Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Yes, Christianity Really Is THAT Different-Col. 1:21-29

 One of the charges that is often lodged against the Christian worldview by skeptics outside the faith is “Christianity is no different from all other religions.” Those who say this often lump the biblical worldview in with any/every belief system and/or superstition, believing that there is nothing distinct about who Jesus is and what the Bible teaches. These could not be more wrong. Christianity compared to other religions is not just a horse of a different color, it is a different animal all together. In Christianity you have many distinctives that set it apart. Take for instance its insistence on salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9) where all other worldviews rely on a system of works to be saved/enlightened. Consider also Christianity’s claim that God came down as a man (Jn 1:14) to be then humiliated to the point of death (Phil 2:5-11) in order to save people. Other religions teach that man has to ascend to God or god-like status in their own strength. These are just two of many ways in which Christianity is distinct from all other worldviews. Today, as we continue our Colossians series, we are going to examine two more distinctives of the Christian worldview that Paul describes in 1:21-29 and come to appreciate more of what Jesus has provided us and what our role ought to be in response.

1. DISTINCTIVE #1: The Unique Opportunity in Christ-1:21-23

After celebrating the uniqueness of Christ in verses 13-20, Paul reflects on the unique opportunity there is for salvation in Christ in verses 21-23. To highlight what Christ has done/accomplished, Paul takes the Colossians through the before and after sequence of their salvation experience. First, he remarks on what life was like prior to salvation in Christ—“and although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (1:21). Paul uses the language of being estranged to suggest that prior to their conversion, the Colossians were outside the sphere of God’s blessing. Their sin had placed them in enemy territory both in mind and in deed (as one is inextricably connected to the other). As one thinks so they behave and both the thoughts and actions of people before coming to faith demonstrate that they do neither know nor belong to God. This is not where anyone wants to find themselves.  Those described here are far removed from the promises of God’s blessings. Furthermore, their minds are opposed to God and their actions are anything but holy. A solution for such a condition might seem impossible. However, there is a solution—a most unique opportunity for reconciliation that is found in Christ.

Paul continues with “yet, He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (1:22). Here Paul uses sacrificial terminology to describe the way that reconciliation was made possible by Christ. First, the sacrifice was physical—“in His fleshly body through death.” In other words, moral and spiritual transformation comes, in part, because of the very real death of Jesus. This is important as one of the heresies floating around the Colossian context was that Jesus did not have a physical body (and therefore only appeared to really die). Here, Paul’s language explicitly argues that Jesus was really a man and really died to provide reconciliation for the desperate sinner. This is just as necessary to the gospel (the good news of salvation) as the resurrection. “Together, the ‘physical body’ and ‘death’ reveal the physical suffering of Christ in redemption. Flesh, blood, and death express the total nature of the sacrifice” (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 232). Reconciliation is portrayed as a completed act (here, understood as made possible by the past act of Jesus’ death).

This physical death of Christ provides the opportunity to be presented before God as holy and blameless and beyond reproach—i.e. the very opposite of alienated, hostile, and evil. This will be ultimately realized and fully experienced in the future (the second time aspect associated with salvation). While this presentation will be fully realized in the end (when Christ returns to the earth), positionally, these realities allow the convert to stand in a right relationship with God now as reconciled unto him when before they were a long way off.

The verification that one has been reconciled, is in God’s presence, and is no longer living as an hostile enemy of God is perseverance—“if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard” (1:23). This introduces the third time aspect associated with salvation (reconciliation=past; holy/blameless/above reproach purity=future; and perseverance=present). Here, Paul addresses the responsibility of the Colossians in the time between reconciliation and Christ’s return (justification and glorification). The Colossians are to “continue in the faith”—a condition that Paul expected the Colossians to meet given their position in Christ and his ministry of reconciliation. The confidence that Paul had for the church to meet this expectation is also hinted at in the passive voice used in “firmly established.” The passive voice indicates that establishing of the believer is done by some third party and not accomplished personally. It is Christ who saves, Christ who reconciles, Christ who will one day glorify, and Christ who firmly established believers so they may persevere well. Paul teaches here, and elsewhere that those who know and embrace the truth of Christ in salvation will continue in that truth to the end—i.e. they will not fall away—“and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard,…” (1:23).

