (vv 13b-14)

Salvation begins at the initiative of God. We don’t just wake up one morning, decide we are terrible people because of our sin, and set out to knock on God’s door. The Holy Spirit “quickens” us (old English word for “make sensitive,” like the “quick” of your fingernail). As we are “quickened,” “made sensitive” to God we are awakened to the possibility of new life in Jesus.

We were dead…now we have been made alive in Christ! And as we are alive, and know the fullness of God through Christ, we find we are also being set free from the guilt that burdens us.

Being set free from our guilt is like being set free from the pull of gravity! It is elating to know our sin and guilt has been taken out of the way. “He forgave us all our sins…”

While “forgave” is past tense (already done) in English translation, the Greek is more definitive. It says “God has done something in the past (forgave you) that is continuing to work itself out in the present (we continue to be forgiven).

Some have mistakenly understood that this verse is teaching that all the sins forgiven at the cross that we had committed up until that time. If you continue to mess up, it’s your problem to fix! Those who believe this way find themselves entering a non-stop treadmill of trying to work for salvation, or believing they have “lost” salvation and need to “find” it again!

That is not what Paul is teaching, and it is not what God is doing. When Jesus died for you, remember, ALL of your sins were future. ALL of your guilt was future.

But when the Bible says, “He forgave us all our sins” this is a proclamation that the penalty due every sin we have ever committed or ever WILL commit in the future has already been paid for.

I’ve heard it explained this way. It is as though someone placed a $100,000 check in your account. It is there. It is good. But until you start writing checks or using your debit card, you will never receive the benefit of the gift.

We are to continue “writing checks” on the forgiveness that God has deposited in our “account.” “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just (righteous) to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

But further, Paul said that Christ forgave “the handwriting of ordinances” or “handwriting of debt” (ESV) that was against us. This was a common picture in Biblical times. Every criminal crucified had a “handwriting” of their crime nailed over their heads. For Jesus, the only crime that could be manufactured was “King of the Jews.”

In reality however, the debt of all our sin was nailed to Jesus on the cross. He paid the sin debt for every person who would believe. Another element was in play in this idea of our “IOU,” is the fact that the Romans would take a written legal charge against a criminal and nail it above the jail door until every last penalty was paid. When the criminal had done their time and paid for their crime, the jailer would take this document and write the word “tetelestai” over it. The word meant “Finished: the debt is paid.”

It is not a coincidence that, as Jesus hung on the cross and neared His death there, cried out the same word, “tetelestai:” which meant, “it is finished.” What was finished? Your debt. My debt. Our sin. Our guilt.

Written by the blood of Jesus across the “handwriting of debt” that was against us is the word “It is finished!” Once and for all eternity, our debt was paid by Jesus. He “set it aside, nailing it to His cross.”

But out of that victory, Jesus then “disarmed” the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame.” Paul here returns to the initial subject, that of those who would seek to enslave or “kidnap” the Colossian believers by the threat of deceptive or “hollow” philosophy.

Paul is saying here that these spiritual “emanations” have been taken captive by Jesus as a conquering general would take captives on a victory parade through the city. They would follow behind as shamed and defeated foes.

Jesus, by His victorious death and resurrection, “disarmed” and “shamed” these enemies who posed a threat to the believers in Colossae. He “triumphed over them in Him.” (v 15)

The victory of Jesus was not just over sin and not just to pay the “handwriting of debt.” His victory also conquered spiritual enemies in opposition to God, to the Gospel, and to believers. He “took them captive” and openly exposed them to shame in their defeat.

…so that at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11)

The Supremacy of Christ

“…that He might have first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:18)

Jesus is to have “first place” or “supremacy” in everything! “Everything” extends the supremacy of Christ far beyond any conceivable scope. He deserves to have first place in everything!

First place in our family

First place in our marriage

First place in our profession

First place in our missions and ministry

First place in our thinking

First place in time

First place in love

First place in conversation

First place in pleasure

First place in eating

First place in play

First place in athletics

First place in our entertainment

First place in art

First place in music

First place in worship

First place in living

First place in dying

First place in His body, the church!

“It’s crazy if you think about it. The God of the universe—the God Who created nitrogen and pine needles and E-minor, loves us with a radical, unconditional, and self-sacrificing love. And what is our response? We go to church, sing a couple of tunes, and try not to cuss.” —Francis Chan

What should our response be? We give Him the supremacy in everything!

Sermon Notes 03

CHAPTER FIVE

Colossians 1:24-2:5 comprises one of the more personal and confessional sections of the Letter to the Colossians. Paul began the letter with a claim to apostolic authority-“an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” (1:1)

Now, with this segment, Paul begins in earnest to exercise that claim to authority. He doesn’t do it as we might expect someone of his high profile to do, but instead speaks of his “sufferings” (v. 24), his “stewardship” (v. 25), and his “struggle.” (2:1)

These are all words which point, not to his strength, but to his weakness. But the things which some may believe disqualified him for his role as apostle (his suffering, his imprisonment, his struggles) are the very things he points to as things that legitimatize him.

All of this that he might “present everyone mature in Christ.” ( v. 28) He claims from the outset no personal, hidden agenda; no self-glorification. His message is not about himself, but instead about the One for whom he labors expending “all His energy that he powerfully works” within him. (v29). Paul does not even claim that “energizing” as coming from himself!

He does not lay out his degrees or experience, or his background as a rabbi. He doesn’t even defend the reason he has been imprisoned! Instead his focus is on “God’s mystery, which is Christ.” (2:2)

His Source For Ministry

Paul begins by telling the Colossians that his ministry was not conferred on him by the approval of man. It was not given him because of his educational credentials, though he could have appealed to that. It was Christ Who called him to this apostolic role, and it was Christ’s call which was the only credential he required.

I do not believe that Paul ever got over the fact that God chose him to fulfill this role. At the end of his life, he wrote his protégé Timothy and said “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” (1 Timothy 1:12-13)

In Chapter 1:21-23, Paul is not launching an accusation by saying “you were once alienated…hostile…doing evil…” He was speaking also of himself, and he well remembered what he was before he met Jesus.

We would be much better if we each did the same. “Remember what you used to be…” Paul was saying. We need to turn our backs completely on our former way of living that was anti-Christ and all things Christian, even if we simply lived apathetically toward the things of God. We do well to remember where we came from, and allow that memory to add an urgency to our efforts to reach the lost and live the Gospel out.

Paul’s call to ministry and salvation on the Damascus Road in Syria, as he was on a mission to wipe out the Christian movement, is one of the most dramatic conversion experiences we have in the Bible. None was going in a more violent, aggressive, and headstrong direction against Jesus than Paul.

But Jesus called to him while he traveled, and struck him blind in the middle of the road. (Acts 26:9-18) In that weakened state, God sent a man to him to explain what had happened three days later. Ananias, a faithful believer, prayed over Paul (then Saul), laid his hands on him, and caused him to receive his sight.

Paul never forgot what it was like to live in opposition to the Gospel. Now, he literally was pouring out his life to proclaim it to all who would hear. He knew he was unworthy; and he knew the grace of God that came to him could save anyone!

He was no volunteer to the ministry. Jesus violently confronted him and called him out of darkness and into light. And Paul never looked back.

His Suffering

Paul understood that ministry would equal suffering. Jesus told him “that I will show you many things you will suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9)

The enemies of the Gospel, the Jewish leadership and the false teachers beginning to infect the church in Colossae made much of the fact that Paul was a political prisoner of Rome. We can hear their arguments against the apostle: “So you are listening to advice from a man you’ve never seen and he’s being held prisoner in Rome for being a troublemaker?”

But in Colossians 1:24-27 Paul answers this criticism head-on. He doesn’t act like what he is experiencing is an aberration or a mistake. Instead, he says “I rejoice….!”

The ministry meant suffering for Paul. It does still today for many. Those going through persecution in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea understand the price of ministry.

But rather than resenting his suffering, Paul said “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…” Paul rejoiced because his sufferings united him, in a mystical way, with the sufferings of Christ.

Some have taught, notably the Catholic Church, that Paul is referring here to purgatory, where believers would go after their death to “finish (fill up) the sufferings of Christ for the church.”

This doctrine cannot be defended Biblically. There is no such place as purgatory discussed in the Bible. The idea that Christians need to go to a place of suffering to “complete” what Christ left undone is an affront to the completion of Jesus’ sufferings on our behalf.

But if this is not what Paul meant by “filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, what does it mean? It could mean, first of all, that Ananias, at Paul’s conversion, told him he would suffer many things for Christ’s sake. (Acts 9:16) As we know now from Paul’s testimony and history, truer words could not have been spoken.

The sufferings he endured, however, were always understood as “for Christ’s sake.” Literally Colossians 1:24 interpreted Paul’s saying to mean “(he was) filling up in his turn the leftover parts of Christ’s sufferings for the church.” Lightfoot says it means to “fill up and even supplement” the sufferings of Christ. His suffering came to him for three reasons. One, because of his laser-focus on the church, which is Christ’s body. He suffered, not for his own person, but for the bride for which Christ laid down His life on the cross.

Second, his sufferings came because of the presence of Christ in him. Satan hates Christians, not for our own sakes, but because of the One Whose image they bear. It is the presence of Christ in us that the enemy despises. But we are the physical “bearer” of that image which so outrages the devil.

Third, Paul understood his sufferings “for the Gentiles.” In this instance, for the Colossians. It was for their sake he was in chains. He saw, behind the discomfort of a prison cell and the deprivation he experienced, the hand of God placing him there “for such a time as this,” to borrow the words from The Book of Esther.

Paul never saw suffering as useless or wasted. “I rejoice…” he said. The testimony the Romans and other persecutors throughout the centuries could not erase was the testimony of the joy experienced in the midst of suffering. It is not something the world ever understands. Only those whose lives are sold out to the One Who gave up His life for them!

Missiologist Nik Ripken reminds us that the persecutor’s primary goal is to silence the testimony of the believer. Their agenda is to silence the “word of our testimony” because this word has the power to tear down his kingdom!

Many speak of American Christians being persecuted today. Certainly we are more marginalized as a religious group, partly because we enjoyed a number of years in the mainstream of American culture.

There was a day when “going to church” was just expected of everyone. To say someone does not go to church was tantamount to disparaging a person’s character and morality. This belief led many to “attend” church services to cultivate their image in the community or even to further a business or political agenda.

As time went by, that centralizing of “church” attendance began to change, and as more and more cultures and nationalities have become a normal part of the American landscape, church attendance has become less and less necessary to many.

The conservative Christian movement in America has also gone through a time, due to alignment with conservative politics, that has identified the church too neatly with conservative and fundamental political agendas.

The rise of the Moral Majority lent itself to this cultural shift. As this movement lost favor in our culture, the church also lost favor. Still today we are aligned, in the minds of many people, with such conservative political views and politics whether we engage politically or not.

All of these and other cultural currents have moved the church to the sidelines in America, leaving us as a far less influential force to be considered. The ensuing years as the new millennium was born have moved us even further toward the margins.

With the loss of our high profile in American culture and the rise of a culture of sensitivity, offense and political correctness, it has become much harder to share our faith publically. Christians have become intimidated with the idea of talking about Jesus, fearing reprisals from the workplace, the loss of relationships and friendships, and now even the accusation of our viewpoint amounting to “hate speech.” We are intimidated into silence.

