Monday, April 04, 2011

Colossians 04: The Hope of Glory - Christ in You

Scripture Text: Colossians 1:24-29

Last week we covered the great hymn celebrating the preeminence of Christ over all things in heaven and on earth and the precious gift of his reconciling blood, the precious redemption of sinners from every background, whether Jew or Gentile. We learned again of God’s power and might to reconcile His people to Himself through the vicarious sacrifice of His beloved Son, so that we rebels might become the holy ones of God, saints in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We now forge ahead to Colossians 1:24-29. In this passage, Paul, who has never met with the Colossians in person, describes his ministry to the larger early church. Here we learn that the ministry of the church involves seemingly contradictory experiences, namely joy and suffering. We also learn that the ministry of proclaiming Christ as Lord, the good news, involves warning as well as teaching. This in turn tell us something critical about what it means to be a disciples, something we’ll discuss near the end of this message. The end-goal of this ministry will be the subject of next week’s message.

Let’s get right into the text, beginning with verse 24, where Paul is inspired to write:
[24] Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
Two big questions hit us right here in these verses. First, why is Paul able to rejoice in suffering for the sake of others, include those like the Colossians whom he likely never met? Second, Paul writes, “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Is Paul suggesting that the suffering of Christ was someone insufficient in some way? These are huge questions, and we’ll soon see that they are connected.

The Big Question: Why is Paul able to rejoice in sufferings for the sake of others?

The first thing we should note before we try to answer this question is that suffering and joy are not automatically contradictory ideas. Christians suffer and as they suffer they rejoice. One of the most profound texts which reflect this sentiment comes from is Romans 8:
[16] The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, [17] and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
The children of God, who are the fellow-heirs with Christ, will frequently be called upon to experience suffering as Jesus did. And what these verses show us in Romans is that this is one of the ways the Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are, in fact, children of God. This suffering is not without purpose, and is the means by which will become heirs to Christ’s glory.

The real reason for Paul’s rejoicing in the midst of suffering is found in the second half of the verse. There, he writes “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” So, in order to understand how this gives joy to Paul, we need to understand the rest of the verse. What does Paul mean when he says he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”? Is Paul suggesting that that Jesus accomplished by his death was somehow insufficient? The answer to this question must be “no”, because if it was “yes” it would contradict what he just said earlier in verse 19:
[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.
Paul must mean something else when he says that he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

In fact, there is another way to look at that statement. Specifically, I think what Paul is saying is that there has been an appointed amount of suffering that will be endured by the faithful. Paul knows this personally in his own life, because what happened when he was called to be an apostle by the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we first mean Paul, called Saul in Acts 8, he is inflicting suffering upon the church. He is present at the stoning of Stephen and “approved of his execution” [Acts 8:1]. Now he’s on his way to Damascus with letters to the synagogues at that city “[9:2] … so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Along the way, Paul encounters the risen Lord, who asks Saul, “Saul, Saul, why to you persecute me?” Paul says, “Who are you, Lord?” to which he receives the reply, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” Paul receives instructions from our Lord to go ahead to Damascus, where for three days he was without his sight.

We then read about a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord speaks to Ananias and instructs him to visit Paul. He is told that he will lay hands on Paul and thereby restore his sight. Here’s what Ananias says:
[13] But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. [14] And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” [15] But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. [16] For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Paul was called into ministry as an apostle and was called to suffer for the sake of the one whom he had caused to suffer by persecuting the church. So Paul is at one level, joyous because he is obeying the command of his Lord. He also rejoices because he is, in his suffering, fulfilling on behalf of others the full measure of suffering appointed for the saints, so that his brothers and sisters in Colossae might not have to suffer as much. In others words, he suffers for the sake of his love for others, because of the love shown to him by Christ.

We live in a time when suffering is seen almost exclusively as the exception to the norm of happy living and prosperity. Entire false gospels have been created to accommodate the idea that Christians ought to be immune from suffering. Having been sold this bill of goods, what do you think happens to the faith of the one who is happily going along in life one minute, but then finds themselves with painful cancer the next? Because they’ve previously believed the lie that Christians are immune to suffering, that person will think, falsely, that their flagging faith must be the cause of their suffering. The contrast is what we read in God’s Word, which shows us clearly that God’s people might be specifically called into a ministry of suffering because they are his people by faith. The same is true in the Old Testament as well. Joseph was beaten up, sold into slavery, falsely accused and imprisoned, enduring all kinds of suffering. Did he lose faith? No! Instead, at the end of Genesis, what does Joseph say to his brothers, who were worried about what Joseph might do to them after their father, Jacob died? “[Genesis 50:19] But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? [20] As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

So Paul rejoices in his suffering because he knows that by it the suffering of his brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, the church, will themselves be preserved from some measure of suffering. The more Paul takes on, the less his beloved brothers and sisters will have to take on.

