The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Unearthly

Arthur longs to attain a higher spiritual and moral state than others in his church.  He gives up coffee and desserts–then any food he enjoys.  He starts running–marathon distances, though he hates all physical exercise. He sheds pounds until he’s practically skin and bones. He sleeps on the hard floor, without a blanket in winter or air conditioning in summer.

Asceticism is “the doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like” (Dictionary.com).

That’s what Arthur is buying into and what the false-philosophers are pushing the Colossians into and what Paul refutes . . .

“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations,  ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. ” (Colossians 2:16-23).

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth . . .  ” (3:1,2).

Instead Paul prescribes pleasure, not privation.  Believers are raised with Christ (“You were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead “--2:12).  And Christ is “seated at the right hand of God”.  So pursue the above-things.  Deliberately think about the above-things.  Don’t try to kill the flesh and attain a higher plane of spirituality by asceticism.  Seek the above-things where Christ is.

What are the above-things?.  Paul implies several.  The hope heaven gives (1:5,23,27).  The inheritance of the saints (2:12).   The treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Christ (2:3).  In fact, Christ sits at the center of the above-things:  Christ as Creator (1:16), as the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (1:15), the One for whom all things were created (1:16), who holds all things together (1:17), and who will have the supremacy in all things (1:18).

Paul contrasts the above-things with “the things that are on earth”.  And with this brief phrase catapults us far beyond asceticism-practices.  On-earth things are all those things that distract our thinking from the above-things.  For our thinking must be shaped by Christ and the things that are above.  Our minds must be informed by our eternal destiny.

With Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?

” . . . for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your  life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (3:3,4).

Believers have died.  That is, in spiritual union with Christ, sin no longer rules.  The “old” man has been killed.  Yet, believers live–a life that is “hidden with Christ in God.” 

When I was a kid, I was a Superman fan.  Behind the suit and tie and kind of a blundering behavior, lived SUPERMAN!  But Paul doesn’t mean believers should hide their Christianity.  He means, as with Superman, what believers really are in Christ is hidden by the natural man.

But when Christ appears, believers will be revealed “with him in glory”.  All “Clark Kent believers” will appear as “Superman” in the glory of Christ.

* * *

I’ve been tied to this earth almost 75 years.  It’s all I’ve ever known.  So when Paul exhorts, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth . . .  ” , I cringe.  Because it reminds me of what I have to leave behind here.  Not my house or truck.  My wife, children and grandchildren.  It tears my heart.

At the same time, I remember I’ve also wanted something to look forward to–a family vacation, Christmas, etc.  Paul gives me something greater to anticipate.  And urges me to set my mind on it now.

C.S Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Deep down, buried under desires to be healed and walk again, are desires nothing in this world can satisfy.  I was made for another world.

Unearthly.

 

 

 

 

 
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?

 

Complete

Occasionally in Bible reading a hard-to-understand passage confronts us.  One that seems irrelevant and inapplicable.  That’s Colossians 2:16-23.  In it, Paul gives only snippets of the false philosophy he’s countering.  And what we see doesn’t seem to apply at all to us today.

Here’s the entire text.  Comments follow.

“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.  These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.   Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.”

Colossae was a significant city from the 5th century onward, notable for its angel-worship cult.  By Paul’s day, the city’s  prime had passed.  Indeed, we’d probably be ignorant of its existence, but for Epaphras taking the gospel and planting a church there.  That church is now in danger of being taken captive by a false, Christ-diminishing philosophy.  This text gives us clues to its components–but clues only. This much we know . . .

The Colossae false-philosophers  claim they can reach a higher spiritual plane apart from Jesus Christ. To achieve this one must practice severe asceticism.  This includes abstinence from strong drink and certain kinds of food.  Observance of religious festivals and holy days is also necessary. A person must deny himself basic bodily needs and endure other forms of physical mistreatment.  If one proved diligent and faithful–and worshiped angels–he could expect religious visions not accessible to an ordinary believer.  This identified one as spiritually superior.

Paul responds:  don’t let anyone condemn you about food or drink or festival observances . . .don’t let anyone disqualify you because you don’t practice self-abasement or worship angels or have visions . . . don’t submit to worldly regulations that come from men, not God . . . hold fast to the head from whom the whole body grows with growth from God . . . remember with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe.

We could dig more deeply.  But, since we’re not similarly threatened, why do it?  Paul’s argument here and throughout this letter is plain:  in Christ you have all of God; don’t be intimidated to think you need something  else.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

One day I happened to briefly discuss church with a woman who taught at the same school as I.  I remember nothing about our talk except she felt she had to attend her Roman Catholic church that Sunday–either to compensate for her sins or to add merit to her good works.

In “The  DaVinci Code” Movie (2006) Silas belonged to a religious sect that practiced severe self-flagellation to curb his sinful temptations and make himself acceptable to God.  His body bore the grotesque scars of his religion.

