F1RST #8 - The New You

READ – COLOSSIANS 3:1-11

We’re in a series called F1RST on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is writing to a community of new Christians. These new followers of Jesus were coming off the initial excitement of their conversion and were starting to ask, “What’s next?” They were still struggling, still dealing with character flaws, and questioning whether Jesus was enough for all of life.

Paul’s main point is that when we see and believe Jesus is sufficient for everything and when you follow Him as supreme over everything, the result will be a new you. Paul is writing to show us that a new you and a new me is possible. That change, not surface level change, but real, deep change is possible. He says that authentic change involves both a “putting off” (Colossians 3:5) and a “putting on” (3:10). 

1.    PUT OFF THE OLD

Real change involves “putting off” (3:5) the things that Paul lists as examples in Colossians 3:5-9. Paul is getting right up in our personal business. By implication, Paul wants us to understand that putting off the old is characterized by three things.

First, putting off is drastic. It’s nothing short of death. Jesus’ purpose for your life isn’t self-improvement, more religion, or sinning less. Putting off is death – it’s drastic, radical action. The application is: if following Jesus doesn't sometimes feel like dying, i.e. if it’s quick, painless, easy, something you can manage on your own, then it’s probably not what Paul has in mind by “putting off.” However, if what you’re going through is hard, impossible, feels like God is bringing a wrecking ball into your life, then it’s probably an indication that God is at work.

Second, putting off is deep. Jesus isn’t interested in the surface of our actions. Instead, He wants to get at the root, the source from where our actions spring. That’s why Paul in Colossians 3:5 moves from the surface (“sexual immorality”) to the source (“idolatry”). All our sin whether it’s greed, anger, lust, or lying comes from the same source. Sin springs from what we desire and worship. Idolatry is making anything your life that isn’t the God of the Bible. Good desires turned into demands become gods. This isn’t just Paul making a big deal out of personal peccadillos. The Bible makes a connection between personal sin and systems of injustice and oppression. For example, lust and greed shape our lives to treat people as objects, and anger and lying train us to treat people as obstacles. Our personal sin in these areas dehumanizes others and consequently creates systems of dehumanization in the broader culture if left unchecked. So Paul isn’t wagging his finger at us, he’s trying to rehumanize us.

Third, putting off is difficult. One of the most difficult things in life is after a season of changes and turning over a new leaf, we fall right back into the old patterns. Paul is giving us hope here that’s it is not up to us. Don’t be discouraged. God is at work. Yes, change will be hard, imperfect, slow. But take heart, there is great hope for change because God is in the business of creating new things. Paul knows that you can’t put on the new until you’ve put off the old. In fact, you won’t put off the old until you have a greater vision for the new.

2.    PUT ON THE NEW

In Colossians 3:10, Paul says that followers of Jesus have put on the new self. He’s providing us with the vision we need of the new to help motivate us to put off the old. Here Paul gives us three truths about the new that should inspire our hearts to do the work of real change.

First, the new is better. The new doesn’t often feel or seem better. Paul is asking us to die to what we perceive as rights – our right to sexual freedom, to material happiness, our right to be angry. Those often feel like the better option. But Paul’s claim is that the new is better. And really, there’s no rule or argument that will convince you of it – you just have to try it. It’s like thinking Olive Garden is fantastic, and then you try authentic, real Italian food. There’s no comparison and you can never go back (sorry, Olive Garden). Another test is considering the results of living completely free of any restrictions. If today we announced a “Free Sins Week” (sin any way you want as much as you want), two things would happen. First you’d be miserable and unsatisfied. Second you’d leave a wake of pain and hurt in other people’s lives. The new is better.

