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Posts Tagged ‘gospel’

(a meditation on the book of Colossians, chapter 1:13-14)

The claims contained in this couple of verses are absolutely mind-boggling. If anyone thinks Christianity is just another of many “religious systems,” this passage puts a stake through the heart any such notion:

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

– You mean, He hasn’t given us a new set of rules to follow? Not the point.

– Jesus isn’t all about high ideals and a great example to follow? He is, but that’s not His main mission. 

– The Christian faith is not just one of many equally valid ways to get to God? Not even remotely.

Here is what this passage teaches, and it’ll rock your world once you begin to see your spiritual reality clearly.

1. We are under the dominion of darkness. Moral, spiritual darkness. That’s right, you and I are not free agents. We are in captivity – blinded and helpless to serve God. It’s called sin – and if the Scriptures are clear about anything, from Genesis to Revelation, it’s the sinful condition of all mankind. Including you. And me. And them. Everyone.

2. God delivers people through Jesus, His beloved Son. Was God content to leave us in darkness? No – He sent His Son to be the Savior, so that any who are willing to escape the clutches of darkness can call out to Him for rescue. Yes – any=you.

3. Salvation involves a very real, supernatural transfer. When Christ lays hold of a sinner who seeks Him, there is an actual regime change. We may not see it with physical eyes, the way we might see someone fly from one country to another on an airliner and seek refugee status, but it is just as real. The kingdom of darkness has lost a subject. The kingdom of God has gained a reborn child. And this is a permanent status change. You’ve been made a citizen of a different realm.

4. Entry into this new kingdom meets our most profound spiritual need. God hates sin, and uncleanness cannot abide in His presence. So He brings about redemption through Jesus Christ – all of our sins are punished in Him (our substitute) on the cross; so that we might experience full and free forgiveness and cleansing. You see, the doorway into God’s kingdom requires a payment for all our sins, a price we can never conjure up ourselves. Redemption is a gift of grace, not a wage we earn.

When we embrace Jesus Christ in the gospel (“good news”), we come under His loving, beneficial rule. He is our Lord, and we would have it no other way, remembering the cruelty and folly of our life under the dominion of darkness.

Militant Islam, on the other hand, would impose the rule of Allah on all, setting up the dominion of a Caliphate on earth. It is the kingdom of an iron fist. You will be transferred by force into the bondage of Shariah law, or be killed for resisting. Bad news, for sure. Jesus, on the other hand, does not move us from one form of darkness to another. His kingdom moves us into the realm of light, and grace, and love. That’s why His message of deliverance is good news.

Finally – and this is implied all over this passage – there is no Christianity without direct, powerful, divine, supernatural, and personal intervention. There are many “shells” of Christian expression that have abandoned the power of the gospel, for a mere outward form of empty words and powerless rituals. Where you find the captives being set free from sin and darkness, there you are seeing the gospel in action.

— Prior posts in this series —

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

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

Colossians 1:9-12: Praying for Progress

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(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.

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(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.

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Ashes for Beauty

We’ve all heard of the phrase “beauty for ashes” – a lovely image of trading off a lowly and filthy state, for fresh, renewed beauty.

It is the language of the gospel. It is the language of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 61 of his book.

It is the hope and yearning of any honest person who looks into his/her soul and sees the ash heap of sin and selfishness that defiles every one of us.

We mourn, and a symbol of that mourning in the days of Isaiah was to cover oneself with ashes in sorrow and humiliation.

But that’s not the end of the story.

beauty for ashesLater, in chapter 61:10, Isaiah proclaims that the period of ashes is to be followed by its opposite – a state of newness, light, and cleansing. The language is striking and even romantic:

I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in God;

for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Some people – and I confess that I am one of them – seem to feel more comfortable wallowing in the ashes, than rejoicing in the freely-given robe of righteousness. Instead of trading up to beauty for our ashes, we trade down – neglecting the good news of an infinitely forgiving and cleansing God in order to stare at the soot and the filth. As if a right posture before God was one of unending mourning. “Thanks for the beauty, but I think I’ll just cover myself with ashes again today…”

The mourning period is temporary. It is meant to lead us to repentance, then to embracing the beauty of Jesus Christ while putting away our ashes of self-will and unbelief.

Yes, we will still sin, and mourn our profound imperfection. But we’re now alive. We’ve been granted pardon and been adopted. We have righteous robes. We have beauty instead of ashes.

It’s time to clean up the mirror and see as God sees…

photo credit: sparktography via photopin cc

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Because we live (inescapably) in a moral universe, with consciences that testify to right and wrong, we’re never far from the courtroom of law. All around us, and inside us, is the gavel sound of right-wrong judgment.

In the one ear, we hear the shoutings and whisperings of the prosecution. In the other, we await the pronouncements of the judge. Meanwhile, we seek to put up our own feeble little defenses, mainly by comparing ourselves to others who seem worse than us.

In an ultimate irony, we judge others in order to try to avoid judgment of ourselves.

Once I accept the fact that I, in fact, am in the docket, the prospects of acquittal can seem awfully dim. Our best efforts are shot through with selfish motives; and, truth be told, we rarely care to give out our best efforts toward righteous behavior anyway (unless someone is watching and our reputation can be enhanced). Mostly, when we are accused by the prosecuting counsel of Conscience, we have little defense to offer. And that right-wrong voice is very difficult to escape, even after several shots of bourbon.

Conscience. Such a downer…

In this moral universe, accountability to a holy God and His righteous law is an absolutely worst-case scenario. Conscience, however, does serve a vital purpose. It’s our preview. Our nagging reminder to stop denying reality.

Recently, I once again had my day in court, where (to my chagrin, as always) my life was laid bare before the judge. The nasty, horned prosecutor never misses a trick, and he came (as always) loaded for bear.

Here is the transcript:

PROSECUTION: Your honor, we have an open-and-shut case here. I have 44 witnesses and incontrovertible video evidence. If there’s a commandment, he’s violated it – in deed or at least in spirit. Plus this pathetic lawbreaker has even confessed to his wrongdoing. Look at him, even now – guilt all over his face.

JUDGE: Of what is he accused this time?

PROSECUTION: Better to ask of what he is not accused. See that swelling pride over his work success, instead of humble gratitude? And consider this exchange with his son, where he totally lost patience and spoke harsh, hurtful words. And consider this litany of impure thoughts last Thursday, which he decided to indulge even while knowing that you’d disapprove. Plus, he uses a pretty lame screen-saver.

JUDGE: Bad stuff. I also see that you have entered into evidence 1,357 exhibits (since last Monday) showing immoral, ungrateful, half-hearted, self-centered, and/or dumb behavior. I’ve reviewed them. You actually left out quite a few that were at the secret level of impure intentions.

PROSECUTOR: Sorry about that, Judge – it’s hard to catch everything. And, even though the defense has brought forth a few paltry items that appear to be sincere behavior, even the defendant admits that they are stained with selfishness. He not only doesn’t meet the standards, he doesn’t even come close to the sub-standard.

JUDGE: Ouch. Defendant, how do you plead?

DEFENDANT: It’s all true, Your Honor. I did all that, I am all that, and I’m afraid – no, I’m sure – that I’ll keep messing up.

JUDGE: Also, you jumped bail last time and tried to run away, didn’t you? Conscience had to drag you back.

DEFENDANT: I was hoping you’d forget about that. I know, I know….you never forget. A guy can wish, though, can’t he?

ADVOCATE FOR THE DEFENSE: Your Honor, I move that this case be dismissed.

PROSECUTOR: Objection!

JUDGE: Grounds for your objection?

PROSECUTOR: The evidence! Look at all this! You’ve seen it, and you’ve heard the testimony. The defendant even admits it. What more do we need? He’s guilty. Guilty! GUILTY!! Put him away for life!