After 44 years of pastoral ministry, I sometimes find myself thinking,  “God owes me healing because I served him all those years.  (Truth is, I was going nowhere when he called me.  And his call made my life more meaningful than it could have been otherwise.)

Church attendance merits nothing.  Body-beating doesn’t make us holier.  God owes us nothing for our service.  All smell like human nature rising up to accomplish something with God.

The Colossian false-philosophies were captivating for that very reason.  Heightened spirituality was possible through learning their secret knowledge.  Its glaring error:  it bypassed Christ.

This is why Paul wrote:  “For in Christ the fullness of deity lives in a human body . . . ” If God’s fullness lives in Christ, there’s nothing to be had of God apart from Christ.  “And you have fullness through your union with Christ.”  Secret spiritual knowledge doesn’t gain heightened awareness of God.  Church attendance doesn’t merit more of God.  Self-flagellation doesn’t make us holier for God.   Service doesn’t get us good treatment from  God.

We have all we will need and all we could want of God in Christ.  We have been made complete in him.

That’s grace.

 

 

 

Sufficient

Christianity is a miracle faith.  In no Scripture passage is that clearer than Colossians 2:8-15.  And in no Scripture person is that clearer than Christ.

But, first, we begin with a warning . . .

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:8).

Paul’s writing to genuine, Spirit-regenerated Christians (1:3-6).  They’re in danger of being taking “captive”.  The Greek, sulagogeo, is a strong word, used of being carried off like plunder in war.  Sulogogeo would be unpleasant at best, but more importantly wouldn’t produce lives worthy of the Lord (1:10).

How might they be taken captive?  ” . . .  through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

Paul warns of keni philosophyempty, without content, futile.  Also a “deceptive” philosophy.  Greek  apatays—fraudulent, underhanded.  This philosophy “depends on/is in accordance with human tradition and the basic principles of this world . . . ”

According to Paul,  this philosophy doesn’t “depend on . . . Christ” but on “human tradition” (Greek paradosis—a handing down of teachings of men from generation to generation) and on “the basic principles of this world”.  Stoicheia means “elementary instructions, the physical elements of the universe or spirit beings that rule  the elements” . Here,  not “the basic principles of the world” but “elemental spirits” is the best translation.

Jews and pagans feared the spirit beings (stroicheia) because it was widely believed they controlled fate in daily life.  They could cause sickness, effect a curse, bring poor crops, plagues or earthquakes.  Pagans and Jews (and evidently some Christians) were looking for help.  Most popular folk religion focused on this.  Paul, then, is warning against a prevalent, popular tradition, “wisdom” for the masses that ironically would protect them from the stoicheia by stroicheia.  The philosophy counters Christ.  And our philosophy  must depend on, literally be, “according to Christ”.  In line with him.

Are there philosophies today of which we should beware?  How about naturalism?  By default, by keeping God out of the classroom , our children are taught God doesn’t belong in history or science or even math.  God gets reserved for Sunday church.  And how about hedonism–getting all the pleasure you can, short of harming someone else.  In some strain or another, hedonism runs through our culture.  How might naturalism affect a child in his formative years?  How might hedonism affect a Christian called to serve sacrificially?

But there is another reason to beware of false wisdom and its promises . . .

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority” (2:9,10).

Here’s Paul’s reason for the church seeing to it that they are not taken captive by empty and deceptive philosophy:  “in Christ all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form . . .”  “Fullness” is the Greek playroma and here means “In Christ the ‘whole amount’ of deity lives in bodily form and you have been given that ‘whole amount’ of deity in Christ”.  In other words, Christ is sufficient.  Not only for forgiveness but pleasure.

Gnosticism (the belief behind this Christ-demeaning  philosophy)  held that God was too holy to create an evil creation.  So from a series of angelic beings, each a little less holy than the one before, emanated one unholy enough to create an evil creation.  Christ the creator was one of those.

This philosophy must be avoided, first, because it’s hollow and deceptive, but also because the fullness of all God is lives bodily in Christ–and believers have been given that fullness in him.   That means again, according to Paul,  Christ is sufficient.  And by faith we’re actually  “connected” to him . . .

“In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:11,12).

It’s not altogether clear why Paul brings up circumcision, unless this false philosophy required it be practiced.  In any case, spiritual circumcision alone has religious significance.

This circumcision, was “not done by the hands of men but . . . by Christ”.  How?  When in baptism we were “buried with him . . . and raised with him” through our faith in God’s power, who raised Christ.  In the act of baptism by faith in God’s power, our sinful nature was stripped and we were raised to live in newness of life.

This is not just a doctrine to believe.  It’s the believer’s experience in union with Christ.  He is sufficient to subdue our sinful nature and raise us to new life.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (2:13-15, ESV).