Second, the new is beautiful. The goal of Christianity isn’t morality, but beauty. Following Jesus isn’t repressive, it’s a call to reflect our Creator in all His goodness and beauty. It’s an invitation not to see people as objects, but to see them as God does – made in His image, valuable, unique. It’s an offer not to treat people as obstacles in your path, but people to learn from and love. What if you treated people this way? What if people treated you this way? What would it look like? It would look like Jesus. Paul isn’t actually talking about a new “self;” he’s talking about a new “man.” And that man is Jesus. Paul knows we won’t put off and kill the old, until we see that Jesus is better and more beautiful than the old. And Jesus is precisely better and more beautiful when we are at our worst and most ugly.

Third, the new is not a(B)out you. What do all the “new you” promises of the culture have in common? They’re all about YOU. They’re all about your happiness, comfort, health. Paul is saying that the new you isn’t about you at all. It’s about Christ. Christ is all and in all. As C.S. Lewis said, “Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him.” 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.    What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.    Christianity is uncomfortable. It involves death and killing our old selves. Be honest – does that rub you the wrong way? How? Is the Jesus you are following easy, comfortable, and painless?  

3.    What’s difficult about following Jesus for you right now? How are you doing? What resources does Christianity provide to help you in the difficulty? Pray for each other.        

4.    Paul talks in Colossians 3 about God’s wrath. Modern Westerners struggle with the idea of God’s wrath. Is this just an outdated way of talking and believing about God? Isn’t God a God of love?   

5.    Sin – the old self – leads us to treat people as objects and as obstacles. How is that true in your life? What does confession and repentance look like? In other words, what might it look like to treat others not as objects and obstacles, but as new selves in God’s sight?

6.    Putting on the new isn’t just putting on new habits or character traits, it’s putting on Jesus. What does that mean? Why is that better and more beautiful than just turning over a new leaf?

F1RST #7 - Jesus > Religion

READ – COLOSSIANS 2:8-23

We’re in a series called F1RST on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is writing to people who are new to Christianity and asking the questions – “What makes for a fulfilled, substantial, meaningful life?” His answer is: Jesus. In Jesus and with Jesus you have everything you’ll ever need.

Robert Bellah, a sociologist who taught at UC Berkeley, in his 1985 book Habits of the Heart talked about “Sheilaism.” In an interview with Bellah a young woman named Sheila Larsen said: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Bellah describes how Sheilaism is becoming the new norm for American spirituality – and opens us to the possibility of millions of different religions if everyone follows their “own little voice.” Robert Wuthnow in his book After Heaven describes how our culture has shifted away from a religion of “dwelling” to a spirituality of “seeking.” No longer is spiritual experience confined to old time religion and its institution – instead its sought through spiritual practices, gurus, private experience. Wuthnow comments that the new creed is “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

In Colossians 2, Paul is describing three approaches to a fulfilled life. In Paul’s context there were two primary alternatives: moralism and mysticism, what we might today call “religion” and “spirituality.” Paul contrasts both of these approaches with Jesus – in whom the fullness of God dwells (Col 2:9). So in Paul’s mind there is God revealed in Jesus and God-substitutes that are vying for allegiance in our hearts, lives, and communities.

1. WHY GOD-SUBSTITUTES ARE CAPTIVATING

Paul saw two approaches to a fulfilled life in his culture: moralism and mysticism. Moralism is a philosophy based in “human tradition” (Col 2:8) and “human commands” (Col. 2:22). In one sense, we might describe it as a traditional or conservative approach to the divine. Moralism says that if you follow the rules and abstain from the world, you will arrive at fulfillment. Another approach is mysticism, or what Paul calls a philosophy based on the “elements of the world” (Col. 2:8). Mysticism is perhaps a more progressive approach to the divine and fulfillment. We could talk about New Age practices or Eastern spirituality. But maybe closer to home is a mystical approach that says you don’t need to follow rules, you just need to follow your heart. A moralistic approach might say abstain from the world; but a mystical approach says abstain from rules.

