Jesus was God or was filled by God? (and other humans can be filled by God too?) – Colossians 1:15-20, Part 4

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Through the ages, one hotly debated topic in theology is how much of God is in Jesus, and how much of Jesus is in God? Paul talks about this.

As we continue studying Colossians 1:15-20, Paul shifts the focus to the church, using body imagery.  Jesus is the head of the church.  We are his church.  It is not our church.  He is our head, which is an image rich in leadership symbolism.  Carrying the brain, and sensing through the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the ears, the head has the leadership role.  The head directs everything.

Still, as parts of the church, every one of us has a role to play, because there are so many other parts of the body, with a variety of gifts and abilities.  All of us should be serving somehow or another.  But it is the head that guides and directs. 

Paul also says that Jesus is the beginning and firstborn from the dead.  That’s odd when you remember that in verse 15, Paul said Jesus is the firstborn of creation.  In verse 18 Paul brings to mind Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Yes, he died, but he didn’t stay dead.  He rose again to new life, and for that we praise the Lord for that. “Firstborn” doesn’t so much refer to chronology here.  There were others raised from the dead, and in fact Jesus himself raised some of them from the dead.  But Jesus’ resurrection is altogether different from those others.  While they experienced astounding miraculous resurrections, those humans would one day die again, and that time it would be a permanent death.  Not Jesus.  He died and rose to permanent new life.  And he offers that new life to us, thus becoming for all who receive him, Jesus is the first, the precedent, the one we will all follow.  In other words, there will be more that raise from the dead just like he did.  And they will be given a new body, like he was given.  That is the amazing joy of victory in Jesus.  Consider the love of God, the generosity of God, that we get to taste this new life now.  We don’t have to wait for life after death. While we will not receive that new body until life after death, until our own resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15), we can experience what Jesus called abundant life here and now. But how do we experience that new abundant life now?

It seems to me that Paul’s flow of thought goes there next, helping us understand this new life in Christ.  Look at verse 19. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”  All the fullness of God was dwelling in Jesus. Whatever God is, that is in Jesus.  Again, this is a clear indication that Paul was saying that Jesus and God are equal in every way.  

But also remember that the Holy Spirit was fully filling Jesus.  We read that in many places in the stories in the Gospels.  One, for example, was right at his baptism.  The Spirit rests on him, and then in Luke 4:1 we read that Jesus “full of the Spirit…was led by the Spirit” to the desert where he fasted 40 days and was tempted by the devil.  The fullness of God was in Jesus.  

This is an important reminder for we who are Jesus’ disciples, considering Jesus’ promise the Holy Spirit wants to fill us. Consider Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21:

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

The entire prayer is amazing, but take note of the phrases in bold. Not only are all three persons of the Triune God mentioned in equality, but Paul’s desire and prayer is that the Christians experience inward fullness of God. This concept is nearly identical to how he describes Jesus as containing the fullness of God. Of course, Paul is not saying the humans become God. Consider all the statements that Paul makes about Jesus, and we can see how Jesus, though born as a human, was God prior to his human life, and thus he is utterly different from all other humans.

That said, Paul reminds us in his prayer in Ephesians 3, though we will not become God, we can be filled with God. And that filling is vital for Christians to faithfully live out the mission of God. What we need, then, is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If you want to learn more about that, you can read more here.

Is Jesus creator or created? – Colossians 1:15-20

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Paul says that Jesus is the firstborn over all creation. What does Paul mean? It is a bit of a strange statement. Firstborn over all creation? Turn to Colossians 1:15-20, which we have been studying in a five-part series this week, starting here.

If the statement “firstborn over creation” isn’t already strange enough, based on what Paul says next, it could be even more confusing.  Here’s what he says in verse 16, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” 

So is Jesus creator or created?  Doesn’t it look like Paul says both in these verses?  In verse 15 it seems he says Jesus is created.  And in verse 16 it seems he says Jesus is creator.  What gives, Paul?  

Let’s look closer at verse 15.  Paul is saying Jesus’ position is over all creation, not that Jesus is created.  When Paul calls Jesus “firstborn,” Paul doesn’t have an actual birth in mind, though he knows that Jesus was literally born as a human. Here, though, Paul is referring to Jesus’ status as first, as over all.  

We see this quite clearly in verse 16.  I suspect that most Christians rarely think about Jesus as the creator.  We normally think of God the Father as creator.  But Paul tells us in verse 16 that Jesus is the creator of everything.

By placing Jesus squarely in the creative role, Paul has staked his claim that Jesus, God the Son, is equal to God the Father.  Jesus is not only the image of the invisible God, Jesus has the power of God.  Jesus is God.  Somehow or another Jesus’ activity in the creation of the universe is identical to God’s creative activity.  They cannot be separated. 

Notice what they create.  In addition to the sweeping statement that Jesus creates all things, Paul more specifically writes in verse 16 that Jesus creates both the physical world and the spiritual world.  The material and the immaterial.  Paul says Jesus creates both the things in heaven, which is the spiritual world, and the things on earth, which is the physical world.  Or put another way, Jesus creates the visible, which is the physical world, and the invisible, which is the spiritual world.  

Paul is not just saying, “Jesus creates all.”  He is also saying that Jesus is supreme above all things in both realms.  Just to make sure that there is no question, Paul lists four things that Jesus creates: thrones, powers, rulers and authorities. Sounds like a bunch of government leaders, right?  As with the previous phrases, it is possible that Paul is referring to both spiritual and physical leaders.  One commentator I read put it this way: “It seems ‘thrones’ and ‘powers’ are heavenly, invisible potentates, while ‘rulers’ and ‘authorities’ are more likely their earthly, visible servants.” (McKnight)  Paul wants his readers to see that Jesus is the Creator Son above them all.  Jesus’ supremacy in creation is cosmic. 

See how Paul continues to lay this out in verses 17-18: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

Is there any doubt what Paul is trying to communicate here?  No matter what Greek and Roman gods people had heard about, Jesus is above them all.  And he holds all things together.  You get the idea when reading that phrase in verse 17, that if Jesus wasn’t involved in supernaturally maintaining the laws of physics and chemistry, the universe would just fall apart!

We would do well to learn from Paul’s approach here: dwell on Jesus as supreme. Communicate Jesus as supreme.

Christians were the first atheists? – Colossians 1:15-20, Part 2

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In the first post in this series, we talked about what Jesus might have looked like. Paul in Colossians 1:15-20 says that Jesus is the image or icon of the invisible God. There are many ways that we English-speakers use the word “icon,” and one way is found in the Orthodox church paintings called icons. Is that what Paul meant? That Christians should paint images of Jesus, thus making the invisible God visible?  

While it is not wrong to paint icons, that is not what Paul meant.  God is Spirit, and thus not visible.  We are correct to believe that God is present everywhere, but because of his invisibility, we cannot see him.  Jesus, however, is the image or the icon of God, making him visible.  But Jesus is not an inferior representation or icon of something much larger than him.  Jesus is God.  Paul is saying something very important here: when we see Jesus, we see God.  When we read the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four accounts of the life of Jesus, we see God in action, God in the flesh.  

If we’re not careful, we can over-emphasize one or the other of Jesus’ natures.  He was both a living, breathing human being with a body just like ours, and he was also divine, God.  Paul is saying that if we want to know what God is like, we would do well to read the stories of Jesus, and we are very accustomed to that way of thinking.

But imagine being the people who first read this letter.  I know, it is extremely difficult for us to know who and what the people in the town of Colosse were like. What did they believe about God?  What did they know of Jesus?  They were nothing like Americans in 2021, we who have lived in a nation with what is called Judeo-Christian heritage for hundreds of years.  In Colosse, right around the year 60, in the first century, there was no Judeo-Christian heritage.  There was likely a small enclave of Jews who would have known the Judeo/Jewish heritage of the Old Testament.  But not the Christian part.  There was no Christian heritage anywhere in the world, because the Christian church was only 25 years old at that point. 

The larger worldview that had been around for hundreds of years was the Greco-Roman pantheon, which is a fancy word for all the many gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology.  There were also demi-gods and demi-goddesses.  Even if you don’t know the stories, you’ve likely heard many of the names: Zeus, Apollo, Venus, Mars, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Jupiter, Pluto, pretty much all the planets in the solar system!  There were temples to various gods in most towns, where people attended rituals and worship services. There statues and idols to the gods.  People made sacrifices to the gods, asking for blessing and fortune. Additionally there something called the Imperial Cult, which was a belief that the Roman Emperor was a kind of god or deity.  He was worshiped as well, proclaimed to be god in the flesh, or a demi-god, the offspring of the union between a god and a mortal.  

All that might sound fantastical to us, the stuff of Marvel movies about Thor, or Disney movies about Hercules.  In fact, it might sound so bizarre that we could think, “How could anyone believe that nonsense?”  The reality, though, is that the Greco-Roman worldview was deeply entrenched in their culture, to the point that the Christians were accused of being atheists.  Imagine that!  We would say, in our day, that we are the opposite of atheists, right?  We are used to atheists accusing Christians and other theists of believing in fairy tales about God.  But because the Christians in Paul’s day didn’t believe in the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, those Christians were called atheists.  

That might be hard to wrap our minds around.  Christians called atheists?  But they were, because they didn’t believe in the Greco-Roman gods.  Instead they went around talking about Jesus as God.  Or as Paul states it, Jesus is the representation of the invisible God. 

As we have seen in the stories of Jesus’ interaction with religious leaders in Palestine, or with the earliest Christians in Jerusalem, this teaching about the identity of Jesus wasn’t just difficult for people steeped in a Greco-Roman worldview, it was also hard for Jewish people to believe this.  Those Jewish people had a history of messianic expectation, calling out for God to send them the deliverer, the savior, that they read about in their prophets.  Add to that, Jesus was a Jew, claiming to be that very savior.  Still many Jews had a hard time believing that, because he was such a different savior from what they expected.  They were thinking of a military and political savior, and they were convinced of this based on how they interpreted the prophecies.  Jesus and his followers come along saying, “No, you’re wrong, the salvation of God is something altogether different.  The Kingdom of God is altogether different, a victory over sin, death and the devil, leading to a transformation of heart and mind, a community and world patterned after what he would call the abundant life, where there is no more injustice.”  Many Jews simply responded, “Huh?  What are you talking about?”  So despite the fact that they had the same Scriptures, the same culture, many still struggled to believe.

Now imagine how difficult it would have been for people outside Jewish culture to respond to this.  They had a totally different history and culture and worldview.  They would be saying, “What?  You’re telling me that everything we’ve ever been taught about the gods and goddesses is false?  You’re telling me that what basically everyone in our community and across the Empire believes is wrong?  Sorry, buddy.  That’s just crazy.” 

Yet, that’s the task the earliest Christians faced. A lot has to be explained about Jesus if people entrenched in the Greco-Roman worldview are to become believers and followers of Jesus. I suspect a similar reality is the case in our day, even in the USA with our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

In our next post, we’ll see how Paul further paints his picture of Jesus, seeking to help the people in Colosse, and us as well, understand who Jesus really is.

What did Jesus look like? – Colossians 1:15-20, Part 1

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What image comes to mind when you think about what Jesus might look like?  Through the centuries, artists have created thousands and thousands of possibilities.  For many Americans, the classic image is what might be called the White Jesus.  Some of you might have a picture of the White Jesus hanging in your homes.  It is a classic. 

White Jesus

But this is almost certainly not what Jesus looked like.

In the Black church they talk about a Black Jesus.  Interestingly, they do not talk about a Black Jesus because they think he was actually African, but because they are correct to symbolically depict how Jesus clearly identifies with the oppressed.  

Black Jesus

But though Jesus wasn’t biologically African, it is likely he had a middle eastern look to him, and perhaps had a darker skin color that was closer to that of the Black Jesus than it was to the White Jesus.  

That’s because Jesus was a Jew, living in Palestine in the First Century.  But what would Jews have looked like in that day?  Was it anything like the Passion of the Christ, in which American Actor Jim Caveziel played Jesus? 

Caveziel as Jesus

Caveziel made for a good White Jesus, with a hint of a middle easterner’s look.  But that’s likely not what Jesus looked like.  

Then there is the Shroud of Turin. Some people have claimed that the cloth that was wrapped around Jesus, when he was buried, has his image burned into. 

Shroud Jesus
Shroud of Turin

We don’t know for sure if this shroud was actually covering Jesus in the tomb.  The image on it is kind of blurry and creepy.  Artists have tried to render a face from the Shroud’s faint shadow, and this is what one came up with.

The Scientists’ Jesus

Then there is the work of scholars and archaeologists, biologists, and anthropologist and artists who together try to recreate what ancient people looked like.  One possibility is this image on the right.

And more recently artificial intelligence (AI) came up with the one below.  Not what you have in mind when you think of Jesus, right?  And yet, given the data we know, these two images are highly probable.  

AI Jesus

As we will see in our next section on Colossians, Paul also paints an image of Jesus.  Turn to Colossians 1:15-20.  It is not a painting, but a poem.  Maybe even a song that the earliest Christians sang.  Through this artistic expression of Jesus, Paul teaches us an amazing description of Jesus. 

In verse 15 we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.”

The word here for “image” is where we get our word “icon.”  In English we use the word “icon” a lot, and thus it has a lot of meanings.  On computers and smartphones, it is the little picture or symbol on the screen.  You click it or tap it, and it opens an application, a computer program.  So that little picture is not the program itself, but a way to access the program.  But that’s not what Paul means when he says that Jesus is the icon, the image of the invisible God.  You can see how the ideas are related, but Paul means so much more.

We also use “icon” for a leading person in their field.  In that sense, the person, the icon, is someone that has achieved a lot, or is looked up to.  They are rare.  Or they might be considered to be the ultimate example of something.  They can be living, or they can be a historical figure.  For example, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are iconic US Presidents.  Again, you can see how that use of the word “icon” is related to how Paul describes Jesus, but still it doesn’t go far enough.

In the Orthodox Church, there is something called iconography.  They are paintings, called icons, of famous people from the Bible and Christian history.  Anyone can paint an icon, but for the Orthodox Church, for the icon to be “official” the painter has to be theologically qualified.  So when my friend who is the priest at Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Harrisburg wants to have icons painted on his sanctuary walls, he contacts an Orthodox priest who is an official iconographer.  It is a very spiritual process, a practice of theological and missional art.  Most Orthodox Church sanctuary walls are covered floor to ceiling, including the entire ceiling with icons.  Some are larger paintings depicting Bible stories.  Some are of individual saints.  And of course some are of Jesus.  Is that what Paul is getting at? That Christians should paint images of Jesus, thus making the invisible God visible?

In the next post, we begin to study what Paul means, and why it matters to our lives.

What God requires of you to enter his Kingdom – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 5

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I love traveling internationally, collecting immigration stamps from other countries in my passport. Maybe you’ve caught that bug too, or you dream about it. I know this is a distinctly first-world privilege, as so many around the world have little realistic opportunity for such travel. But permit me to describe it. For citizens of the USA, like myself, we have the opportunity to drive to neighboring countries like Mexico and Canada, but for the most part people around the world arrive in another country via air travel. Once inside the terminal, travelers follow the hallways to an immigration room, often packed with people waiting in lines, holding their passports. When it is finally your turn, you walk to the passport control officer at their desk, and hand them your passport and perhaps other paperwork, such as an immigration form. That officer reviews your documents, scans your passport into a computer database, and if everything is in order, they pull out their stamper and give you their seal of approval! It is an exhilarating moment, as they look at you, hand you back your passport and say, “Welcome! Enter in. Enjoy your stay.”

Your next stop is luggage retrieval, then customs, where more officials make sure you’re not bringing anything illegal into their country. Once you get the all-clear, you are free to enjoy your vacation, mission trip, relocation for work, or whatever brings you to that nation.

Though you have gone through this process of planning, packing, travel, immigration, and customs, and though you have approval to experience the wonders of that country, you are still you. You are still a citizen of your country. You haven’t changed.

As we continue our study in Colossians 1:9-14, we learn that entrance into God’s country is not like that. What is it like?

Imagine with me a country that says, “You can come here, but you need to be different. You will have to learn our language, our customs, and all about us, before you can set foot here.” Before you go there? How does that work?, you wonder. Well, once you arrive, before you get that all-important passport stamp, you have to pass their stringent test to show you are worthy to enter. It is both a written and oral test. You have to speak in their language, answering questions written in their language, all about their history, government and culture. You must be wearing their clothes.

While that sounds intimidating, it is a very wonder-filled country, or so you have been told, and you really want to go there, so you get to work. You download a language-learning app on your phone, and you use it every day. Then you search online for clothing styles from that country, and you have them shipped, at great cost, to your home. You attend classes to learn their history, culture and customs. You discover online practice tests, also not cheap, but you take them anyway because you do not want to fail. You work hard at this.

Then the day arrives. You’ve invested a lot of time and money, you’ve purchased your airline tickets, you’ve packed. Collecting all your travel bags and your documentation, including your passport, you embark on the journey. Many hours later, you arrive. As you file along with the other passengers from your flight, your passports in hand, you learn that they don’t want to see your passports at all. Instead, they immediately usher you into a series of private rooms where they begin your test. It is grueling. The test goes on for a couple nerve-wracking hours, and finally it is over. There you wait for the official tester to return with your result. Did you pass? Or did you fail? If you fail, you will never pull out your passport, as they will immediately funnel you to the departing flights terminal where you will fly back home.

Imagine that.

I know some countries in the world are quite difficult to get into, but nothing like that. Is that what God expects of us to get into heaven? To do a whole bunch of work?

Hear this: entrance into the Kingdom of God is a very different scenario from the one I just described. We cannot put in the work to transform ourselves into citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Read Colossians 1:12-14. There we see how God has done the work to make it possible for us to enter his Kingdom.

As Paul says, God rescued us! God made it possible for us to be transformed from people who are part of the dominion of darkness into people who have entrance in his Kingdom of Light. He did this, Paul writes in verse 14, through redemption, by forgiving our sins. Paul is talking about Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God made a new hope possible for all humans. The new hope is that we can experience both abundant life now in his Kingdom, and eternal life in heaven.

The Kingdom of God, therefore, should not be understood simply as a place where we go after we die. Notice how Paul describes it in verses 12-14. Read them again. Do you see all the present tense activity?

We are qualified now.

We are rescued now.

We are transformed now.

We have redemption now.

We should be becoming new now.

Always growing, learning new things, bearing new fruit, becoming more alive in him. God had done this! We experience this now!

So put verses 9-14 together, as we have seen in the blog series this week, and we have a powerful statement about the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us, and the astounding benefits of that relationship. God not only want us to know his will, but he also wants us to have the power to accomplish his will, and that will bring great abundance and rejoicing in our lives. Furthermore, God has gone to great lengths to make this possible!

We have, then, significant motivation to cultivate a relationship with God. He is so good. Life connected to him is an adventure for sure, and it is full and alive and done side-by-side with the living and all-powerful God.

What steps will you take this week to make space to connect with God more? Who can you talk with about the goal of having a deeper relationship with God?

How to measure if God’s power is at work in your life – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 4

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If you are a Christian, have you ever wondered if the Holy Spirit was working in your life? I wish I could pull out the church’s Holy Spirit power meter, strap it to your head, and measure how much of the Spirit’s power is at work in you. But I can’t. Such a thing doesn’t exist. There’s a far different, and I think better, way to know the power of God in our lives.

As I mentioned in the conclusion of the previous post in our five-part series on Colossians 1:9-14, God knows humans. God knows our weakness. And Paul, the writer of the letter to the Christians in Colosse, knew it too. So while he wants those Christians to make no mistake about what is expected of them as followers of Jesus. It is a high bar! “Die to yourself, and follow me,” Jesus said.

Does that sound like an impossible standard? Or just too difficult? Well, it is too difficult for any person to achieve of their own power and will. Paul is quite aware of this conundrum: God wants us to be followers of Jesus, but we don’t have the strength within us to be followers of Jesus. So Paul knows that the Christians need encouragement that this is not all on them.

Look at verse 11, “Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.”

How about that? God wants to power us up with his might. He doesn’t want us to get the mistaken idea that he expects us to follow him all by ourselves.

But how does he power us with his might?

Perhaps we need to remember some things we studied in last year’s blog series through the book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, for example, just before he ascends to heaven, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Then in Acts 2, we read that Jesus’ promise came true, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and filled them. Amazingly in Acts 4 it happened again!

As Paul writes in another letter, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Christians are the temple of God’s Spirit. God has not left us alone to fend for ourselves. Instead he desires to live with us, to fill us, and he wants us to experience and benefit from his power.

We Christians can struggle, though, with accessing God’s power. Does it just come upon us at God’s whim? As if we have nothing to do with it, and randomly he chooses some people to get power, while skipping over others? Or does God want everyone to experience this strengthening by his power? If so, doesn’t it seem that many Christians never or rarely experience his power?

If you’re wondering this, you’re not alone. Throughout the history of the church there have been many who have also wondered about this. Clearly, God can choose to bless people with a blast of his power if wants to, whether they want it or not. But that would be the extremely rare exception to the rule. The rule, it seems to me, is that God chooses to work inside the confines of human free will. So how do we use our free will to choose his power, and how does God convey his power without overriding free will?

The first step is to want to be empowered by him. This is a desire within us to seek him.

Next we choose to ask him for his power. In so doing, we admit that we do not have the power in and of ourselves to be what he wants us to be.

I read a statement like Paul’s in verse 10, which we studied in the previous post, the statement in which Paul talks about bearing fruit, and I have to admit that I have no power within me to do this. What Paul writes there is in line with what Jesus taught in John 15:1-8, the analogy of the vine and the branches:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

So if we want to know the power of God in our lives, if we want to be strengthened by his power, we need to remain in him, because he is the source of power. This is crucial to understanding what it means to be filled with the Spirit. How, then, do we remain in him, so that we experience his power?

We have to do something about it. We fix our hearts and minds on emptying our lives of sin and making space for hearing him, then choosing to live the kind of life that we see Jesus living. What I am referring to are spiritual practices or habits, ones that Jesus himself practiced. This will involve opening up time in our lives, both individually and corporately with other Christians, to spend time with God. We also place ourselves in situations of service to God where we need him to come through for us. This will likely involve sacrificial love for others.

When we practice these kinds of habits, God empowers us, and we can recognize that it was through reliance on him, on his strength and wisdom, that both our lives and the lives of others experience transformation.

There is definitely a mystery to this. Remember that there isn’t a Holy Spirit Power Meter that we can use to see how much of God’s power is at work in us. Instead by faith, we practice the habits of Jesus, asking God to empower us to serve him and live like Jesus. And God does it!

Genuine Christianity – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 3

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As I mentioned in this post, it was deeply discouraging to see rioters at the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021 holding Christian flags and banners that said “Jesus Saves.” I will admit that I don’t know for sure what each and every one of those people were attempting. It could be that some were trying to stop the insurrection. It seems that, for at least some, they felt no discrepancy between their acts of violence to property and people and their expression of Christianity. If I am right about this, they showed by their actions that they did not have a deep relational knowledge of God’s heart. The evidence was right there in living color for us all to see. What, then, is genuine Christianity?

We learned in the previous post that a deep relational knowledge of God is critical for determining God’s will. Yes we can know a lot about God and his will by reading his word, but Paul, in Colossians 1:9, prays for Christians to learn God’s will through an intimacy with God. Through that close relationship with God, a person is also changed. They not only have an understanding of his will, but also by knowing his heart, God transforms them.

The person who has a close relationship with God, then, is transformed by the Spirit of God who is at work in that person’s life. But what kind of transformation does Paul envision? Look at Colossians 1:10 to see how Paul describes this. Paul says a person with that kind of deep relational knowledge of God, “will walk worthily of the Lord, always pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” That person makes the pattern of their life a following after the example of Jesus.

That’s the bar.

That’s the standard for Christians.

We who are disciples of Jesus will walk worthily of him. Jesus is our example, our standard. I wonder, have we set the bar too low? Have we made Christianity too easy, diluted, so that we are not truly what Jesus wants us to be? So that we don’t see any or much fruit, good work, or increasing knowledge of God in our lives?

Let’s set the bar where it ought to be: in line with Jesus.

When I think about a statement like we read in verse 10, I can get frustrated though. It is too hard! That bar is set too high! Have you ever thought something like that about the Christian life?

It reminds me of the famous phrase by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor during the Nazi regime which eventually murdered him in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

That stops you in your tracks, doesn’t it? Sounds dire if you ask me. Here’s the thing, Bonhoeffer wasn’t talking about a calling to be a pastor or a missionary. He was talking about Jesus’ call to every person to believe in and follow him, to be his disciple. In other words, Bonhoeffer wasn’t making this up, simply because he himself had it tough trying to be a pastor in Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer got this phrase from Jesus! Jesus taught his disciples that true discipleship is when we die to ourselves and follow him.

Well, I don’t like the sound of that. It’s too hard, and left to myself, I would opt for an easier form of Christianity. But Bonhoeffer, Paul and Jesus tell us that there is no easier form of Christianity. Either we live according to the description Paul gives here in Colossians 1:10, or we don’t.

Thankfully, God knows us humans, and our weakness. Paul brings that up, as we will see in the next post. For now, I encourage you to evaluate your practice of following Jesus based on Colossians 1:10. Are you walking worthily of the Lord, always pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God? If you’re not sure, let’s talk about it. Comment below!

A prayer for spiritual wisdom and understanding – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 2

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Have you ever been so confused and so frustrated about a situation in life, that you had no idea what to do? Most of us have been there. It could be that you are getting near the end of high school, and you really don’t know what you want to do with your life. Should you take a gap year? Should you go to college? College sounds fun, and many of your friends are going. But how do they have so much confidence in their choice? What major should you pick? (What career do you want to pursue?) What if you get a year into your major, and you decide you don’t like it? And furthermore, what if you choose a college based on their reputation for educating people in your major, and you change majors? Or maybe there are five colleges and universities that all seem equally appealing to you, and you just don’t know how to narrow it down and pick one?

Then there are relationships. Who should you date? Who should marry? Who should you go into business with? Once you’re married, should you have kids? When should you have kids? And how many? Should you wait till you’re settled enough to purchase a home? How long should you rent? Where should you live? What kind of school district are you looking for? What kind of church?

The list of choices in life goes on and on, and whether big or small choices, decisions in life can be intimidating. Have you ever thought, “I wish I could sit down and talk with Jesus and just have him tell me what to do”? Maybe you’re experiencing some of that right now. If so, I encourage you to start praying the prayer in Colossians 1:9.

There Paul prays the Christians in the town of Colosse would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Now that is a powerful prayer! We’ve been studying the letter to the Colossians, and this week we are looking at Colossians 1:9-14, starting here.

Last week I suggested that you might create a list of people that you pray for on a consistent basis. When you pray for those people, what should you pray for them? I would recommend that you pray what Paul prayed for the Colossian Christians, that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.

But maybe you’re like me, and you’re thinking, “I not only want to pray that prayer for the people in my life, I want that for myself!” I want to know God’s will. And I want to know it like Paul describes it: in ALL spiritual wisdom and understanding. That is a deep knowledge, isn’t it? What does he mean, thought, “knowing God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”?

What Paul is referring to is a deep relational knowledge. He envisions a person who has a close personal relationship with God, and it is from that relationship that spiritual wisdom and understanding flows.

Paul is not talking about someone with a photographic memory who can crush in Bible trivia.

Paul is not talking about someone who has read the Bible cover-to-cover, or who reads lots of books about the Bible, Christianity and spirituality.

Paul is not talking about a person who has put in a lot of time attending worship services, Sunday School, small group and watching TV preachers.

Through those things a person can get to know about God, which is a good thing. But that is not what Paul prays for the Colossian Christians, in his desire for them to know the will of God.

Paul is describing wisdom and understanding that flows forth from someone who actually knows God. If we want to know God’s will, yes, we can learn it in Scripture. But Paul is referring to a knowledge, a spiritual wisdom and understanding that comes from a close relationship with God himself!

Check in to the next post, as Paul will continue his flow of thought, because you might be wondering, “How do I start or grow that kind of close relationship with God?”

What happened when I submitted a regular quarterly report, and my boss and my boss’s boss both responded – Colossians 1:9-14, Part 1

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What does God expect of us?  Does he expect a lot?  A little?  Is there some way we can measure it?  And does he expect us to accomplish it on our own?  There are so many different expressions of Christianity that it can be confusing to know what God wants. Take gathered, corporate worship on Sundays.  When I was on my sabbatical three years ago, I visited a bunch of different church worship services.  From some local Mennonite churches, to a large megachurch, to a Roman Catholic church in the city of Lancaster, and an American Orthodox church in Harrisburg.  They were so very different.  What kind of worship does God expect of us? 

Knowing that God has expectations for more than just worship services, I think about how Christians live their lives.  And how I live mine.  What does he expect of us? I’ve seen Christians in places around the world from as different as the very poor Christians in Guyana, to the urban Christians in Jamaica, to our EC sister churches in rural India and Nepal, to a multicultural church in the massive Muslim city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and to Christians in a refugee camp in Kenya.  Each were quite different, and yet they had practices of discipleship and lived out their faith in ways similar to us in the USA.  In every place, of course, those Christians’ lives are impacted by the cultural and economic situation in their country and locale.  I mention that because I’m not just talking about language or worship services.  How we express our Christianity goes well beyond this one hour.  In fact, what about the other 167 hours in the week?  Those hours matter to God at least as much as the one hour we spend in gathered worship.   So what does God expect of us?  What is his will? 

As we continue our series through Colossians, the author, Paul, has something important to say about God’s will.  Turn to Colossians 1:9. Notice how Paul starts this section in verse 9, where he writes: “For this reason.”

For what reason?  The reason he just mentioned in the previous verses.  What did he just mention?  To learn what he just mentioned, we need to do a little review of verses 3-8.  Paul, in verses 3-8, talks about how the Christians in the town of Colosse had heard the good news of Jesus from another missionary named Epaphras.  They responded to that good news in faith, which they showed was a real faith by their practice of loving one another.  In other words, Paul had heard that the Christians in Colosse were true followers of Jesus.

And so he tells them in verse 9, “For that reason, since the day I heard, we have not stopped praying for you.”

This is an expansion of what Paul mentioned in verse 3.  See there he says that “when we pray for you,” and now in verse 9 he says “we have not stopped praying for you.”  Just he began this letter, as we saw in verses 1-8 last week, Paul in verse 9 continues to encourage the Christians in Colosse.  Imagine the reassurance the Colossian Christians felt, knowing that a leader of Paul’s stature prayed for them.  It reminds me of the reports that I have to fill out and send to the my denomination, the EC Church. 

Every quarter the EC Church asks all pastors to submit some basic stats such as our average worship attendance and our total income, and then they ask us to answer some questions about the joys and difficulties in the life of our church family during the past quarter.  Additionally, every year they ask us to complete an annual report.  I will admit that I have sometimes forgotten to fill out a report.  A couple months go by, and I’ll get an email reminder saying it is time for another quarterly report. Look back through the files on my computer, I realize, “Oh my…I forgot to send them reports the last two quarters!” 

This causes me to wonder, no one at the denomination headquarters seemed to care that I didn’t fill out those reports, so what does it matter, all this reporting?  Why am I taking the time to fill these things out anyway?  It can seem like a waste of time.  Does anyone ever read the reports.

I then think maybe I should have a little fun with a report.  What if I started submitting some bizarre stats, would it even matter?  What if I said this past quarter Faith Church averaged 10,000 people attending worship?  Then the next quarter what if I wrote to say that we only averaged 5 in worship?  Or what if I wrote that there was an earthquake in East Lampeter Township, and a giant crack opened up in the earth and swallowed our building?  Maybe then I would get a response!  I never submitted a creative report like that, but I still sometimes toy with the idea.

A couple years ago, though, something happened.  I submitted a regular quarterly reports, and later that day I got an email from my new district field director.  As district field director, he is not only my boss, but also the boss of about 10 other pastors in the churches that comprise our district. On top of that he is a full-time pastor of one of those churches. Simply put, he’s a busy guy, and yet he emailed me to say that he read my report, and was praying for me.  Not only that, in his email he mentioned the specific prayer requests I had written in my report, showing that he actually did read my report!  It was really cool.  I’ve had great district leaders before this, but this was was new.  It showed me that my reporting was being taken seriously. 

Then something else happened.  A few days later, the Bishop sent me an email.  The Bishop is my boss’s boss. He is in charge of the entire denomination, which includes about 125 churches.  Think about that.  125 pastors are submitting one of those quarterly reports, and the Bishop wrote me an email about my report.  It wasn’t like I put anything critical in the report.  No crisis was happening.  No need to call in the big guns, and thus it was highly unlikely that my boss said to the bishop, “Here’s a doozy of a report…you better respond to this.”  Nope, the Bishop simply wrote thanking me for serving, and like my boss, in his email to me the Bishop mentioned specific details from my report, showing he had read my report, and that he was praying. 

You know how those emails from my boss and from my boss’s boss made me feel?  Really good!  I don’t interact with them on any kind of regular basis.  Maybe once every month or so, usually less often than that.  But it was encouraging to hear from them.  That’s exactly how the Colossian Christians would have felt, knowing that Paul had heard about them, and he was writing them and praying for them. 

I know we don’t want to self-promote and come across as ultra-spiritual, but I wonder if we can miss out on genuine encouragement if we don’t tell people we’re praying for them? How can you be an encouragement to the people you pray for? I don’t think it would be wise to tell every day to them you’re praying for them. But it could be really encouraging to check in from time to time.

How to bring hope to struggling people around you – Colossians 1:1-8, Part 5

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This week I hosted my local ministerium’s monthly meeting at Faith Church.  Throughout the year, we take turns, meeting at one another’s churches, and it was my turn. So I set up small round tables in our fellowship hall, spreading them out six feet apart, placing one chair per table, trying to make sure there was social distancing in line with CDC guidelines for the Covid pandemic.  The host pastor also leads a brief devotional, and I wondered what I should talk about. What should I say to a group of pastors and church leaders?

Maybe Paul’s letter to the Colossians can help me. As we conclude this five-part blog series through Colossians 1:1-8, notice what Paul talks about in verse 6: the message that came to the Colossian Christians is spreading all over the world. 

He uses a natural metaphor: it is bearing fruit, he says, growing.  I have mentioned before the bamboo in my family’s back yard.  I have a love/hate relationship with our bamboo.  I love, for example, what happens when it burns.  Each of those chambers in a stalk of bamboo is airtight, so when it gets hot enough, it explodes like a gun shot.  Bamboo is also a very effective natural fence row.  It is super strong and you can use it for posts, such as in a garden.  But my love for bamboo stops there.  If for any reason you ever want some, please let me know.  You can have it. Because it grows so incredibly fast, above ground, underground, in all directions.  It will grow right up through the middle of a pile of stacked firewood. 

The Kingdom of God is like that.  Paul says to the Colossians that message of good news in Jesus has been growing among them since the day they heard it, since the day they understood God’s grace in all its truth.

What he is referring to is the person who started the church in Colosse.  It wasn’t Paul, remember.  In verse 7, he reminds them that it was a guy named Epaphras, who Paul describes as his “dear fellow servant” and “faithful minister of Christ.”  So Epaphras was another traveling missionary like Paul and Timothy.  Epaphras, Paul says in verse 8, told Paul and Timothy about the “love in the Spirit” that the Christians in Colosse had for one another. 

Now has returned to the concept of love again.  Earlier in the passage, Paul described it as love for all the saints.  Now he writes that the Colossian Christians’ love is “in the Spirit.”  With that mention of the Spirit, Paul has, in these 8 verses, talked about all three members of the Trinity.  He has previously mentioned God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and now God the Spirit.  This is one of many passages Christians use to promote a Trinitarian understanding of God.  The Trinity is called “The Three in One,” three equal co-existent persons of the Godhead.  Theologians far smarter than me have, through the ages, tried to explain it.  I’m not going to try today, because Paul doesn’t try to explain it.  Instead Paul mentions all three, showing that all three persons of the Trinity are vital, active and involved.  We pray to God the Father, we serve Christ, and are in Christ, and it is the Spirit who is in us. 

Paul’s introduction in his letter is such an encouragement to the Christians in Colosse.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Paul starts with encouragement for a reason.  He has not only heard good things about them, but also some very disconcerting things.  We’re not at the bad news part of the letter yet, so I will leave the bad news for another day, when Paul gets to it.  For now, he has focused on good news.  Very good news.  Good news in Jesus, and the good news of the faith the love that has flowed from the Christians in Colosse. 

Let us be a good news people.  That doesn’t mean we ignore bad news.  Not at all. We face the bad news, we admit it, and we talk about it, but in a faith-filled, hope in heaven, love in the Spirit kind of way. 

Back to my ministerium meeting, as I wrestled with what to talk about, Paul’s example was helpful to me. I thought I would talk about how many pastoral families struggled during 2020, and continue to do so. That struggle was my reality, and maybe some others were feeling the way too. Like Paul, I wanted to face the difficulty, and I wanted to bring good news and hope and love in the Spirit to that. I also wanted a Trinitarian focus, and I could think of no better passage than Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-20. I read the prayer and commented briefly about the amazing closeness that each member of our Trinitarian God wants to have with us.

One pastor wrote me back saying: “I really appreciated your acknowledgment that some of us may be struggling.  At various times during the pandemic I have some of my lowest, most discouraging and overwhelming experiences in pastoral ministry.   In the midst of the polarization of Covid, even among us as pastors, it hasn’t always felt like we’re allowed to acknowledge that.  Thanks for opening the door for that today by naming that reality.”

How you can you be like the Colossians, bringing your hope in heaven as good news to those struggling around you?  We can tend to lean one way or another on this. On the one hand, we can over-emphasize bad news and forget to talk about life in a hope-filled, perspective that Jesus brings to our circumstances.  On the other hand we can focus on joy and good news and not be honest about the struggles. 

Let’s remember the grace and peace we have available to us in Christ, let’s remember to be in prayer and for each other, and let’s remember that in the midst of struggles and hardships we have Good News.  We are IN Christ and he is IN us.