St Michael’s, 30th October 2016
Readings – Colossians 1:24 – 2:5; Luke 19:1-10
There is precious little we know about the ancient town of Colossae. It is only mentioned once in the Bible, in the second verse of the opening chapter of Colossians. As far as we know, the apostle Paul never visited it, and the church there was founded by someone called Epaphras who himself is only mentioned in this letter and in the book of Philemon. By New Testament times Colossae had lost much of its importance and was then devastated by an earthquake soon after Paul wrote his letter. Yes, the town was rebuilt, but over the centuries it gradually dwindled away. And although we still know where the ancient town stood, its ruins have never been excavated and it remains just another undiscovered archaeological site in Turkey.
But there is one very important thing we do know about Colossae – namely, that it was home to a growing and flourishing church. Paul writes in chapter 1, verse 6: All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. So for all that Colossae was a relatively unknown and obscure place, the church there had a reputation for faith and love and hope. Lives were being transformed, and Paul gave thanks for the obvious work God was doing in that place.
Yet as is often the case, this growing church in Colossae was under attack. It almost seems to be a rule of thumb that whenever the good news of Jesus takes root, the evil one will do whatever he can to undermine or stifle the growth. In the case of the church at Colossae, this attack, however, wasn’t that obvious or immediate. We don’t have any evidence that the Christians there were being persecuted, or had lost their homes or their jobs. But there was a threat nonetheless, from false teachers who had gotten inside the church and were leading people astray. That is why, despite all the good that was happening, Paul felt compelled to write this letter, and why for all that Colossae was such an out of a way place we still have a book in the Bible that bears its name.
So what was the problem with this false teaching and why was it so dangerous?
Well, first of all, whatever was being taught it was far removed from the realities of everyday life. In Colossians 2:16 Paul tells the church: Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. Now Paul here doesn’t explain who was doing the judging or why they felt these things were so important. But by placing such stress on special rituals and the observance of particular days, these false teachers were in danger of making the church some sort of a special interest club for those big on religion. So instead of engaging with people where they were at, they were turning the church in on itself and focusing on its own purely internal matters.
Why was this? Because, for all that this teaching sounded clever and deep, Jesus wasn’t really at the centre of what was being taught. That’s why in Colossians 2:8 Paul warns the church: 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. You see, no matter how attractive human wisdom may appear, ultimately it does not have the power to changes lives. It can perhaps change the way we think. It can on occasions touch our hearts. But it cannot deal with the deepest problem of all – the fact that without Jesus our relationship with God is broken and beyond repair.
Yet you don’t have to look too far to see that so often churches – and maybe that sometimes even includes us – seem to preach and teach a message that is based on human wisdom and clever arguments rather than the good news of Jesus Christ. And I believe the reason for this is down to simple human pride. We find it hard to accept that all we have to do is simply believe that Jesus died for us on the cross. We think there should be something more we should do, or some secret we need to get in on in order to be a proper Christian.
And the false teachers in Colossae exploited this streak of pride. They promoted what they claimed was a super-spiritual form of Christian faith, available only to those who followed their new form of teaching. Yes, of course, the gospel was all very well for ordinary Christians, but if you wanted to have real spiritual maturity, you needed the special knowledge only they could offer. No wonder in chapter 2, verse 18, Paul warns about false humility and those who puff themselves up. We have to beware anyone who comes along and promotes themselves more than Jesus Christ, or a supposedly religious organisation that promises us the secret of successful Christian life – especially when at the same time they are telling us exactly how to donate to their cause. “Call tollfree to this number with your bank account details and we will claim God’s blessings on your life!”
Which, of course, illustrates another reason why false teachers are such a threat – namely that what they teach does not produce the holy life that our Lord wants us to lead. Listen to what Paul says in Colossians 2:23: Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Or in plain English, they don’t address our issue of sin and wrongdoing. If anything, they simply cover up or make excuses for it. Perhaps that is one reason why so many apparently Christian ministries end up in some sort of scandal or other. After all, talking about sin and the need for repentance isn’t exactly the best kind of model for a successful business.
