Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Colossians - Part I

Reading

Colossians 1:1-14

Introduction

Colossae was a small town in the Lycus valley in what is now Turkey.  It stood about 100 miles inland from Ephesus, near the more prosperous towns of Laodicea and Heirapolis.

The church in Colossae was started by Epaphras, who probably encountered Paul in Ephesus then took the gospel message home with him.  The church was later to hit problems and it looks like Epaphras went to find help from Paul in Rome, where he was under house arrest.  Paul's response was the letter we're studying.

We have to read between the lines to understand what the problems were because Paul doesn't list them on a point-by-point basis.  He presents truth rather than arguing head-on against falsehood.

People trained to recognise counterfeit bank notes don't study counterfeit notes; they study the real things, becoming so familiar with them that they can spot forged notes easily.  Paul wants the Colossians to be well-grounded in truth so they'll be able to recognise false teaching.

So, what were the problems?  The Lycus valley was a major trade route, and a beautiful location.  It attracted all kinds of international travellers, and some of them settled in Colossae among the native Phrygians.  They came with their own beliefs, so that Colossae was what we would call a pluralistic society.

  • The Phrygians were animists, who believed in spirits who operated through trees and rivers and the like and who needed to be appeased.
  • There were Jews, who obviously brought all their Jewish tradition with them. 
  • There were those who followed pagan practices of the Greek and Roman Gods: some of these were ascetics others were promiscuous. 
  • There were astrologers from the east, and adherents of various mystery religions that espoused secret knowledge only for the initiated.
Some of these people became Christians, making a really good start, but then others tried to impose ideas from their non-Christian background; things like empty ritual, pointless asceticism and false mysticism.  This tendency is called syncretism.  It's something that's a great temptation in our modern world, and strikes at the heart of Christian faith. 

In Colossae, the challenge detracted from the believer's full acceptance with God through Christ, and the supremacy of Christ in all things.  It undermined the free gift of salvation through faith and made salvation a matter of personal effort. 
Western society is increasingly one of secular humanism.  We are the captains of our own destiny, and all religions are seen as equally valid or equally worthless, depending on your point of view.  If we import non-Christian values from public opinion or secular viewpoints, we can find ourselves in exactly the same kind of trouble that the Colossians faced.

Paul writes to encourage the Colossians to keep a firm grasp on the all-sufficent Christ.  Doing this will disarm the influences that would otherwise ruin them.  He
  • shows them what they have in Christ, and only through Christ;
  • instructs them in practical terms what it means to be a Christian; and
  • encourages this young church to maturity.

It's a letter of two halves, with the theology at the start and practical stuff at the end.  We can't skip the theology because the practical stuff relies on it.

(Paul's) Thanksgiving and Prayer

Paul's Thanksgiving

Paul starts on a positive note: he is so pleased that the gospel has born fruit in Colossae, that people there have found a genuine faith in Christ that has changed their lives.  And the evidence of that faith is the love they demonstrate for God's people.  Their faith and their love has its source in a new hope. 

Hope is a much misunderstood word these days.  We use it in a way that's forlorn before we've started.  People hope they win the lottery, they hope it doesn't rain on Bank Holiday Monday, they hope Sunderland might just possibly win this weekend.  It's a sort of wishful thinking.  But the hope of the Bible is a looking forward with eager expectation!  That's what the word actually means. 
That's the sort of hope the Colossians have.   They've been reconciled with God and they have an eternal destiny to look forward to.  And, one day, it's going to happen!  The spin-off of that kind of hope is genuine faith in Christ and real love for the family of God. 

Do you merely “hope” to go to heaven?  Or, are you looking forward to it with eager expectation?

Paul's Prayer for the Colossians

The rest of this passage is a gold mine with a rich seam running through it.  Every phrase conveys a wealth of meaning, and Paul has loaded it with buzz words that would have resonated with those who were being influenced by alien ideas, bringing them back to the fact that they already have everything they need in Christ.  Let's unpack what it says.

Paul writes, 'We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,'

The Remedy (Part I)

The first part of Paul's remedy for the Colossians was for them to receive full knowledge of God's will.  Fullness and secret knowledge were ideas that mystery religions would have been peddling, and Paul wants the Colossians to know that God isn't holding anything back from them.

The Source

They can know his will and, because they have the Holy Spirit, they have access to all the wisdom and understanding they need. 

By implication, we can't obtain this insight from any external source; not from other belief systems, be they religious or philosophical; it comes only through the Spirit of God—the same Spirit who lives in every believer.  We don't only get wisdom and knowledge; we have the source of it all, right within us!

The Spirit brings us spiritual wisdom and spiritual understanding of who God is and what he's like, and so it can become clear to us what his will for our lives is. 
So, how do we obtain this wisdom and understanding?  Well, the best thing to do is to give serious attention to our relationship with God: reading scripture, listening to his word, meditating on it, asking the Spirit to bring revelation to our minds as we read and think and listen; acting on what we learn; spending time with God in prayer, rubbing shoulders with him, as it were.  By being a determined disciple!

The Result

What is it all for?  Well, Paul tells us it's, 'so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.'  If we know and understand God's will for us, we'll be able to recognise false influences for what they are and reject them.  By doing God's will we'll live lives that are worthy of Christ, and we can actually please him: not to earn his favour but because we already have it! 

Examples

And Paul gives us four examples of things that please God, and which also show us what his will for us is.  They are:
  1. bearing fruit in every good work
  2. growing in the knowledge of God,
  3. being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might,
  4. giving joyful thanks to the Father,
All these things are active, on-going things.  Let's have a look at each of them.

(1) bearing fruit in every good work

I like the way Paul expresses this.  He makes it clear that we are not doing good works to earn our place in heaven.  Our good works are the fruit of the salvation that God has already given us freely.  In Ephesians, Paul puts it like this: 'For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith … not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.'  We each of us have work to do.  Are we doing it?  Is our salvation bearing fruit?  We're saved for action!

(2) growing in the knowledge of God,

Paul expresses the same idea in Ephesians.  He writes, 'I keep asking that … God … may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.'  Growing in the knowledge of God is not about filling our heads with theology; it's about knowing our God better!  He calls us into relationship.  He wants us to know him in ever-increasing measure.
 
In our human relationships, we can stay very superficial.  We may work colleagues who are not really our friends.  Even here in church we can be on nodding terms and not really know each other.  But in a house group, we spend more time together, get to know more about each other and learn to trust each other; acquaintance grows into friendship, and some of us may even become 'Best Friends For Ever'; we become family, looking out for each other and genuinely caring. 

But for that to happen, we have to put the time in; we have to make the commitment.  So it is with God.  He's shown his commitment to us at Calvary, and he wants us to move beyond the superficial to the intimate.  And with Jesus, for ever means for ever! 

And, you know, joining a house group will help you get to know God better too!

(3) being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience

There are two particular greek words used in this phrase.  'Being strengthened with all power' uses the word dunamis which is all about ability or enabling.  We get words like dynamo from this word.  In the old days, we used to have lights on our bicycles that were powered by a dynamo.  This was OK, except you had to work harder to drive the dynamo, and the lights went out when you stopped.

'According to his glorious might' uses the word kratos, which means strength or might.  So, in our analogy, the phrase suggests that our bike is a tandem and someone else with a limitless supply of strength is helping with the peddling.  So we can keep going when the road gets hard, and the lights never need go out!

I have friends in Newcastle whose daughter died, many years ago, at the age of eight.  People said to them, “How can you believe in a God who allows this to happen?”  Their response was, “How can we get through this without God?”  God's strength has kept them going even to this day.

Being a disciple is a life-long commitment.  Sometimes, it's difficult.  Sometimes, there's persecution.  We need staying-power, the enabling that God gives and underpins with his own strength.  It comes from living in relationship with him: 'those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength.'

(4) giving joyful thanks to the Father

As a trainee Local Preacher, you learn that Thanksgiving is an important part of worship.  Your services are assessed once a quarter, and one of questions asked is, were all elements of worship included in the service, and if not why not?  You could get the impression that thanksgiving should be included because it's the right thing to do.  But actually, we should hardly be able to contain ourselves from overflowing with joyful thanks!  Why?  Because, as Paul tells us, God through Christ has done for us what we couldn't do for ourselves, and what no one and nothing else could do for us.  God has
  • settled our past, paying the penalty of our sins and the cost of our freedom through Christ's death on the cross; we're forgiven and redeemed!
  • re-aligned our present, breaking the power of sin in our lives by rescuing us from the dominion of darkness and bringing us into Christ's kingdom;
  • secured our future, because he's made us fit, qualified us, to have an eternal share in the kingdom of light.
The religions and philosophies the Colossians had previously followed held them captive under the dominion of darkness.  There was no escape: they needed rescuing.  Only God could do that, and only through Christ.  If they reflected on Paul's words, perhaps they would have realised that the old ways, the other ways, were useless.  Why go back to the things of darkness?

Summary

  • The Colossians started well but were being influenced by alien ideas
  • The Remedy – Part I: to receive full knowledge of God's will
  • The Source – Wisdom and understanding brought by the Holy Spirit
  • The Result – lives worthy of the Lord that truly please God
    • Examples
      • fruit of good works
      • knowing God even better
      • strength to keep going
      • joyful thanksgiving because of God's grace.

We need to learn these lessons too, because there are influences out there and in here that can lead us off course if we're not careful.  We must discover and stay true to God's will so we can live the best and fullest expression of the life God has called us to.

The question I leave you with is, what are we going to DO about what we've heard today?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Being Like Jesus

Reading

Philippians 2:1-16a

Introduction

It will be helpful if you keep your Bible open at Philippians 2 so you can refer to it as we go on.

Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi when he was in Rome under house arrest.  We read about this in Acts 28, where we are told he was in his own rented home guarded by Roman soldiers—probably chained to one of them!

While he awaited trial, he was allowed to preach freely and to receive visitors. 

One of his visitors was a man called Epaphroditus, who came to Paul with aid from the Philippian church, and he writes his letter to express his gratitude to them for their practical support and to encourage them.

Whilst Paul seems to have been under no particular duress at this time, his future, from a human point of view was uncertain; he could be tried and released, or tried and executed.  For Paul, however, the future was positive whatever the outcome; 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,' he writes. 

His letter is full of joy, contentment and thankfulness.  He seems to have been fairly confident of being released—and we know he was after two years—but at the time of writing, he recognises that the judgement could go either way. 

He doesn't want the Philippians to be discouraged if he ends up dead.  'Whatever happens,' he writes in chapter one, 'conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.'  He wanted them to understand that their continuation in the faith didn't depend on him, but on Christ.

In the passage we've read, there's some practical teaching about what constitutes worthy conduct but before we consider that I want to look at verses 6-11.

The Humility of Christ

It's believed that this section was a hymn used in the early church.  We don't know that it definitely was or who wrote it—perhaps it was a poem penned by Paul himself—but Paul gives it authority by including it in his letter.

It's an important passage of scripture because it underpins our belief in the divinity of Christ and in the Trinity.

Verse 6 shows us that before Christ came to earth as a man he existed with the full status of God; he was God the Son alongside God the Father. 

As God, he had every right to remain where he was.  But he didn't.  He had a mission to accomplish and he put his mission before his status.  The only way we could be rescued from judgement and certain destruction, the only way we could be reconciled with God was for him to come down and do something about it.  And so he did. 

That's our Jesus!

Verse 7 tells us that, by his own choice, he set aside his status and became one of us.  He remained fully God but he became fully human, and chose to be a servant. 

The greek word translated 'servant' is doulos, a bond-servant or slave; someone who had no rights. 

Christ's attitude was very different from people of our time, who demand that their rights are respected.  Christ laid down his rights and served the Father faithfully all his human life.

And he did that for us. 

That's our Jesus!

Verse 8 shows us Jesus stepping down even lower.  Even as a man, we might say he had a certain status or reputation as a teacher and preacher, but his mission involved taking on all of our sins, and suffering the penalty that should have been ours. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest, with the horror of what lay before him, we see him asking the Father if there was another way to save us.  But there was no other way and he submitted obediently to the Father's plan. 

He humbled himself even further, dying the death of a common criminal on a Roman cross, worthless as far as the Romans were concerned—someone to get rid of; cursed by God as far as the Jewish authorities were concerned. 

But it was our curse he bore, it was our penalty he paid.  He did that for us. 

That's our Jesus!

Verse 9 shows us that the Father was fully pleased with Jesus, which implies that his sacrifice for us is fully effective, and that through faith in Christ we can be fully saved.

In response to Christ's humility and obedience, the Father raised Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name above every name. 

This speaks of his absolute authority.  As Jesus himself says in Matthew 28:18, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

And Paul writes in Ephesians 1, '[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.  And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.'

Jesus lives, and he lives for us! 

That's our Jesus!

Verses 10 and 11 declare that Jesus is Lord and is worthy of our worship.  We, of course, proclaim and submit to his rule willingly but the time will come when Christ returns in power, and no-one will be able to deny his right and authority. 

For those who have not bowed the knee to Jesus before then it will be too late!  Not everyone gets to heaven – only those who surrender their lives to his Majesty. 

Those who bow the knee now are assured of God's love and his full and free salvation.  We can live our lives, here on earth, in personal relationship with our Maker!  All because of what our Jesus did for us!

He:
  • disregarded his personal status
  • committed himself to the life of a servant
  • demonstrated true humility
  • put obedience before cost, and now he
  • is conferred with all authority, and
  • is worthy of our praise.
That's our Jesus!

Worthy Conduct

I now want to link back to Paul's point about conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. 

In verse five, Paul introduced this passage we've just considered with the words, 'In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

It's the attitudes in our minds that determine how we live our lives.  This verse tells us that God wants us to change our thinking.  We could translate that as, 'In your relationships with one another,' don't be yourselves, … be … like … Jesus! 

The passage shows us what Jesus is like, and the point of it was to demonstrate how we should be with one another.

Let me be clear on this: to 'have the same mindset as Christ Jesus' does not mean to 'imitate Jesus', it means to become like him.  Imitation is never the real thing. 