JUDGE: All true. Advocate, grounds for dismissal? This better be good…

ADVOCATE FOR THE DEFENSE: It is unjust to punish twice for the same sin. The defendant must go free. His crimes have been paid for.

PROSECUTOR: Whaaaat??? Objection! He hasn’t even begun to be punished, the lawbreaker!

ADVOCATE FOR THE DEFENSE: According to this signed and sealed certificate, the sentence has been pronounced, and the punishment endured, by another in his stead. According to our laws, a willing and worthy substitute may stand in the place of the guilty and absorb all legal liability. Also, such a worthy substitute may transfer a permanent righteous standing before our most just laws to said defendant.

PROSECUTOR: Blasphemy! Who can forgive sins, and make righteous, but God alone? Law and conscience condemn this man! I demand that justice be satisfied!

ADVOCATE FOR THE DEFENSE: Your Honor, as you can see from these nailprints on my hands, justice has been carried out. A thousand accusations of lawbreaking, all true, cannot change the sentence of pardon, and cannot affect the standing of righteousness, permanently granted to my client. He is free, and his sins forgotten.

JUDGE: True. Case dismissed.

PROSECUTOR: I’ll be damned!

JUDGE: True.

Crazy, right? Read: John 3:16-21

—–

Recently on Steve’s Free: Outrageous Compassion

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My Idea of Justice

I find that I have a very ambivalent relationship with Justice.

Like every human being made in the image of God (well, I guess that’s all of us!), my instinct for justice is undeniable. Murderers should be severely punished. Thieves (corporate or otherwise) should be locked up and have their assets liquidated and returned to their victims. People who do great work should be promoted.

We are hard-wired to seek consequences for choices, on both the reward and the punishment level.

Some feel squeamish about justice. But steal our wallet, smash our car, hurt our kids – we pretty quickly find out that we yearn for justice like everyone else. On a personal and societal level.

But then I read statements like this today, in Psalm 58:

Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges the earth!

…and I look around and say, where? Isn’t it often the case that the wicked “get away with it” while the righteous suffer (see Psalm 73)? If God is just, and a Judge over all the earth, why is there so much injustice? In the timeline of our experience, it all seems so uneven and inconsistent. What’s up with that?

This can be a real stumbling block to faith. Of course, reading through the Scriptures, we do find numerous places where God actively brings judgment on those who oppose Him, and even judges His people when they stray off from His ways. But other times, He seems silent. Is this injustice? Impotence? Absence? Or something else?

From our (admittedly limited) perspective, it looks like there’s not a whole lot of justice going on! But maybe – just maybe – this is a good thing.

The same psalm opens with this bald statement of our universal human sin: “the wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth speaking lies.” If just our little white lies were subject to the justice they deserve, we’d all be living through a Category 10 hurricane of wrath each day. Let alone all the other ways in which we daily fall pitifully short of perfect holiness.

God is just…and patient (or, in older English – longsuffering). God is a God of justice…and mercy. God is opposed to the wicked…and inscrutably wise in His eternal purposes.

In other words, justice will not always occur in the way and in the timing we expect. It WILL occur, as sure as day follows night – but, as for me, I am glad it is not immediate and fitting to the crime. Because I’d be a dead man 100,000 times over for all of my violations – in action and in heart – of God’s law.

Throughout the Torah, we see the principle of substitutionary sacrifice for sin – justice taken out on an animal substitute, such as a spotless lamb. Blood was shed as payment for human sin. Day after day, year after year. This understanding continued forward into the Christian faith, with the full outworking being a once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, for sinners of every race.

Justice satisfied via sacrificial substitute??? My sin cancelled out by the sword of justice falling on a willing, and faultless, sacrifice?? What’s up with that?

Scandalous idea. And that, my friends, is the gospel.

It’s God’s idea of justice, linked in mysterious wisdom to mercy for fallen men and women. Justice, and deliverance from justice. Holiness meeting humanity over a table of atoning love.

I’ll take that over my idea of justice any day.

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