Ultimately, the issue with all false teachers is that they rely on not on the grace of God but on human effort. In the trade this is known as “salvation by works”. The words they use will vary but the underlying message is the same. “If you want to be a proper Christian”, “If you want to claim God’s blessing” etc. etc. “then you need to do this”. The scandal of the Christian faith, however, is that it doesn’t depend on us, but on what God has done for us. And the very fact we find this so hard to accept is, I suggest, why ever since the time Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, false teachers have gained a foothold in the church.
So how does Paul refute what they’ve been teaching? Well, up until now Paul has written in very broad, general terms to Colossians. We’ve looked at his great prayer for them in chapter 1, vv.3-14, thanking God for their faith, love and hope, and asking that the Lord might fill them with the knowledge of His will. Last week we looked at his breathtaking portrayal of Jesus in chapter 1, vv. 15-23 and we saw how he presents Jesus as Lord over creation and over the church, and yet as the one willing to shed His blood for us on the cross.
But now at verse 24 there is a distinct change of tone. This section of the letter we’re looking at today is all about Paul’s own experience. If you go through the passage, you will see that he constantly refers to himself and what he is doing. But we have to understand – this is not self-promotion on Paul’s part. Unlike the false teachers his concern is not to establish his own credentials or promote his own ministry. His concern is to show how the gospel he preaches is so at odds with the message they are promoting. And this is not some remote theological argument. This is real, this is personal and the very spiritual health of the Colossian church is at stake.
So, first of all, Paul is keen to show how the gospel is all about the realities of life. And this takes us directly to verse 24 which is surely one of the most extraordinary verses in the whole of New Testament: 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. What does Paul mean by this? Well, we could spend a whole morning just looking at this verse. It becomes a little easier to understand when we realise that Paul here is using the term the “body of Christ” to refer to the church. In some mysterious way the risen, ascended Lord Jesus has chosen us to be His physical presence on earth. So as the church we will always to a lesser or greater extent experience what Jesus Himself experienced here on earth. If Jesus was misunderstood, then we too as the body of Christ will be misunderstood. If He was rejected, we too will be rejected. If He was persecuted, then we too will be persecuted.
This doesn’t imply, of course, that we should go round looking for trouble. But when others oppose us because we belong to Jesus we should – remarkable as it might sound – rejoice. Why? Because for better or for worse they have seen Jesus in us, and the difference that He makes. Now of course we would much prefer it if those who oppose us come to faith, but when we are called to suffer, we are in some way identifying with the sufferings of Christ who died for us on a cross. I am not at this point trying to explain away the whole issue of suffering, but at the very least remembering there is a cross at the heart of our faith helps us to make far more sense of what happens to us on a daily basis.
This leads on Paul’s second point, that at the heart of the gospel is the simple and clear preaching of the message of Jesus. Now as a travelling missionary and church planter Paul had many different concerns. Whenever he left one town to go to another, his concern was to leave behind a viable and growing church. There were elders to appoint, rules of behaviour to establish, meeting places to organise, and probably so much more. But Paul never forgot his primary calling. Talking about the church again in verse 25, he says: I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness. Because, ultimately, when the word of God is preached everything else in the church follows.
I realise this may all sound very simple in theory, but I know in practice how easy it is for a church to become sidetracked, often for the best of reasons. We can so easily make something else the most important part of the church’s business, and so lose our focus on why we exist in the first place. There are many reasons for this, but maybe our problem is, that unlike Paul we do not really understand the fullness of God’s word. That is why we constantly encourage every church member to have a pattern of daily Bible reading and to be part of a small group. Because it is only in this way we really learn how to apply God’s word to the situations we face and to stay on focus with the mission God has given us.
However I’m aware that so often when I talk about reading the Bible people can so easily think I am talking about doing something that’s a bit intellectual or for those with the right education. And part of the reason why people think like that is that so often the church has made the word of God into something academic, rather theoretical.