We walk our dog around the area we live in, and the Hadrian Cycle path runs through it.  On numerous occasions, we've heard the ting! ting! of a bicycle bell behind us and have turned around to see … well, nothing!  Eventually, we realised that some of the birds around us are fantastic mimics! 

But imitating a bicycle bell doesn't make them a bicycle bell—they remain birds; there is no change of nature.  Merely imitating Jesus doesn't make us Christians—that requires a change of nature. 

At the beginning of chapter two, Paul talks about the Philippians being 'united with Christ', and having 'a common sharing in the Spirit'. 

Through the good news of the gospel of Christ, God calls us into relationship with himself.  Worthy conduct is rooted in right relationship with God. 

Worthy conduct is expressing on the outside what God has already done on the inside.  This is what it means when Paul writes, 'continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.'  (Verses 12 and 13.)

God is working it in, we work it out.

Paul puts it in a different way in Romans 12:2.  He writes, 'Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.'

God is renewing our thinking, we need to allow this new mindset to transform us.

Now our transformation into Christ-likeness is an on-going process.  That's why the Philippians needed instruction from Paul, and why we need it today.  Our destiny is to be like Christ but God doesn't impose it on us.  We need to cooperate with him.

It's taken God 47 years to get me to be what I am today, and he hasn't finished with me yet!  There are things about the old me that I don't like very much at all.  I don't want to be the old me.  I wish I'd been more open to the changes he wanted to make.  I wish I'd learnt sooner about how to conduct myself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

What can we do to be more cooperative?  Paul's description of Jesus gives us some insight on how to do that.

Worthy conduct is expressed in unity: Paul writes about 'being like-minded, having the same love, being one in Spirit and of the same mind.' 

There were two women in Philippi who were struggling with this.  We read about Euodia and Syntyche in chapter four.  These were women held in honour by Paul but they've hit a point of disagreement. 

Disagreement, if we're not careful can lead to division, and division to devastation in the life of a church.  I've seen it happen more than once!

We don't know what these women were falling out over but Paul pleads with them 'to be of the same mind in the Lord.'  Was one right and the other wrong?  Were they both wrong but stubborn?  No-one knows. 

Somehow these women had to find reconciliation.  They couldn't achieve that by standing on their rights.  Both would have to find the humility to change their stance.  Neither could insist on her own way.  Both would have to step back and hear what God was saying, perhaps by listening to their fellow believers, who Paul asked to help them. 

The greek language behind verse five gives us a collective responsibility.  We're not called only into relationship with God but also into relationship with each other.  We're to help one another grow in Christ-likeness. 

When we disagree, we have to recognise that unity is more important than our views being right.  People on both sides of the argument have to seek the way forward, listening and showing love, and being willing to discover that perhaps what is in Christ's mind is different from what's in the minds of either party.

Worthy conduct is expressed in humility: there must be no 'selfish ambition or vain conceit.'  People who want a position of authority because it appeals to their sense of self-importance are exactly the people who should not be appointed. 

If status is our goal, we'll be proud of our humility, expect praise for our service, and obey God when it benefits us.  But what did Jesus say?  '… whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of  all.' Mk 10:43-44

True humility is the way forward.  Humility is not thinking of yourself as a worm or a doormat to be misused or abused.  It means having a right view of yourself in relation to others.

We've all heard stories of people like nurses and paramedics who save lives and say, 'I was just doing my job.'  That's a picture of humility.

There are lots of things I am good at, and I can, in all humility, take great satisfaction from a good job well done.   But my being good at something doesn't make me better than you. Our talents are gifts to be used for good, not to make demi-gods of us.

Have a good look at the people around you now.  Paul writes, '… in humility value [them] above yourself …'   No exceptions! 

There's a mutuality about this.  We end up giving proper respect and dignity to those around us, and in return are treated with proper respect and dignity, something that wouldn't happen if we each thought ourselves more valuable than everyone else.

Worthy conduct is expressed in service.  We live in a society that's largely governed by the saying, 'Look out for number one.' 

Now, Paul doesn't say you shouldn't be mindful of your own interests, but he does exhort us to be concerned about the interests of others.  And that doesn't mean being an interfering busy-body, poking our noses in where they're not wanted or needed. 

But it does mean caring lovingly and practically for others, doing the very best we can for those who are sick, or grieving, or struggling with life.

Paul says,  'Do everything without grumbling or arguing.'  Who are we really serving?  If the things we are asked to do are for our Saviour who loved us and gave himself for us, then why should we complain? 

What service has God called you to do?  Are you engaged with it?  We all have gifts and skills.  Let's use them in service with joyful hearts. 

Summary

We've explored what motivated Jesus' living so we have a model against which to measure our own thinking and motives, and which defines what it means to live lives worthy of the gospel.

We've seen how this is to affect our relationships, through unity, humility and service.

God is in the process of renewing us in Christ.  He's renewing our thinking, so that we can live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Let's allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can be more and more like Jesus.