But we are not persecuted as a whole. While occasionally things arise that would fit the definition of persecution, these issues are usually more about marginalizing Christianity for unpopular and politically “incorrect” standards. But we are not persecuted for using the name of Jesus Christ in public. And as long as intimidation works to silence us, we probably won’t see outright persecution in America.

To summarize, then, the persecution that Paul and the early Christians were experiencing and that many today in various parts of the world still experience was directed toward their sharing the Gospel of Who Jesus is. “Do not speak any more in that name…” the apostles were threatened by the Jews in the Book of Acts.

Much of what Paul writes about suffering is related to sharing Jesus’ name. Much of what we experience today is cultural pressure to marginalize our influence in America, but is not directly an effort to keep us from talking about Jesus…just to keep us within bounds where we “belong.”

In Cuba on a visit with a Baptist group a few years ago, we were cautioned as we approached our vans that they suspected one of two drivers was a spy for the government. We were urged, whatever else we talked about, not to bring up the name Castro.

That was not a problem for us, since we were not there on a political mission. And it turned out that our driver was a spy for the regime. But the thought that entered the minds of several of our team was, “what if they told us not to bring up the name Jesus?” Would we have risked our freedom by refusing to be silent about the Name above every Name, or would the persecutors have won?

What price are you willing to pay to “fill up the measure of Christ’s suffering?” Would you refuse to speak in Jesus’ name or about Jesus for fear you will be misunderstood? Or for fear of offending someone? Or for fear you will miss a promotion at work? When the time comes and it is your turn to “fill up” the measure of the suffering of Christ for the church, what will you do?

Summary Statement

When Paul was Saul and had given himself to destroy the church, the resurrected Jesus stopped him on the Damascus Road and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Paul learned in that encounter that the unity of Jesus Christ to His body is so intimate that, when we suffer, Jesus hurts. When we hurt another Christian, it hurts our Savior.

And when we suffer because we are Christians, Christ is honored in our suffering. A Christian should never suffer “as a thief or evildoer” but it is an honor to suffer “as a Christian.” (1 Peter 4:15-16). Jesus blessed those who suffer for His namesake (Matthew 5:10-12).

But Paul also understood his suffering as “for the Gentiles (pagans, non-Jewish people).” Paul’s defense before the courts turned when he mentioned that he had been brought before the tribunal because of his desire for the Gentiles to receive this Gospel. These words infuriated the Jews who had accused him. They felt they were validated in their attacks against him because of his association with Gentile people.

Finally, Paul could rejoice in his sufferings because they “filled up the measure of the sufferings of Christ.” Much has been written trying to interpret these words. Paul here was by no means suggesting he was “adding to” Christ’s sacrificial work for us.

In fact Paul’s use of the word “afflictions” here (ESV, others) is employing a word never used to describe Christ’s suffering. The “afflictions” Paul was talking about were the “pressures of life” or “the pressures of ministry” he experienced because of his devotion to Jesus. (Wiersbe)

Jesus is close enough to His church to feel their pain, especially when they experience it because of their faith in Him. In this way we “fill up” the sufferings that God ordained for Christ to suffer on earth, and His body, as the continuing incarnation of Jesus, will experience before Christ’s return in glory.

His Message

Paul’s message was continually a Gospel-focused one. (See comments in Chapter 4). His desire was constantly to “make known the full Word of God” (v 25). His struggle as he explains it in Colossians 2:1-3 is that those who had not seen his face “may reach all the riches of full assurance and understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ…” (2:2)

Colossians takes on a religion based on their claim to have “a mystery” which they will reveal to you as you become their follower. They claimed to have “understanding” and “knowledge” of the mystery which was, as they defined it, “knowing God.”

Paul is taking their claim and turning it, against them and, at the same time, lifting up Jesus as “the mystery of God now revealed.” He desperately wants the Colossian and Laodecian churches to understand that, in Christ, the mystery has already been fully revealed!

In the mystical eastern religions in Biblical times, as well as ours, there is always a “secret code” or “secret ritual” or “secret name” or “secret number” that, when unlocked, solves all the mysteries of the universe. People still today seek out those religions and spend fortunes and lifetimes trying to purchase keys to unlock the mysteries of life.

But Paul is presenting, in Jesus, the mystery of God revealed, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 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. (Col 1:27-28)

How profound! How simple! God has placed “the mystery” inside of the meekest and most inconsequential saint. Not the spiritually elite, or the remarkably intelligent, nor the influential leaders, but inside of all the Gentiles (pagans) lies the answer to life’s greatest questions: Christ. Is. In. You!

Paul expands this understanding in Ephesians 3:4-6

…the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one another’s body, and sharers together in Christ Jesus

Incredible statements. This mystery binds Jews and Gentiles together as one, to sit at the same table, share in the same body, and worship at the feet of Jesus Christ.

No wonder Paul longed to “have their hearts encouraged and joined together in love.” Grafting together two conflicting and opposing and hostile people to each other is no simple mission. But that is exactly what Paul sought to do, and weld them together with the fusion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This was a mystery. The fullness of God dwelt in Christ. That is profound. But another great mystery is also in play: “Christ is in you, the hope of glory. We cannot imagine the magnitude of that statement for Paul’s day, let alone our own.

The mystery, for those with “plausible arguments” that sought to destabilize young believers, was something to be discovered and looked for. The mystery, for Paul, was something that God had freely revealed as he proclaimed the word of God fully. (1:26)

Nothing is more worthy of our time, our “labor” (1:29), our love and our passion than this mystery. It is freely ours to freely share. Paul, though absent in body (2:5) was “with them in spirit” as they stand fast in the truth of this mystery, unshaken by arguments posed to them.

The Colossian church gave Paul cause to rejoice, finally, as he heard of “the good order and the firmness of (their) faith in Christ.” (2:5) Nothing gladdened the heart of the great apostle more than seeing their pursuit of the faith in the face of opposition and false teaching. This was the apostle’s heart and the engaging passion of his life, as the Word of God went forth and the Gospel was proclaimed.

It should also become ours.

Sermon Notes 02

The second part of Colossians 1 walks us into one of the deepest, most profound and glorious statements of the person and purpose of Jesus Christ given us in the Bible. In these verses are the most sublime expression ever spoken to humanity about the incarnation and the PRE-incarnate state of Jesus.

There is no way to overstate what we encounter in Colossians 1:15-23. In these verses we find ourselves confronted by the Deity of the Son of God and the proclamation of His supremacy over all creation. No place else in the Bible compresses this much doctrine and theology and truth into such a few verses.

While many of our Bible publishing houses try to set the verses apart to reflect their importance and their poetic style, some print the words as though they are simply prose. They are not.

According to Dr. AT Robertson, Paul’s exaltation of the pre-eminence of Jesus is in direct contrast with the Gnostics degradation of Jesus in their philosophy. (Robertson, *Paul and the Intellectuals*, p 40). This agrees with JB Lightfoot and other excellent commentators.

While these words are a tremendous exaltation of Christ for the Christian, (and some believe these words either became or came from a hymn being used as a teaching tool by the church in that time), they are at the same a polemic statement against those who would seek to reduce Jesus in any way. This reduction by the Gnostics and other advocates of religions serving other gods was exactly what Paul was attacking with these inspired words.

Let’s remember that Paul is not writing here in a vacuum. There was a very real threat growing that, were it allowed to go unchallenged, would lead to a very dangerous marriage of Greek philosophy and early Christian thought.

The Gnostic movement of the day (AD 60-62) was still in its infancy, but there were aggressive movements beginning to spring up. When false teaching is encountered, it must be addressed aggressively and immediately. To allow the leaven of half-truths and outright lies to ferment could pollute the whole loaf.

The Gnostics (the name means “the knowers” or “the knowing ones”) were considered the intelligentsia of the day. There were some truly brilliant thinkers who were involved in this movement. It seems to parallel roughly the movement of Scientology in our day, and Scientology seems to attract elite entertainment types and those who see themselves as very intelligent. While the claims made by L. Ron Hubbard and his movement are bizarre, the people attracted to it give it cultural legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. So with the Gnostic movement.

In a few basic statements, Gnosticism claimed to be a way to truly know God. They claimed that, since God was spirit and matter was evil, God could never touch the world directly. Therefore He put out a series of “emanations,” each a little further removed from God, until there was one far enough away that it could touch matter. It was that emanation that created the earth.

Another part of their teaching said that this creator-emanation had been so far removed from God that it was now hostile to God. Therefore the world, matter, and all that is in it is separated from God. The freedom for people came when they could be finally free from all “evil” matter in death. The Greek philosophers had long taught that the body was a prison house for the spirit, and death was the only way to be free from it.

We need to be aware at how closely some of our Christian thinking has come to this, and crossed over into Greek philosophy. Is the body a prison? Is this world something we should long to escape to arrive at a “purer” home in heaven? Many of our songs we have sung and sermons we have heard preached seem to affirm this.

But the Bible does not. The resurrection of Jesus PHYSICALLY as “the firstfruit from the dead” affirms the eternal plan of God to redeem the MATERIAL of the world as well as the SPIRITS of those who are human.

God’s plan is not ultimately to destroy the world and the universe, but to RESTORE it to its original splendor after it has been purified. We will live in a LITERAL and PHYSICAL world for eternity, not on a cloud floating in the sky.

And if you read the Bible carefully, you will see throughout that, while our desire is to get OUT of the world, God’s desire is to come INTO the world and to dwell with man here forever!

Christians are taken at death, not into a permanent dwelling place with God, but will be “in the Lord” or “with the Lord” until the day that Christ returns to bring the Kingdom of God in fullness. Then we will see our PERMANENT home established and “the dwelling of God will be with man” forever.

So we can see how much in conflict the Gnostic teaching was with Biblical thought. They also taught that Jesus was one of countless “emanations” that came from God, but was certainly not co-equal with God nor “God incarnate” in human flesh. That, to them, would be unthinkable.

The Gnostics believed that, with their superior knowledge and access to spiritual secrets, they could help you relate to a higher emanation…one close to God than Jesus Himself…if you would just follow them. Again, we can see how insidious and dangerous this philosophy was.

As we read the words of Colossians 1:15-20, let’s remember the context into which they were first spoken. Each statement was designed to attack another level of false teaching that was threatening this fledgling fellowship of Christians.

Jesus Himself said that “if I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto Myself.” This “lifting up of Jesus” is exactly what is lacking, sadly, even in many Christian gatherings today. When what we are about becomes anything less or other than Jesus, then we have, maybe unwittingly, done the same thing that the enemies of Christ seek to do: Make Him less than He is.

We must return in the church to doing as Paul and the early church did so fervently. We must make sure we are focusing on Jesus. D.L. Moody, before the beginning of the celebrated Chicago evangelistic campaign in 1873, had many come to him with ideas about how he should use his platform during the World’s Fair in Chicago. His response was, “I am going to make Jesus so attractive that men will turn to Him.” And in that campaign, thousands did. (Hughes, *Colossians*)

When we make much of Jesus, when we “make Jesus attractive,” people will come to hear about Him. Jesus promised that. Nothing else will do the same. Our focus must be to make much of Jesus!

15. He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.

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

17 And he is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.

18 And he is the head of the body,
the church.
He is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
that in everything he might be preeminent.

19. For in him all the fullness of God
was pleased to dwell,

20 and through him to reconcile
to himself all things,
whether on earth or
in heaven,
making peace by
the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20 ESV

 

We sometimes hear this passage taught at Christmas as part of a series of messages on the incarnation.  That is certainly fine to do it there, but this is not simply a holiday devotion.  I think it best to treat each phrase of this great section independently and then pull the whole together at the end.

 

HE IS THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD

Christ is the Agent of Creation (1:15-16)

The Book of Colossians was written in a time of a proliferation of images.  The “social media” of the day was an image, or icon, of the Caesar (at the time of this letter, Nero).  This practice was common in the Roman world, and spurred Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees about taxation.  Jesus confronted them with a question:  “Showing them a coin, He asked, ‘Whose image is on it?’ And they answered, “Caesar’s.” “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that belong to God.”

Caesar’s image was stamped on all the coins.  It made his face and his image ubiquitous in the world, like getting millions of likes on a Facebook post.  It was everywhere!  And just to be certain the image was being circulated properly, (even among those who did not have money), statues and busts would also be erected everywhere; not only of the Caesar, but even of the Caesar’s family!

Historically it is also significant to note that Rome had just received a brand new Caesar.  He was said to be a spokeman that could “charm the birds out of the trees.”  He had led troops in battle as a commander of soldiers.  He was an artist, and an accomplished musician.  A violinist, in fact.  His name was Nero.

In the early days of Caesar Nero coming to the throne, there was a tremendous wave of excitement in the empire.  A new leader!  A winsome, multitalented, powerful leader who can lead Rome to a new day!  It was believed that Rome was the light of the world.  All of the hopes of the people of Rome were placed on Nero, before his power went to his head and he lost his influence and some argue, his mind.  Nero became the first Roman emperor to commit suicide.

But there is no wonder statues were erected and songs written about and to Nero.  People were eager to see the light Rome would now bring to the world.  Their hopes were destined to be dashed.

Icons (images, statues, stained glass windows) are still common in some Catholic and other Orthodox religious systems.  They represent a pope, an angelic being, or a person considered a saint in the depiction.  Many evangelical traditions have rejected this practice as the creation of a “graven image,” prohibited by the Ten Commandments.

As a bit of a tangent here, it should be pointed out that, in the Book of Genesis, man was created “in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 11:7). While man was created as a reflector and representative of God’s image, sin has marred our ability to do that perfectly and in fact man was never able to fully contain or reflect God’s image.  We do not perfectly reflect the unchanging and eternal-the “immutable”-attributes of a holy God.

So here, Paul borrows a common word from the Greek language in describing Jesus:  He is the “ikon,” the image of the invisible God.  Our Savior said, “No man has seen God at any time.  But the only begotten of the Father has made Him known.”  (John 1:18)

As we behold Jesus, we see the Father.  Jesus said to Philip during the Last Supper, “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8). But this means more than revealing a physical image.  Jesus was not, and Paul was not saying “Jesus looks like God.”  That’s beside the point.

Paul is telling us that, in Jesus Christ, the very nature of God is being revealed.  We see, not the physical contours of the Father’s face, but the contours of His heart.  How does God think?  What is important to Him?  What does He want of us?  How do we live to please Him?

All of these questions, and more, are answered as we behold the face of God in Jesus Christ.  Hebrews 1:3 says, “He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.”  God’s glory and beauty is radiating out through the person of Jesus Christ.  We are seeing in Jesus, not simply one of many steps to know God, but the only way to the Father.

This statement alone was enough to devastate the argument of false religions which claim other ways to God than through Jesus.  It certainly flew in the face of the Gnostics assertions.  But the argument goes even further with the next phrase.

 

THE FIRSTBORN OVER ALL CREATION

Now we need to be careful in our usage of language to state that this does not mean Jesus was created.  The idea of “firstborn” can be traced back to Psalm 89:27 where David is called “the firstborn of the kings of the earth.” While certainly David was not the “firstborn” in the sense of being born first in time, he was called the “firstborn” as an order of priority and privilege.  (Melick, New American Commentary, V 22)

This phrase has nothing to do with birth order, or order or hierarchy of time.  It is a word that means “prominent,” or “first in order of importance.”

The church has struggled at times throughout history to understand this phrase.  A preacher in the Fourth Century named Arius, who came from Alexandria in Egypt, taught that Jesus was the “created creator” and was one step less than God.  He did this in an effort to guard the church against the charge of polytheism.

Arius’ views were rejected by the church in AD 325, but some groups (including Jehovah’s Witnesses) continue to follow this flawed train of thought.  (Melick, New American Commentary, V 22) It is not commonly accepted Christian belief, however.  It would have been more in line with the Gnostics in Paul’s day!

Jesus was the One Who “created all things.”  We live in a galaxy called the Milky Way.  Our little “cul-de-sac” in the universe contains literally billions of stars.  We can only see a few hundred with the naked eye.

Each of these stars that pinpoint the darkness at night are orbs of fire and light, even the smallest of which dwarf our sun by comparison. Our ability to see with huge telescopes and send interstellar probes out on exploratory missions is still in its infancy.  We cannot even count how many galaxies exist, but of those we know about we’ve found we’re among the smallest.

Jesus created all of this.  He did it, we are told, by the power of “His Word.”  It is this that makes Him “most important,” or “most prominent” among all of creation.  Everything exists because He says so!

This also allows us to understand where we came from and why we are here.  We forget that the answer to those two questions will be the steering current for a human life.

If we think we are here by cosmic accident, and when life is over we just cease to exist, then everything between our birth and death is meaningless.  We have successfully indoctrinated most of our children with this view in our culture.  And we are reaping the whirlwind in skyrocketing suicide rates among young people and out of control addiction and substance abuse.

Without Jesus, LIFE MEANS NOTHING.  It is “just a vapor.”  A puff of smoke.  A cloud that vanishes in the heat of day.  We have no eternal destiny or purpose.  We have literally become complicit in the deaths of an untold number of young people by indoctrinating them with this lie that is commonplace in our culture, our media, our universities and our textbooks, that life is essentially random at the outset and meaningless at the end.

If Jesus is the “firstborn over all creation” then we have a Creator and we have a destiny and this means we have a purpose!  Without this understanding (which, by the way, is ridiculed in most circles that claim to be populated by the intelligentsia), our life is futile and suicide actually offers a plausible though tragic alternative to some.

This text teaches that in all of creation, nothing and no one is more pre-eminent; of higher priority or of more importance that Jesus.  Jesus was not a created being in His essence, though His earthly body was “prepared” for Him by the Father.

He could not be the perfect image of the invisible God if He was created by God.  My son has many of my qualities and physical characteristics, but our children cannot perfectly reflect their parents.  Most breathe a sigh of relief that this is true.

Jesus was “the image of the invisible God” and “the firstborn” (protokos, Gk) of all creation but as we will see next, “all things were created by Him.” He could not create Himself.

There is no way Biblically that an argument can be made to make Christ a created being in any way, though many through the years have tried to do just that.

 

FOR EVERYTHING WAS CREATED BY HIM

He is Lord of the Universe

(Colossians 1:16-17)

No doctrine has been more heavily debated than the assertion that the world was created and did not just randomly form in a collision of molecules and matter.  Both sides of this argue regularly lob shells into the opposing camp.

I do not wish in this section to dissect the views of those who reject the idea of creation.  While I vehemently disagree with any view that posits an argument against the creation claims of Scripture, many books have been written and sermons preached that critique these viewpoints.

Scientific or philosophical naturalism is a closed system that only allows things of the material world to be knowable.  The entire assertion of the Bible is that an unseeable, invisible God -Who is Spirit-created all things seen and unseen.  Scientific naturalism asserts the opposite; that those things that are seen (human beings) created the invisible (God).

Scientism claims precedence since they only allow that to be true which can be seen or proven or tested empirically.  Christian theism claims that the greatest truth that can be known is unseen to us.  So on the argument goes, and there is no reconciliation of it nor compromise to be found.

I will say that, if you are struggling with what you believe on the idea of creation verses evolution, or science verse faith, it is essential that you prayerfully resolve this tension.  If you reject God as Creator of all things, you have essentially made the truth of Scripture a non-starter and the things of God are reduced to fiction.

Can one be a faithful Christian and an advocate of science?  Absolutely!  Many are brilliant scientists, but none who believe the tenets of naturalism can hold to the truths of the Bible at the same time.  They are diametrically opposed positions.  And none who reject the hundreds of Scriptures built on a foundation that “God created…” can claim a faithful adherence to Holy Scripture. It is impossible to navigate the Bible and sidestep the understanding that God created everything.

These verses assert three things:

  1. Christ is the agent of creation (v 16).

“…everything was created by Him.” While God the Father was the architect of creation, God the Son was the implementer of the plan.  Jesus is the Word of God, and “by His Word all things exist.” (Hebrews 11:3)  The earth, the universe, and things visible and invisible were created by the Word.

The sheer magnitude of the universe is staggering.  The sun has a diameter of 864,000 miles.  That is one hundred times the size of earth.  Our sun could hold 1.3 million planets the size of earth’s diameter inside of it.

The star Betelgeuse, however, has a diameter of 100 million miles, which is larger than the area of the earth’s orbit around the sun!  The light that travels the distance from our sun to the earth takes 8.5 minutes to arrive.  By contrast, the same ray of light would take four years, traveling at 186,000 feet per second, to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. (Colossians, MacArthur)

This verse strongly advocates against the Gnostic position that the material of earth was too evil for God to touch.  Paul advocates that Jesus made it all.  “By Him…” means “in His mind or in His sphere of influence or responsibility.”  Practically this means that Jesus conceived of creation and its complexities (Melick, NAC, V22).  William Hendrikson suggested that this means “Jesus is the cornerstone from which all of creation takes its bearings.” (Hendrikson, Colossians and Philemon, NTC) The phrase points to Jesus as the “detailer” of Creation.  In other words, Jesus “originated the details of creation and brought them into existence by His own creative energies.”

It was the Holy Spirit Who actually does the hands-on work of bringing these plans into reality.  Jesus was, we would say, the foreman of the construction process!  (Melick, Colossians, NAC, V 22) Creation was, in essence, the product of the Trinity in creative power.

But it’s also important to note the text says, not only “by Him,” but  “through Him.”  This means that Jesus was the effectual agent of creation, the One by Whom all things, seen and unseen, were brought into existence.

 

2. “Jesus is the goal of creation…” (v 16)

Finally, it was all done “for Him.”  Literally the phrase means, “unto Him.”  Jesus is the ultimate goal of creation.  Everything is moving toward a terminal point, or “Omega Point.” (Pannenburg, Systematic Theology V 1)  Jesus is that terminal point.

In the same way that a statue is conceived by an artist, and then crafted and shaped by his own hands, Jesus conceived of and crafted all things.  As we remember the artist as long as the statue stands, so we remember Jesus as we admire His handiwork in the universe. (Melick, op cit)

But not only did create the things that are seen, He also created those things that are not seen:  “…whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-“. So even the unseen things…powers, dominions, thrones, and authorities…have their existence because of Jesus.