Romans 8:30-“and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Philippians 1:6-“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work among you will complete it by the day of Christ Jesus.”

The transforming, saving, glorious, persevering truth of which Paul speaks—the truth of the gospel—“was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister,…” (1:23b). The same gospel that was preached to every creature and animated Paul’s ministry is the same gospel that the Colossians had heard and responded to.

Verses 21-23 reveal that in Christ there is a most profound and unique opportunity for salvation. This opportunity allows people to transform from enemies of God who are a long way off and characterized by lost minds and evil actions to holy and blameless sons and daughters of God who stand in God’s presence and persevere to a most glorious end. Christ’s death and the reconciliation that he provides makes this possible to anyone and everyone who turns to him in faith, trusting who he is and what he has done. Praise the Lord—he has not left us desperate without hope for salvation!

2. DISTINCTIVE #2: The Unique Partnership with Christ-1:24-29

After describing the unique opportunity for salvation that is made possible in Christ, Paul continues to describe his unique partnership with Christ. In verses 24-29, he uses his own calling and experiences to describe what a life sold out for Christ looks like and, it may not be what some unsuspecting people believe they are signing up for when they engage incomplete presentations of the gospel message in our culture today. Paul begins this distinctive of the Christian life on what some might call a downer—“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,…” (1:24a). From the very beginning of Paul’s ministry, he knew that he was in for suffering for the Lord. As far back as his conversion, God told Ananias that Paul must suffer for Christ’s sake. Even as Paul wrote this letter to the church in Colossae, he was suffering in prison! When God calls a man like Paul (or anyone else for that matter) he bids him come and die.

Luke 9:23-24-“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it

One of the characteristics of partnership with Christ is partnership in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17 seems to suggest that along with the blessings of reconciliation come the realities of suffering in this present world-- “and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” This is why Peter encourages believers not to be surprised when suffering befalls them by saying “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you,” (1 Pet 4:12) and then encourages Jesus’ followers with “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled” (1 Pet 3:14).

Paul understood this and rejoiced even/especially in his suffering. One of the things that aided him in this unique posture was recognizing that his suffering was not in vain but “for your (the church in Colossae’s) sake.”

He continues with “and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church” (1:24b). Paul suffered, in part, because of the specific ministry to which God called him. He planted churches in Gentile territory and this led to all kinds of pressures, frustrations, reactions, and persecution. Even as it concerned the church in Colossae (a church he did not plant and had never visited), Paul’s ministry was under attack both from pagan Gentiles and unbelieving Jews. But, as he reports at the beginning of the verse, he rejoices anyway. Suffering for good done in God’s name ought to be understood more as a mainstay of the Christian life, not a rarity to be avoided.

In addition to not stealing his joy and existing for the benefit of the church, Paul’s suffering also involved “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (1:24c). The word “filling up” here is used nowhere else in the New Testament and literally conveys the idea of “completing in the place of” (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 238). The word seems to demand the idea of an ongoing exchange of responsibility. But what could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions that Paul needs to make up for? What could this possibly mean? The word “lack” suggests that Paul may have thought that there would be a fixed number of tribulations involved in gospel ministry, some of which remained unfulfilled. While Christ had inaugurated the age of salvation through his trials and tribulations (through his completed work of redemption), people like Paul were now continuing the work that Christ started by spreading the gospel message until the Lord’s return and, as a result, suffering. Also, Jesus’ suffering/afflictions had become Paul’s sufferings/afflictions. Though one cannot compare the sufferings of Jesus and Paul directly (or anyone else for that matter), both suffered physically, on behalf of others, and for the church. Jesus hints at this shared suffering between he and his disciples all the way back in John 15:18 when he says, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” Paul is completing the mission that Jesus started by spreading the gospel message that Christ made possible. In this Paul rejoices.

Partnership with Christ is a unique distinctive of the Christian life that includes suffering. This suffering should not kill one’s joy, is always with direction, and associates the believer with his/her Savior.

In addition to suffering, partnership with Christ (for both Paul and others) involves ministering. Paul says in verse 25, “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit.” Paul understood his role as a minister/servant of the church (diakonoV). To this, Paul was appointed of God, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others—“for your benefit.”