After all, I guess all of us have heard sermons where the preacher seems to delight in using the longest possible words and throwing in as many references as he can to the scholars and philosophers of the past. Now there may indeed be a place for such preaching, but I suggest that generally it’s not in the local church. The point in preaching the gospel Sunday by Sunday is to quite simply show that all God’s promises have been met in Jesus.
Reading the whole of verses 25 and 26: 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. So whenever the Bible is taught or preached, the aim should not be confuse people or blind them with a dazzling display of learning. It should be to show that in Jesus all our guessing games about God come to an end. We don’t have to wonder any more who God is or what He is like. We can look to Jesus and find in Him the answer to our questions. So how dare we dress this good news up in clever words that only a privileged few can understand!
This leads on to Paul’s next point in verse 27 that unlike the message of the false teachers, the gospel really is meant for everyone. Now in the world of the New Testament there was a fundamental divide between those who had a Jewish background and those who did not. The latter were called the “Gentiles”. The Jewish people of the day were aware they were the chosen people; they were the ones who had received the promises of God. And Jesus Himself was a Jew.
Yet the remarkable thing about Jesus this Jewish Messiah was that He preached one message of good news to everyone, no matter their background. When He died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, not only to show that the barrier between God and us had been broken, but also between those of a Jewish and non-Jewish background. But it seems that the false teachers wanted to rebuild those barriers, and so exclude those who didn’t in their eyes have the right credentials to be a Christian.
In response Paul says in verse 27: To them (That is the members of the church) God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. In other words, there really is one gospel for all. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Gentile, British or foreign, living in Mannamead or in Devonport. There is one gospel and one hope for all people at all times – Christ in you the hope of glory.
Because ultimately it is only the presence of Christ in our lives that can only produce the change that we so desperately need and restore us to a relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. That is why, in contrast to the false teachers, Paul says in verse 28: We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
Now sometimes people think that proclaiming the gospel is only about inviting people to believe in Jesus. But Paul was clear: believing in Jesus is only the start of the process. Gospel living is about allowing the word of God to touch every area of our lives, and letting Jesus transform our deepest thoughts and attitudes. That is why Paul saw gospel ministry as involving both teaching and admonishing. Not teaching, as in the sense of one person standing up at the front of a classroom, but in terms of helping folk to discover how to apply the word of God to their daily lives. And admonishing, showing folk where their lives are out of line with this word and where necessary challenging them about their own personal walk with Jesus.
Of course the people who so troubled the church at Colossae were also in the business of teaching and admonishing. They also had a message about how to get closer to God and no doubt they told folk where they were going wrong. But there was a crucial difference between their teaching and the gospel Paul proclaimed. They were promoting what I called earlier “salvation by works”, that is, human effort to try and earn God’s favour. Paul’s message was however one of grace, of God coming to us in His Son Jesus Christ, because we are unable to save ourselves.
And Paul didn’t just teach a message of grace. He also lived it as well. Listen to what he says in verse 29: To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. Paul’s life day by day was lived in reliance on the power and energy of the risen Lord Jesus. When he talked about the grace of God, those hearing his message could see what he was talking about because his deeds matched his words. This didn’t mean that Paul was perfect. We know from elsewhere he struggled with temptation, he was sometimes unwell, and he sometimes upset people. Yet the reason why his ministry made such an impact was that he knew and lived the good news of Jesus Christ, and by so doing pointed to the presence of the Holy Spirit at work within him.
So ultimately Paul’s words present a challenge to us. Too often when we talk to others about our faith, they believe that the Christian faith is about rules and regulations, that Christians somehow think they are better than others, and that ultimately we are saved by our own effort. Our challenge both individually and as a church is to show that we are gospel people, that our message is about the good news of Jesus coming to us, offering the gift of new life to ordinary people who know they are sinners, and enabling us to live in the power of His Holy Spirit.
How do we do this? Well, come along next Saturday to our away day, where together we are seeking a vision of what it means to live as God’s kingdom people. And may our lives day by day point to the wonderful and revolutionary truth that the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. For His name’s sake. Amen.