 Paul describes the Gentile Christians’ former life two ways:  they were “dead in your trespasses” and “[dead] in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature”.  Physically alive but dead to the life of God in Christ.  They had trespassed God’s law–crossed the line.  And their sinful nature dominated them.

But somehow God  connected them with the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb and made them alive together with him.  Furthermore, he “forgave us all our trespasses”, not by pronouncement, but “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross . . .”  It’s as if God took the page of our sin-debt and nailed it to Christ’s cross.  When he died, it died.

Finally, He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him”.   The Greek, apekduomi, literally refers to stripping off clothing.  Figuratively, it’s used of rendering an enemy helpless–“disarm take away the power of”.    “Rulers and authorities”–evil spiritual forces–still operate and must be contended.  But their judgment was pronounced dead at the cross.

Christ is sufficient.

For creating and sustaining the universe.  For true and lasting pleasure.  For withstanding hollow and deceptive philosophy.  For putting off our sinful nature.  For forgiving our trespasses.  For cancelling our debt to God.  For disarming the rulers  and authorities.  Indeed, all the fullness of God lives bodily in him.

And we have that fullness by faith in him.

Hidden Treasures in Christ

In 1945 a discovery was made in Upper Egypt–52 copies of ancient writings called the Gnostic Gospels.

“A few Gnostic scholars have gone so far as to assert that these recently discovered writings are the authentic history of Jesus instead of the New Testament . . .

“Their name comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” These people thought they had secret, special knowledge hidden from ordinary people . . .

“As Christianity spread, the Gnostics mixed some doctrines and elements of Christian­ity into their beliefs, morphing Gnosticism into a counterfeit Christianity” (Y-Jesus, Website).

According to [the 2006 movie],The Da Vinci Code, Jesus was really just a human being, married to Mary Magdalene, and he has a royal bloodline that continues to this day. The Church, in order to hide the true nature of Jesus, destroyed the earlier, Gnostic Gospels that had the evidence of Jesus’ humanity, and declared them heretical in a play for political power.

In Colossians, Paul confronts an early form of Gnosticism threatening the church.  He does so, however, only by inference.  Instead of tearing into Gnosticism point by point, Paul magnifies Jesus Christ.  “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (1:28,29).

“I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:1-3).

 Paul is “struggling”.  Greek agown, used of an athletic contest—a foot race or wrestling match.  Paul is“struggling with all [Christ’s] energy, which so powerfully works in [him].  He struggles to proclaim Christ, “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone complete in Christ” (1:28,29).

 Proclaiming Christ is a “struggle”, because wherever he goes, opposition rises—“troubles, hardships . . . distresses . . . beatings, imprisonments and riots” (2 Corinthians 6:4,5).  He’s writing this letter from Roman imprisonment.

He wants the churches to know how much he is struggling for them.  Not for their pity.  He wants to be an example of a man fighting for the faith, so they may “be encouraged in heart and united in love”.  He wants to be their model.  In other words, stand together with courage and love against “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8) that will draw them from Christ.

He wants them assured o f the truth.  He wants them “complete in Christ”.  As he writes, he wants them to “have the full riches of complete understanding”.  Interesting. Complete understanding requires not only that they continue in the faith, but that they continue together. This learning comes through the community of the church, through members practicing what they’re learning among each other.

All this has a yet-higher purpose: “in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”.  Paul jabs at the Gnostics.  Do they hold a deep knowledge of spiritual things? In “Christ . . . are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. 

 Hampton Keathley III (former pastor and Greek teacher at Moody Bible Institute) writes, “Paul meets the heretics on their own ground.  He has a secret, too.  It also is unknowable, except to the initiated. To understand the secrets of the pagan religions, one must enter the temples.  Likewise, the only way to understand the treasures of God’s wisdom and understanding is to enter Christ by faith. They are stored away in Him.  He is God’s great secret; leave the mysteries of men and come to Him who is the way, the truth, and the life is the apostle’s conviction.” 

“I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is” (2:4,5).

Paul tells them all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ “so that they may not deceive you by fine-sounding arguments”.  The church has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Christ.  Why let smooth-talkers with seemingly plausible arguments  lead them elsewhere?

In fact, the churches aren’t being led astray.  Precisely what Paul means by “present with you in spirit”  is unclear.  What is clear is his “delight” at “how orderly . . . and firm your faith in Christ is”.  “ . . . orderly” and “firm” are military terms.  The New American Standard   translation hints at that:  “ . . . rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ”.

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:6-8).

We’ve reached Paul’s conclusion.  His previous paragraphs have led to what he wants them to do now:  continue to live in Christ Jesus, just as you received him as Lord.  “Lord” (Greek kurios) is a loaded word.  Some Roman emperors adopted it–supreme ruler, no one as high.  To the Jews it was  the title of the God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush–supreme ruler who made outlandish, personal promises to his covenant people.

Paul’s central teaching of the letter, then, is that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ (2:6). Just as they began by “receiving” Christ Jesus, the Lord, so they should continue to live their lives “in him.”

