Wednesday 31 December 2008

Fill 'er up! Colossians 1:9

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Colossians 1:9

What we pray for most earnestly reveals what we long for the most. In the case of Paul, his prayer is a petition for the most important thing God could bless the Colossian church with. We approach this verse with 4 points: 1) The reason, 2) The repetition, 3) The re-filling, and 4) the revelation.

1. The Reason
  • Paul is continuing on his prayer for the Colossian church. He started with thanksgiving (1:3) - thanking God for the faith and love of his readers (1:4) and now moves on to petition - asking God to bless the believers.
  • The evidence of the Colossians' faith is not just a testimony of God's grace in all its truth (1:6) - the fruit of the gospel - working in their lives; but also the basis and reason for the content of his request.
  • The gospel declares that believers in the Lord Jesus are now reconciled to him. Paul can pray directly to God because he has full direct access to the Father through Christ (1:3).
  • The prayer reveals Paul's part in the ministry of the gospel that has "come to" the Colossians (1:6) - the work of teaching and proclamation of Epaphras in establishing the church there. Paul has been upholding the ministry of the gospel in prayer, never ceasing in his role as intecessor before God on their behalf.
2. Repetition
  • Paul's emphasis is revealed in his repetition: he asks God to reinforce the work he started in the Colossians in opening their hearts to the gospel.
  • We should not miss Paul's joy in praying for the Colossians. He is thankful to hear the report of their faithfulness in Christ.
  • This stands in stark contrast to what brings us to our knees. We pray often for what we do not have. We petition God to give us something we want but lack. We cry out all the more in the midst of suffering, pain and grief. Yet, when things go well, prayer is the last thing on our to do list.
  • Paul is motivated by what God has already done, what Christ continues to do, in the lives of other Christians.
3. Re-filling
  • Why does Paul keep asking God to fill the Colossians with knowledge of his will? Is it because they aren't filled with the Spirit? Is it because they are not yet filled up?
  • Paul's prayer reveals how the Christian life is one constantly dependant on God. But not just for our daily lives: every breath, every heartbeat; our jobs, financial and emotional support, our family. Our greatest need is the knowledge of Jesus. And this isn't a one-off event. We need to feed off Jesus, the same way need food, sustenance, relationships to function as human beings.
  • Paul is praying for the ministry of the Word that is central to this knowledge of Christ. That is why he keeps re-emphasizing the need to be reminded: to hear, to learn, to understand and take in the messsage of salvation. This is how God is filling the Colossians with the knowledge of his will - through the proclamation of his Son.
  • The theme of "filling up" will be picked up further by Paul in this letter - God being pleased to have his fullness dwell in Christ (1:19), and Paul's filling up in his flesh the signs of Christ's presence in his ministry so as to propagate the gospel.
4. Revelation
  • Only God can reveal his will in our lives.
  • This is more than just insight into what job we're meant to be doing, who we should marry, whether I should go for a skiing holiday. God's will revealed in the bible focuses on his kingdom made up of men and women redeemed through the work of Jesus on the cross. Preaching and teaching Christ, what Paul and Epaphras have been doing all this while, is communicating the very will of God for this world - that all would come under the lordship of Christ.
  • God's wisdom ordains the means of knowing his will, but only God's Spirit reveals the meaning of his will. Our sinful minds in opposition to God (1:21) can only begin to understand the glories of Christ through the work of his Spirit - the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (1:26)
A brief scan through the prayers of Paul written his letters will reveal how earnestly he seeks for the ultimate good of others in appreciating the love and recognising the glory of Christ through the gospel (eg. 1 Corinthians 1:4-6, Philippians 1:9-11). Also here, from his letter to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:14-18

Faithful and dependable: Colossians 1:7-8

You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
Colossians 1:7-8

Epaphras serves as the personal link between Paul, the writer of this letter, and his reader in Colossae. More than a shared acquaintance, he becomes a extension of Paul's ministry of teaching and proclaiming Christ.

