The twofold track - Colossians 1:24 - 2:5

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 2nd November 2008.

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One of my personal delights is to watch a new Christian read the Bible at the beginning of their Christian life. Over the long term the major evidence that someone has genuinely become a committed follower of Jesus Christ and not someone who simply professes to be a Christian is the transformation of a lifestyle. However, in the short term one of the positive signs that spiritual life has begun is a love for the Bible. They find the book exciting and fresh and frequently make new discoveries. They come up and tell you what they have found.

As Christians continue in their spiritual life the number of new discoveries becomes less. This is not a bad sign. It makes sense that not everything is new to us. The danger is when the old truths become boring. We should always expect the truths we have learned to warm our hearts.

This is true to my experience of reading the Bible. However, every now and again I come across something in the Bible that really stops me in my tracks.

This is true of one of the verses in the section of the Bible we are trying to understand on Sunday evenings.

Colossians 1:24, “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.”

You might find it surprising that Paul rejoices in his suffering. I agree, this is a rather weird statement for a culture which shuns pain. But what I really find shocking is what Paul says about the suffering of Jesus Christ. He says he fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. What is the implication? Somehow, he appears to say, the suffering of Jesus Christ was inadequate. Does this not shock you? Does this not stop you in your tracks? Does this not slow you down and make you pour over the words until you discover what they mean? Well, this is what I’ve been doing ever since I read them. Asking myself again and again, what can Paul mean when he apparently questions the sufficiency of Christ’s sufferings?

If we read this anywhere in the Bible we would be surprised but what I think makes this even more surprising is that such a statement appears in this particular Bible.

Do you remember the central theme? We’ve heard it each week. Paul wants his readers to know that Jesus Christ is everything they need for their spiritual development. They are being tempted to move away from Jesus to something more fulfilling and Paul is desperately trying to communicate that Jesus Christ is all they need. And so verse 24 really sticks out in this letter. Everywhere else in Colossians Paul holds out Jesus as the only person anyone needs for spiritual life and growth and then here in verse 24 he seems to imply that something Jesus did was not good enough. This is one of these verses that really does stop us in our tracks. And so our question tonight is very basic. We are trying to work out, what does Paul mean?

Here is a handy tip for you. Whenever you come across something in the Bible which appears to contradict something you have always been told about the Bible, allow what is clear to interpret what is unclear. Allow the obvious to interpret the obscure.

In this case, what do we know? The Bible spends so much attention on the death of Jesus Christ. And not just on the event but on the interpretation. It goes to great lengths to point out that being a Christian is not about doing good things to earn a place in heaven but about being a bad person who has been forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross. It tells us that everything has been accomplished by Jesus on the cross and we can add nothing to his achievements.

In fact, if we try and add anything to the work of Jesus then we devalue his achievements.

We also see this from Colossians. Let me show you a few key verses.

Colossians 1:19-22, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  20 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. 21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.  22 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.”

Colossians 2:13-14, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

If we apply our principle. Allow what is clear to interpret what is unclear. Allow the obvious to interpret the obscure. This makes us conclude that whatever Paul means he cannot be taking about the value of Christ’s suffering. He must mean something else. The question is what?

Never feel embarrassed by asking someone else. Always check their opinion with the Bible but God has given us wise teachers throughout the ages. It makes sense to consult them. I was listening to a sermon preached by John Piper and he made a very useful connection with something else Paul has written in one of his letter. It’s from Philippians and this is a letter written about the same time as Colossians. I’ll put the text on the big screen. It’s from the ESV.

“So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” (Philippians 2:29-30)

To complete is literally to fill up. It’s almost exactly the same word as used in Colossians. What was lacking in the Philippians’ service? It wasn’t as if they didn’t care but that there were not there. How did Epaphroditus fill up their lack of service? He brought it to a place where it wasn’t already present.

This was a light bulb moment for me when I heard John Piper say this. When we bring this idea back to what Paul says in Colossians and when we remember that Paul say himself as an apostle to the Gentiles then we can begin to make sense of what he means by filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

What was lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Not their value. Not their sufficiency to save people. What was lacking was their communication to the Gentile world. Christ has died but not everyone knew this and had benefited from this. So Paul, like Epaphroditus, filled up what was lacking by bringing something to a place where it wasn’t already. In Epaphroditus’ case it was the help of the Philippians. In Paul’s case it was the news about the death of Jesus that he extended to the Gentile world.

This makes sense of what we read in the next few verses. Look at how Paul continues in verse 25. “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness — 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.  27 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.”

A mystery is not like a riddle. Riddles can be worked out. Mysteries are secrets that have to be revealed. Here Paul is talking about a mystery that has not been kept hidden for a few days but which has been kept secret for ages and generations. But it has not been revealed – it is Christ in you, the hope of glory. In who? Not just in anyone. The Jews were expecting new life in the Messiah. This is Christ in you – the Gentiles! The Gentiles did not have to become Jews they could stay as Gentiles and benefit from the new life of the Messiah.

This is Paul’s mission. To fill up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions but extending the news of them to the Gentile world.

What does he hope to achieve? He tells us in verse 28. “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

The word translated as perfect is better translated as mature or even presentable.