 * * *

Here’s one fascinating  take away from all this:  The treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. 

These days, “wisdom” and “knowledge” aren’t much sought after.  Our treasures are bursts of information on our phones that entertain or, better, save us money. But look at this treasure’s worth from this ligonier.org comment . . .

“Knowledge is equivalent to the intellectual content of the faith, and wisdom is the ability to see reality as God does, enabling people to apply knowledge in a life that pleases the Creator and creates godly abundance (Prov. 2; Eccl. 2:26). We are being told in Colossians 2:3 that everything we need to know about the Father and how to properly interpret reality and live to His glory is accessible to all believers in His Son. Matthew Henry comments, ‘The treasures of wisdom are hidden not from us, but for us, in Christ.’”

” . . . wisdom is the ability to see reality as God does”.  Reality is “the e state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional (theoretical) idea of them.”  The ability to see reality as God does (wisdom) is hidden in Christ.  What we see apart from Christ is partial reality–even distorted–like the Gnostics with their secret knowledge.

If true treasures are hidden in Christ, treasures that enable us to see reality and to know God, let’s step into our work boots, put on our gloves and start digging.

 

The Silence of God

The silence of God.
Deafening.
Devastating.
All my life I’ve prayed.
Answers never came dramatically.
But I always had the sense that  God was there and in control,
through circumstances providing,
answering.

But now, silence.

Not me alone, I learn.

Joseph.
Sold by his brothers to traders,
who caravaned him to Egypt.
Camel clopping hoofs,
traders laughing.
Though the narrative says nothing,
surely in those frightening hours,
torn from home,
Joseph surely prayed.
But God’s response was .  .  . silence.

David.
The Psalms give glimpses
of 
his struggles with God’s silence,
as 1 & 2 Samuel tell the history–
a fugitive in the wilderness from Saul’s fury,
a dethroned king running for his life from his son.
” O my God, I cry out by day,
but you do not answer” (Psalm 22:2a).

“To you I call, O LORD my Rock;
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I will be like those who have gone down to the pit”
(Psalm 28:1).

“O LORD, you have seen this;
be not silent.
Do not be far from me, O Lord”
(Psalm 35:22).

“O God, whom I praise, do not remain silent . . . ” (Psalm 109:1).

So David prayed repeatedly to a silent God.
And all Israel chanted his prayers in worship.
Israel, God’s chosen, often heard God’s silence.

Asaph, of whom we know little:
“O God, do not keep silent;
be not quiet, O God,
be not still” (Psalm 83:1).

Of course, Job–
his suffering most heart-wrenching.
Family crushed
wealth robbed,
health gone,
helplessly dying in the dirt,
surrounded by three friends,
who searched for sin that caused such suffering.
From them an endless chain of words.
From God, silence.
” , , ,there was a time when God answered my prayers” (Job 12:4).
Not now.

And me.
The silence of God surrounds me.
I cup my ear to hear a word.
Squint my eyes to see his hand.
With David I pray,
“O God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent.”

What am I to do?
Not be silent.
Pray.
Trust.
Both are hard,
when God stays silent,
when he remains hidden,
when I feel he’s a father,
giving a stone, not bread.

But, listen,
I hear Joseph whisper,
“It was God who sent me to Egypt,
to save many lives.”
But Joseph knew only much later
that God’s silence was not for suffering,
but salvation.

And David:
“Blessed be the Lord,
for he has head the sound of my pleading . . .
So I am helped,
and my heart rejoices.”

I hold Asapah’s words,
and hear him as he writes in faith,
“Our God comes and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him
and around him a tempest rages” (Psalm 50:3).

And Job, whom the Lord reproved
out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this
that darkens counsel without knowledge?” (Job 38:2).

When I don’t humbly pray,
when I don’t persevere in trust through silence,
when I don’t credit God with being at work,
I’m a presumptuous fool.
The end will show the good of God.
His triumphant voice will shatter the silence.
‘Til then, I must seek to hear his voice
In creation, in the Gospel, in his Son.

Despite my deafness,
Francis Schaeffer’s words
are always wise and true:

“He is There,
and He Is Not Silent”.

 

 

 

 

A Sit-Down with the Apostle

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to sit down with the apostle Paul as he reminisces about his life?  We’ll have to wait for the New Earth for that.  Best we can do now is to find those here-and- there spots in his letters where he writes almost “sit-down”.  Today’s text (Colossians 1:24-29) is one of those.

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (1:24).

Paul never visited Colosse,  but he did suffer in nearby Ephesus (Paul refers to it in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11).  Among the listeners in Ephesus was a convert named Epaphras , who eventually carried the gospel to Colosse.

What’s surprising is Paul didn’t complain about suffering.  He says he rejoices.  Why?  Two reasons.  One, it was for the sake of Christ’s body, the church.  Paul honored Christ and loved his church.  Two, his suffering  “[filled] up in [his] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”.

John Piper has an interesting interpretation . . .

“What’s [lacking in Christ’s afflictions] is the in-person presentation of Christ’s sufferings to the people for whom he died. The afflictions are lacking in the sense that they are not seen and known among the nations. They must be carried by ministers of the gospel. And those ministers of the gospel fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others” (desiringgod.org).

“I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness–the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory(1:25-27).

Paul sees  himself as a servant of the church. Once he was the church’s chief persecutor.  But Christ appeared to him on the Damascus road,  blinded him for days.  In the road’s dirt, Paul began to become the church’s servant.

He received, he believed, a commission from God.  The Greek word is oikonomia–a term referring to household administration.  It became  more broadly translated as ” responsibility, trust”.  Paul traveled from city to city, carrying the conviction that God  had entrusted  him with the responsibility to fully present  his word.

He was, he realized, actually revealing a mystery “kept hidden for ages and generations, but . . . now disclosed to the saints”.  The mystery was staggering.  It was Christ, not just alive from the dead, not just with his people, but in them.  And Christ in believers brought “the hope of glory”.  Of that hope Sam Storms (pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) quotes Paul . . .

“I am confident that ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Corinthians 4:17).  I have hope.  I am confident that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18). I have hope. I am confident that when Christ who is my life appears, I ‘also will appear with him in glory'” (Colossians 3:4).

Amazingly, this hope includes Gentiles.  Not as tag-alongs, but as part of one new humanity in Christ (Ephesians 2:15).  The “hope of glory” made suffering now worth it.  And one new humanity in Christ offered hate-filled mankind oneness in new life and love..

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (1:28,29).

 Two heresies threatened the Colossian church’s faith.   One, an early strain of Gnosticism–which promised spiritual knowledge can be apprehended intuitively by the initiated.   Two, extreme Judaism which promised good conduct merits God’s blessing, bad his curse.  If life seems cursed, you’re full of sin.  If it’s filled with blessing, you must be pleasing God. Paul’s answer to both is a Person–Christ.

His intent wasn’t just to refute error or even make converts. He wanted to “present everyone mature (or complete) in Christ.”  He was anticipating standing before the Lord surrounded by the fruit of his ministry.

That meant “labor”.  The Greek is energeo.   Energy.  ” . . . struggling” translates the Greek agnoizimy–to engage in an intense struggle against strong opposition.  Agonizing.

How could he keep going–and with joy?  He believed he had divine resource–Christ’s power (dunamis) which “powerfully (dunamis) works (energeo) within me.” 

Paul is convinced that his ministry, while it requires his own labor and resembles a struggling athlete,  is empowered by the Holy Spirit at work in him.

* * *

I want more “sit-down”.   This one’s over too quickly.  I’ve got questions.  How, Paul, could you continue to rejoice in sufferings?  How did the conviction that you were filling up Christ’s afflictions spur you on?  A ministry of the “mystery” to Gentiles added to your sufferings.  Where did your faith to endure come from?  As I ask that question, I know your answer.

Christ’s energy, powerfully working in your work.

I want that.  Writing’s becoming a chore as my eyesight worsens.  Doubts about my blog’s effectiveness and who it reaches nag me.  Weakness in my body wearies my mind.

“Jesus, in my struggles, in my labor which is far less important than Paul’s, would you powerfully work your energy in my work?”

 

 

 

Me? Job?

I dismissed any comparison  with Job.
His sufferings dwarf mine.
But over time my condition’s worsened.
Now I dare compare.
Not with the whole of his sufferings
or his encounter with the sovereign God.
Just the scene Job didn’t see.

Satan proposes a cosmic contest to God.
“Does Job  fear you for nothing?
Stretch out your hand,
strike his bone and flesh
and he’ll curse you to your face.”
“You’re on, ” God replies.

I wonder:
Did Satan offer that deal to God over me?
“Does Allan fear you for nothing?
Stretch out your hand,
take away his health
and he’ll curse you to your face.”
Am I presumptuous to think
Satan singles me out as a target?
And that God risks his honor over me?

I dare think it possible,
because over 150,000 people in the world
die each day–
a great mass of humanity
swept away in death.
Psalm 90 echoes its depression .

“You [Lord] sweep men away in the sleep of death;
they are like the new grass of the morning–
though in the morning it springs up new,
by evening it is dry and withered.
We are consumed by your anger and
terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan” (Psalm 90:5-9).

Such death is “normal”.
A man ages, gets ill,
and becomes a faceless statistic,
part of the moaners.
I know Jesus has turned the psalm on its head.
But that’s not my point here.
My point is this:
I don’t want to see
my PLS and melanoma
as just a normal part of growing old,
making me  part of the mob that dies daily.

I don’t want to merely be that mob’s member.
But I fear I’m becoming one.
Ten years–surgeries, tests, another illness,
new symptoms added to the old.
I fear I’m finishing like all the rest–
with a moan.

I want to play a role
in that cosmic contest.
Satan has gone to God:
“Does Allan fear you for nothing?
Stretch out your hand,
take away his health
and he’ll curse you to your face.”
God says, “You’re on.”

If so, how I deal with disease and dying
matters in the heavenly realms.
Trusting God, praising God
upholds God’s honor.
Loving God for who he is,
not only for what he gives,
proves God’s worth–
and leaves my heel marks on Satan’s neck.

Dare I believe
that I’m part of this?
Ephesians 3:10,Paul wrote,
“[God’s] intent was now through the church,
the manifold wisdom of God should be made known
to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms . . . “

I’m part of Christ’s church,
one through whom God makes known
his wisdom to the rulers in the heavenly realms.
A cosmic contest rages, a war–
I’m a warrior in it.
My faith, my praise, my love for God
turns the tide,
makes Satan a loser
and God exalted.

What I really want?
To wake up tomorrow,
put my feet on the floor,
and walk.
To look in the mirror
and see my head clear,
baby skin instead of an ugly patch
of melanoma.
If that can’t be, let me fight the fight of faith.

One thing hardest to bear in old age
is insignificance,
life passing by
while you sit and watch.
Is that pride?
Is Jesus teaching me humility?
That only he is truly significant?

Maybe.
But my bearing old-age insignificance
isn’t a longing for the praise of people.
It’s assurance that my life counts
for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.

It counts if I trust him even without understanding.
It counts if I worship him even in suffering.
It counts if I pray even without answers.
It counts if I stand on his Word’s promises,
even if sight makes his promises foolish.
It counts if I love, even when I’m hurting.

And if it counts, Satan loses.
And if Satan loses,
God wins.
And if God wins . . .

with my little frail life,
in the heavenly realms,
I’ve exalted the name of the Lord.

Ken Gire (The North Face of God) writes,
“We can sheath our swords in retreat.
We can lay down our swords in surrender.
We can fall on our swords in despair.
Or we can, with the brave who’ve gone before us,
draw our swords and ride with full fury into the enemies’ ranks.
A day may come when our courage will fail.
But it will not be
this day.
This day we fight.”

Satan and God are watching.

 

 

 

 

If You Continue in Your Faith

Some years ago, Eugene Peterson wrote a book with this title:  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:  Discipleship in an Instant Society.  I never read it, but the title intrigues me.  Learning to obey takes a lifetime .  And the path winds through some rugged terrain.  That’s where the “if” confronts us.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Paul climaxed his previous paragraph revealing God’s purpose for the Son.  As the head of the body, the church, and as the beginning and the firstborn from the dead, in the new creation God will exalt Christ to the highest rank. According to Paul, he will have the supremacy.

Why?  Not only because of the foregoing (1:15-18), but also because of the following:

RECONCILED

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and 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” (1:19,20).

God was pleased to have all his deity dwell in the Son.  And God was pleased  to reconcile all things to himself through the Son.  He made peace through the Son’s blood, shed on the cross.  Thus at the heart of the gospel stands, not a tidy doctrine, but a bloody Savior nailed to a bloody cross.  The Son is supreme in the church because he sacrificed himself to reconcile all things to the Father.

All things?  Here we first confront the big “if”.  Christ will present you holy If you continue in the faith (1:21-23).  If “all things” refers to people, reconciliation is limited to believing people.  But “all things” doesn’t sound like people.  How about the vast creation?

In Romans 8 Paul tells us that God subjected creation to frustration.  It’s now in bondage to decay, groaning as in the pains of childbirth.  But “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”—our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”.  It seems to me creation is part of the “all things” that will be reconciled to God.  And that will mean a new creation arising from the old.

That Christ should receive the supremacy shows us the cost of the cross.  The Son’s physical suffering was horrific.  Crucifixion is an unspeakably cruel way to die.  But far worse was the spiritual suffering.  The Son endured the Father’s  wrath against all our sin.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” was more than the Son feeling forsaken; the Son suffered hell—the absence of God.  This was the cost of reconciling rebels back to God—and the cost of reconciling all things back to himself.  It’s a cost beyond human comprehension.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation–if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant (1:21-23).

The Colossians–and we–were alienated from God.  The Greek is apokatallawsso—a stranger to God, separated from him.    We were “enemies in [our] minds.”  Greek ekthroshostile toward God, opposed to him in the realm of understanding.  This enmity was expressed through “evil behavior”.

Has Paul gone too far?  Many who don’t believe in the Son’s work on the cross don’t act like enemies toward God.  Many, in fact, do what the Scripture calls “good works”–sacrifice to help the poor, for instance.  But, you see, everyone who tries to “make peace” with God apart from Christ’s costly grace on the cross opposes God’s way to reconciliation.  Even the good-doer’s deeds are evil if he disbelieves Christ’s reconciling work through his blood shed on the cross—or thinks he doesn’t need it.

