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.

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