  • Epaphras was likely convert of Paul, who went on preach the gospel to the Colossians. In establishing the church there, Epaphras serves as an extension to Paul's ministry.
  • As such, Paul writes with vested interest in the Colossian Christian's faith. Epaphras was acting in his capacity on "our behalf" - continuing on the work of teaching and preaching that characterised the apostles ministry.
  • Both Paul and Epaphras were, in turn, completely dependant on Christ. Paul's description of Epaphras as a "servant" is unique - literally it means "slave" (see Philippians 1:1). The term is meant to express his utter dependance on Christ. That he refers to Epaphras as "fellow servant" reinforces not so much Epaphras' credentials in relation to Paul, but the Colossian's minister's shared devotion to the Lord.
  • The two ministers of Christ also share a common concern for the church - Colossians 4:12 reveals Epaphras' prayer for their maturity and assurance in Christ. Paul writes this letter to reminding the Colossians to stand firm in their knowledge of the gospel, in the face of false teaching threatening to lure them away from the central message of Jesus as Lord.
  • In the earlier verses, Paul has been drawing his readers attention back to the gospel. It is the message of salvation that they have heard and understood (1:6).
  • Complementing this is the teaching ministry by Epaphras which conveyed the gospel. It is because of this ministry of the Word, in relaying "God's grace in all truth", that Epaphras is a faithful minister in Christ.
  • While Paul has been writing earlier about the "fruit of the gospel", there is a strong sense in which he isn't simple referring to the faith and love of the Colossians as the evidence of the gospel's effectiveness, but the believers themselves being the fruit that serves as an encouragement to the ministers of the gospel.
    As Epaphras conveys the message of their "love in the Spirit", you can't help but sense that this wasn't so much a report he delivered back to the apostle, but an a testimony to God's grace in revealing a glimpse of the fruit borne through the ministry of proclaiming the gospel. So similarly, Epaphras - having himself come to trust in Christ through Paul's ministry - now serves to refresh the apostle's spirit through his partnership in God's work of proclaiming his Son.
  • Later on, Epaphras would go on to share not just in Paul's spiritual struggle, but his physical predicament as well. Paul's letter to Philemon would refer to him as "a fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus" - unlikely to be a metaphorical. Paul had written both letters from a prison cell (4:18).
  • Authentic faithfulness and devotion to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ encourages others to do the same. But as Paul would remind us, it is the gospel itself that produces this fruit:
    " ...All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth. "
    (Colossians 1:6)

Tuesday 30 December 2008

The gospel of grace and growth: Colossians 1:6

(the gospel) that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth.
Colossians 1:6

How do we see God working in the world? Paul answers this question, simply with, the gospel. In 1:6, he outlines how the gospel is:
  1. God's plan for growth
  2. God's truth of grace
1. God's plan for growth

All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing...

Paul doesn't simply say that the gospel is growing, he describes the manner of its propagation, by saying that it is "bearing fruit". The term is evocative of the creation account in the bible, where in Genesis, God made the world and on the sixth day, created man. God blessed man, saying,

"Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
Genesis 1:28

At the surface, the blessing to "be fruitful", simply means to grow and increase in number. It is similar to the blessing God bestows on the other creatures (Genesis 1:22). We see it again in Genesis 9, where Noah and his sons are mandated to repopulate the earth after the destruction of the flood. Multiplication of one's descendants is the ultimate blessing by God in the Old Testament. It is the extension of your name, your renown - your very life. That was the case for Abraham, to whom God promised repeatedly his descendants and children would be "increased" and "multiplied". He would be the father of offspring as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5).

Yet each time this promise of growth is realised in the bible, we encounter the frustration that accompanies the blessing. The increased population of men at the time of Noah (Genesis 6:1), gave rise to man's wickedness, which led to God's judgement of the flood. Abraham's descendants eventually grew into the nation of Israel. But their numbers became a concern in Egypt where the king decided to enslave them (Exodus 1:8).

The clue to understanding the reason for this frustration, is to go back to the original blessing of God, and ask: what was the true blessing? Was it simply for man to be the dominant species?

In Genesis, we see that God's blessing to man was coupled with God's character revealed in man. Just a verse earlier, we read:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27

Man was created in God's image, and the blessing of fruitfulness was hence a command to mediate the character and authority of God, in the world and over the creation order. Man was to "rule over" (Gen 1:28) all the living creatures. Compare this with verse 22, where God gives a similar blessing to the other creatures to multiply in number; here man's increase in population is tied to the growing pervasiveness of his influence and stewardship - that the image of God might be seen throughout his creation.

In the light of this first blessing of God making man his image-bearers, we can begin to rightly appreciate why the second related blessing of fruitfulness never reaches its fulfilment. Genesis records how the first man Adam, rebelled against God's authority. The sin of Adam was to reject the rule of God, the word of God, or to put it another way - the image of God. Sin is not simply the breaking of moral rules; not living up to religious expectations. Sin is rebelling against God as the true King, the one who has the final word. Sin is the dissatisfaction of merely mediating an authority conferred upon by our Creator - it is the desire to be the final independent authority in our own lives and over others - to be our own god.

The result was the judgement of God. Man was cast out of God's presence and his life of blessing would now be characterised by frustration and ultimately death. We must not fail to see God's mercy even in his judgement. God's image was not entirely removed. But it is tarnished by sin. Like old ruins of an old building or an abandoned car in a scrap heap - you can just make out what it used to be, what it ought to be - but isn't.

Man's authority was now frustrated - vegetation and trees once a source of food, would now have to be worked with toil. The created order had been turned upside down - even the ground would rebel against him! Pain of child-birth was introduced in procreation. His life, once meant to be eternal in fellowship with God, would now be apart from God and end in death.

Coming back to Colossians, what Paul is saying is: God's original plan of blessing has come to you! What God has initially set out to do since the beginning of creation, is now finally taking off as he had intended, through the gospel.

But how can this be? What has reversed the curse of the fall? The answer is Christ.

He (speaking of Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:15

The true image bearer of God has come in the person of Jesus. Jesus, who lived in complete obedience to the will and under the authority of his Father. Christ, exalted as the firstborn over creation - the one who has the full rights as the true Son of God, the firstborn - over the world. And Christ, who in Colossians 1:18, now has supremacy over the church, because of his death on the cross.

Through the gospel, the believers come to know Jesus as their Lord. Notice that Paul is speaking not so much of the Colossians bearing fruit. True, in verse 4, Paul recognises the their faith and love. But these are fruits of the gospel. It is the gospel that is multiplying. The gospel of God that is propagating the image of Christ - the image of God in his true authority over the world, now mediated through the Lordship of Christ.

For the gospel speaks of the cross of Christ. That is the source of his worth and glory. Jesus' death preceeds his exaltation as Lord. This was God's plan all along, ever since creation. That the glory of His image might be seen in a crucified King.

The gospel challenges us to see God for who he is. It says we can know and see what he is like. We can experience his power and majesty. We can witness the true image of God. We see all this, in Jesus, the true image-bearer of God.

The gospel says that we have our true image restored in God, when we are in Christ. His redemption now enables us to lives that please him (Col 1:14), bearing witness to his image through the message of his grace.

2. God's truth in grace
It is perhaps more common to talk about the growth of the church, than the growth of the gospel. It is easier to measure tangible outcomes, like church attendance, membership, weekly offerings, programmes, events and services, baptisms and conversions. Much harder it is to measure gospel growth.

At one level, gospel growth correlates with church growth. It is right and godly, to want more to know of the forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus Christ. The church is the gathering of God, to the glory of God, a reflection of blessing of God - scattering, in the bible, always has to do with the judgement of God - instead, the New Testament encourages believers to meet often and around the Lord. Increase in church attendance, is a testament of God's work in bringing his people together, gives opportunity encourage one another. We should plan and work towards growing our numbers in our churches.

