Saturday 27 December 2008

Earthly evidence of a Heavenly Hope: Colossians 1:4-5

4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints— 5the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel
Colossians 1:4-5

Verses 4 and 5 of Colossians contrasts two types of hearing. More accurately, it compares two different types of news that is heard.

Both are related. Both are good. Though, one is a product of the other. Yet, both validate the existence of the other.

Faith and Love
Paul is writing to a bunch of Christians. He has never met them. But he has heard news about them. He has heard of these Colossians' most remarkable reputation - a reputation for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus, and a generosity towards other believers in Christ.

Faith and love. Faith, meaning their steadfast trust in, reliance on Jesus as their Saviour. Love, evidenced by their regard within the church, and probably, since Paul was able to hear about this from others some distance away, the Colossians' charitable nature towards other churches as well.

Hope in Heaven
Paul draws their attention to the source of their faith and love - their hope. Here we have the second form of news - news that the Colossians heard.

More than that, glancing over to verses 6 and 7, this was news that the Colossian Christians "heard", "understood" and even "learnt".

What is so special about this hope that Paul needs to draw attention to it? 2 characteristics we can note about Paul's description of this hope: It is 1) a forward-looking fulfilment and 2) grounded in the gospel.

A forward-looking fulfilment
The closer we come to the end of something - an event, an experience, a phase in life - the more we start to long for the beginning of another. This is, in part, just the restlessness we find in all of us. Checking my email every hour, refreshing updates on my Facebook page, browsing the latest entry on digg. Our insatiable cravings for the new and novel, is often indicative of our dissatisfaction with the present, our anxiousness about the future.

Yet rather than simply condemning our passion, the bible tells us to reorientate them.

This isn't an exercise in will-power. We are shackled by our desires. We are held captive to them by sin. Paul writes in Romans 7 of how even a commandment of God that warns of coveting - or another way of putting it - desiring intently, becomes an opportunity for sin to send our systems into overdrive - creating even more cravings, longings and passions.

That is to say, our restlessness by itself is indicative of our heart's desire for idolatry. It is the inner drive to make something other than God, something or someone else supreme in our lives: sex, money, the internet, our career, our ambitions, our dreams. Ourselves.

The Christian is not a being emptied of his desires. Rather the Christian life is one where desires and passions are re-oriented, refocused - often with great struggle and effort - towards the only God who fulfils them. The Christian longs for hope, as Paul puts it, in heaven.

By saying this, Paul is highlighting the fact that the strength of our hope, the steadiness of our desires and the passion of our longings, is not to be found in ourselves. It is upwards-gazing and forward-looking to the true object of our hope.

That is why Paul doesn't simple praise the Colossians for this hope that they have, he prays for them. He prays that God may empower them (1:11) - that the Colossian Christians may be filled with patience and endurance.

But we have been dodging the true heart of the question - just what is this hope? What is it that Christians long for? What is so magnificent about it, that even the knowledge of it, without the full possession and experience of it now, is enough to keep us going, keep us walking in faith and love, focused on God and unswerved in our desires to pursue other earthly gains.

To put it simply in one word, it is this: glory.

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Colossians 1:27

In the Old Testament, God was too holy to be gazed upon. So how did you know when he was there? How could you tell, without a doubt, that when God appeared, it was the one and only God, the true LORD. For the Israelites, they witnessed his glory. The glory of the Lord in the form of cloud and fire that accompanied them in the wilderness. The glory of the Lord that filled the temple, signifying that God was now dwelling with man. It was the presence of God. It was the worth (literally the weight or value) of who the God they were dealing with.

Yet, a remarkable shift occurs when the authors of the New Testament write of God's glory. John writes in the gospel, that he has seen this glory - the glory of the One and only (John 1:14) - describing Jesus. Jesus is the radiance of God's glory (Hebrews 1:3). The true worth and presence of the true and holy God - who himself is invisible to man (1:15) - is fully visible in his Son, Jesus.