As you read Acts and Paul’s other letters, it is clear that his suffering is a result of his ministry to preach the gospel. He describes the ministry itself this way:
[24] Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, [25] of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, [26] the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
He describes what he proclaims as a mystery which has been hidden for a long time and which is now, in the proclamation of the Word of God, revealed to all of the saints, the holy ones of God who have been called by God from death to eternal life by the power of His Word.

Paul’s ministry was specifically to the Gentiles, non-Jews:
[27] To them [the holy ones of God, the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
THE GOSPEL: The mystery revealed to the saints is nothing less that the fullness of God’s blessings and wealth bestowed in a spectacular way, through the indwelling of Christ within the saints.

This is huge. Let me ask you a question? When you woke up for church this morning, did you realize that Christ is alive in you? That you have been indwelt by the Risen Lord and appointed to a ministry? Do you realize the implications of this? If you have accepted Christ as your Savior, and have the hope of glory living in you (meaning, you have the hope of being glorified with Christ when the kingdom comes), that means everything you do and say ought to be informed first and foremost by the Savior who has indwelt you by the loving grace of God. If you are known publicly to be a Christian, therefore, what will people conclude if they see you engaged in decidedly un-Christian, worldly conduct? If Christ is in you by faith, and you sin, who is reputation is sullied? This is why Paul is so passionate about the lives of the saints he saves. This is why all of his letters have lengthy sections of exhortations and admonitions to live as holy people, because if Christ is in you, you are holy people.

Remember, you’ve been transferred. You live in the new kingdom of light by grace through faith in the crucified Christ and are able to survive the holiness of the kingdom of God because you are indwelt and clothed with Christ. In Christ, you are reckoned holy even though you sin. The ministry of the church, then, is to teach and guide and admonish those who have been saved so that they might be equipped to live lives of holiness.

That is why the ministry of the church isn’t just to entertain you and provide you with something to do for an hour each Sunday. I thoroughly enjoyed my seminary education, but I do not recall at any time anyone telling me that my job would entail giving warnings, something Paul makes crystal clear in the last two verses of today’s reading:
[28] Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. [29] For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
The objective of the ministry of the church, which includes everyone called by God, not just me, is to warn people of sin and the dangers of the world which would abandon us to the wrath of God, and to teach holiness in the wisdom of God so that the people of God are presented mature, fully developed to Christ when he comes. As you look at the activities of a particular church, how many of them are related to warning and teaching, as opposed to something else? How many of them are designed to make mature believers, or continually happy clubbers? This word from Paul is why, whenever we baptize someone, we pledge on behalf of the universal church of Christ to bring a young person up in the faith, so that he or she may one day confess Christ as Lord and Savior. But the call to teach and to warn does not end there! We fail our young people when we confirm kids and send them on their way, happy to have added their number to the roll, but never considering that they, like us, need continue refining and preparation for the day of the coming of the Lord. Who is glorified in that scenario? The church gets the glory of a larger membership number and pictures in the paper, but is Christ glorified if we then say, well, that’s that! Loved ones, we are never finished with our pursuit of holiness! We are all in need of it because we are all still sinners! What if our Lord comes tonight? Would he find us engaged in holiness or in something else? The warning today is that he is most assuredly coming, beloved. And the teaching today is that we must continue steadfast in the Lord, proclaiming him to the spiritually dead, listening to his Word every day and asking the Holy Spirit to apply it to our hearts, so that we are prepared for the suffering he has appointed for us, so that we might be holy and blameless at the time of his coming. Nobody here is as ready as they need to be, including me. So today’s text is a reminder that we have been called to be holy, so we now need to be what our Lord has called us to be by continually trusting in his abundant grace and sanctifying mercy. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
March 3, 2011
4th Sunday in Lent
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew