Thursday 25 November 2010

Holding on to Jesus. Held together in Christ. (Colossians 1:15-20)

A changing world and a growing church
“God must love the Chinese. That’s why he made so many of us.”[1]
It is estimated there are some 40 million Christians in China. Actually, some say that number is closer to 100 million. It’s just hard to tell since so many believers have to meet in secret.

And yet, China is but one part of a massive change in world Christianity – the world church as we are thinking through this morning. More Christians have lived through this past century compared to the previous nineteen. More have been martyred this past century, than the previous nineteen.[2]

But even looking within these past hundred years, the changes are staggering. If in 1910, the average Christian was male and European, today in 2010, the statistics tell us that if you are Christian, you’re likely to be female of African or Chinese descent.[3]

In the UK, churches with the largest attendance are black congregations. On a Sunday like this, half the number of church goers in all of London are African or African-Caribbean. This past week in Great Britain, at least fifteen thousand missionaries are sent – not from the UK but into the UK – from Asia and Africa, evangelizing the locals.

The world has changed. The church has changed.

Praying for the church

And my question is simply this: How do you pray? How do you pray for these churches that are so diverse; that are so different from our own experience of Christian fellowship.

I’m speaking for myself.

Yes, I’m serve in a Chinese Church – yet I must confess, I don’t speak Chinese. I’m a deacon in a church where I sometimes need interpretation at meetings.

And when I begin to think outside the Chinese Church: about the church in the Muslim world, the church in Latin America, the Karen people in Burma – often times my prayer as I read the scriptures is, “God help me – through your Word – to pray. Help me to love my brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Today’s text from Colossians really helps me to do this. For here is the apostle Paul writing to Christians he has never met. Oh, he’s heard about them. And he prays for them – indeed he says in chapter 1 verse 9, “since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.”

But Paul does something else. In our passage today, he tells the Colossians – and he tells us – what it means to be the church in relation to the world; but more importantly, the church in relation to Christ.

What it means to be the church in the world. What it means to be the people of God rooted in Christ.

Our text today has three points:
  • · Creation
  • · the Cross; and
  • · Completeness.

1. Creation
Paul begins with creation in verse 16.
“for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,”

and we find this phrase again at the end of the verse,
“all things were created through him and for him”.

Here in Cambridge, this is a text that will get me into trouble. To say to Professor Hawkings, who is infinitely smarter than me – I only have A-Level’s Physics – to proclaim before him: God created the universe! That would seem like foolishness.

But verse 16 is saying something even more controversial. The bible declares not just that all things were created through Christ, but that all things exist for Christ.

They exist for his glory!

From the brightest mind this university can produce, to the smallest and most insignificant cockroach – both exist for the one and same purpose: to bring glory to Jesus as Lord.

Majesty in creation
Now of course, the bible does focus on the majesty of creation. Psalm 8 comes to mind – Psalm 8, which is one of those brilliant songs to teach children.
“You put everything under his feet.
All flocks and herds and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air and the fish in the sea…”

Psalm 8 is memorable – it’s got that rhythm. Most of all: Psalm 8 is marvelously true. God reflects his glory through the glory of creation.

Or Psalm 19:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Everything in creation points to its creator! The skies proclaim the work of his hands.

The creation in rebellion

But notice here, Paul doesn’t talk about the sky. Or fish. Or birds.

Oh, he’s saying that God created all thingsthrough all things were made, without him nothing was made that has been made – as John 1 verse 3 puts it.

But he then draws our attention to four strange things: To thrones. To dominions. To principalities. To authorities.

Out of all the examples Paul could have used – beauty, intellect … love!

No. Paul focuses on pride, on fearsome power. And rebellious authority that sets itself up against Jesus as Lord.
This list – thrones, dominions, principalities and authorities – we even know from Ephesians 6, refer to demonic opposition to God.

Ephesians 6:12
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood,
but against the principalities,
against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

And my question to Paul is: Why are you doing this?
How does this bring glory to Jesus?

In him all things hold together
I think the clue is found in verse 17.
“He is before all things and in him all things hold together”.

Now that is a very interesting phrase!

When Paul says that in Christ, all things “hold together”, he is quoting from the Stoic philosophers. It’s an expression that means something like… having a “stiff upper lip.” It means to keep your composure. Or as the Americans put it, “keeping your cool”.

That is, Paul is describing a situation where everything is falling apart. Breaking down. Descending into chaos. But a response to this chaos in terms of strength and order.

In him all things hold together. Even things which tear away from him – he holds them together. Even things which rebel against his authority – he keeps them in check.

Here is the bible being very realistic about the world we live in. This is a world that denies God. A world that wants to be its own God.

And the fact that this world continues to exists… it’s not just evidence to God’s power …. but a remarkable testimony to God’s grace.

Professor Hawkings believes that laws of the universe – laws like gravity – mean there is no need for God to explain creation.

The bible says the very fact that these laws exist, and continue to exist, with such precision and regularity, is testimony to the glory of Christ, that is seen in this world.

And yet, God’s ultimate plan is change this world. He will reconcile all things to himself through the cross (verse 20). And we see that Paul shifts his focus from creation, to new creation in verse 18.

2. The cross
Verse 18:
He is the head of the body, the church;
He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead,
(in order that, or so that) in everything he might be pre-eminent (or supreme).