Paul is saying that this hope of glory - this Jesus - is in you. The full weight of God's presence is not to be sought in the temple, much less feared when encountered. God himself has taken residence in his people. We are his temple, and by his Spirit, he lives in us.

But didn't Paul refer to this hope as being stored up in heaven? How are we to reconcile these two different locations of God's glory?

Here lies the tension that describes the true longing that is to be found in the believer: the true desire that is created by the Spirit of God living in us.

Positionally, we have the full inheritance rights of heaven (1:12) - we are seated with Christ in heaven (Ephesians 2:6). But the full realisation of this will come only in the event of Christ's return.

The bible speaks of Jesus' return, his second coming to judge and rule the earth, establishing the kingdom of God through the redeemed people of God, with very candid frequency. In some manner or form, the theme of the return of Jesus, occurs on average once every 15 verses in the New Testament. It is one of the clearest motivations for Christian holiness and perseverance. Yet, this reality is often reflected in our teaching, our worship and our lives. Christmas, especially the Advent season, is perhaps one of the clearest opportunities to highlight our true hope of a Saviour, coming not just as a baby, but as Judge and King.

The absence of Jesus in this world should make us long for his coming. The absence of the full presence of Jesus in our lives, should make us call out for his return. In Romans 8, Paul talks about the groanings and frustrations, in this world, in ourselves, and in the Spirit, for such a future event. A future when Jesus will not just reveal his glory, but ours as well (3:4).

Jesus' return, his glory, our glorification and our hope - these are the basis of our true desire and longing - these are the basis of our patience and perseverance as we await the fulfilment of our longing. It reminds us that it is worth it! It is worth the glory of redemption then, to endure the glory of suffering now. For that was how our Lord was glorified.

Not on a throne, in praise and recognition. But on a cross, in pain and rejection. This was the hour Jesus was glorified. This is the same hope the lies in you - the same glory, the same route of pain and suffering. This is the hope grounded in the gospel.

Grounded in the gospel
Hope, as we have seen, is in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hope is not wishful-thinking, positive-emotions about making the world a better place, feelings that are stirred-up when we hear a rousing speech or watch an inspirational movie.

Hope in the bible, is a historical event. We can see and experience its effects, but again and again, God's word draws us back to its source - this specific occurence that did take place in space and time - reminding us, encouraging us, challenging us to consider its reality and impact. This event is the gospel.

The gospel is a compound-word, meaning it is made up by putting together two words - in Greek they are "good" and "news" - and you often hear it referred to as such - the Good News. In many ways, this is misleading.

The gospel isn't simply good. It isn't defined by all sorts of statements that sound good, or indeed, make you feel good. Much of the gospel, the true gospel might have the opposite effect. It speaks of our alienation from God (1:21), his wrath and judgement (3:6), our condemnation, our struggle to live as Christians, even to tell the gospel (2:1-2).

And the gospel is more than news. Mere information that is "out there", for us to download, access, read at our leisure.

Paul helps us understand the nature and purpose of the gospel in verse 5. It is truth that is heard.

That is, you could translate "gospel", as an announcement. An announcement that is told well, delivered effectively. It is God's announcement, an important declaration, that requires clear and faithful handling, as well as, hearing and obedience.

Paul calls it the word of truth. The gospel has a clarity and permanence that needs to be emphasised in its consistency and effectiveness. It is truth.

In a world where we pick and choose our "truths", for our world is skeptical of any objective truth, the main criteria for assessing one claim over another, is by how well it works for us. You have your truth, I have mine - as long as it works for you and me, everything is fine.

Here, Paul writes to the Colossians who have displayed admirable characteristics of faith and love. The fame of church and the Christ they worship, has spread because of these evidences of their beliefs. The temptation would be to rely on these external fruits, good as they are, as the primary means of promoting the gospel.

Paul emphasizes the source of the fruit. We trust in the gospel of Christ, because it is true. Therefore, it works. The temptation is to take the opposite route - It works for me, therefore it must be true. But such an approach is ridden with pitfalls. What if it stops working for you? Do you leave the difficult bits out - like judgement and suffering? Do you look for another gospel? When we define the gospel as the "good for you news", we are only setting hearers up for disappointment, disillusionment and despair.

No, the gospel is the word of truth. God is God, and in his nature of faithfulness, he is truthful - his character is consistent with his creation - we can display the consistency of the claims of the gospel with history, even science, reason, philosophy - and we should. God is also loving and good - hence his gospel is not cold hard facts of his power and might, but comfort and assurance for those who trust him, who look to God as their Father in times of need.

But most importantly, the gospel is the gospel of God's son - that Jesus is Lord. The whole gospel is bound up with the exaltation of Jesus as the Christ, the true King, who comes into glory through the cross.

That the gospel is truth, means it can be summarised. The key is to know the central message of the gospel - Jesus. Paul has given us an example here in verse 5 - we have already seen that his reference to the "hope in heaven" is way of referring to assurance of Christ's death and his return. Similarly, in the central verse of Colossians, in 2:6, Paul reminds Christians that they have received "Christ Jesus as Lord" - there he is again, using a summary statement for the gospel. Jesus comes to his Lord-ship, via his obedience to the Father in facing the cross.

The truth of the universe, is bound up with the Word of Truth, the one who speaks forth the implications of his reality, in creation as the author and sustainer of the universe (1:16, 17), and its redeemer (1:18).

But there is another key observation to notice about how Paul describes the gospel. It is heard.

Again, considering how he starts out praising the Colossians for their lives as evidence of the fruit of the gospel, Paul stresses that the gospel is a separate entity that stands on its own foundation. The gospel is not simply to be lived out - it is to be announced. It is to be heard.

To bring this home, Paul reminds the Colossians of how they learnt the gospel (1:7) and "understood God's grace in all its truth" (1:6). The point is simple: the living out of the gospel, though an integral sign of the fruit of the gospel taking root, is never a replacement for the proclamation and reception of the central message of the gospel.

Rather, any recognition of the value of the effects that gospel brings: social concern, integrity of character, justice, charity - all these transformations of society that stem from changed lives and hearts - are opportunities; Opportunities for two things.

Firstly, they are instances to give glory back to God. Look at verse 3:

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you
Colossians 1:3

Note that Paul does not so much praise the Colossians, as he gives glory to the God of the Colossians, the author of their faith and source of their love.

Secondly and more importantly, they are opportunities to proclaim and re-proclaim the glories of Christ through the gospel. Do you see what Paul is doing here? He is reminding them of the message that enabled the Colossians to come to faith in the first place. The same message the first heard, the same gospel that was proclaimed. Paul points them to this truth - and looking a little further down the chapter - proceeds to tell them the gospel again!

... the hope that is (present tense) stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard (past tense) about in the word of truth, the gospel

The gospel is the "message that is announced well" - meaning the proclamation, the news that is delivered and re-delivered, with integrity, consistency; never tiring of the work; never mistrustful of God's ordained message that is able to transform lives; always trusting in the Spirit who alone changes hearts through the hearing of the same message of Christ.

Christians must never tire from hearing the gospel! We can never move on from it. This is a message not for unbelievers but for believers. For those who heard this before, who know it, who at least understood it at some point in time. But perhaps for those, who now, having experienced the grace of witnessing some manner of fruit from the gospel, are tempted to forget the message and forgo the method of relaying that message.

For believers in general, what is at stake is our own assurance for salvation. The gospel serves as an anchor for our hope of redemption - our lifeline to the God who calls us heavenward in Christ.

And for those who are active in the ministry of serving Christ and his people, their commitment must continually be shaped by their service to the gospel of Christ. For if this was what characterised the servanthood of Paul, and indeed of Jesus Christ, ministers today can do no better nor worse, but to proclaim the message of God's grace in all its truth.

22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Colossians 1:22-23

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