Yet, notice the emphasis Paul puts on what produces the growth. The gospel leads to growth. Rightly understood, the gospel produces the church. The church does not create the gospel - much less can the church create faith. And more subtly, we do not grow the church, in order to grow the gospel. Such misapplication of the gospel leads guilt-trips to get Christians to serve in ministry ("Oh, we simply can't do anything without the right people in Sunday School.."), ambitious pride in personal empire-building ("We must get x amount of dollar and x number of people to make this ministry a success"), excuses for not actually getting on to the work of preaching the gospel ("Let's concentrate first on getting people through our doors with more events... bible study can wait").

And it isn't even that we need to grow the gospel, in order to grow the church. The gospel produces the growth, that's its job.

Our job is to recognise and receive the gospel. I find it interesting that Paul says that the gospel has "come to you", paraphrasing the later description in the verse of how the Colossians "heard" and "understood" it. It is as if Paul is describing how the gospel first "clicked" with them. The penny finally dropped. That moment when they "got it!" When everything first made sense.

It means that the growth Paul is alluding to may not be mere numbers. Instead, the growth the gospel produces is in verse 10:

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God
Colossians 1:10

Bearing fruit...growing... in the knowledge of God! Paul's understanding of gospel growth, is growth in our grasp of the gospel. That we might continually go back to the message of Christ, never tiring of its glory, always thankful for its grace, and constantly trusting in God's faithfulness.

Do our brothers and sisters come away each Sunday amazed with the glory of God revealed through his Word? Do they open the Scriptures, with an expectation of meeting with God, yearning to know his will, hear his voice and to do business with Him? Are they reminded of the secure hope to be found in Christ alone, drawn to his presence in every page of the bible, Old Testament and New. Is the desire to present the whole counsel of God reflected in our events and meetings.

If there is anything else we can do, aside from receiving the gospel ourselves, is to help others to do the same. Paul does this so well here, we almost do not notice it. Someone (we know its Epaphras, only in the next verse) had to tell the Colossians the gospel, in order for them to hear it. But notice, how the emphasis is on the gospel itself, autonomously working its power on the Colossians.

The gospel came to the Colossians. The gospel is bearing fruit all over the world. And even when Paul does attribute an active effort on the part of the Colossians, in hearing and understanding the gospel - he reminds them it is the message of God's grace in all its truth. Meaning, God is the true author and subject of this gospel. It is his grace and generosity that is behind all this. Grace in giving them not just in redeeming them from darkness into his kingdom of light (1:12), but also grace in revealing his salvation to them now - that believers might be able to understand the riches that is theirs in Christ now, in all its entirety, fully revealed, nothing hidden or held back, all freely given by his grace, in all its truth.

How do we see God working in the world? When we see God working through his gospel. In turn, this "gospelling" God, by his wisdom and mercy, enables his servants to be "gospellers" themselves - witnessing to his grace in Jesus Christ.

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

Focus on the Father: Colossians 1:3

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

Christians often ask: How should be pray? Yet, a more basic question would not start with "How", but "Who". Who do we pray to?

The verse from Paul's letter to the Colossians, answers both questions with three parts: "God", "The Father", and "our Lord".

1. God
Just knowing who we are dealing with sorts out so many questions about how we are to go about doing so. We are dealing with God.

There are no middlemen when it comes to prayer. We have direct access to the Almighty.

And there are no middlemen when it comes to blessing. All we have is from God, and a natural response we ought to have is gratitude. Paul thanks God. Not just for something he has personally received. He thanks God for the Colossians' growing faith and love (1:4).

It might be pointing out the obvious, but in the opening verses of Paul's letter, God is the central character.

In verse 1, Paul lays out his credentials as an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God.