Jesus is Lord over the world, Lord over all creation – but you see the reality of his lordship not by looking at creation. But by looking at the church. That’s the new creation. That’s you!

You see, verse 17 says, Jesus is before all things – meaning, he is separate from creation. He isn’t a part of the created order. He is God the Son, eternally existing in the Trinity with the Father and the Spirit. He created the world, he sustains the world, and so he is rightfully lord over this world. That is what it means for Jesus to be the image of God, the first-born over creation – he rightfully rules over all things.

But now in verse 18, he enters into creation. More than that, he makes the new creation part of himself.

He is still the head… but we are his body.

He is the beginning, yes. But the beginning of all those who will follow him; who are made to be like him, in his resurrection. He is the firstborn from the dead.

A big shift has happened in verse 17 and 18.

You see, verse 17 outlines rule to establish a relationship. God creates; he is our creator.

But verse 18 expresses relationship to establish his rule. Jesus is the firstborn… among many brothers (as Paul describes him in Romans 8). We draw our life from his sacrificial death. We are raised with him in his resurrection. And verse 18 ends by saying all this happened in order that he might be recognized as supreme.

Which means Paul gives us two pictures of Christ’s lordship.

Christ is supreme since creation. But Christ is sovereign through the cross.

Reconciling all things

All creation is made by God, but the new creation is reconciled through Christ. Or as verse 20 puts it, “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross.”

Reconciliation means forgiveness. It’s talking about two people who hate one another. They hate each other’s guts. And you bring them back into a relationship of love; of forgiveness. That’s reconciliation.

Now, that’s hard.

Take marriage counseling, for example. You sit across two people who tell you their perspectives, who pour out their problems. There’s anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment. It’s absolutely horrible.

Sometimes you get to a point: one party tries to be… rational. “Tell me what I need to do. I’ll do it, we’ll fix it.” Usually the guy says this.

And often the reaction from wife is… anger! “What do you mean you will ‘fix’ this? You can’t fix this!”

She’s right. When it’s hurt that has gone on for years. When resentment has grown deep and there has been a betrayal of trust. When what is broken is a relationship – you can’t fix it, like fixing a broken sink.

That’s because nothing would ever seem enough. There is a cost, but no amount of chocolates, money, gifts… tears, could make up for that cost.

Friends, that’s exactly the same with God.

We act so silly sometimes when we sin and think, “I’ll make it up to you, God”. By trying harder, being more sincere. By coming to church more often and serving on some committee.

We forget that we cannot pay that cost. We forget that he did. Through the death of his own Son; through his blood on the cross – Jesus paid the cost of your sin and your forgiveness to reconcile us to God.

To say otherwise would be… blasphemous. It would be an insult to the sacrifice of the Son of God!

He reconciles all things to himself, by making peace through his blood on the cross.

3. Completeness

Finally, we find completeness in Christ.
Verse 19:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Now, the Christians in Colossae had no problems recognizing Jesus as Lord over creation and Lord in salvation.

But the big question they were struggling with was this: “Is Jesus enough? Do we need something else? Do we need something more?”

And Paul’s answer is – All the blessings promised by God in salvation are found in Jesus Christ. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Now why is this so important?

Every week as I look at the brothers and sisters in my own church – as I stand there and see their faces – and in my heart I thank God for wholeheartedly for them. They have encouraged me in my faith. They continue to show me genuine love and care in Christ.

But ever so often, I have to remind myself, 80% of these members will be gone in 3 years.

That’s the reality of ministry in Cambridge. Large numbers come. Large numbers leave.

Which means so much of what we do at the Chinese Church is preparation for home. What does it mean to be a Christian back in my home country. How do I read the bible for myself, but also teach it to others. How do I witness to my own family who are mostly non-Christian, and maybe even, hostile towards Christianity?

If I had to summarise all that we say to them – to prepare them for this reality - it would be this. Remain in Christ.

Whatever the situation:
Whatever the temptation:
Remain in Christ.

Whatever the persecution:
Remain in Christ.

What a joy it is to sometimes receive an email from an old Christian friend who is remaining in Christ. Who is walking in faithfulness, holiness and love.

And what a sadness it is to sometimes hear of another friend who has fallen away. It breaks your heart.
In just these few years, there have been many, many joys. And many, many heartbreaks.

Yes, it is important to pray for fruitfulness. Expand missions, alleviate poverty, fight for justice, to show love – these are all fruits of the gospel, according to Paul in verse 6.

Paul prays for fruitfulness at the beginning of his prayer. But he ends by reminding Christians the importance of faithfulness.

Remain in Christ.

In Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

And he says in Chapter 2 verse 10: You have been given fullness in Christ.

All that you need to stay faithful,
all that you need to stay fruitful,
is found in none other than Jesus Christ
So remain in Him.

Let’s pray.
He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone
- everyone here, everyone we know, everyone in our church - EVERYONE
fully mature in Christ.

Lord, cause us - to this end -
to strenuously contend
with all your energy
that so powerfully works in us.
For your glory
and in our joy we pray, Jesus


[1] Philip Jensen at a training event a few years back in the UK. He was joking, of course!
[2] Don Carson
[3] Mark Noll. “The New Shape of World Christianity”

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