Simply put, this indicates that Jesus is Lord not only of all the things we can see and study and understand with our minds and eyes and ears and hands, but He is even Lord of those powers we cannot see but are nonetheless real.

It is just the possibility of the existence of such a spirit world that the secular world and a naturalistic worldview seeks to discount.  And yet most thinking people have a sense (that God gave them) that such a world does exist and somehow has varying degrees of influence over us.

This is not to make us afraid, but to give us assurance that Jesus Himself is Lord of such a domain.  While we may not understand all of these unseen realities, Jesus created and controls even them!

These unseen realities are in all likelihood the various ranks of angels.  Paul says in a parallel verse in Ephesians 1 that Jesus “has been exalted far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named…” (Ephesians 1:21)  This is a crucial part of Paul’s argument against the Gnostic threat in Colossians, since even the angelic “emanations” which the Gnostic heretics claimed to control with secret names and rituals and knowledge were put in place and are ruled over by Jesus.

No domain escapes His rule and authority.  Nothing “in Heaven and earth” exists but that which Jesus created.  He is Lord and Creator of the seen as well as the unseen realities of the world and the universe.

It has become in vogue once again to hear intellectual discussions about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life existing somewhere.  The conspiracy theories around the celebrated Area 51, where it is suspected the government has hidden evidence of such life flare up every year or so.

I will sometimes be asked by an earnest person if I believe such life does exist.  Some of the most acclaimed intelligentsia of our day (Stephen Hawking and the atheist Richard Dawkins) have affirmed their belief in them.  In a sense, this is exactly what the Gnostic heretics were affirming as well, though their view was less “scientific” and more spiritual in tone.  My opinion is such an existence is doubtful, and the Bible does not affirm it at all.

But from this text (and no, this really isn’t a verse about UFOs) it can be implied that, were they to exist, (1) Jesus created them and (2) Jesus has dominion over them.  Now please don’t walk away thinking, “I didn’t know our pastor was a UFO conspiracy guy.” I’m not.  Again, my strongest opinion and assertion is that we are alone and the only living creatures out here as we circle on the third rock from the sun and as such are the sole focus of God’s reconciling work.

My certainty, however, is that nothing in this universe, known by us or not; SEEN by us or not, escapes the rule of Christ.  And since He made everything, He is the most powerful force that can be known.

So let me extricate myself from this argument with this:

“May the force —of Jesus— be with you!”

 

3. “He is the sustainer of creation...” (v 17)

The third assertion of these verses is that Jesus is the One Who not only CREATED all things that exist, and Who is not only the GOAL of creation and the point to which everything is headed, but Jesus is the One Who, by His personal presence and care, SUSTAINS all creation.

There is an order to creation, and a design that can only be attributed to One far greater than us Who set these things in place.  Max Plank, one of the founders of modern physics and a Nobel prize winner, wrote in his book Design in Nature:

According to everything taught in the exact sciences about the immense realm of nature, a certain order prevails in terms of purposeful activity.  There is evidence of an intelligent order of the universe to which both man and nature are subservient.  (Deyoung, p. iii)

This from a man who was not espousing a religious or faith-based position, but was simply an honest scientist making an observation about our known universe.  There is an order.  There is a design in nature.  There is a “purpose” in our universe that seems to be designed for the well-being of mankind.

We exist in the exact orbit around the sun necessary for life to survive.  A degree closer, and we would burn up.  A degree further away from the sun would cause the earth to freeze.  We live in world that is delicately balanced to preserve life, and all provisions are made for us:  oxygen to breathe, water to drink, and predictable seasons with periods of sunlight suitable for growth.

If you are ready to do mental gymnastics you can seek to calculate the chances that such a planet would exist in our universe, (though none other seems to), where humanity can flourish.  The mathematical odds alone are staggering and mind blowing!

And yet some find it easier to live in the odds of that happening by chance than to accept with simple faith that “all things were created” by God, and “He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.”  We live in a world uniquely suited for us to survive and thrive.

If we live in a world with such delicate balance, how can it stay in place?  With asteroids, and solar flares exploding, how does it stay exactly where it does?

Well, science tells us there is an invisible force called gravity that we can’t see.  And there certainly seems to be that. And the spinning motion of the earth, combining with the gravitational pull of the sun, holds the earth in its perfect orbit.

I have no reason to question or doubt that.  The law of gravity seems pretty solid to me.  But with such a delicate balancing act, why don’t we get knocked off our orbit by some random space object flying our way?  Does it kind of make you lose sleep to know we are hanging by an invisible thread tied to….what?

Some friends got me a Christmas gift last year that is fascinating.  It is a globe that floats between two magnets.  When you put it in just the right distance from the magnets, the globe floats and spins.  But nothing holds it in place except for the invisible force of magnetic poles.

My granddarlin’ McCail was quite fascinated by Poppy’s new toy and her first inclination as a curious preschooler was to touch the globe with her finger.  And of course, it knocked the globe out of that magic, invisible place where it floated effortlessly and fell to the floor with a crash.

How has the earth, for as many years as it’s been around, ever been “knocked off it’s pins” by some force or power?  Because of Jesus.  “By Him all things hold together.”

And let’s turn the telescope around and observe a microscopic universe.  We are made up of atomic and sub-atomic material.  The more powerful we make the microscope to observe the world unseen by the naked eye, the more of that universe we discover exists.  We have not yet gotten to the bottom of the world of the atom and our atomic structure yet.  We just haven’t invented the lens that is powerful enough to see it through.

My suspicion is we never will.  What we do know, and scientific theory supports this, is that atoms defy anyone’s understanding.  How do they hold together?  Why do they not simply fly apart in a massive nuclear holocaust?  Scientists have dubbed this phenomenon “strong nuclear force.”  But they have no idea why it exists!

Physicist George Gamow, one of the founders of the Big Bang theory, wrote,

The fact that we we live in a world in which practically every object is a potential nuclear explosive, without being blown to bits, is due to the extreme difficulties that attend the starting of a nuclear reaction.  

Or maybe the fact that “by Him all things hold together.”  In other words, all things do NOT blow apart in multiplied trillions of potential nuclear explosions because Jesus is the “force” that is holding all things together.

I, for one, am not prepared to state, “well we’re just lucky it doesn’t happen.”  Is that the best we can do?  Or can we find the faith to believe that there IS a Creator Who put all things in place after the pleasure of His will and purpose and He knows how to keep it all from splintering into oblivion?

Gamow continued,

You grasp what this implies?  It implies that all the massive nuclei combined have no right to be alive!  It implies that they have no right to be alive at all, and if created should have blown up instantly.  Yet, here they are!

This unseen “force” that holds the nucleus of the atom together has been called Coulomb’s Law of electrostatic force.  That, combined with the laws of magnetism, are the theories science believes “hold all things together.”

Even honest scientists, on observation and setting aside their philosophical preconceptions, are amazed at the world and the universe we live in.  There are so many fundamental things that have no logical reason for existence!

It reminds us of the verse in Romans which, read properly, says it is impossible to be an atheist:

Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and   Divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

Unbelieving man willingly ignores the evidence before his eyes and chooses not to believe.  The same evidence is presented to every person.  But people will look at the same phenomenon, and some will allow it to lead them to belief and others will claim these things as “chance,” or “good fortune” or “luck.”  They willfully deny what is plainly before them.

The world we live in, created and upheld by the One Who holds all things together will one day be dissolved, when “the heavens will pass with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and all its works will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

But until then, we live by the grace of the One by Whom “all things hold together.”  The One is Jesus Christ, our Creator and our Savior; our provider and our sustainer.  He is the One Who is “before all things and by Him all things hold together.”

 

HE IS THE HEAD OF THE BODY, THE CHURCH

He is also the head of the body, the church… (v 18)

Most of the metaphors for the church found in the Bible; a family, a vineyard, a kingdom, a flock, a building…are all found in the Old Testament.

But the picture of the church as the Body of Christ is uniquely a New Testament metaphor.  There is nothing else that defines the unity between Christ and His people as intimately as this.  The church is His body, a living organism that is tied to the living Christ.

As our bodies take our direction and find our fulfillment when connected to our brains, so the body of Christ finds its highest function when tied in an unbroken connection to the Head which is Christ.

But just as frail human flesh, sometimes the body refuses to do what the brain instructs.  Disease, dysfunction, brokenness all disrupt  this desired unity between head and body.  The results are sad to see.

Likewise, as the head of the body, the church is to move in complete harmony with Christ.  We become unmanageable, dysfunctional, and broken when we do not walk in harmony with our Head.

The disunity, argumentation, and unChristlike behavior that at times characterize the Body grieves our Head.  If we truly were looking to follow the Head the body would never behave in a dysfunctional or disjointed way.  Disunity would not happen if we were all following the direction set by the One Who is “the Head of the body, the church.”

I have always been attracted to the more organic images of the church as the body.  The church, in its essence, is an organism more than an organization, though qualities and ideas of both are present in Scripture.

There is a need for organizational guidelines and understandings for a group of people to function.  Some denominations have sought to simply related organically, but those usually fall short of what is needed to survive together.  Dimensions of both are essential for a church to flourish.

But I lean toward a preference for the organic comparison.  Just as it is hard for a body to function without a skeletal structure, so it is hard for a church to function without some sense of “skeletal” organization.

 

He is the beginning…

The church was not man’s idea, nor man’s creation.  Jesus did not come along and “adopt” a structure that was already in place.  He is the beginning.  This word can have either a temporal application (first in time) or a positional one (first in authority).  It is more likely the positional idea in view here, and that is modified by the second phrase:

 

The firstborn from among the dead…

This clearly is a phrase that asserts Jesus’ supremacy in His resurrection.  The idea of “firstborn” ties back to “the beginning” to help us understand clearly what is being said.

The statement is telling us that, through redemption and resurrection, the church had it’s beginning and Jesus being “the firstborn from among the dead” sets a new direction and new order for redeemed humanity.

The entire verse provides the reason that “Jesus is the head of the church.”  As it’s beginning due to His cross and His victory due to the resurrection the church now exists.  It is His church.  “I will build my church,” Jesus said, “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

No man is head of the church.  No group of people, no board of directors, no pope, no bishops or presbytery serve as the “Head” of the church, since His role is unique due to His sacrifice for it.  This assures His continuing authority, leadership, and care for “the body…the church.”  Only Jesus is the Head.  Our role is simply, as the Body, to follow.

 

that He might come to have first place in everything. (v 18)

At the end of all this, the purpose is “that He might come to have first place…” or, as some translate this, “the supremacy” in everything.

Let’s hear this first as a rebuke to the Gnostics who lowered Jesus’ position to one of the bottom levels in their hierarchy.  “How,” they reasoned, “could God make Himself known in a person Who occupied flesh?”  One branch of this movement, know as “Docetics” (“seemists”) argued that Jesus only “seemed” to have a human body, since deity could not be lowered to occupying flesh and blood.  Their writings reflect their effort to eliminate references to the reality of “God in flesh” in Jesus.

But Paul’s conclusion was that in all of this, Jesus is to have “first place” or “supremacy” in everything!  “Everything” extends the supremacy of Christ far beyond any conceivable scope and beyond.  He must have first place in everything!