In verse 2, Paul's greetings are couched in the blessing from God: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

Looking on across the chapter, we find that it is God whose grace defines the gospel (1:6), God who provides spiritual insight into his will (1:9), God who has rescued the Colossians, given them an inheritance in heaven, and transferred them out of darkness (1:12,13).

Ultimately in redemption and reconciliation, it is God who reconciles us through Jesus (1:20 and 1:22).

Why is this important?

Often in our focus for prayer, we find it difficult to decide who we should address. We often start with a formulaic "Our Father in heaven ...", and end with "... in Jesus name". It seems cold to speak to just "God".

And even when we do, there is a dichotomy between what we attribute to God and to Jesus. It is common to thank God for stuff like the weather, our food, our health. But when we think of salvation, we thank Jesus for saving us, being with us, dying for us.

What Paul is saying and emphasizing again and again in Colossians is this: God is central!

God is the source of all our blessing, our very existence. But more pointedly in Colossians, Paul point is that God is the source and focus of the gospel.

It is God who sends his Son as a redeeming sacrifice. God who reveals his truth in the gospel and enables us to not just understand, but continue to grow in understanding of his will.

And our difficulty in comprehending who he is, in appreciating his worth and role in all that we have and know - stems from our separation from him. Of course we find it hard to pray to just "God" - we think of him not just as distant, but as our enemy. See how Paul puts it in verse 21:

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of (or as shown by) your evil behavior
(Colossians 1:21)

Even as Christians, we approach the bible with the outlook of Old Testament = God, New Testament = Christ; or Creation = God; Redemption = Jesus.

This will not do. The bible's solution is to put God back in the centre of salvation. Paul doesn't let us get away from who we're dealing with here in the letter to the Colossians.

It is the same God - the only God - who is responsible for our creation and redemption. The purpose of Jesus' death is that we might be reconciled to the God who chose us, saved us and continues to sanctify us.

All we know of Christ, his humility, obedience and sacrifice should never lead to a lesser view of God, or a "de-Godding" of God. Rather it should enrich our understanding of the God who sends Jesus as the Christ, the God to whom Christ was obedient to, the Christ in whom God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in (1:19).

2. Father
It is this relationship between God and Christ that gives full meaning to his role as Father. Notice that Paul addresses God as not so much our Father, but the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are more used to hearing Paul address God as our Father, as he does in his letter to the Philippians:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:2

Why the difference in emphasis here? Does it even matter?

In one sense, God is Father of all men - he created us, and his mercy and will continues to sustain our very existence. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus outlines the goodness of God's fatherly nature in providing only good things to those who ask him, as an impetus to approach God as our heavenly Father in prayer (Matthew 7:11). The Fatherhood of God evokes our inner need to go to him in all circumstances, acknowledging his provision for all we have and faithful nature in working for the good of all who love him.

Yet, the bible reveals the true nature of God's fatherhood only in relation to his Son, Jesus. God is first and foremost, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the bible, God's glory is seen as function of his character. We know who God is, what he is like whether it be his omniscience, omnipotence, immutability (fancy words for his all-knowing nather, his power and faithfulness), by the evidence of the display of these very attributes when he is dealing with man. The whole Old Testament is not just a history of the kingdom of Israel, or just a book about God, but God dealing with his people: how he chose them out of all the other nations, how he protected and guided them, how he judged and ruled them, and how he showed mercy in dealing with their continued apostacy, constantly calling them back to himself.

God dealt with his people, Israel his Son, as their Father. How much more so when we think of God's relationship with his true Son, Jesus.

Jesus was the true Son who obeyed his Father, unto death. When faced with the terrible prospect of judgement at the cross, Jesus would still pray to his Father and concede that his Father's will be done. The Old Testament is then pointing to Jesus as the true Israel, the true Son who loves his Father in obedience and worship.

The bible connects with our own earthly experiences when it asks us to consider our own relationship with our earthly fathers. Like God, our own natures are truly seen when we relate with those we love. Men are true men, not so much in just how smart, handsome, well-built they are, or how many accomplishments they can boast; but in as much as they are brothers and sons, fathers and husbands.

