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Praying for Progress

(a meditation on the book of Colossians, chapter 1:9-12)

As Paul rejoices in the evidence of God’s work among the saints in Colossae, he goes beyond giving thanks. Past and present grace point to future growth: he beseeches God for progress – for increase, and the continual outworking of practical godliness.

This is gospel hunger; when we see Jesus at work, in us and in others, we want more. In fact, when it comes to ongoing sanctification, that’s one place where God is quite happy for us be greedy!

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

We need (and seek) filling. While the initial work of salvation by faith is a marvelous work of transformation, it is only the beginning. Each day, we need more and more of God’s Spirit. He is an unlimited God, and our minds are darkened by sin; we can never gain enough wisdom and spiritual understanding. Today’s 30 watts of light is to draw us forward to tomorrow’s increase to 40.

We need (and seek) holiness. Walking worthy of the Lord means that our heart of faith is manifested outwardly by clean hands, bearing good fruit instead of returning to defiled, God-displeasing ways. A few external changes to please men won’t cut it here – this is a lifelong pursuit of conformity to Christ in order to please the God who loves us.

We need (and seek) power. Humbling ourselves to be saved by Christ makes us painfully aware of our weakness – our utter powerlessness to save ourselves. In fact, as we make progress in grace, we see even more of the depths of our weakness – and thus, we pant after the power of God to strengthen us. We know that we’ll never attain patience and holiness and fulness without a constant increase in God’s powerful work in us.

Paul understood that salvation was not merely the one-time embrace of a message. It is a death and resurrection, with constant infilling by the Savior who is determined to make us after His image – in this life, and in the life to come. Gospel salvation is progressive in its outworking.

Since we are to share in the inheritance of light with all the other saints in heaven, we gladly embrace the joyful hardship – the painful liberation – of making progress day by day along with our fellow saints on earth.

Colossians 1:1-2: Why Listen to this Paul Character?

Colossians 1:3-8: A Harvest of Gospel Fruit

(a meditation on the book of Colossians, chapter 1:3-8)

As Paul begins his letter to the believers in Colossae, he does so with a heart of thanksgiving – because stuff is happening in that church! This isn’t some building with a sign “Christian Church” in front of it; sterile on the outside and sleepy on the inside. No, this is a group of people where God is actively at work. Gospel fruit is coming forth. Paul is encouraged because there is abundant evidence of supernatural life:

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

Here we see depicted the true evidence of the hand of God in a gospel work.

There is faith in Jesus Christ. Note: the Scripture no where validates faith in faith. Nor are we to have faith in one of a buffet line of possible deities. Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ (see our previous study on verses 1 and 2), sees that the gospel message has turned former pagans to the one true Savior, Jesus Christ.

There is love for the saints. Throughout the New Testament, one of the hallmarks of a true gospel work in the heart of men and women is holy, sacrificial love. Of all of the fruits of God’s supernatural work, a surpassing love among formerly selfish people shines brightest. This comes about by the indwelling of the Spirit of God – it is more than human affection.

There is hope for the future. Paul here is underscoring the objective hope of a resurrected future for all believers; but that message of God-secured hope also births a subjective sense of hope in the heart of the Christian.

There is increase. The gospel is not some set of dogmas, embraced but without any real effect. No, the work of Jesus Christ bears fruit; growing fruit, increasing fruit; wherever the gospel is embraced. Lives are changed.

There is truth. In our day, people love to separate “spirtuality” from truth (capital T truth). Paul knows of no such thing. The message of the gospel is specific, and a messenger such as Epaphras is considered faithful because he has not only embraced the truth, he is accurately teaching it to others.

We will always be surrounded by a culture that wants to use God-words (grace, love, truth, jesus, spirit, etc.) divorced from God-meaning. Those empty forms of belief or religion will never bear gospel fruit, because they deny gospel realities. No church is even close to perfect, but where the Spirit of Jesus dwells, we’ll see the evidence Paul describes above. The gospel is not mere words – it is power.

Transformation and orthodoxy and fruit-bearing all dwell together in the living church of Jesus Christ.

(a meditation on the book of Colossians, chapter 1:1,2)

Paul opens his letter to the church at Colossae with some pretty audacious words:

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

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Now, if I write you a letter, I’m just going to say at the end of it:

   -Steve

or, if you’re part of my professional network:

   -Warm regards, Steve Woodruff

or, if we’re in a particularly close relationship:

   -Love, Steve

That’s it. Just me, expressing my thoughts and feelings. No claims of authority or (capital T) Truth.

Not so with Paul in his letters to the churches. He regularly opens with expressions that show that he is no ordinary fellow, penning a few random thoughts. He wants his readers in Colossae to be very conscious, from the opening words of this epistle, that he is not speaking merely from and for himself.

He is an apostle (meaning a “sent one”). He was uniquely chosen and commissioned, along with a handful of others, to bear a message of good news to all the nations. He is not a news reporter, not a blogger, not Billy Bob down the street. He has been set apart as a special herald of a message that did not originate from him.

He is sent by Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself commissioned His apostles to go out and carry His message. Paul is therefore not representing himself, spewing his own opinions of dubious or limited relevance. Paul very self-consciously presents himself to the churches – including us, in this day – as a messenger from Jesus.

He is a message-bearer by the will of God. Paul did not elect himself to this position – in fact, he was a fire-breathing Christian-hater until the risen Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus, and God converted him into a believer and disciple. God chose Paul. God commissioned Paul. God gave him gospel revelation to proclaim to others.

He speaks blessing from God. It was a high and holy position to speak the authoritative blessing of God upon his people, and Paul, without hesitation, pronounces God’s grace and peace to these believers in Christ. Paul stands in the role of a fatherly prophet to the disciples, serving his and their great High Priest by bringing comforting words from God’s heart.

You and me? We can speak God’s truth to one another, but we can never occupy this place of apostolic authority. We can take each other (and even our pets!) out on a rowboat, but we’re not Noah. You can write poetry, but that doesn’t make you David the Psalmist-King.

Here’s the point: it has always been fashionable to try to undermine Paul’s authority (and therefore the authority of the New Testament) by claiming that Paul is only speaking his mind – not proclaiming the mind of God. As we’ll see throughout this letter, Paul gives us no such option – he very deliberately portrays himself in a position of authoritative Truth-telling, because that is the position God put him in.

The prophets of old, of course, did the same – and, sure enough, they were also questioned and rejected by unbelieving skeptics. But that didn’t change the fact that God chose to speak – with authority – through frail human vessels.

What an amazing and frightening privilege this was – to stand as God’s herald and speak His word. I write hundreds of words a day in blogs and e-mails and text messages and updates – but never with a sense that I am an Apostle speaking the fresh revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Paying me much heed, therefore, is quite optional. Paying attention to the revelation of God through Paul is a matter of spiritual life or death. Apostle-words are not optional.

Super Savior

Super SaviorIf you’re focused on Christian dogma, Christian rituals, Christian practices, or even Christian examples (good or bad), you’re missing the point.

All of those things are important, of course. But they are the spokes. Our focus – in our own hearts, in our church life, and in our dialogue with the world – needs to be on the hub.

Christ is a super savior.

No, He’s not wearing a cape and jumping over tall buildings. But just look at the language of Colossians 1:15-20, and note the incredible pile-up of superlatives used to describe Him:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

These are outrageously out-there claims. This person, Jesus Christ, is God in the flesh; and He is before all, above all, in all, ruling over all and reconciling all. The entire created order is His.

In other words, He is superior, and everything else (including you and me) is subordinate. Our fictional superheroes don’t hold a candle to His sun.

Let this sink in for a minute. That immense, beautiful, and complex universe that surrounds us? It is His. It did not just appear out of thin vacuum. He made it, He upholds it, He rules over it – we are not the pawns of chance and random forces, but we are fearfully and wonderfully made by the supreme and only God, who rules over every force, visible and invisible.

The Scripture proclaims Christ as the superlative, supreme reality. He is not one of many gods. He is God. Audacious, yes?

One of the deepest works of sin is this: we want to imagine that we are in charge; or, that nothing is in charge. Sin is all about denial of reality. We’ll believe just about anything, as long as it doesn’t involve a King to rule over us. That’s why unbelief is, ultimately, a moral choice. It is the personal rejection of your Creator/King. It is the ant telling the earth to get lost.

If you give anything your attention, let it be the super Savior. Everything else, by definition, is a lesser consideration.

The Great Escape

The essence of the Christian faith can be found in this amazing sentence:

“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)

Genuine Christianity includes belief in Christ, joined to a personal and ongoing experience of Christ’s deliverance of us. It’s not an abstract set of dogmas. It’s an unfolding story of escape.

Escape Gospel

I wrote about the in whom we have aspect in this prior post. But let’s back up and look at what this passage tells us about rescue.

1. First of all, note that deliverance/rescue/salvation is not a mere bullet point in a list of orthodox dogmas. “We believe in a; and in b; and in c; oh, and by the way, we believe in rescue; and in this; and that; and the other…” While the Christian faith, like any and every other belief system and worldview (including atheism), includes a series of beliefs, the biblical gospel involves far more that a mental framework. It is founded on an individual and corporate experience of escape – a rescuing from moral and spiritual darkness – performed by the hand of God Himself through Jesus Christ. This is an audacious claim. We don’t adhere to dead truths from a mythical God; we believe in a living and active God who does miracles in people. Darkness-defeating deliverances. Today.

