Before and after - Colossians 1:21-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I once had a friend who for years enjoyed driving. He thought it was the easiest thing in the world. But then he had to have his eyes tested and was given a prescription for a pair of spectacles. He said that once he had put on his glasses he was astonished to find out how much traffic there actually was on the road!
Most of the people living in our city are like my friend at very fundamental level, just as we once were. They are going through life thinking that things aren’t all that bad. Sure, our cosy existence is sometimes disrupted by the loss of a job, a failure in a relationship, illness or even bereavement. But we tend not to dwell on those things, so we generally distract ourselves and go our own merry way. But when a person becomes a Christian or is in the process of becoming a Christian, it is like putting on a pair of spectacles so that you start to see things as they really are and what you see initially takes you aback. You begin to see how bad thing are, not only with the world in general but your own soul in particular. And if a Christian is going to make progress, move towards maturity, then whilst not dwelling on the past, they should never forget the past or the genuine state of the world; otherwise they are liable to forget the shear overwhelming wonder of the Gospel and what a miracle it is to be a Christian at all. This is Paul’s concern in these few verses we are looking at together this morning in Colossians 1:21f. Here Paul takes us through the past, present and future of the Christian experience.
First, the Christian past, v21, ‘Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.’
Paul uses three descriptions to sum up the previous state of the Christian believer and the present state of every non-believer, and the terms he uses are far from flattering.
He speaks of ‘alienation’. I think that it is interesting that throughout the 20th century in the world of literature, art, philosophy, even political theory such as Marxism, ‘alienation’ has been a dominating theme. It is the sense that human beings are ‘out of sorts’ with the world and, indeed, themselves. There is a feeling of estrangement, a sense of not quite belonging. We feel we are significant and made for something more but that ‘something more’ seems to elude us; after all, if as we are constantly being told we are the product of blind chance then things which result from chance don’t have significance. And so we not only feel that we don’t belong in our own skin, but we don’t fit well with other people – hence rows, conflicts and wars. Alienation is a universal experience. But this is only the result of a more fundamental alienation, namely, being out of sorts with God. Earlier in verse 20, Paul has implied that the whole universe is in a state of rupture which is why the Cosmic Christ came in order to put it back together again- ‘reconcile all things’ to himself. Jesus is the one who holds everything together in harmony and so if we do not know Jesus, then we are estranged from the very personal centre of the universe and of course we will feel like we don’t belong. This is what you see when you put on the spectacles of the Gospel -it brings everything into clearer focus.
Someone who discovered this for himself is one time atheist philosophy Professor C E M Joad. In his book entitled, The Recovery of Belief in 1952 he wrote this, ‘We on the left were always being disappointed. Disappointed by the refusal of people to be reasonable, by the subservience of the intellect to emotion, by the failure of true socialism to arrive, by the behaviour of nations and politicians, by the preference of Hollywood to Shakespeare, of Sinatra to Beethoven. Above all, we are disappointed by the recurrent fact of war.’ Over 60 years later nothing has changed, apart from Sinatra having died! Why this continual disappointment? Joad tells us. He writes, ‘The reason for our disappointment is that we have rejected the doctrine of original sin’.
Which is the second description Paul uses to describe what we once were, ‘enemies in your minds’. You see, our problem is not simply external, living in a fractured universe, it is internal, having attitudes and ways of thinking which see Christ as an enemy to be put down. This is the original sin of which Joad speaks- the promethean arrogance that says we will not have Christ ruling our lives by the Word of the Gospel. To use a phrase prized by Lee, we are guilty of ‘cosmic treason’. I told you the description wasn’t flattering! This is the way one writer commenting on this verse describes the situation: ‘Sin makes a shambles of created harmony and gives battle to God’s restoration work. Above all sin lays waste our critical relationship to God in an infinite variety of tangled ways….It is amazing how quickly sin can take control of something good and corrupt it. The advent of computers has changed many lives for the better but they have also been used by persons to spread more quickly and more widely malicious rumours, conspiracy theories, racial hatred and deadly electronic viruses aimed at destroying data. Others have used them to entice young children with pornography or to recruit weak and wavering souls into mind-control cults. Attempts to control abuse with legislation are well intended but never get to the root of the problem. Sin is not just what we do; it is who we are.’ [Garland Colossians 114]. And Christian, says Paul, this is what you were.
And what begins in the inner thought life inevitably works itself out in our outer life as ‘shown by our evil behaviour’. It is sad to say that by the time the world catches up with a moral problem the damage has been done. Let me tell you something: back in 1979 what was known as the ‘Williams Committee’ chaired by the Oxford philosopher, Bernard Williams, produced a report on ‘Obscenity and Film Censorship’ for the Home Office. It concluded, that pornography could not be shown to be harmful and that "the role of pornography in influencing society is not very important ... to think anything else is to get the problem of pornography out of proportion with the many other problems that face our society today." The committee reported that, so long as children were protected from seeing it, adults should be free to read and watch pornography as they saw fit. That was then. Here we are today with the internet. In 2013 the Huffington Post led with the headline, ‘Porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined’ Just think about that. And now the results are coming out about addiction to such sites, men not being able to relate to women properly, marriages being destroyed and, surprise, surprise, more abuse towards children taking place. Evil behaviour is the stuff of human beings cut off from their Maker. It is as certain as night follows day. But again, says, Paul to these Christians ‘that is what you were.’
Now some of us may find it difficult to identify with Paul’s description here. Some of us have been brought up in homes with good standards, even Christian homes and so we don’t easily connect with this. But Paul is saying whether you feel it or not, this is the way it is- this is the reality check the Gospel gives.
But Paul is not saying all of this in order to make the Christian feel guilty about their past, and certainly not so they can look down upon others who are still in this state, but so they can see the glorious truth and power of the Gospel, that it alone is the answer to humanity’s deepest troubles. And if you want to know what a transformation it brings then think about the Christian’s present- v22, ‘But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.’
There is the contrast-‘But now’. That was then, this is now. The word which Paul uses to show the radical, mind blowing change in the state of affairs is ‘reconciled.’ This is the very opposite of being alienated and enemies. People who feel alienated from their surroundings need to be reconciled to them. Folk who have been at each other’s throats need to be reconciled so that they become friends. In the previous verses Paul has been speaking of a whole universe which for so long, had been out of kilter with its Maker- this is the effect of the tsunami of sin, it sends shock waves throughout the entire cosmos tearing it apart. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘I don’t see that.’ Of course you don’t and you won’t see it apart from the Gospel; how else are you going to know what has happened in other galaxies unless it is revealed to you? That is what the word of the Gospel does. It tells you of things no human being could ever imagine or find out by themselves in a million years- it’s called revelation.
But whereas in verse 20 Paul wanted to show the universal consequence of Christ’s death in putting things right, here it is the personal consequence for these believers probably meeting in Philemon’s house in Colossae and for us meeting at St John’s in Hull. Just look at the way God has overcome your alienation, your enmity and turned around your evil behaviour- and mine- ‘by Christ’s physical body through death.’ Do you realise what an extraordinary statement that is? It is utterly astonishing. By a human body, a person, being taken, beaten up on, nailed to a piece of wood, flesh lacerated, veins cut, blood flowing- not only has God started to put his universe together again, but he did it specifically with you and me in mind. This is the purpose of our being on this planet; this is where we find the meaning to life and the whole of our existence, in a person, splayed on a cross on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem around 33 AD. Let me put it this way: Jesus was taken apart so that we might be put back together. He was destroyed so that the world could be remade.
Now it could be that Paul is making a play on the word ‘body’ in verse 22 linking it with the ‘body’ mentioned in verse 24 which is the church- the gathering of believers around the heavenly throne and more specifically these believers meeting in Philemon’s house. So Jesus’s physical body was deformed so that his people, the church, might be formed for ever.
That is why you are what you are as a Christian; that is why there is a fellowship of believers meeting in this place, because the eternal, creator Son of God, by whom and for whom everything was made, whether you can see it or not, bled for you to reconcile you to God. When you are wearing your Gospel specs do not things look so different? You are not out of sorts with God any more, he is now your loving Father. Your life does have meaning. As one medieval writer, Hugo St Victor wrote, ‘God is preparing your soul to be a bridal chamber for Christ to dwell in’- and all because of that body battered and bruised by our sin and offered up in love. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t matter. Don’t let any accusations of your conscience tell you your sin isn’t forgiven- in your mind’s eye go to that cross and there you will see it is.
But all of this leads on to the Christian’s future- v23 ‘to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.’
Here Paul has the judgement day in view. There is one other thing which is as certain as death and taxes and that is the judgement. No one is going to miss out on that occasion. The question is: how are we going to fare then? Well, without Christ we are not going to fare very well at all, in fact it is going to be a complete disaster. Can you imagine coming before the God who made you and who has lavished upon you blessing after blessing, with your mind dead set against him wishing he were dead? So something has to happen to us so that we come before him with a different attitude, having our hearts just pounding away in excitement just waiting to see him, not dread. And we are back again to the Gospel.
Paul seems to be using temple language here, the language of sacrifice. In the Jewish temple when something was offered up to God it had to be holy and without blemish. And one of the main reasons for the sacrifice was to cleanse the worshipper of the one thing which was guaranteed to incur God’s wrath namely, guilt. And it is guilt which stains the human soul and no ritual detergent or moral hand rinsing will get rid of it. Here is the thing: Jesus was, of all the men that has ever lived holy, without blemish and guiltless and he offered himself up as a sacrifice for our sin, in order to make those who trust in him holy, without blemish and without guilt.
I remember Mark Ashton, who used to be the Vicar of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge, who himself has now gone to be with the Lord in glory saying this: ‘I sometimes imagine myself coming before God on that great day and saying, ‘I am so sorry for all of the sins I have committed.’ And God will simply say, ‘What sin?’ Isn’t that an incredible thought for those of us who are aware of what we have done or shouldn’t have done? ‘What sin?’
But please notice what Paul goes on to say, this is conditional v 23. This will certainly be true ‘if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.’ We are not to think that we are simply going to ‘freewheel’ it into heaven or ‘sleep walk’ our way there. Although our salvation is something God has won for us in Christ it is something held on to by us as we hold on to the Gospel. This is the gospel this people had heard when it was brought to them by one of their own, Epaphras (v7). But it is a faith in which we continue and remain firmly established not departing from it. The reason is obvious, depart from this and you depart from your salvation. It is possible to do this for all sorts of reasons which Paul will explore in the rest of the letter and so we need to be warned against it.
One of the big mistakes people in the church make today, especially amongst evangelicals, is to commit what I call the ‘genetic fallacy’. It has nothing to do with inheriting certain family traits- genetics- but it is to do with the question of beginnings-origins, ‘genesis’. The fallacy is this when people say, ‘So-and-so is an evangelical because he used to belong to the Christian Union at University or went to an evangelical college or says he is.’ And yet when you look at what they say they believe, it is anything but evangelical- rooted in the gospel, in some cases it differs very little from old fashioned liberalism which denies that we are saved by Christ’s body on the cross and that it is by faith in this alone that we are put right with God or doubt that God could possibly be angry with sin at all. The fallacy is that we mistake a person’s original belief- how they began- as being their present belief- what they believe now. No, the fact is it is possible to start off with the Gospel but then gradually over time let it slip and allow other things to take its place. Paul says here, you are to continue as you began believing this message and no other, not moving from it a fraction. In fact such folk often speak of ‘having moved on’ from what they now view as a pitiful, youthful naïve belief called ‘evangelicalism’. But Paul says you don’t move on in that sense because you are moving away, cutting yourself off from the head of the body, the church, which is Christ. The Gospel is our connection with him because the Gospel is Christ.
And who in their right mind would want to move on from such a Gospel? Paul talks about this being proclaimed to ‘every creature under heaven’. Christ’s Gospel is so wonderfully glorious that the world is not a big enough audience for him- every creature under heaven is to hear this and one day will hear it. This is not a piddly little gospel- it is magnificent in its scope and rich in its design for at its heart is the kind, majestic person of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is God’s big plan, the goal and purpose of everything- ‘to reconcile to himself all things.’ Nothing gets any bigger than this. This is what life and the universe is all about- and you Christian, with Jesus, lies right at its very heart.
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