 What’s fascinating is that Paul sees both moralism and mysticism as two sides of the same coin. How so? First, both moralism and mysticism (old traditional religion and new spirituality) are distinct from Jesus. Paul warns not to be captivated by these ways of life “rather than Christ” (Col. 2:8). Moralism and mysticism are the same in that they are both, conservative or progressive, opposed to Jesus. Second, both approaches equally try to substitute ourselves for God. A traditional moralist believes “If I abstain, obey, perform, and associate with good people, good doctrine, the right political party, then I’ll be fulfilled and OK.” But for Paul that’s the equivalent of saying that you don’t need God to experience fulfillment. In fact, it also minimizes sin and the need for God. At least part of what Paul may be addressing in Colossians 2 were religious moralists who were saying that the ancient, ritual practice of circumcision was necessary for full access and fullness in the religious life and community. Paul saw physical circumcision as a way to minimize a person’s need to be completely transformed by God. That’s why he encourages these followers of Jesus with the reality that they’ve received a “circumcision made without hands,” that is, a supernatural, transformative, unilateral divine work of God in their hearts. So moralism is saying the distance between myself and God is not that great and I can bridge it myself. On the other hand, a spiritual mystic says, “If I abstain from rules, follow my own inner voice (a la Sheilaism), and pursue my own dreams, then I’ll be fulfilled.” If moralism says, I will be my own Savior, then mysticism says, I will be my own Lord. For Paul this is a disconnection from “the Head of every rule and authority” (Col. 2:10, 19). The spiritualist says, “I don’t need a Head and I don’t want a Head, I’ll be my own ruler and authority.”

So both moralism and mysticism seek to substitute ourselves for God. Old Religion substitutes ourselves for God as savior; New Spirituality substitutes ourselves for God as lord. At their core both approaches are the same thing. They look different on the surface, but both are fundamental ways of substituting ourselves for God while questioning God’s sufficiency, competency, ability, and sovereignty. Paul warns us not to be captive by these things because they will not only control and run our lives, they’ll end up ruining our lives.

2. WHAT ARE THE DANGERS OF GOD-SUBSTITUTES

There’s at least three areas of our lives that both moralism and mysticism will have destructive effects on if we are held captive to them. They’re harmful to our relationship to God, others, and the self.

God-substitutes are destructive to our relationship with God. For a moralist, obedience and performance is for the purpose of controlling God, not cherishing God. Religion is always for the purposes of using God for what He can give you, not enjoying God for who He is. Both moralism and mysticism also seek to try God, rather than trust God. We often see God as a supplement to a better self, better job, better family, rather than God being the Source of all we are, entrusting our lives, relationships, and work to Him. Mysticism ignores God, rather than thanks God. Colossians is a letter of thankfulness (as we saw last week). But the spiritual stream that says “follow your heart,” actually is a way we overlook and snub God who is the source of everything we are and have. Without saying thank you by giving Him our life, we are guilty of the worst kind of cosmic plagiarism – taking credit for all that God has done.

God-substitutes are destructive to our relationship with others. Look at the language Paul is using to describe the attitude and actions of both moralism and mysticism. He warns us not to be “taken captive” (v. 8), not to be judged (v. 16), not to be disqualified (v. 18), and not to be oppressed by regulations (v. 21). That’s why moralism and mysticism are so damaging to human relationships – they set up standards to determine who is in and who is out. Ask yourself – is this me? Here’s a good test: do I scoff at other’s opinions? Do I show contempt for people who believe and behave different than me? Do I intentionally or subconsciously judge and disqualify other people because they don’t look like me, vote like me, worship like me, parent their kids like me? The answer to that question might indicate whether our hearts have been captive by God-substitutes.

God-substitutes are destructive to our own self. Substituting ourselves for God for both a moralist and a mystic won’t work. If fulfillment comes through following our desires, then what do we do when our desires contradict each other? How do we determine whether to pursue a career or a love relationship if both are not mutually compatible? Following rules won’t work either because Paul says they won’t curb our self-indulgence (v. 23). Our hearts were made to desire, to be filled, and until we deal with our hearts’ loves we will continue to try and fill and indulge ourselves.

3. WHAT’S THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

If the essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God, then what Paul is describing in Colossians 2 is the essence of Christianity – God has substituted Himself for us. How so?

First, God has come bodily in Jesus. God is housed in Jesus of Nazareth. That means that any spiritual paradigm or program that seeks to work its way to God or merit God’s favor is fundamentally flawed because God has already sought us out in Jesus.

Second, God has come to liberate us. In Jesus and particularly at Jesus’ crucifixion, the powers of evil did their worst and were exhausted. There’s an appeal to being our own Head and Ruler, but when we are faced with the uncontrollable powers of nature, school shootings, cultural violence, structural evil, a doctor’s diagnosis, the prospect of losing a spouse to divorce or death, we can’t help but be fearful. Paul’s claim is that Jesus didn’t just endure the power of evil, He disarmed and destroyed it.

Third, God has substituted Himself for you, taking on your record of debt and nailing it to Himself. Moralism says that God owes you your life because of your obedience. Mysticism says you own your own life. Christianity says, God gives His life for yours.

Christianity is true. Because it’s true, our relationship with God, others, and our own self is radically changed. God is no longer seen as a Demander, but a Rescuer and Liberator. He is not Someone who is arbitrarily obligating us to demands, but a Savior who loves us. If God cancelled the infinite debt that we accrued by substituting ourselves for Him, then our relationships must not be defined by us demanding that others live up to our obligations and demands. Other people are no longer seen as people to be judged, disqualified, and condemned, but appreciated, valued, and loved. Finally, do you see how much you’re loved? Our hearts were made to love and they will always follow our own pursuits and selfish desires until were melted by God’s love for us in Jesus. 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.    What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.    “I’m spiritual, just not religious.” What do you make of that statement? How might you enter into a conversation with someone who described themselves that way?     

3.    Paul is counteracting moralism and mysticism in Colossians 2. Where do you see these two approaches play out in your own life? In our community?    

4.    Moralism and mysticism are two sides of the same coin. Explain. Do you agree? Why or why not?   

5.    If the essence of sin is substituting ourselves for God, then the essence of Christianity is God substituting Himself for us. How does that truth change you? How might it make a difference in your life this week?

 

F1RST #6 - Overflowing Gratitude

READ – Colossians 2:6-7 (see also, Colossians 1:3, 11-14; 3:15-17; 4:2)

We’re in a series called F1RST on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The key verse is Colossians 1:18 “that in everything He might be preeminent,” that is, that Jesus might have first place in all things.  Jesus brought a new arithmetic into existence: Jesus + Everything = Nothing; Jesus + Nothing = Everything. That’s the large theme of this little letter.

But there are several smaller themes woven into Colossians. Two stand out as you read the letter in its entirety: fullness and gratitude. Those two themes come together in one phrase that Paul uses in Colossians 2:7 – “overflowing with gratitude.” It’s what Paul believes is a sure sign of true Christianity. If you get the gospel, your life will overflow with gratitude. So this week we’re zooming in on the concept of gratitude and thankfulness.

1. THE POWER OF GRATITUDE

First we should recognize the magnitude of gratitude for our lives. Thankfulness is not just a matter of being polite, as if saying “Thank you” a lot is what’s at stake. Instead, gratitude is powerful. It has the ability to transform every aspect of our lives. In Colossians, gratitude is interrelated to prayer and our relationships to others (1:3); it’s connected to joy (1:12); it works in reducing conflict in relationships (3:15); it helps God’s Word move from the conceptual to the experiential (3:16); it’s linked to how the presence and power of Jesus becomes a part of our everyday, ordinary experience (3:17); and gratitude is how we develop a healthy, consistent prayer life (4:2). A number of recent psychological studies help confirm Paul’s point about gratitude. Thankfulness can help reduce stress, give better sleep, help us work through our past, and lead to improved relationships, work environments, and productivity.

Why? Why is gratitude so powerful? The Bible suggests that gratitude is powerful because it gives a big clue to two basic, fundamental truths about life. First, we were made to live with overflowing gratitude – thankfulness was to be our default setting; an essential part of what it meant to be fully alive. Second, gratitude points to the transcendent – to a Giver of the gifts that we often can’t help but be thankful for. In our greatest moments of wonder and accomplishment we can’t stop overflowing with gratitude.

2. THE DIFFICULTY OF GRATITUDE

If gratitude was supposed to come naturally and rises up in us (sometimes) instinctually – why is it often so difficult? We have moments of gratitude, but are often overflowing with discontent, anxiety, and irritability. You can see the difficulty of gratitude in the modern cultural phenomenon of Black Friday encroaching on America’s national holiday for gratitude – Thanksgiving. Paul explains this tension between the power of gratitude and its difficulty in another letter in the New Testament, Romans. In Romans 1:18-21. Essentially, Paul argues that there are two voices inside of us. One voice instinctively recognizes the gift of a Giver and wants to say “thank you.” But another voice wants to suppress the reality of the Giver. Why would we want to suppress the Giver? Because if everything that we have and are is a gift than we aren’t entitled to any of it. Further, if it’s all a gift than we can’t earn anything. That spells the end of our ego and sense of personal pride.

Gratitude is so difficult because our entitlement and ego stand in the way. Thankfulness is a call to let go all our entitlement and ego and reflect on all God has done for us – not all He owes us.

3. THE OVERFLOW OF GRATITUDE

So why can’t we just end it there and encourage ourselves to have an “attitude of gratitude” this week? Gratitude is clearly powerful and has the ability to affect our lives for good. Paul says that our lives won’t just be touched by gratitude, but that it will overflow in our lives. The truth is that we won’t overflow with gratitude if all we’re after is the benefits and blessings for ourselves. We will only overflow with gratitude when our gratitude takes us beyond ourselves and beyond the gifts to the value and love of the Giver of the gifts.

In Colossians, the center of gratitude is a relationship. Paul’s emphasis is on giving thanks to, not giving thanks for.  Gifts are meant to build and strengthen a relationship not function as replacements. Often our lives are marked either by an overvaluing of God’s gifts (idolatry) or an undervaluing of His gifts (discontent). Scripture invites us to see that every gift we receive reveals something about God, His love, care, and character. We’re called to enjoy the gifts and receive them, but more importantly savor the Giver.

Gratitude as a command doesn’t really work. Gratitude hits us when we see how much it cost the Giver, how much I don’t deserve the gift, and how I could never earn it. We need to be moved and melted by overflowing generosity and grace in order to be truly grateful. The gospel is the power that melts us. The gospel exposes the depths of our entitlement and ego, and yet provides the gift all the same. The gospel says you deserve nothing, and you’re entitled to nothing, and Jesus who was entitled to everything let go of everything so that you could gain all you will ever need and more. The gospel says we can earn nothing. All our efforts and morality doesn’t earn an ounce of God’s love and acceptance, but because of Jesus we receive all the love and approval our hearts long for. Jesus has earned what you could never earn yourself, what you weren’t entitled to, and He gives it as a free, unconditional gift. That’s overflowing grace that will lead a life of overflowing gratitude.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.    What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.    Besides the gospel J what’s the best gift you’ve ever been given? How did it make you feel?

3.    Have you experience the power of gratitude in your life? Give an example.      

4.    How do you think we can intentionally practice gratitude in our life?  

5.    Entitlement and our ego make gratitude difficult. What are the ways you have been suppressing the Giver in your heart and life this week? What might change look like?  

6.    As parents know, commanding thankfulness won’t work. What’s the answer then to how to cultivate a life that overflows with gratitude?

7.    What’s one thing you are thankful for right now? Share with the group. Thank God for the gift.

 

F1RST #5 - Life in Christ

READ – Colossians 2:6-7

We’re in a series called F1RST on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The key verse is Colossians 1:18 “that in everything He might be preeminent,” that is, that Jesus might have first place in all things.  This week we’re looking at what many scholars think is the heart of Colossians. In two short verses, Paul compacts his entire message. His basic point is that Jesus is enough for beginning as a Christian and Jesus is enough for continuing as a Christian. The way we come to know Jesus is the way we grow in Jesus. That’s counter-intuitive for us and it was for Paul’s audience as well. It’s the hardest thing to grasp for those who are exploring Christianity – and for those who are well-trained in Christianity.

1. LEARNING TO RECEIVE

The first command or imperative in Colossians comes in 2:6. What is it? Receive. The first command is an anti-command command. And it’s this anti-command that actually enables all other obedience to Jesus. How so? Think about the logic of our lives: everything we do is based on achieving. We are hardwired to believe that first you achieve, then you receive. But the gospel logic of Christianity is reversed. Receiving comes first. You receive not just a principle or information, but a person – Christ Jesus as Lord. You receive all of who He is and what He’s done for you. In essence, you receive all He has achieved. Christianity isn’t an achieving faith, but a receiving faith. It’s not based on your performance or mine, but on Jesus’.

So how do we begin Christianity? We receive with empty hands. How do we continue? We receive with empty hands. Why? Because in Jesus there is an endless fullness for all our emptiness. Why is learning to receive so hard for achievers? It’s because we desire to be in control. We think we are Lord, not Jesus. But receiving Jesus means He is Lord, not us. What is something that I’m holding onto, that I feel I need to control; something I won’t let go of? Jesus invites us to open our hands and receive. What He gives is always better than what we’re holding onto.

2. LOOKING TO THE ROOTS

Paul goes on to say, “continue to live in him being rooted and built up in him.” Paul uses two metaphors, one botanical and the other architectural to describe the Christian life. What do his metaphors mean?

Paul invites us to look to our roots. Too often we focus on changing the external rather than the internal. But good fruit comes from healthy roots. That’s really counter-intuitive for us. We tend to look first at fruit – our look, appearance, behaviors, outward success, image. But the gospel logic of Christianity is: we look to the roots first that changes the fruit.

So what does it mean to look at the roots? Paul is talking about core beliefs. Roots are whatever or whoever our trust or confidence is in. Who or what I’m trusting is where I’m sending my roots. So how do we know where we are rooted? The Bible suggests that what we really believe will show up in our behavior, reactions, and emotions. The language of roots is found multiple places in the Bible, but one poignant text is Jeremiah 17. Here the prophet invites people to consider their fears and worries. Check the places where you are fearful and anxious – usually you can follow those feelings to your functional roots.

Here’s a few diagnostic questions that might help you get to your roots in times of fear and worry: (1) What am I believing about myself? (2) What am I believing about what God is doing and has done, (3) What am I believing about who Jesus is, (4) What am I believing about what Jesus is doing and has done, (5) What am I believing about who I am in Jesus?

Ultimately, we need to be rooted in Jesus. Apart from Him, Jesus claimed, we can do nothing. But if we are rooted in Him we will bear fruit (John 15).

3. LETTING MY LIFE BE REBUILT

If Christianity is all about receiving and staying rooted in what Jesus has done, what about our own growth? Is it optional? Can we live however we want? Paul’s botanical and architectural metaphor go together here – we grow deep so we can be built up. Theologians describe this as “union with Christ.” It’s the beautiful vital reality that you are in Christ and Christ is in you. You are complete in Him and He is completing you. The goal of Christianity is not behavior management, but being in union with Jesus and built into who you were made to be. The essence is: the more we learn to receive, the stronger and deeper we are rooted in our identity in Christ, and thus the more we will be built by Jesus into something new. It relieves the pressure of us having to build our lives, career, marriage, family. Christianity offers a God who builds you. God does the building, not you. That’s encouraging and desirable because what Jesus is building with us isn’t what we would build with our lives. His blueprints are far better and greater than what we could dream or imagine.

Anyone who knows what it’s like to build a building or remodel an existing structure knows the uncomfortable implication is this: things are going to get worse before they get better.  We naturally think we need renovation in the ‘bad’ parts of our hearts and lives. But Jesus is getting at the roots. He wants to rebuild not just the ‘bad’ parts of you but more importantly the parts you think are ‘good.’ Your goodness needs to be demolished. Your moral efforts and religiosity need to be bulldozed and you need a life build on the reality of Christ Jesus as Lord. It’s never a minor fix, but a full renovation. And the good news is that Jesus always finishes what He starts.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.    What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.    Christianity is a receiving faith, not an achieving faith. Explain. Is this how you have understood Christianity in the past? How might believing and resting in the gospel logic of receiving re-shape your view of life, family, work, God?     

3.    A big part of the Christian life is letting Jesus be Lord, not us. What might you let go of this week knowing the reality of “Christ Jesus as Lord?” What would be hard? What would be freeing?

4.    What’s a place in your life where you are fearful or anxious? Are you willing to share with the group? Try walking yourself through the five diagnostic questions to get at your functional roots. What do you see?

5.    Does it bother you that Jesus wants to demolish not just the ‘bad’ parts of who you are, but the ‘good’ things as well? What does that mean? How can we be repenters not just of sin, but our moral striving to look good? How does the gospel logic of Jesus’ blueprint for our being built up encourage us?  

F1RST #4 - Filling Up

READ – Colossians 1:23-2:5 

We’re in a series called F1RST on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul is writing to a group of Christians who are new to Christianity and asking the questions – “Is faith just one part of my life? Am I missing something? Is Jesus enough?” Paul is writing to say that Jesus is sufficient; He’s enough. That’s indicated by Paul’s frequent use of the language of “fullness.” It’s part of the overall message of Colossians:  wherever Jesus is truly first, life is truly full.  

But there’s a problem. The regular experience of most Christians and many who aren’t Christians is that life can be very fully with activity, work, recreation, leisure, family, but at the same time feel very empty. Most of us still struggle with a sense that something is missing, a nagging sense of incompleteness. Paul gets at this feeling many of us share by sharing his philosophy of ministry and service. Paul fill us in on the way he thought people, churches, and the world gets filled with Jesus.

1. HOW PAUL FILLED OTHERS

Paul filled others as a servant through gospel embodiment and gospel expression. First, Paul filled others as a “servant.” Some translations say “minister,” but that translation might give the wrong impression that Paul is only speaking about vocational ministry or clergy. Instead he uses the Greek word diakonos which wasn’t a title of respect or honor but signified a table waiter. That’s important because in Luke 22 at Jesus’ final meal with His followers, He described Himself and His ministry as one of table service. Paul didn’t consider himself someone who sat at the table to be served, but rather to serve as a waiter the ones at the table.

Next Paul makes a startling claim about gospel embodiment: he says in Colossians 1:24 that he is filling up what is lacking in Jesus’s affliction! What does he mean? It’s a complex idea to be sure. It certainly can’t mean that Paul is adding to the sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all atoning death on the cross. The language Paul uses doesn’t allow for that idea – nor does it fit with what Paul and the New Testament says elsewhere. Paul is saying that what is lacking in Christ’s affliction is Jesus’ bodily presence. It’s a bold claim – that mysteriously Paul’s physical suffering as a member of Christ’s body (the church) represents Christ’s continuing suffering for the world through His followers. Paul is showing them through his life what he’s telling them about Jesus through his words. Paul is saying, “I’m willing to be afflicted if it means comfort for you; I’ll toil so you can rest; I’ll be poor so you can be rich; I’ll even die, if it means you know the life-giving news of the gospel.”