The Colossians, writes Paul, were once alienated from God and enemies to him, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation”.

“But now” emphasizes the sharp transformation in the Colossians.  God has reconciled them “by Christ’s physical body through death . . . “  Why the emphasis on “Christ’s physical body”?  William Barclay (20th century author and Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow) comments . . .

“The Gnostics (whose influence with the Colossians Paul is confronting) completely denied the real manhood of Jesus. In their own writings they, for instance, set it down that when Jesus walked, he left no footprints on the ground. That is why Paul uses such startling phraseology in Colossians. He speaks of Jesus reconciling man to God in his body of flesh (Colossians 1:22); he says that the fullness of the godhead dwelt in him bodily. In opposition to the Gnostics, Paul insists on the flesh and blood manhood of Jesus.

With reconciling death of the God-Man Jesus,  God has a purpose:   that at Christ’s coming  we might be presented “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation . . .” 

“Holy” translates the Greek hagios.  Its basic idea is set apartness.  The holy person is set apart from the world to God.  He will present us “without blemish”.  Blemish is that big pimple on my chin.  In this case, “without blemish” means having no (moral) defect.  Not even pimple size.  And he will present us “free from accusation”. No one will accuse us of wrongdoing.  In fact, no one will be able to accuse us, because Christ’s reconciling death makes us free from accusation.

IF

Christ will present us holy and blameless and free from accusation “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” .  The Greek, epimeno, means “to persevere or persist”.  If we epimeno, we will be presented holy.  Here the terrain gets rough.  Physical suffering.  Hostile persecution.  Unanswered prayers.  Opposing worldviews.  If we persevere in faith, holding on to hope, we’ll be presented holy.

And if we don’t?  That raises debate.  Some believe a believer can fall away from faith, not continue (Arminian belief).  Others believe God insures that believers will persevere to the end, continue (Calvinistic belief).

There’s a place for that debate.  But not here.  Paul’s “if” is meant to move us on.  To aim at continuing in our faith and gospel hope.

I used to jog.  No marathons, just 5 or 6 miles on neighborhood streets.  My goal wasn’t  speed or record time.  No way I could sprint 5 or 6 miles.  My goal was to continue on course and get back to my house without stopping, without turning aside.  If I could continue stride by stride, block by block, even if my legs ached or breath was short, I’d “win the prize”.

I can’t walk anymore; but I’m still running toward the prize!

 

 

 

 

 

How Shall We Live With No Answer?

At some time or another
each of us will stand at the same crevasse
where the Psalm 119 psalmist stood.
Shriveled like a wine skin,  exhausted,
and waiting for an answer from God.
He may answer dramatically, out of a whirlwind,
as he did Job.
Or he may answer demurely, in a still small voice,
as he did Elijah.
Or he might not answer at all,
as David apparently experienced
in Psalm 119.

In that case we must wait
for the day the answer comes.
But even if the answer doesn’t come,
we must still live today.
The question is how?
“How shall we live today?”
Will we live by faith,
trusting God’s Word that he’ll not forsake us?
Or will we live by sight,
trusting the appearance that God has forsaken us?

I took the above from The North Face of God,
by Ken Gire.

The questions confront me.
Not because I feel God has forsaken me.
But because they paint the conflict
in stark black and white.
With no answer for healing yet,
the question is, “How will I live today?”

I look like God has forsaken me.
It feels that way.
But how will I live under heaven’s silence?
By sight?  By what appears to be?
Or by faith in God’s promises?

I question God . . .
Why have you allowed these illnesses?
Why no answer when so many pray for my healing?
Then I remember Jesus’ parable in Luke 18.
A poor widow repeatedly begs a judge for justice.
Finally, worn down the judge rules in her favor.
The lesson Jesus draws is not persist in prayer.
The lesson is a question:
When the Son returns,
how many will he find who have faith?

I’m so busy asking him my questions,
I don’t hear what he’s asking me.
And his question
paints my predicament
in stark black and white.
Under heaven’s silence,
will I live today by what appears to be?
Or will I live today
by faith, trusting his Word?

I don’t understand what God is doing.
I don’t like what God is doing.
But my battle is part of a bigger war,
a war against unbelief,
a war in which warriors are called to live by faith,
and thereby glorify Christ.
Who knows what God is doing?
Who knows how my part plays in the whole?
But my little part is important.
I either add to Christ’s honor in the heavenly realms,
or diminish it.

Under heaven’s silence,
how will I live today.
Not by what appears to be,
though appearance is weighty,
and I’m tempted to “wisely” live by it.
Of course, God has forsaken little me.
Of course, the answer will never come.
Of course, I should curse God and die.
NO!

