An effective evangelist - Colossians 1:24 - 2:5

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 19th March 2000.

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Let me begin by reading you part of a letter from a young minister to his mentor:

Dear Jim, I’m through. Yesterday I handed in my resignation to take effect at once. This morning I began work at a land company. I will not return to the pastorate. I think I can see into your heart as you read these words and behold not a little disappointment, if not disgust. I don't blame you at all for I am somewhat disgusted with myself. Do you recall the days in college when we talked about the future and painted pictures of what we would do for the kingdom of God?.. We had brave dreams of usefulness and you have realised yours. As I look back across the past years I see some lives I might have helped, some things I have been permitted to do that have been worthwhile. But sitting here tonight, I am more than half convinced that God never intended me to be a minister. If he did, I am not big enough or brave enough to pay the price. Even if this leads you to write me down as a coward I am going to tell you why I quit. In these years I have found not a few earnest, unselfish Christians. I don't believe that I am especially morbid or unfair in my estimate, but throughout these years the conviction has been growing within me that the average church member cares precious little about the Kingdom of God and its advancement and the welfare of his fellow man. He is a Christian in order to save his soul from hell and for no other reason. He does as little as he can and lives as indifferently as he dares. If he thought he could gain heaven without lifting a finger he would jump at the chance. I have never known more than a small minority of any church that I have served to be really interested in and unselfishly devoted to God’s work. It took my whole time to push and pull to persuade members of my church to do a little something for their fellow man. Not one in ten ever thought of attending a prayer meeting. A large percentage seldom attended church in the morning and a pitifully small number in the evening. It didn't seem anything to them that they have dedicated themselves to the service and honour of Christ. I am tired. Tired of being the only one in the church for whom real sacrifice is expected. I am tired of straining and tugging to get Christian people to live like Christians. I am tired of planning work for my people and doing it all myself. I am not leaving Christ. I love him. I will still try to serve him. Judge me leniently old friend. I can’t bear to lose your friendship. Yours, William.

I don’t think any of us is in a position to judge that minister. You don’t have to be all that long a follower of Christ to feel intently some of those feeling and the build up of pressure to quit. Christian friends disappoint you. Churches fail you. The shear hard slog of going on when all your flatmates are against you simply gets to much. Evangelism appears to be so unproductive - a few here and there, but so many who seem hardened - so throwing in the towel begins to look like the better option - or at least look for an alternative way of producing quick results. The temptation to quit hits every believer at some time or other. And as with many problems in the Christian life, it often boils down to unrealistic expectations - going beyond the picture the Bible paints of Christian ministry - what our goals should be, as well as the means of obtaining those goals. Well, tonight we come to a gem of a passage which puts us back in touch with reality as the apostle Paul outlines for us his own evangelistic expectations - what gospel work is all about - so lets be encouraged.

First of all let’s note Paul’s purpose in ministry - which is twofold, first 1v28 ‘so that we might present everyone perfect in Christ’ - that's the aim - and the word for perfect means complete, whole, fully intact. In other words Paul takes the long term view. He is not just interested in getting bottoms on pews, he is concerned with getting souls into heaven - men and women reaching their God ordained potential of being Christ - like. And of course along the way there may well be set backs, but we are not to lose sight of the goal in the long term because of trouble in the short term. And the fact that Paul says his aim is to present everyone - notice that - which is repeated three times in the original - this evangelist is concerned with individuals not just numbers - that means that it is unthinkable that Paul should have held back any teaching which they need to get them to heaven in the end. If so, then it is the height of folly to go running after other teachings beyond that which the apostle gives. Which is probably what is happening in this church.

In the second place, Paul is also concerned with the present as well as the future - 2: 2 - 3 ‘My purpose is that they (that is all Christians in this area) may be encouraged in heart and united in love, complete in understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. ’Now isn't that a wonderful purpose to have for our fellow Christians? That they be strengthened inwardly, which is what encouraged in heart means - sturdy, unwavering. Also, to be united in love, that is no back biting, or one-upmanship and all the other things which mars church life, instead he longs for them to be focused in their love for Christ and so for each other. And both of these things flow from and are nourished by ‘complete understanding’, which Paul says is all to do with the mystery of God, which is Christ. Now when Paul talks of mystery here, he is not referring to some sort of religious Agatha Christie, some spiritual puzzle which only the sharp-witted can solve. No, it is more of an open secret, something which used to be obscure but isn't any longer, hence 1 v 25b - 26, where Paul says he was commissioned by God to present the word of God in all its fulness, - the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages, but is now disclosed to the saints - that is Christians’. In other words - all those dim and strange prophecies in the OT about the coming of a suffering King, a saving King, a servant King has now had the light turned fully on - for we now know they were all about Christ. Paul says Jesus is like a treasure chest in which is hidden, that is stored, all wisdom and knowledge. Just think of it. All the big questions which have taxed even the greatest minds throughout the ages: Where did the universe come from - or as the philosopher Heidegger put it: ‘The greatest philosophical question of all is this : why is there something rather than nothing? ’Does history have a direction? Does the individual have value - that is going to be an increasingly important question to answer as the push for euthanasia begins to gather momentum? Why are things so bad in a world which is so good? How can we know God? They all find there answer in Christ. He stands behind the universe - he is the God of order, creating a cosmos not a chaos. He is a personal God who can be known - he has spoken. He is a holy God who should be feared - he judges. He is a loving God for he saves at his own expense - we are valued. And it is not by ritual or techniques that this God is made contact with, he makes contact with us through his Son. Now if you know that - then you are going to be encouraged in heart aren't you?, having confidence to stick with the Gospel in spite of competition - why should you leave the Gospel of Jesus when God has revealed and said all that he wants to in his Son - that is like a husband being so besotted with a photograph of his wife that he ignores his her and dotes on the photo - that is the problem with ritual.

This is also the thing that unites us together in love - because what unites us as Christians is not our personalities, or our background, even our experiences - it is knowledge of the true God through the Gospel. That is why attempts at so called Christian unity which tries to by - pass Gospel truth and base them on something else are bound to fail. Whereas whatever we may differ on regarding secondary things - if we are committed to Christ as he comes to us in Scripture then we have a unity in love which can withstand all the ups and downs which come our way. And of course this in turns feeds our understanding, so as we are strengthened inwardly, and experience Christian love, our understanding becomes all the more real and personal. Do you see? So how is that achieved?

Well, we turn to Paul’s plan for ministry: vv 25 and 28 (read). Paul sees himself as a slave of the Gospel v23, which means he is a slave of the church v25, committed not to his own interests but that of God’s people. In other words, his motives are pure. I don't know if you have come across the story of little Will, who had crawled out on the iced pond to rescue his playmate who had fallen through and nearly drowned. Praise and admiration was being heaped upon him by the Mayor and local dignitaries when one lady asked him: ‘Tell us, my boy, how were you brave enough to risk your life to save your friend? ’ ‘Well’, said Will, ‘I had to - he had my skates on. ’There are no ulterior motives with Paul in his work and neither should there be with us - building our own little empires or defending our own interests. The Gospel is far to big for that. The way God’s rule in people’s lives is extended is through proclaiming the Christian message - ’the word of God in all its fulness’ - v 25, this does not simply mean making sure we don't hold any of the truth back, though it includes that, but more positively as the word of God is proclaimed its power is unleashed in the world. It is a message not for the few but for all, the Gentiles v 27, and of course it is life transforming, ‘Christ in you the hope of glory’. Do you realise what that means? Paul is saying that the one whom he has portrayed in such exalted terms in 1: 15ff - Christ who is supreme and sufficient, who spoke the galaxies into being, whose genius designed the atom and the nebulas, the one who humbled himself to the point of taking flesh and blood and being impaled on a wooden cross, this one, dwells in the believer - by his Spirit.. We might be dumbstruck at the thought that the incarnate Christ lay amongst the stench and squalor of the stable, but it is even more amazing to think he is happy to live amongst the stench and squalor of our hearts. God dwells in you - if you are a Christian. Now that is humility. And if he lives in you, then you can be sure you will live with him in eternity - because he is not going to abandon you - he is the hope of glory.

But this maturing process doesn’t come to us by magic as it were, it is through Bible teaching - v28 ‘admonishing and teaching with all wisdom so that we might present everyone mature in Christ. ’There is the negative element of admonishing, which means getting our thinking corrected and then there is teaching, getting our mind filled with the right things. This is the key to authentic Christian spirituality. It is not a matter of emptying the head, but filling it. Filling it with what? Truths about Christ and all that flows from that. Do you know that once the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell mockingly said: ‘Most Christians would rather die than think - in fact they do. ’That is a terrible indictment, but it is sad to say there is more than a grain of truth in it. Those of you who are students: Do you put as much energy into grappling with the Christian faith as you do with your studies in physics or English? What does your bookshelf look like - are there any Christian books there? There should be, God has entrusted you with good minds and he expects you to use them for him. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the mind. If it is not filled with Christian substance it will be filled with non Christian rubbish with a Christian veneer. The only way to counter that is to dig deep into the treasures of Christ.

But thirdly, Paul is up front about the pain of ministry in two ways. First in 1v 24, ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you (Paul is referring to his own sufferings), and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regards to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body which is the church. ’Now Paul is making two important points here. The first being that so close is the relationship between the risen and ascended Christ and his people that when they suffer, in a sense he suffers. Just before his conversion on the Road to Damascus, when Saul, who later changed his name to Paul, met with Christ having, been throwing Christians into prison, the ascended Jesus said, ’Saul, Saul why do you persecute me’ - he was persecuting the church, but Jesus takes it as an attack on him. The second point is that somehow, Gospel ministers are to absorb to themselves an additional share of suffering so that their flocks may correspondingly be spared some suffering - that is why Paul rejoices in his suffering, filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, obviously not he afflictions of his body on the cross but the afflictions of his body the church. For example, many churches behind the former iron curtain were persecuted, but often that took the form of the minister being imprisoned, the idea being that without the leader the church would collapse. Target the leader and, so it is thought, you hurt the rest. But of course when that happens in some measure the rest is spared - they don't all go to prison. So it is today. It will be the church minister who will often get the flak, when in fact the whole of his church is under attack - but he is the one who has to take it - I know that personally. But it has to be endured, hopefully with the support of the church, but it is better he takes it than everyone has to undergo the hassle of the smear campaign or whatever form it takes. And you eventually come to the conclusion sometimes no matter what you say or do, you simply can’t win when the knives are drawn. I am reminded of a story of a bishop and a rabbi in boat on the Sea of Galilee when a wind blew up and the rabbi's skull cap was thrown into the water. The bishop got out of the boat, walked across the water and picked it up. A reporter with a powerful camera lens was on the shore and caught the amazing event. The following day the headline in the newspaper read: ‘Bishop can’t swim. ’If you are in any Christian leadership position prepare to suffer for God’s people.

But pain in ministry is also experienced in another way - namely the shear hard work involved - v 29 ‘To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. I want you to know how much I am struggling for you. ’Just look at the verbs Paul uses to describe what he does ‘labour’ - a word we would normally associate with the navvy digging the drains with arms as thick as tree trunks. ‘Struggling’ a wrestling term. That is what ministry is - shear hard work. If you want the easy life forget Gospel ministry - the two are incompatible - as the minister who wrote the letter found to his own personal cost. It was Thomas Alva Eddison who defined genius as 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I tell you as much sweat goes into these sermons as does ink.

Now let me ask, how would you know whether God’s power is at work in your life? When things are going smoothly, when it all just drops into place and it all comes with ease? Not according to Paul. It is when he is struggling and labouring, that is when God’s energy powerfully works in him. It is when you are scratching your head thinking - how can I prepare this Bible study? Or when you are dealing with several unruly kids in Sunday School - at your wits end trying to get a story over; when you are leading that student meeting and your knees are knocking with fear - that is when God is at work in you.

Now why does Paul have to stress this point? Why is it so important that we take on board what he is saying about the reality of Gospel work? It is not only so we don’t become disillusioned like that young minister - it is also so that we don’t get led astray into a counterfeit Christianity which seems all the more attractive, hence the protection of ministry - 2: 4 - 5 ‘I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine - sounding arguments.

Beware of clever communicators who with their anecdotes and slick sales patter will try and persuade you there is something more. Not more of Christ, but more in addition to Christ. And we are not to think that sincerity is an issue, what these folk will be offering many genuinely believe is of God and of benefit to the Christian, but the result is invariably the same - focus is taken off Christ and placed on self. So even teaching about the Holy Spirit can be abused in this direction. Do you know the Holy Spirit is not mentioned once in this letter - not explicitly at any rate. That doesn’t mean that Paul didn't teach about him, but the emphasis is right. The Holy Spirit is nowhere yet everywhere in this passage. He is nowhere mentioned, but he is everywhere at work inspiring Paul to do what he wants doing, fixing people’s attention on Jesus, his glory, his cross work, his supremacy and sufficiency. God the Spirit’s role is to point away from himself to the Son. So watch where clever communicators put the emphasis - is it Christ? Is it pain? Or is it how God wants us to have a trouble free life, full of so called power and pleasure? Check things out with what Paul says - we need protecting.

So lets get in line with this great apostle as we seek to serve the church - get the purpose right - preparing people for eternity, get the plan right - teach the Bible, get the pain right - work hard and know God’s power, and get the protection right - not to be led astray by clever communicators.

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