Paul filled others with gospel expression. In vv. 25-26, Paul unpacks this with language about making the word of God fully known and the mystery revealed now. Paul isn’t talking about a secret knowledge – something esoteric or for advanced philosophers. He’s saying, in part, that the mystery is about how what you already know about Jesus is enough. In other words, Christians don’t move beyond the gospel, but deeper into it. There’s no philosophy or program beyond the gospel, but a person who are coming to know better. That means that the gospel is something we continually need to be told. We need to hear it from others, speak it to others, and argue it into our hearts. 

2. HOW WE FILL OTHERS

We fill others as servants through gospel embodiment and gospel expression. Same as Paul. Our identity in Jesus means we aren’t the ones reclining at table, waiting for others to fill us. We are the ones serving at table. We are to be the ones looking for who needs filling. How do we do that?

Filling others involves gospel embodiment – being the hands, feet, eyes of Jesus in the world. It involves being present. Part of Paul’s hardship is that he can’t meet face-to-face with the Colossians (2:1). Filling others happens best when we are bodily present with them. This is countercultural for us because most of our relationships happen through disembodied communication – telephone, text, email, social media. These things aren’t wrong. They’re just secondary to embodied presence. Filling others also entails embodying affliction, toil, and struggle that doesn't advantage us, but someone else. It’s relatively easy to be hard-working and sacrificial when we know the payoff is around the corner. But what about when we know that our work won’t reap any rewards directly for us?

We also fill others with gospel expression. The ministry of teaching and admonishing doesn’t just belong to pastors, but to all of us, Paul is saying. We need to involve ourselves in deeply committed relationships and friendships that are call-and-response. Friendships where we show and tell each other the good news of the gospel. We need our relationships to reflect a priority that asks, “How can I fill you as a servant?” Can you imagine the difference that would make?

3. HOW WE GET FILLED

Paul’s philosophy of service is good and all – but what do we do with the nagging sense that we are often running on empty (emotionally, relationally, physically). How do we get filled? Paul says there’s three things we need when we are empty and need filling. First, we need encouraged hearts (2:2). That implies that we can recognize when our hearts are discouraged and empty – we need to be able to communicate to God, ourselves, and others that we’re missing something. Second, we need a tight knit community (2:2). Inner emptiness often causes people to isolate themselves and distance themselves from others. Paul isn’t being insensitive to introverts – he’s merely stating the truth that we are social beings and need one another. When you’re empty you need to share with others, let them fill you with their caring presence and gospel truth. Third, we need to reach full assurance of God’s mystery which is Christ. What do we reach for when we are empty? Usually it’s either our performance or pleasure.  The gospel is that assurance will come not when we reach for performance or pleasure, but a Person – Jesus. Being filled only comes through a connection to Jesus who always have enough fullness to meet our emptiness. You don’t need something different. You just need more of what is already yours in Christ. 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.    What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.    Describe a recent experience where you felt empty or a sense of incompleteness. Can you relate to the Colossians’ feeling that maybe Jesus isn’t enough? In what ways?    

3.    In your own words, explain “gospel embodiment” and “gospel expression.” Of the two, which do you lean toward or feel strongest in? Why? Discuss.   

4.    What is an area of your work or family life that might change if you practiced Paul’s philosophy of ministry this week?  

5.    Gospel expression – speaking the truth of the gospel to others. Let’s put aside our ordinary thinking on “sharing the gospel with neighbors” for a moment and think about our homes and friendships. How often are we speaking the gospel to those closest to us? What does that even look like? Are there practices that might help facilitate gospel expression?

6.    How do you react to inner emptiness? Do you feel discouraged? Isolate? Reach for performance or pleasure? How could you confess and repent this week? What would turning towards Jesus be like?

7.    As a group, share with each other one place where God might be calling you to fill up someone else. Pray as a group over these relationships.