If you have ever watched those singing contests. Pop Idol and X-factor. The experts in singing and dancing have a week to get the contestant ready and then they make their appearance on the stage. This is their moment. This is when they are presented.

There is a similar moment in the Christian life. When we appear before Jesus. Will we be presentable?

This is why Paul speaks of the sufferings of Christ. Not simply to get someone across the Christian line but to make them presentable before Jesus, mature in faith.

To achieve this he does two practical things. Do you see them in verse 28? He admonishes and he teaches. They are a vital combination but one is always more applauded by human beings than the other.

Strictly Come Dancing. Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly. The four judges, Len Goodman, Arlene Phillips, Bruno Tonioli and Craig Revel Horwood. We all know what happens when a judge tells the truth and gives constructive criticism. There are boos. It’s very odd in a society which encourages appraisals at frequent intervals.

The truth is that we find admonishing very difficult. It literally means to put the mind in order. To correct sloppy thinking. How vital in this age when people think it doesn’t really matter what you think in the realm of opinion.

If we want to be presentable before Jesus then we must expect admonishing alongside the positive teaching about Jesus. This is hard work. I love what Paul says in verse 29. “To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” The energy of Christ is released in service of others.

Who should do this? Certainly the pastors and home group leaders. It is to be done with all wisdom. Let us have ears to hear it and don’t instantly boo inside!

Also, the whole church has a responsibility to do this. Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

I’m sure our desire as Christians is to mature in Christ. We do want to be presentable when we meet Jesus face to face. If that’s the case then listen to what Paul goes on to say at the beginning of chapter 2.

“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.  2 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.”

The end result is to know Christ. It’s not a lonely journey. It must be done as part of a group. He wants them to be encouraged in heart. That’s crucial. But he also wants them to be united in love. This is a vital stage if we want to mature in Christ. We must do it as part of a loving Christian church.  Beware those who advocate the solitary contemplative life as the way of Christian growth!

If you are not maturing then it is perhaps because you are a Christian loner and don’t live as a corporate Christian. Stages of wrong thinking, I can be a Christian and not go to church then I can come to church and be by myself and then leave. If we want to mature in Christ then we must learn together.

And notice who must always be the focus of our attention. Verse 2, “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. I tell you this so that no-one may deceive you by fine sounding arguments.”

Christ must always be the focus. We never move away from him. He is there at the beginning, all the way through and we will meet him at the end.
Not like one of our toys that we disregard when we grow up in faith. We never move away from Christ, we simply grow deeper in our knowledge of him. Because in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Can you imagine BP being told that all the oil reserves they would ever need are buried just off the coast of Scotland and then moving away to dig off the coast of Devon? That would be stupid.

Christians are to be convinced that Jesus is the only one we need.

There will always be temptation to move away from him. Paul speaks of fine sounding arguments in verse 4. Not fine sounding rhetoric. These are beautiful arguments. There will always be a flaw if they deny the sufficiency and the uniqueness of Jesus even if you haven’t found it yet. Hold on and stick with Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t use our brain. That we are frightened of logic. But we need to be aware that arguments based on human wisdom can frequently be flawed even if all the dots are connected.

There is one truth I haven’t mentioned tonight. It’s mentioned by Paul in verse 24. It answers the question, what does it feel like to be involved in this ministry?

“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.”

How does Paul fill up what was lacking? How does Paul extend the news about Jesus? In his flesh. There is this connection between speaking about the sufferings of Jesus and suffering for that cause.

It happened to Jesus as he spoke about his suffering. So in this vital task of presenting everyone perfect in Christ we can expect to endure suffering.

In fact, we must be prepared to suffer if the gospel is to go out and people built up in faith. Suffering opens many doors of gospel opportunity. It is not a fluke that the church expands and is strengthened by suffering. God has always intended this to be the way.

John Piper relays a story he heard from a man called Jesus. Oswald Sanders speak. His message touched deeply on suffering. He is 89 years old and still travels and speaks around the world. He has written a book a year since he turned 70! I mention that only to exult in the utter dedication of a life poured out for the gospel without thought of coasting in self-indulgence from 65 to the grave.

He told the story of an indigenous missionary who walked barefoot from village to village preaching the gospel in India. His hardships were many. After a long day of many miles and much discouragement he came to a certain village and tried to speak the gospel but was driven out of town and rejected. So he went to the edge of the village dejected and lay down under a tree and slept from exhaustion.

When he awoke, people were hovering over him, and the whole town was gathered around to hear him speak. The head man of the village explained that they came to look him over while he was sleeping. When they saw his blistered feet, they concluded that he must be a holy man, and that they had been evil to reject him. They were sorry and wanted to hear the message that he was willing to suffer so much to bring them.

Suffering for the sake of Christ opens many doors of evangelistic witness.

What must we suffer if we are to get the gospel out? What suffering must we choose to accept as we extend the gospel?

There are different extremes. Persecuted church. See Dave Clarke for a copy of Frontline.

For us. Our wallet? Our reputation? Our promotion? Our time? Our TV viewing? Our health?

I don’t know all the answers but tonight I do want to raise the question. How can we choose to suffer to extend the sufferings of Christ?

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