2. Also, the Scripture is very plain about the reality of darkness. It is moral. It is spiritual. It is universal. And it is powerful – such that every single human being is in its grip, and we cannot escape without rescue from a much more powerful God of light and love. The first step in God’s rescuing work is making us realize how hopelessly we are enchained in darkness. We’re not good. We’re not neutral. We’re not filled with enlightened intelligence. And, enslaved in our chains of moral folly, we cannot free ourselves. The gospel is for the hopeless leper; to the self-sufficient soul still in the grip of darkness, it simply sounds like foolishness.

3. We’re not independent operators, as much as we’d like to imagine ourselves to be. We belong to a kingdom, and this is a binary (zero or one) reality. The kingdom of darkness. The kingdom of Jesus. No middle ground, no other choices. Until and unless we are delivered by Jesus, we remain enslaved in darkness. This, by the way, is why people so violently oppose the gospel. It undercuts our arrogance and imagined self-determination right to the taproot. The gospel is astonishingly inclusive – any and all are welcome – but also terrifyingly exclusive. One way to God. Only Jesus can deliver the darkness-shrouded soul. We need a specific cure, not a random medicine chest, for our deadly disease.

4. In the midst of all these hard and uncomfortable truths, love is the answer. Not some wispy ’60’s view of hippie mush-love, but the all-powerful love of the Father for His Son, and His love for us expressed through His Son’s sacrifice for sins. We need redemption and forgiveness first and foremost; and that is exactly what God extends to those in darkness. Cleansing where once was only impurity. Restoration where there was hostility. Healing in the midst of brokenness. Sight where once spiritual blindness ruled. Love is not smooth words afraid to offend. Love breaks chains and makes rescues.

5. The conclusion we draw from this – and it is reinforced over and over throughout the Scriptures – is that mere human moral effort is inadequate. Just adopting orthodox beliefs is insufficient. Taking on Jesus’ name with the lips while retaining a heart in love with the practice of sin is a lie. Real, living Christianity is seen where thankful, delivered, spiritually-awakened people worship the God who loves them, and love other imperfect people within the body of Christ and outside of it.

Do you want to witness the reality of God’s work on earth? Don’t crave signs and wonders in the sky. Look for the people of the great escape. That is the hand of God – and He invites you to come to Him for deliverance. Weak, wounded, broken, scarred, blind, enslaved, addicted, impure, dying – Jesus, the great physician, calls the sick to Himself for healing.

 

Having It All

People write often about the mythical goal of “having it all” in this life.

Not. Going. To. Happen.

But if we take the Scriptures seriously, there is a powerfully comforting truth about “having it all.” While we’ll never have 100% of everything in day-to-day earthly experience, we are given ALL in Christ.

I was strolling around the house reading these verses aloud to myself this morning:

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin. (Colossians 1:13-14)

In whom we have.

Redemption and forgiveness are given to us. All spiritual blessings are given to us. Christ Himself is given to us. We have it all.

Now we might not experience the fulness of these riches yet – the outworking is progressive, the infilling is a daily experience, the sanctification of each saint involves a long process of growth.

But what God has given, we now possess. Pardon. Adoption into His family. Enduring grace. Heaven. Himself.

It’s not a matter of God considering the possibility of embracing us. The Lord Jesus is not giving some thought to the idea of redeeming you and me. The Holy Spirit is not present one day, absent the next, undecided about dwelling with us and within us. The idea that a Christian has the blessing of God as long as he/she has his/her act together that day is a mockery of the gospel.

He has given. We have received. He possesses us and all that we are. We possess Him and all that He is.

The loving, adoptive parent makes a total and legal commitment – and wholehearted embrace – of the orphan child. Whether that son or daughter is 6 months old or 60 years old, he or she has the family name, love, and inheritance. In time, the realization all of those things will progressively come to fruition.

In fact, we can have it all. No — we DO have it all! And whatever we possess in seed form, will come to full flower under God’s loving and omnipotent care.

The Best Gift

It’s October 18th; just another day for most, but for me, always a good day to pause and reflect.

I was given life-outside-the-womb on this day, 56 years ago. It seems more like the blink of an eye. Yet here I am in middle Tennessee, with 5 wonderful kids, a loyal and loving wife, a warm extended family, a God who has “rescued me from the domain of darkness, and transferred me to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” a fulfilling career, a great network of cool and creative people, and I’m feeling something that has been an elusive experience for most of my life.

I have never been happier.

Not just because of the circumstances, but because, in all my sin and folly, I’m drawing a little bit closer to God day by day.

Life, and new life – that is the best gift of all.

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