  • First place in our family
  • First place in our marriage
  • First place in our profession
  • First place in our missions and ministry
  • First place in our thinking
  • First place in time
  • First place in love
  • First place in conversation
  • First place in pleasure
  • First place in eating
  • First place in play
  • First place in athletics
  • First place in our entertainment
  • First place in art
  • First place in music
  • First place in worship
  • First place in living
  • First place in dying
  • First place in His body, the church!

“It’s crazy if you think about it.  The God of the universe—the God Who created nitrogen and pine needles and E-minor, loves us with a radical, unconditional, and self-sacrificing love.  And what is our response?  We go to church, sing a couple of tunes, and try not to cuss.”  —Francis Chan

What should our response be?  We give Him the supremacy in everything!

 

FOR IN HIM ALL THE FULLNESS OF GOD WAS PLEASED TO DWELL

In verse 19, we encounter one of the most mind-blowing realities we can contemplate about Jesus.  “All the fullness of God” was dwelling in Jesus.

In our human frailty and our sometimes apathetic attempts at understanding our Savior and our salvation though we plead it as the most important thing if we’re believers, we lose sight of important truth.

Jesus is God.  Not fifty percent God.  He was not a “hybrid” of God and man.  He was fully God, and fully human.  Both.  One hundred percent both.

That is the doctrine of the incarnation that we must think about other than a few weeks during Christmas.  God dwelt in Jesus.  The concept, if you seriously think about it, is mind numbing.  How can this be?

Wasn’t Jesus born in Galilee of a human mother?  Wasn’t He a Jew by race?  And wasn’t He a human being Who felt the sting of the lash and the piercing pain of the nails that tore His flesh on the cross?  How could that happen…to God?

But the Scripture here (and several other places) affirms that “all the fullness of God was dwelling in Jesus.” Everything there was about God was resident in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s baby.

The Creator of the stars, the planets, the galaxies…was compressed into the fetus of a Jewish virgin named Mary.  To borrow from the age-old hymn, “How Can It Be?”

When false teachers arise with their doctrines to deceive, it is this truth that is attacked.  This truth is assaulted by half-truth and distortion.  “All the fullness of God” lived (and by the way, still lives) in Jesus.  He is “the exhaustion of God” to quote one theologian.

This statement too was an assault against the false teaching of the Gnostic heretics.  They taught that Jesus was one of the “emanations” that flowed forth from God.  All of the emanations together, they believed was the “pleroma,” the Greek word for the “fullness.”

But Paul says, “NO!”  ALL the pleroma of God is in Jesus.  ALL the fullness has taken up residence in Jesus.  He is not one dimension of the fullness of God, He IS the fullness of God!

Later this is reiterated in Colossians 2:9: “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…”. So this is no mistaken gloss or statement taken out of context.  It is reinforced over and again in Scripture.  The fullness of God lives in Jesus PHYSICALLY.

“The totality of Divine essence and power has taken up its residence in Christ.” (FF Bruce). Everything there is to know about God is found in Christ.  Everything there is to life is found in Christ.  Everything there is to salvation is found in Christ.

“Jesus Christ is the ultimate.  There is none before Him, nought beyond Him, and nothing without Him.  Other than Jesus will not do; less than Jesus will not suit; more than Jesus is not possible.  More than all in Him we find.  Everything of God is to be found in Him and little of God is to be found apart from Him.”  (Dermot McDonald)

There is nothing in this statement that says this indwelling of God in Christ was a temporary arrangement.  If this is true, the God Who is Spirit, will be visible in the Son throughout all eternity.

Our eternal life with God will be a life with One Who occupied and still occupies the body in which He was crucified, wrapped and buried in a borrowed tomb, and raised to life.  God never withdraws or abandons that physical, now glorified body.  We will see Him, relate to Him, love Him, and worship Him in our own glorified flesh forever.

 

and through Him to reconcile all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. (v20)

 

Charles Wesley wrote the words to one of our more popular Christmas carols, Joy to the World

No more let sins and sorrow grow

Nor thorns infest the ground;    

He comes to make His blessings flow

Far as the curse is found.

 

Our understanding of salvation is typically very short-sighted.  In the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, and books we read there are dimensions of salvation that are overlooked or worse, disregarded as unimportant.

God’s eternal plan was, “through Him (Jesus) to reconcile all things…”  We sometimes mistakenly think that salvation’s plan was to save people.  And certainly that is so.

But what we fail to take into account is that, because of sin that came by man’s disobedience to God, ALL of creation…living and inanimate…all of the universe…is out of relationship with the Creator.

When our federal (representative) head, Adam, chose to follow the his own path in the Garden instead of God’s, everything that Adam had dominion over as the first created man fell with him.

God’s plan (2 Peter 3) is to finally and ultimately purify all that He created in the first six days and proclaimed was “good” (interestingly a word that also means “beautiful”).

But now, because of the blight of sin, “the whole creation groans,” and decays, and dies, and suffers with war, and cancer, and broken relationships, dashed hopes, weeds in our gardens and thorns in our hands.  “We who are in this tent do groan….”  Childbirth brings pain before it brings joy.  But creation is now in something like the pain of childbirth, and will sooner than later give birth to the joy God intended!  God never meant His creation to live in conflict with itself…or with Him.  His plan is to reconcile “all things” to Himself through the now accomplished redemption through Jesus “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.”

 

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration (futility), not by its own choice, but by the will of the one (Adam) who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  (Romans 8:19-22)

And you…..

Now the focus shifts from “all things on earth and in heaven” to the personal reconciliation of alienated and hostile people.  You.  And me.

Who were once alienated and doing hostile deeds…

We have to acknowledge within ourselves that WE are the main thing that is wrong with the world.  WE are alienated from God and hostile to Him, and the fruit of that hostility is a mind that is turned away from the things of God and therefore “we do evil deeds/actions.”

Our actions flow from a mind that is corrupted by sin and a spirit that is living in hostility against the things of God.  We are alienated.  We have done it to ourselves.  And the proof is in the deeds we do.

But now… (Colossians 1:22 CSB)

The great reprieve comes here.  BUT NOW these things can be remedied.  NOW there is a way to turn away from our inner and outer hostility which characterizes our lives.  “Now is the accepted time…” Now the doorway to peace is open, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

He has reconciled in His body of flesh by His death

We did not reconcile ourselves.  Estranged as we were from God, we did not even desire to reconcile to Him.  Even the very motive to seek reconciliation and the faith applied to make it true in our lives came from God.  It was His blood.  His flesh.  His body.  His plan.  But we live eternally as glad recipients of it!

In order to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach before Him.

God’s plan is not to redeem us so we could then spend the rest of our lives slavishly attempting to “clean up the mess” left behind.  Through the blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of the cross, we receive a sentence that says “you are holy, blameless, and above reproach” instead of one that says, “Condemned.”  This declaration is because of Christ’s sacrifice, not our own action.

 

If indeed you continue in the faith

Luther used the illustration of our salvation being like a dying patient taking a medication delivered by the doctor.  When the medicine passes the dying man’s lips and enters his body, he says, “He is cured.”  But it may be some time before the patient begins to demonstrate evidence of the cure the medicine is bringing.

That seems to be something of Paul’s argument here.  We have been “cured” from the curse of sin through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  However, it may still be the case that we still demonstrate symptoms of our former “sin sickness” that, while it cannot reverse the cure, it can keep us living in sin’s foul grip.

We are to “continue in the faith.”  We are to grow up in our faith (2 Peter 1). Some of that growth must be efforts we make to learn more about the “cure” we have received by God’s reconciling work.

We are to be “stable and steadfast.”  We are to set our face toward Jesus.  Many distractions and attacks will come our way to discourage us and seek to “destabilize” our beliefs and convictions.  But the greatest testimony we can bear to the truth of God’s Word is a stability that cannot be shaken.

We are not to “shift from the hope.”  We keep placing our confidence in Jesus Christ.  We are to keep our eyes on the horizon for His return.  We are to be a hopeful people, standing on a rock that cannot be moved.

Our hope is in “the gospel which we heard, and which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.”  “All creation under heaven” is where the Gospel needed to be proclaimed, because only there are those whom God has chosen to be reconciled.  The stars and planets and galaxies above do not need the Gospel broadcast to them.  But people on earth do, that they might hear and be saved.

Finally, Paul concludes this incredible passage by affirming that he has been “made a minister” of this Gospel hope.  He is a servant of it, a proclaimer of it, and witness to it, and an apostle for it.

Jesus. Is. Better.

SEPTEMBER IS SUICIDE AWARENESS MONTH. THE FOLLOWING POST IS DIRECTED TOWARD THIS PROBLEM AND DEALS DIRECTLY WITH A VERY PAINFUL REALITY. PLEASE BE ADVISED THERE IS STRONG CONTENT INCLUDED.

Without Jesus, LIFE MEANS NOTHING. It is “just a vapor.” A puff of smoke. A cloud that vanishes in the heat of day. And no, this is not an article about “vaping.”

We teach our children that life has no eternal destiny or purpose. We’re not sure why we’re here or where we’re going when life ends. We have literally been made complicit in the death of an untold number of young people by feeding them this lie that is in our culture, our media, our universities and our textbooks.

If Jesus is the “firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15 b) then we have a Creator and we have a destiny and this means we also have a purpose! Without this understanding (which, by the way, is ridiculed in most circles that claim to be populated by the intelligentsia), our life is futile and suicide actually offers an out to a boring, difficult, or hopeless experience.

Do we have anything, as Christians, that offers an alternative to such a despairing view of life? Can we push back against a culture that tells our children that suicide is romantic and even heroic?

If you are a Christian parent still raising your children (they are still under your roof and care), when do you plan to talk to them about why they would not want to end their life by their own hand?

Hopefully your son or daughter doesn’t, but you can rest assured their friends are talking about it. Social media is talking about it. The celebrity culture they follow is immersed in it. And if you do feel the need to talk to them about why it’s important that they do not pursue this option, what do you plan to say?

An answer is in the paragraph below. Try this as a conversation starter:

“Jesus is the One Who made you. You are not a random accident. Jesus has a plan and purpose for your life that’s bigger and better than you could dream. Since Jesus made you, He also owns you. Your life is not your own. It’s HIS property that He has loaned you and one day you will give an account to Him for what you did with it. And what’s more, you are PRECIOUS to Him; so precious in fact that He died on the cross and went to the grave to buy you back so you could be with Him forever!”

Have a serious conversation between yourselves, Mom and Dad. It’s time for us to stand up and defend our children from this demonic onslaught for which the teaching of false philosophies in our culture has paved the way. And then think about having that conversation with your children. If nothing else, your offering the conversation opens the door for them to talk to you if they find themselves deeply troubled and thinking about it.

It is past time for the church to step up and acknowledge the reality that is now part, not only of our culture’s experience, but even of the church. There are those among us who are hurting and who see ending their life as the only way to end their pain. And church people are not immune.

Show them there’s a better way. Show them life is worth living. Show them Jesus. Is. Better.

If you know of someone struggling with thoughts of taking their life, or you are having those thoughts, please use the Suicide Hotline Number below. God loves you. We care about you, and stand available to help and counsel in your distress.

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255

Sermon Notes 01 Colossians: Living Risen

Preface

The brief letter to the Colossians was etched deeply within my soul just a few weeks after becoming a follower of Jesus in late 1974. As a new believer, the Bible had just begun to make sense to me for the first time in my life.

Somewhere I ran across a pocket Gideon New Testament that I took into my office at General Telephone Company in Ashland, Kentucky where I worked as a Customer Service Representative. It was a low-level job, but I got my own small office and desk to go with it.

I kept the little Gideon Bible in my center drawer, and every time I had a moment and usually over every lunch break, I read it. I was soaking it up like a sponge!

The very first book of the Bible I read in its entirety was The Book of Colossians. I will never forget finishing those four chapters. I couldn’t have been more proud if I had just finished War and Peace.

But reading it through that first proud winter’s day was just the beginning. There were things I encountered in this little book that I needed to know about. I was learning and forming my understanding of Who the Bible said Jesus really was: “The image of the invisible God….” “The firstborn of all creation….” I read those four chapters continuously, returning to it like a favorite food dish. I couldn’t get enough of it!

I was wrestling with the concept of Christ being in me….ME…”the hope of glory.” And I was lost in the idea of “setting my mind on heavenly things, not on things of the earth” as we are told in the third chapter.

These thoughts I first encountered and contemplated while working in my cubicle office at the phone company never left me. And I have, in forty-five years of reading, studying, preaching, and research in the Scriptures, still not reached the bottom of their riches. I come back to these four chapters time and again.

So now, four and a half decades of walking with Christ later, I will attempt to put some of these thoughts in writing. Many authors, much more accomplished that I am, have written commentaries and studies on the Colossian letter. I doubt seriously that my thoughts will add anything to that which has already been written.

However this letter has been such a personal and constant part of my journey as a Christian, I find myself needing to share some things I have learned. And maybe as I hold this jewel up to the light, it will allow you to see a facet you might have missed.

And selfishly, I hope it might do the same for me!

Introduction

The Bible, while God-breathed throughout, is a book written by men “led by the Holy Spirit” who were living in a specific historical period of time. To correctly and aptly interpret it, it must be read and analyzed with that context in mind. God breathed His Word into an historic setting that spanned 1500 years— from the mountains and wilderness of Sinai, to the flowing waters of the Jordan River, to the rocky shores of Patmos. It was inspired and written on three continents, in three distinct languages, and by forty different human authors.

As a book written in history and containing history, it stands above any other surviving documents of the period or of most any other epoch of human existence. No other book compares with it.

We are left with over fifty-eight hundred documents, manuscripts, papyrus fragments, scrolls and other written sources, including pottery fragments! These sources agree in every major point, thus weaving an absolutely extraordinary historical record. No other historic document in our possession contains as much objective historic manuscript evidence as does the Bible. We do not have nearly that number of manuscripts of Plato or Aristotle’s philosophies, or of the writings of Julius Caesar. Of those we have, hundreds of years lapsed between their first being written and the date of the manuscripts, weakening the authority of these sources. In addition, archaeology has consistently supported the accounts of the Bible as historically valid, much to the ire of the Bible’s critics.

Many books have been written concerning the information above. It is not my intent to travel back through them, except to say that when I read or preach or teach the Bible, I stand with absolute confidence in its statements, doctrines, descriptions, historic and theological premises. Where science or historians or archaeology seem to disagree with the Bible, they consistently find themselves proven in error. History truly is “His story” and God has Divinely protected its transmission and preservation over the millennia. The Bible can be trusted, and is the most historically validated document in the possession of humanity!

The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul (formerly known as Saul the rabbi), was a man of his time. Though the Holy Spirit inspired the documents of the Bible, He did not pick up the chosen writers like some living “ink pen” and write the words of Scripture through them.

It came through their personalities (Paul’s writing differs greatly from Peter’s which differs greatly from John’s). You can see their fingerprints on the pages they wrote or dictated to a secretary who carefully captured each word spoken.

Paul was, humanly speaking, a brilliant man. Yet in spite of his background and education he claimed before one audience to “know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” He did not write Romans simply relying on a brilliant legal mind. The Holy Spirit overtook Paul’s intellect without destroying Paul’s individuality, personality, or background. God compressed personality, education, background, heritage, experience and Spirit into the vessel He used.

But Paul was also a man of his time. He could speak with eloquence of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Jewish law as well as write with first-hand knowledge of the Olympic Games and other sporting events.

These things are influential and need to be kept before the reader as we move into the work of interpreting Colossians for our time. World history of the day must also be kept in view to get the best understanding possible of God’s Word.

Rome and Colossae

Paul and the Colossians were people of Rome. The Roman Empire stood for almost 1500 years influencing, challenging, and changing their world. The maps of Europe and Asia and some of Africa that we still use today contain delineations of countries put in place by Rome.

Many words we still use in our language today were inspired by usage in the Roman Empire, as are laws and understandings of law and justice that still impact the judicial system today.

The empire was, by some accounts, just over sixty years in existence when the words of Colossians were first written. Rome was young, and hungry, and had already conquered territories that expanded from India in the east to Great Britain to the west.

Rome also kept a relatively uneasy peace among the people’s conquered in its 4 million plus square- mile-empire which stretched from India to Britannia, the Netherlands to Africa. The “pax Romana,” (the peace of Rome) allowed for the employment of massive numbers of slave labor and unemployed soldiers in creating the Roman Road, of which “all roads lead to Rome” was speaking.

The empire wisely embraced a “laissez-fare” or “hands off” approach when it came to allowing existing religious systems to continue. In Rome’s view, this was added value in helping the peace continue. And in fact with a few insignificant exceptions, attempts to overthrow the Roman government were few and always failed.

In the same time frame, the Jewish religion grew aggressively. A few years ago, while visiting Macedonia, we were confronted in every small town with an Islamic prayer tower. I asked the missionary giving us the tour if the religion of Islam was prevalent there. He said, “Many of the prayer spires and mosques are not being used yet, but they intend for them to be.” The mosques reflect Islam’s determination to be a worldwide religion.

That was what the Jews did. They embarked on an aggressive growth campaign that involved building a synagogue in every city possible, even though a rabbi was not available to oversee it. These synagogues became vital for the propagation of the Gospel, as Paul was a trained and credentialed rabbi who would be eagerly heard by a Jewish audience, especially in those places without their “own” rabbi.

The Roman road system, some of which is still in use today (including some bridges!), provided ample freedom for Paul and other missionaries to move quickly into the world conquered by Rome. The trip that the leaders of the Colossian church took to Ephesus was about one hundred twenty miles in length, but could be accomplished in safety and relative ease, thanks to the Roman road system and the guards along the way who kept it free from highway bandits.

This may sound like a treatment of Rome that glosses over the abuses, and capricious cruelty and even the attempted genocide of some populations, including the enslavement of millions. Rome was not all good by any stretch of the historian’s pen. However, we need to acknowledge contributions of this culture where they were made. And there were many we still feel the impact of today. (Beard, SPQR)

Galatians 4:4 said, But when the time was fulfilled, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying, “ABBA, Father! So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. The timing for the propagation of the Gospel could not have been more perfect historically. It was “pregnant and about to give birth,” to capture the literal meaning of the phrase, the “time being fulfilled.” It was literally God-timed and God-birthed. The stage had been set for the Gospel to travel into the world!

As we read Colossians, one more historic reality needs to be considered, and that is the fact that Paul was in prison in Rome. The letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon were written during this same period of imprisonment, around 60-62 AD.

Not an uncommon practice in that day, prisoners would be allowed some freedom to entertain guests, receive gifts of food and clothing, and send out correspondence. I have often said that, had God not allowed Paul to experience occasional prison sentences, he would never have stopped long enough to write the many documents that make much of our New Testament!

And so as we begin our journey into the Colossian letter, let’s keep these things as an historic backdrop. They will help provide a sense of context to the letters on the pages of your Bible. This is real life we are reading about as first -century Christians grappled with the implications of their newfound faith in the resurrected Jesus.

My prayer, as you read the inspired words of Colossians, is that real life may be yours as you see again why Christ is above all!

CHAPTER ONE

A Culture on Fire

The fire was raging in the small town which was lodged in a valley between green rolling hills. It had started in a lumber warehouse and began to spread quickly from there. Local fire departments lined the hilltops with their shiny red trucks and lights and ladders and axes and water trucks, but by the time they arrived the fire had grown into an inferno.

That’s when an old firetruck belonging to a local volunteer fire department arrived and, without even slowing down, went over the crest of the hill and headed directly for the burning warehouse below.

The other firefighters that were on hand were so impressed with this little band of brothers in their rickety truck, bravely leading the way, that they followed them into the fire and, after a courageous battle, got it under control and saved the town.

The citizens were so grateful that the mayor awarded the volunteer firefighters the key to the city and a $10,000 check. After the enthusiastic applause died down, the mayor asked the captain of the department what they would do with the $10,000 check. The captain said, “Well the first thing we’re gonna do is get the brakes fixed on that old firetruck!”

In this message, I want to “drop you” into a fire that is burning in our culture. We are living today in what many would refer to as a postmodern” and “post-Christian” culture which essentially means the influence of the church and Christianity have run their course in America and the Western Hemisphere.

Maybe they’re just not looking in the right places! The “post-Christian” assessment seems true without question when you visit larger urban centers like London, Montreal, Chicago, Miami, and New York City. There you see once- thriving places of worship now abandoned or repurposed for entertainment uses or event sites. Many of the people encountered in those cities find little time in the course of their normal days to think about or consider the reality of God. To many gathering and working there, thoughts of God seldom consciously pass through their minds.

We must acknowledge that we have changed profoundly as a culture in the past few decades. Since my initial reading of the Book of Colossians in 1974, the first major stream of cultural shift that deeply impacts us has taken place. We have become much more multi-cultural as a nation, and as a result more and more religious systems are now competing for a hearing. This stream of change has had a profound impact on churches around the country.

Secondly, our morality has shifted, in the name of progress, to the point that a New York Times article a few weeks ago lamented the indecency of advertising on New York City’s subway system. When morality is becoming offensive even to those with no professed religious or moral persuasion, it is nearing a tipping point!

Philosophical naturalism is the third stream that has informed and led to the current state of our culture. Though naturalism itself is a broad term that has branches in literature, sociology as well as science, it is scientific or empirical naturalism that is of most concern to people faithful to God’s Word.

The impact and influence of scientific thought and achievement has been remarkable over the past two centuries in the west. We are bombarded daily with new scientific discoveries, to the point that no normal human being could completely comprehend the discoveries of just one day!

Remarkable, even amazing progress in fields of scientific study and research has accelerated the move of this philosophical viewpoint to the forefront, and influences everything from entertainment to education, and even government. Each of us has been impacted on some level whether we are aware of it or not.

This view may be summed up by the late Carl Sagan, who would begin every episode of the wildly popular PBS series “Cosmos” by stating, “The Universe is all there is. It is all there ever was. And all there ever will be. “Sagan, a cosmologist and astronomer, believed we were made of “star stuff” and that “we are a way for the universe to know itself.” (Sagan “Wikipedia”)

His views have influenced some of the most respected thinkers of our generation, including the late Stephen Hawking and Bill Nye. This system of thought eliminates the consideration of any reality apart from that which can be seen with our eyes, tested in a laboratory, or discovered through exploration as imaginations and fairy tales that no longer serve a purpose.

## Shifting Sands

I take the space to briefly point out these three prevailing streams of thought pouring into our thinking, our educational systems, the way our children are educated and trained in many public school and university classrooms, and the belief systems of many of those who govern us. They are significant because, as a result of their pervasive influence, the foundation of our worldview now sits on the shifting and sinking sands of science.

We have been, in my lifetime at least, a culture that believed in God without question; a Supreme Deity unseen and yet real, Who created all things. For many years, it was unheard of and untenable to argue against this belief at least in the world in which I was raised.

But with the rush of scientific achievement and discovery we have experienced, we have now convinced ourselves that we were naive at best and deceived at worst to ever have believed such an idea. The proponents of the naturalist position cannot answer the foundational questions, “Why are we here?” “How did we get here?” This has pressed those who support a scientific worldview to theorize that we are probably the result of an advanced alien species depositing us here millions or billions of years ago.

The outcome of such a view serves to undermine not only a Biblical view of creation, but even the very possibility of a Creator in the minds of many. Even as Christians, we find it more and more difficult to affirm the truth that “By faith we understand that everything was created by the Word of God created everything…” (Hebrews 11:3a). In fact that very assertion is what has caused many to reject all the claims of Christianity as antiquated and irrelevant.

This is a very simplistic snapshot of the problems facing us today as we seek to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom into a modern culture. The worldviews we operate from are not only different, but are in radical conflict with one another.

To borrow from the great Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer, “how shall we now live” in such a culture? Turning back the hands of time to a prior time is unrealistic and not a helpful alternative though some have proposed it as such. Running away and hiding in small enclaves of a remnant of believers is also not the prescription the Bible gives. Leaning on political forces and figures to resolve the issues and return us to a day when Biblical thought was prevalent is also not a realistic solution to our problems.

We must learn to confront the philosophies and false beliefs of our day, as Paul did in the Colossian correspondence. Christianity in our day is not the first to confront shifting cultural mores, or a plurality of religious views, or even the first to challenge prevalent anti-Christian philosophies and patterns of thought. (See Colossians 2:8)

Paul’s engagement of the fires burning in the culture of his day emboldens us to do the same. We cannot confront the viewpoints antagonistic to our faith while sitting safely on the hillside away from the flame and smoke of the inferno.

Paul brought with him the weapons of the Spirit, and wielded the sword of the Spirit in doing battle. We must stand on the same truth and the same bedrock that emboldened him as he did battle. We too must hold high the banner of the cross, not only upholding its truth but brandishing it for all to see.

We cannot hide our lights under a bushel and at the same time fulfill the mandate to be “a city set upon a hill.” The world around us is on fire. The culture that most of us were steeped in is collapsing on shifting sand.

As we go forward, we stand on the Rock that does not move. We have a firm foundation and, even though we walk through the fire, “the flames will not hurt us.” We hold high the truth that Christ is above all, and as we do, some will be drawn to it and others will perish in their rejection.

But having done all, we must stand. We must hold fast the truth we believe. And we must boldly and unapologetically engage our culture with the truth that will save those who will believe it.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.”

CHAPTER TWO

Colossae lay about one hundred miles inland from the much larger and more prominent city of Ephesus. Colossae along with Hierapolis and the more familiar city of Laodicea were located along the Lycus River valley, a busy shipping route.

At one time a prominent town itself, Colossae had, by the New Testament era, declined to the point that it lived in the shadow of the larger two sister cities. Much uncertainty exists as to why this happened, but it did. In all likelihood an earthquake that happened in the region around 4 BC devastated Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea. The latter two, more politically significant and self-sufficient financially, rebuilt after the disaster. Colossae never did recover, and in the New Testament era it was a simple market town.

Word had spread apparently, as we learn from the Book of Acts, “throughout all the world,” and that included to the little unimportant town of Colossae. Two men, Epaphras and Philemon, had found faith in Jesus.

Both men had given their lives to follow this risen Messiah named Jesus, and a church was born through their witnessing and teaching. In fact it is likely that Epaphras was also responsible for starting the churches in both Laodicea and Hierapolis. Both Epaphras and Philemon were recognized leaders in the city of Colossae. And both were troubled by strange teachings fomenting in Colossae.

Epaphras was Paul’s right hand in evangelizing the area of the Lycus Valley. The Colossians had been brought to the Gospel and taught the Word of God by Epaphras, a “fellow servant” (1:7) of Paul.
Philemon on the other hand was the host of the Colossian church, apparently owning a large enough home to accommodate the gathering. But he was also regarded as a leader in the Colossian community.
They visited Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome. Together they laid out their concerns about this new and erosive teaching that had taken root in their young church. Paul’s “letter to the Colossians” was a response to this visit, delivered later by Tychicus.

The Colossian Problem

There are a variety of opinions among scholars as to exactly what the “Colossian problem” was. The evidence in the pages of the letter does not clarify an answer for us.
Due to the presence of travelers moving merchandise through the Lycus Valley from different parts of the continent, new ideas would travel with them. Many of these were heard and brought into the church.

Obviously, Judaism had an influence on the new believers. By some existing tax rolls discovered in the area, it was estimated that there were upward of fifty thousand Jews living in the cities of the Lycus Valley. They may have been seeking to proselytize the new Christians into a more faithful Judaistic religion, or more than likely, were seeking to pull back the ones who had apostatized from the synagogue for a new belief system.

There is also evidence in Paul’s letter that eastern mysticism was also in play. This would have been a natural result of merchants from the east traveling through to the larger populations of Ephesus and surrounding cities. These would be steeped in thoughts of the power of the heavenly bodies on life, asceticism, and the worship of angels.

There are even some opinions, notably M.D. Hooker of Cambridge, who theorized that there was no false teaching in Colossae at all. Instead, new believers were under extreme influence from Jewish and pagan sources to leave their faith in Christ.

While I do not agree with her position, I do believe that sometimes the greatest problem we face in church today is the pull to go back into the world. The temptation to grow cold in our faith or to abandon it altogether has been a problem faced by Christians from the very beginning.

This is especially true of college students who walk into an academic environment that takes direct aim at assumptions and presuppositions their faith is built on. When those come under attack, these students will often retreat, having never been prepared to defend what they believe. They then reject it as intellectually inferior and look for something new. This story happens over and over again, and something akin to this was probably happening among the Colossian believers as well.

Other interpreters believe that Colossae had come under the sway of early Gnostic teaching. While Gnosticism as a recognized religious system had not yet fully appeared, the early seeds of this syncretistic philosophy had been planted.

As a simplified explanation, Gnosticism was a blend of Greek, Roman, and eastern-influenced philosophies. To the proponents of this system, matter (the material world) was seen as evil. For this reason, Jesus could not possibly be the Son of God in flesh.

Their teaching said that Jesus was one of numerous “emanations” that came from the Creator, but there were other steps that needed to be taken to truly find God. These steps could be taken through secret knowledge, or “gnosis,” that the initiated could learn. The other “emanations” from God were likely angels that the Gnostics knew how to contact. Jesus, in other words, was not rejected but relegated to a step on the ladder of spiritual enlightenment, but not enough in Himself to be considered “creator” or certainly not God.

They created fanciful and romanticized stories of Jesus walking on sand and not leaving a footprint, since He did not truly occupy a body of flesh but only seemed to do so. As ludicrous as these teachings may sound to us today, they had tremendous influence in swaying the belief of the early New Testament believers.

The danger, as those who have been long in the faith or the church world know, is far more insidious when it’s inside the church. Outside threats have always existed. Even the most immature believers know what to avoid when it comes to threats from those outside the community of faith.

Far more dangerous are teachings that come from inside the church; a little grace mixed with legalism, grace pressed to the limit and beyond with license and immorality; a belief that Jesus is not enough-that our efforts and work must somehow be added to assure salvation. A little truth mixed with malignant and devastating lies.

We are also victims of attacks from inside the church. High profile pastors and leaders fall prey to the seduction of immorality. Young leaders, given influential platforms but sometimes with little grounding in the faith, draw many after them and then abandon the faith. The foundation begins to be eroded as though by acid from within. Charlatans and phony religious leaders lead multitudes astray with charming and winsome public persona. We buy the packaging but never read the contents!

Today’s church is not the first to confront these problems. They have been a part of the attacks on the church since its earliest days of existence. And the solution was given in God’s Word over two millennia ago:

Jesus. Is. Enough.

CHAPTER THREE

I have on occasion received letters from prisoners incarcerated by the state. The letters are clearly from the prison; the prisoner’s number is clearly printed on the return address. The envelope has been opened and its contents read by a guard before being allowed to enter the US Mail, and is sometimes mangled and taped together.
Before I read a word, there is an immediate swell of suspicion that comes up inside of me. The men who write are normally men I know well from visits to their prison. But the stigma of prison remains in the correspondence.

I have often wondered how the people who first received and heard the letters of Paul, particularly those written from prison, would have seen them. Obviously, they knew or knew of Paul. But I wondered if some felt the stigma of Paul’s chains; of this letter written by a person arrested and held in jail or under house arrest by the Roman government?

And yet I also sincerely believe that Paul was imprisoned, not because Rome wanted him there, but because God did! In China today, it is just a given, because of their testimony to Christ, that every pastor would go to prison at some point. Those who had not been in prison yet were not given the regard of those who had spent months or years under arrest by the Chinese government. Even today, the Christians consider imprisonment as “seminary.” That is where their pastors go to learn to pray, to learn the Bible, to learn to minister.

Isn’t it interesting how God uses the unlikeliest of experiences from our perspective to do some of His greatest work! Paul was where he was by Divine appointment and for Divine purposes. His calling to go to prison for the Gospel was as important to Paul as the times he stood before people in public, teaching and preaching that Jesus was the Christ.

 

The Colossian Letter

Colossians 1:1-8

The need for this letter was born in a visit by Epaphras, the founder and pastor of several congregations in the Lycus Valley. This fertile valley, a notorious earthquake zone, was home not only to Colossae but also to the larger cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. The Meander River also merged in this valley with the Lycus River.

Colossae was a Roman province founded prior to the reign of the Persian king Xerxes. It was in existence as a noted city a full five hundred years before we encounter it in the New Testament through this letter.

Epaphras was, in Paul’s words, a “dearly loved fellow servant” and “a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf.” (1:7). Epaphras had come to Jesus during Paul’s time in Ephesus. Only around one hundred miles from Colossae, Epaphras obviously traveled to Ephesus and heard Paul preaching.

From there, Epaphras became Paul’s lieutenant in planting churches in the Lycus Valley, where Paul himself had never been able to visit. He would bring Paul occasional reports concerning the welfare of the churches that had begun.

The Greeting

As was customary in his letters, Paul began his correspondence with his own name listed first. In the practice of the day, letters like this would be written on a piece of fabric or leather, or sometimes on a papyrus leaf which would then be rolled up like a scroll. The first thing the reader encountered then would be who the letter was from.

It is in the greeting that Paul introduces himself to an audience which had, no doubt, heard of Paul but had never seen his face. He does this in much of the New Testament correspondence, and certainly here he introduced himself has “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” Paul’s assertion from the outset is that he is one with apostolic credentials and authority, but is also under the authority of another, Jesus Christ. Paul’s testimony was never that he sought apostleship or even took it upon himself. He was called to that by Jesus Himself!

I sat on a denominational credentialing committee at one time as we were interviewing a gentleman who pastored a handful of people in a storefront ministry. He introduced himself to us as “Apostle _____”. As evangelical believers and Southern Baptists by tribal affiliation, we were not used to anyone taking the title “apostle” for themselves. So we asked the brother how he received his title. He said, “My wife told me I was an apostle.” And we asked, “How did your wife come to that conclusion?” And he said, “Well, she’s a prophet.”

Paul did not take this title to himself, nor was he told by his wife that he was an apostle! He was “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” This was no casual claim, but a life-altering one.

Along with his own name, Paul added “Timothy,” who was with him. Now that could sometimes mean “with him” as “in chains” or it could simply mean Timothy accompanied Paul in prison and would run errands for him and assist in bringing companionship and comfort. Paul said himself that “he had no one like Timothy” who would look after the things that concerned him. Obviously in this correspondence Timothy needed no further introduction than “brother.” He was apparently known already by the Colossians.

The letter was addressed “to the saints” (the “holy ones”) which was a typical address but here Paul adds “who are faithful brothers and sisters.” This bears down on the special nature of their circumstance as they stood strong in the pressures they were enduring. ( v2).

But they were also “the saints in Christ…”. Their lives were now located in Christ, and the things that were true of Christ are now true of them. Those two words indicate a transfer of spiritual “place” and ownership of another. While they lived “in the world” of Colossae, their lives were hidden in Christ.

Finally Paul gives his tradition greeting of “grace” and “peace” from God the Father. It has been mentioned by many that “grace” always preceded “peace” in Paul’s greetings. There is a sound theological reason for this. The grace of God always comes before the peace of God!

The Thanksgiving

Though Paul had no specific memories of time together or of gifts given by the church to thank them for, he “always thanked God” (v. 3) when he prayed for them.

Specifically, he thanked God for their faith in Christ (which he had heard by reports given), for their “love for all the saints,” (v.4) and for “the hope reserved…in heaven.” ( v.5). As to their hope, Paul returns to this subject briefly as he talks about the Father enabling them to share in the “saints inheritance in the light.”( v12)

Each of these three: faith, love, and hope stand as evidence and spiritual proof of the truth of the Gospel that they had received and “that has come to you.” ( v.6) It was a Gospel that was fruitful and growing all over the (known) world, just as it was among them since they first heard it and truly appreciated and received the grace of God. ( v6)

A Prayer for Spiritual Growth

Colossians 1:9-14

Paul’s writing and, I am equally confident, his life were saturated by prayer. Reading the prayers he prayed in his letters give us a brief glimpse into the mind and prayer life of a man who was literally taught to pray by Jesus Himself.

The prayers of Paul bear no resemblance to the mechanical and memorized rabbinic prayers typical of his day. As the other apostles had spent three years walking with Jesus before witnessing the resurrection, so Paul was given a three year period to walk with Jesus.

It was during those three years that Paul unlearned much of his deeply entrenched legalism and began learning the way of the Master. It was in those days that, no doubt, Jesus also breathed life into Paul’s own prayers.

They were fresh, and never selfish in nature. Often, as we hear in Colossians 1:9 and following, they are focused on spiritual growth and depth of understanding God and the way of the Kingdom. Much of how we pray today needs to be rethought in the light of Paul’s prayer life.

He prayed constantly, “since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you.” ( v9) We would do well to take time to learn what this means. Our prayers are often fitful, and short-lived, and usually turned toward ourselves more than others. Even when others are in focus, we are praying far more frequently for their safety or their physical rather than spiritual needs.

It may help us to personalize Paul’s praying like this:

“(I am) asking that (name here) may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that (name) may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might, so that (name) may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, Who has enabled (name) to share in the saints inheritance in the light.”

Now that will change one’s prayer life! Praying that prayer by putting the name of each member of your family, each member of your church staff, your pastor (!!), your Bible study teacher, or, really your own name will radically begin to alter the way you pray.

Look at everything that this prayer encompasses:

  • Growth in knowledge and spiritual understanding (seeing things from God’s perspective).
  • Praying for a worthy walk, conduct and lifestyle
  • Praying that their life may be pleasing to God
  • Asking that their life may be fruitful in every good work
  • Praying that they may grow in their understanding of God
  • Asking that they might have patience and endurance in affliction: Perseverance!
  • Praying that they might be joyful and filled with thanksgiving
  • Asking that they be made aware of their eternal inheritance from God

No less than eight areas are being prayed for which, for the average Christian, are seldom if ever mentioned when we pray for each other! We pray eagerly for physical healing, an end of discomfort or an unmet need, for our kids not to ruin their lives (or ours), or for an impending medical treatment.
Sometimes we pray for a missionary. How about praying for them like Paul prayed? Who needs this prayer more? Spend some time reflecting on and meditating on the eight statements of intercession in this prayer and come to your own conclusion: Could a more thorough-going prayer be prayed for a Christian than this one?

Paul prayed fervently and specifically for this young church. The text uses two different words to describe Paul’s praying. The first, proseuchomenoi or “praying” is the most common word Paul uses for prayer. It is the state of being in prayer, of “praying without ceasing.” This word is used to describe the posture of prayer, as well as the preparation for it. It is closely akin to praying as an act of worship.

The second word, aitoumenoi or “asking,” is a word that has more to do with asking for a specific request. Paul toggles between these two words as he talks about prayer in this passage. (Melick, New American Commentary Vol 32)

The theme of the prayer from verses 9-14 seems to move in and around the word “knowledge.” It’s important to remember that one of the present pressures being experienced by the Colossian church was brought by a mystery religion called Gnosticism. The word “gnostic” is the Greek word for “knowledge.”

This religion taught that the true key to spiritual enlightenment and freedom from the captivity of our flesh is spiritual knowledge. There were secret rituals and secret words that the initiated would know about, but if you were on the “outside” you would not understand.

Therefore “knowledge” and specifically spiritual knowledge was what their adherents sought. Paul is coming directly at this cult in Colossians. His prayer for the Colossian believers was that they would be “filled (to overflowing) with the “knowledge of God’s will” in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. (v9)

His second statement which directly assaulted the Gnostic view was that the believers would “grow in the knowledge of God,” (v10) a knowledge the Gnostics believed was only possible through their religious system and philosophy.

It is human nature to go searching for water in cisterns that have a crack in them. (See Jeremiah 2). We look in places that can never satisfy our hunger and thirst and live frustrated lives as a result. The Colossian Christians were tempted to go after these “empty cisterns” that can hold no water.

But Paul’s letter cautioned them that all they ever needed to know and all the knowledge of God they could ever want could be found in Christ Jesus. Yet we continually need the guardrails up to keep us from wandering off the ledge.

Colossians 1:9-11

The focus of Paul’s concern for the Colossians experience of a growing “power” and “might” was that they might have two particular strengths or qualities

The first was the strength of “great endurance.” This was the ability of a person to keep going under great stress or difficulty. It is endurance that allows a marathon runner to finish a race. Endurance or perseverance is the quality that will not allow one to quit. Warren Wiersbe in his commentary Be Complete, quotes Ray Edman who often told his students, “It is always too soon to quit.”

Patience has to do with one’s state of mind while they are persevering. It is the ability to be long-suffering, to not react too quickly when injured or be strive to change difficult circumstances and become bitter when they stay as they are. Patience does not always come along with endurance, but they should ride in tandem. Sometimes I’ll see someone going through a time of great distress and pressure, and they will lash out at people who try to get close. They are enduring WITHOUT patience. That is not Gods desire for us.

To endure without patience is to grit one’s teeth in bitterness while the storm passes. To endure with patience is to beautify Christ in the midst of the worst that life can bring. They belong together. Paul prays that both patience and endurance will be present in the Colossian believers.

Colossians 1:13-14

This prayer concludes by introducing a subject that gets expanded in the next verses. It is the subject of God’s rescue of the believers by “transferring us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of the Son He loves.”

The picture has deep historic roots. It would have been not only commonly known by the readers but maybe even the experience of their family to be a part of a kingdom’s overthrow, probably by Rome.

It was the practice of that day to remove large swaths of population from their homeland and relocate them into another area. This would be done to lessen the possibility of a resistance movement arising, and also would be an effort to take skilled labor out of the defeated land, making it more difficult to rebuild. Paul uses this picture to describe our salvation, which was like being part of a kingdom that had been overthrown by a new king, and being moved into a completely new dominion. Spiritually, this is exactly what has happened to us.

Our old master, Satan, has been overthrown by King Jesus through His sacrifice and obedience on the cross. In that overthrow, the new King has taken those who will follow Him into a new kingdom, the “kingdom of the Son.” We have had, not our residence, but our spiritual identify and our eternity relocated by Christ’s sacrifice and His willingness to become the target of God’s wrath in our place.

It is “in Christ” (our new spiritual location) that we can know redemption; which is the forgiveness of sins. In the next section, we are introduced more fully to this King Who created and now rules all things.

Paul and Colossae

Paul was addressing some very specific issues in the church at Colossae, as he did with all the letters we know he wrote. His theological training was the finest of his day, but his writing normally stayed very connected to the earth.

As far as we know, Paul never set foot in the city of Colossae. (Colossians 2:9). Located some eighty miles inland from the city of Ephesus, Colossae as a city was overshadowed by Laodicea and Hierapolis. This would place the city in the western part of modern day Turkey.

Though it was what we would today refer to as a “small town,” Colossae was located at an important point geographically. A well-traveled trade route went through the city and brought with it travelers and ideas primarily from areas to the East. These ideas imported by those coming from different parts of the world had begun to impact the thinking of believers in Colossae.

As a young church (probably less than five years old), their teaching and preaching about Jesus and the Scriptures was not well developed. The conflicting ideas, religious systems, philosophies of the travelers as well as the presence of a Jewish synagogue began to threaten the spiritual health and vitality of the young believers.

Two men, Epaphras and Philemon, traveled to meet with Paul about the problems they were seeing arise among the Christians in Colossae. Paul sent them back with his response and authority, and with instructions that they were to share with the other churches in the Lycus Valley. The letter to the Colossians came later with Tychicus.

The danger, as those who have been long in the faith or the church world know, is far more insidious when it comes from inside the church. Outside threats have always existed. Even the most immature believers know what to avoid when it comes to threats from those outside the community of faith.

Far more dangerous are teachings that come from inside the church; a little grace mixed with legalism, grace pressed to the limit and beyond toward license and immorality; a belief that Jesus is not enough-that our efforts and work must somehow be added to assure salvation. A little truth mixed with malignant and devastating lies.

We are also victims of attacks from inside the church. High profile pastors and leaders fall prey to the seduction of immorality. Young leaders, given influential platforms but sometimes with little grounding in the faith, draw many after them and then abandon the faith. The foundation begins to be eroded as though by acid from within. Charlatans and phony religious leaders lead multitudes astray with charming and winsome public persona. We buy the packaging but never read the contents!

Today’s church is not the first to confront these problems. They have been a part of the attacks on the church since its earliest days of existence. And the solution was given in God’s Word over two millennia ago:

Jesus. Is. Enough.

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