Yet we are not to then measure God as a reduction of our human experiences. Rather, when Jesus uses our fathers as an example to point to God, he says "how much more" (Matt 7:11). The reference to God as Father is not meant to bring him down as just a model for fathers, or for some of us, even just as a replacement for our fathers; but to lift our eyes up to one in heaven who is the true Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How much more is God the Father who loves the Son and is please to have all his fullness dwell in him (1:19). How much more does the Father provide for Jesus, giving all things in creation as his true inheritance, whether in heaven or on earth, visible or invisible (1:16). How much more does God exalt his Son, making him the true firstborn, the head over the church, that he might have the supremacy (1:18).

3. Our Lord
Increasingly, Paul paints a bigger, loftier picture of the God we are dealing with. But in doing so, it makes the question we asked at the beginning, all the more impossible to fathom. How can we pray to such a God?

We do so, in Christ - or as the verse outlines more fully - our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul acknowledges just a few verses later, that God is invisible (1:15). In other words, it is hard to perceive such a God given not just our limitations, but also given our sin (1:21). Even in our best attempts, portraying God in any form or manner would only lead us to create and worship an idol.

Yet, verse 15, while at the same time highlighting the distance between us and God - draws us closer to him through Jesus.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:15

Jesus is true image of the invisible God. In Christ, God was pleased to have his fullness (1:19) contained, or as the letter puts it, dwell (1:19). The word "dwell" is meant to help us recall the time when God's glory was seen to have been with his people through the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later on, in the temple. God's presence was seen to "dwell" with man here on earth - then through the temple, but now through Jesus.

But there is more. Paul prays to God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The lordship of Christ reveals the means by which Jesus reflects the character of God, but more importantly for us, how we then have direct access to the person of God.

The reference to Christ as the image of God, again evokes an Old Testament account, this time of creation when God created man in his own image. There, the bearer of the image of God, Adam, displayed the character of God in his responsibility of ruling over the animals, the garden, the created order as a steward.

All the more so, here Jesus is the true image of God for he is all the agent of creation (by him all things were created - 1:16). But the apex of his lordship is seen in the historical event of his exaltation. For it is through his death and resurrection, that God establishes Jesus and truly the lord of creation, and supremely lord over the church.

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Colossians 1:18

Elsewhere, Paul writes to the Philippians:

8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 1:8-11

The picture we have of Jesus as Lord and Christ, is not so much an image of a supreme being sitting on a throne looking down on us mere mortals calling us to worship him. Or still less at this Christmas time, is it just the helpless baby lying in cloths.

The true image of God, and the true Lordship of Christ is fully displayed through the man Jesus hanging dead on a cross of wood stained with his blood. There we see the true Son, obedient to his heavenly Father unto death.

And it is there, Paul tells us, that we are reconciled, brought back to the Father:

19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:19-20

God's fullness is revealed to mortal sinful man at the cross. By Jesus' blood we have peace and full access to this God: We are reconciled!

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"

How does this help us in prayer?

It reminds us that through Jesus, God has already brought us to himself. We are already reconciled through his blood, and have direct access to the Father. And indeed, in as much as Jesus is your Lord and Saviour, God is your Father. God is your God.

But to answer the question as to "how" we should pray - more than being reverent (he is God Almighty), more than being sorrowful (Jesus died to enable us to have this reconciliation), more than even being hopeful (our Father in heaven has enabled us to partake in the inheritance of heaven itself - 1:12), we should be thankful.

As Christians our prayers should be characterised by joyful thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for knowledge that God has called us his sons in Jesus. Thankfulness for his goodness in saving us even at the cost of his Son on the cross.

And thankfulness that we continue to see the work of Jesus, and the lordship of Christ spread through the gospel. Do you see that is what Paul is doing here?

Paul has direct access to God the Father. He knows it comes through Jesus. And he thanks God that others have come to know this as well.

That's why the angels can praise God that first Christmas day. God's plan of redemption is for all who would receive his Son, Jesus as Lord. For Christians, it is our basis for prayer and joy.

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Friday 26 December 2008

Chosen for holiness, Continuing in faithfulness: Colossians 1:2

To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
(Colossians 1:2, New International Version)

I had a conversation earlier this month on the use of the term, "saints". Should we address believers as saints? After all, the bible does repeatedly refer to believers as such, eg Colossians 1:2. It isn't evident from the NIV translation we have above, but look at the same verse taken from the King James Version:

To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Colossians 1:2, KJV)

3 observations from this verse in Paul's letter to the Colossians: a clarification, a continuation and a localisation.

1. A Clarification
Firstly, a clarification - on the descriptive word holy, or saints as found in the KJV. Both refer to God's setting apart the believers for himself. We are meant to recall in the Old Testament how God is holy and all people and things associated with him have to be holy as well. Another word commonly used to describe this process is sanctified. Someone, or something is sanctified, or holy-fied (I'm Chinese, so I guess I can get away with the bad English), when it is set aside for special use for God.

The advantage of the term saints, is that the term can stand alone. The saints, the sactified ones. The KJV has it right - when you read the verse you see that Paul is addressing the Colossian Christians as saints - that's who they are. They are sanctified. It is their identity in association to Christ, in relation to God. All Christians, in Christ, are saints.

The NIV slightly waters this down by turning it into an adjective - a description. Holiness is no longer a position towards God, it becomes here an attitude similar to God's. The holy... brothers. Where as, we are meant to read that Paul is addressing the Colossians as "the holy".

Having said that, the term "saints" is misleading and open to misunderstanding. We think of it as a title, a special recognition conferred on exceptional people who have proven their worth through acts of great kindness, love or sacrifice. "That guy is a real saint - he really helped us out when we were in trouble."

Furthermore, non-Christians often think of sainthood as something close to the Buddhist attainment of Nirvana - it is a state of supreme exaltation, after which lowly followers build statues of this saint and pray towards like a god.

What is going here is this: Paul addresses the Colossians as "the holy", evoking the imagery from the Old Testament where God calls his people, Israel, as holy. Holy, meaning set apart for him - different from the surrounding nations, the neighbouring influences, the other identities.

In doing so, Paul is saying this is not something Christians can do for themselves. It is what God has done for them. God has chosen them, santified them for himself and to reflect his character of holiness. They are the holy.

2. A Continuation
But that is not all he says. Paul calls them faithful.

Contrasted with the first condition, here Paul is calling the Colossians Christians to continued trust in God. Believers in the Lord Jesus are already positionally right with God - they are holy. But they are called to continually walk in trust and reliance in Christ - to be faithful.

Faithfulness is a state that can never be achieved once and for all. It is an active obedience and steadfastness that has to be reflected every day in the lives of the Colossians.

In the New Testament, the words "faith" and "belief" are used interchangeably - that's because they are the same word in Greek. If we translated this verse using the second word "believe", we would have an awkward description here of the Colossians Christians as the "believing ones". But this is useful, as it begs the question, "Believe ... in what?"

And this is precisely the question we should ask each time we encounter the word "faith". Faith is useful and effective only as much as the object it is in. Words like "depend", "rely" or even "trust" might be better alternatives to "faith" - they would lend themselves nicely here - Christians are called to the "dependable", "reliable" and "trustworthy".

But back to the more important question of the object of faith. What are Christians depending on, relying on, and trusting in. What does their continued faith hinge on?

3. A Localisation
The answer? In Christ.

Paul ties the two descriptions of the Colossians, and indeed of all Christians, with this phrase. Believers are holy in Christ - they are cleansed once for all by his bloody sacrifice on the cross. Believers continue to trust only in Christ - they are justified by Jesus alone.

We get a glimpse of Paul's purpose in writing this letter. The Colossian church was dangerously close to losing sight of the basis of their salvation and sanctification. He goes on to remind them that God has already effected their salvation - God the Father has qualified them (1:12), God has rescued them from the dominion of darkness (1:13). They have already been made holy.

The implication of this, says Paul, is to continue trusting in the one who makes them holy (1:22) - in Christ who presented himself as a sacrifice in his death. More pointedly, Paul calls the Colossians to trust in the message of Christ, the gospel (1:23).

22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you 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.
Colossians 1:22-23a

So, back to the question I opened with: Should we be called saints? Paul's answer points us beyond our current state of holiness/sainthood to the One who justifies us, or even our perpetual lives of obedience and faithfulness - the bible, indeed the gospel calls us to be in Christ.

Sent by God, Sent for Christ: Colossians 1:1

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother

In his letter to the Colossians, it is important for Paul for to let his readers know not just who he is, but why he is who he is. They have never met him. Yet, Paul dares to write intimately to these Christians, of the joy he has in praying for their faith (1:3), and the concern he has for them to continue in this faith in Christ (1:23).

3 things to note:
1. Paul was an apostle of Jesus
Christ Jesus to be exact. Christ is a term we find only in the New Testament. It is after all, a Greek word. But its richness can only be savoured by reading through the entire Old Testament. Israel looked forward to the coming of the Messiah - the one sent from God who would establish the kingdom of God. All of God's promises - his blessing, his presence, his rule - would come through his chosen servant - his King. The Messiah was the anointed one - or you could put it as the "crowned" one. Paul is saying that Jesus is this Messiah, the fulfilment of all the expectation of the Old Covenants, and the Christ of the new hope of redemption through his blood.

It was this Christ that sent Paul. Jesus' authority defined Paul's ministry as an apostle, sent to the Gentiles to announce the message that all would be in his kingdom through faith in Jesus alone.

2. The will of God
The exaltation of Jesus as the Christ is by the will of God. References to God are never tacked on whenever Jesus is mentioned, as a formality. Rather, the true basis of praising God, the proper way of giving him his true worth, of being able to know who he is and recognising the true significance of all he has done in the world and continues to work so powerfully through his might and mercy, is in Christ.

Paul is sent to proclaim Christ. He is the apostle of Jesus. He message is the gospel. But this is the will of God, for all this brings glory to God.

To truly identify yourself as being on the side of God, as Paul does here, is to find your identity and worth, in Christ Jesus.

3. Our common partnership and purpose
Finally, as a side point, Paul writes this letter with Timothy, recognised as our brother. Not just his brother, but the Colossians' as well.

It may well be, that the Colossians know Timothy personally, or likely that Timothy is acquainted with Epaphras (1:7) who established the church there.

However, here Paul is continuing on his identification in Jesus to include those who labour alongside him for the cause of the gospel. Timothy is their common brother not just through personal acquaintances, but because of a common partnership and purpose. The message of Jesus Christ - the gospel - is the basis of all authority, fellowship, and indeed joy within the body of believers.

In this sense, the way forward to establishing partnerships amongst churches, in strengthening bonds of fellowship between Christians across differences and distances, may not be so much in opening more channels of communication, working on more projects together, or indeed, simply just meeting up more often. Paul was a stranger to the Colossians in person, yet candidly wrote to encourage, even to warn of false teaching, all the while expecting to be taken seriously.

Our ties of partnership and purpose are found in the gospel. Our identity is to be in Christ, and our unity is bound through Christ - his bodily sacrifice which brings the reconciliation of all things (1:22) to himself.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Christmas: Not just his humanity, but Jesus' humility

I have been reflecting on Jesus' humility these couple of weeks leading up to Christmas. Some reflections I found on the Internet today from Piper and Keller have crystallised my thoughts on Jesus' servant nature all the more.

The Shy Virtue of Christmas (Piper's reflection on
The Advent of Humility (Keller's article from Christianity Today)

Philippians 2:5-11

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.