The purpose of the apostle’s own unique ministry/service to the church was “so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generation, but has now been manifested to His saints” (1:25b-26). It was Paul’s job to proclaim God’s revelation and in so doing reveal what was once concealed—the gospel message of Jesus Christ. This message, which was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, has been fulfilled in the New. What was once appreciated only in type/symbol was now realized and completed. The shadow had become substance in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and this is what Paul made known to the saints--“to whom god willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles” (1:27).

This mystery, applied to the individual person is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27b). This phrase is pregnant with significance. First, it reveals to the Gentile audience that Christ was not just a Savior for the Jews but also, a Savior for the Gentiles (as in “Christ in you, yes even YOU”). Second, this suggests, contra to Old Testament third parties like priests and external efforts like sacrifices required to be made right with God, that salvation indwells believers (as in “Christ IN you”). The greatest ever priest and sacrifice has taken up residence in the believer. Third, this phrase confirms that because believers have Christ personally, they also can be confident of ultimate hope in glory. What a message! While Paul’s unique ministry of apostle and preacher involved proclaiming this to his world, truly every servant/minister of God (every disciple everywhere at all times) ought to be about sharing this message/mystery/revelation with others.  Don’t believe me? Listen to verse 28.

“We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom,…” (1:28a). After highlighting his special calling, he includes his entire audience (the church in Colossae) in the general calling of proclaiming Christ. This activity includes consistent and ongoing “proclamation” (the sharing of truth), “admonishing” (directing one’s attention to a particular subject), and “teaching” (clarifying and instructing). You may have heard it said “share Jesus and if necessary, use words.” Paul suggests here that sharing Jesus most assuredly includes words—words of truth, direction, and instruction offered ongoingly and consistently by Christ’s disciples. It also suggests that something more than conversion is expected/sought. In fact, this verse sounds similar to Matthew 28:19-20-“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Jesus in Matthew and Paul in Colossians seem interested in disciples more than mere converts—i.e. people who both receive truth and grow in truth as a result of proper interaction with the truth.

Paul suggests that this program of proclamation, admonishment, and teaching is offered by both he and the church “so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (1:28b). Two emphases emerge in this purpose clause. First, Paul clearly demonstrates that he could not rest until all Christians lived up to what God expected (“every man complete in Christ”). Second, Paul had the end in mind. When he states “to present” every person, he thought in terms of the return of Jesus and the desire to see each Christian mature in the Lord at such a time.

Paul concludes this chapter with “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power which mightily works within me” (1:29). The unique partnership that Paul describes in this passage—a partnership that involves suffering, ministering, and proclaiming—is laborious. The verb used here suggests hard labor. So hard, in fact, that Paul suggests left to himself he would be unfit, unprepared, and unable to contribute meaningfully to this calling. The apostle’s striving is “according to His (God’s) power, which mightily works within me.” God is the strength in Paul that allows this unique partnership to take place. Christ in the believer is the hope of glory and Christ in the believer provides power to persevere and partner until that glory is reached.

So What?

The unique opportunity for salvation and the unique partnership with Christ described in this passage are two distinctives of the Christian life that are offered no where else. No other program/worldview/belief system/religion/narrative provides the solution to mankind’s greatest problem of sin and death. What is offered by Christ and the reconciliation with God that results is the only solution to the gulf that separates us from where we are to where we need to be both now and for eternity. If you have yet to take advantage of the opportunity God has made available to you in Christ, I invite you to do so by turning from your sin and former alien ways (that is alien to God), and trust in what Christ did for you (he came, died, and rose again so that you might be in right relationship with God both now and forever).

For those who have already taken advantage of this opportunity, what does your resulting partnership with Christ look like? Are you simply coasting in what is comfortable, trying to merely survive until the end comes? Or, like Paul, are you participating in suffering with and for Christ, ministering to his church, and proclaiming the good news to those around you? You may say, “That is too hard!” or “I can’t do that!” and you would be right. It is too hard for you and you cannot do this in your own power. Thank goodness God has given us Christ who dwells within us. Christ in us gives both the hope of glory and the power to be about his business. Perhaps today you need to recommit yourself to relying on his power to do what you have been called of God to do rather than defer to your flesh that wants to pursue the path of least resistance.

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