By God’s grace, I will live today by faith
trusting his promises,
even though I can’t see them kept.
I will win the battle,
and I will pray that when the Son comes,
he will find my faith on earth.

Supremacy

I was surprised at the poll.  In 2015 George Barna found that  56% of all American adults said Jesus is God.  And 62% of all Americans said they’ve made a personal commitment to him that is still important at the time of the poll. If so, Paul’s words in Colossians 1:15-18 may not sound so extreme.  Yet they do to me; besides, I’m skeptical about polls.)

Christology is the study of Christ.  But we can’t study Christ as we’d dissect a frog or explore the history of the hemisphere.  Christ is a living person.  And Paul’s words about him here move us to reverence and awe.  We’re on holy ground.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (1:15).

“He” refers back  to the Son the Father loves (1:13).  “He” is ”the image of the invisible God”.  “ . . . image” is the translation of the Greek eikown.  The Son is the embodiment, living manifestation, form, appearance of “the invisible God”.  God is invisible, a spirit not able to be seen.  But Jesus is God in bodily form.  The unseen God seen.

Philip asks Jesus to show the disciples the Father. Jesus replies, “Don’t you know me Philip? . . . anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8,9).

This, as we used to say, blows my mind.  Jesus, who walked this earth, who got hungry and thirsty and tired, who surrendered to crucifixion and whose tomb was empty on the third day, was God, the Creator of the universe.

He is “the firstborn over all creation”.  Does Paul mean Jesus was birthed first?  The Greek prototokos can refer to the first child in the family.  Or it can refer  to a preeminent one.  The context determines the meaning.  The words that follow—” the firstborn over all creation (not “in” or “of” ) . . . that in everything he might have the supremacy” (1:15,17)—govern the meaning.  Jesus is the firstborn—the preeminent one over all.

Paul is countering the beginnings of a religious philosophy that would blossom in the 2nd century, but was already influencing the Colossians.  Gnostics believed that God is spirit, and spirit is good.  But matter is evil.  The world of matter was mistakenly created by a lesser divinity.  Salvation–the escape from the world of matter to the spirit-realm–came by secret knowledge. Jesus is only a heavenly messenger.  Gnosticism gained notoriety in the 2016 Tom Hanks movie, “The DaVinci Code”.

“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (1:16).

Paul gives the basis underlying the Son’s firstborn status.  He is the means by which all things have been created.  This includes  “ . . . things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible”.   In short, nothing anywhere was not created through the Son.

By him galaxies billions of light years from us in space and dust mites in the air around us were created.  So was a summer breeze and the sun’s heat.  A giant oak tree and bothersome weeds.  A bright full moon and a dark night sky.

“whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities . . . “.  Even the invisible realm of angels, good and bad, at work in the world.  The scope of the Son’s “firstborn” creative power encompasses all.

” all things were created . . . for him.”  All that is–mountains, trees, sky, human, rulers and authorities–was created for the Son of God’s glory and exaltation.  As Dr. Sam Storms (Pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) writes, “He’s . . . the consummation and culmination of every molecule that moves”.

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17).

“He is pro all things . . . ”  Before you and I were born.  Before Lincoln was President.  Before ocean waves licked the shores.  Before all things, the Son was.

And “in him all things soonistayme>” 

“Only recently have astrophysicists been able to offer a substantial hypothesis as to what it is that holds the universe together and keeps it from flying apart. Yet you do not have to be a physicist to know the simple answer!

“Astrophysicists look into the heavens and capture images and data with various scientific instruments. They know that the total mass of all matter is not enough to provide the gravity needed to keep everything in the universe from flying apart. They are left to ponder the question, ‘What is it that is holding the universe together?’

“International teams of astronomers scan stars and galaxies that are unimaginable distances away. Using modern instruments and means of detection, they have detected a mysterious cosmic force and have hypothesized that it may be the answer to the question. They call it ‘dark matter’” (tomorrowsworld.org).

Ah, yes, but what is this “cosmic force”?  What lies behind this “dark matter”?  The coherent power of the Son on God.

“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” (1:18).

” . . . head” means the Son is the sovereign, ruling authority of the church universal and each local church in particular.

That he is “the beginning and the firsrborn from among the dead” means he is the founder of a new humanity.  He rose from the dead, never to die again, and is the “firstfruits” of a resurrection promised to all who belong to him.

God’s purpose in all this, writes Paul, is “so that in everything he might have proteuwo”–first place, preeminence,  the highest rank, the greatest glory and exaltation.

With the Colossian heresy in mind, the apostle lays stress on the hierarchy of angelic powers.  Even the cosmic powers and principalities, which apparently received some prominence in that heresy, were created in Christ. Good or bad, all are subject to him as Creator.

* * * *

Barna’s poll claims half the country believes Jesus is God and have made a commitment to him.  But before such an awesome One belief and commitment aren’t enough.  A desire that he might have the supremacy in all things, in our little lives too, is what we must do.

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