Saturday 27 December 2008

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!"

No comments: