Sunday, 19 April 2015

Why Pray?

Paul had explained to the Colossians how they were to show that they belonged to the new humanity, whether in life in general or in the specific area of household life (chapter 3 of his letter). We can imagine the Colossians, as they listened to the letter being read to them, responding at least to themselves, ‘How can we retain correct thinking about all these issues in our minds?’ If they were thinking in that way as they heard Colossians 4:1 being read, they received the answer in verse 2: ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

Further, they may have said to themselves, ‘In addition to demands connected to life in the church, it is also the case that we have to face pressures from those outside the church. Our family members, our neighbours, the contacts we make day by day are not interested in what we have to say about Jesus. What would Paul, who we have never met, say to us?’ No doubt the apostle could say many things, but it is reasonable to assume that one response he would urge would be to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

In addition, it is possible that the Christians in Colosse would face official investigations and punishments by the authorities. Although Colosse was a small town, it was not a backwater location because it was close to the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. It was inevitable that the authorities would be curious at least about the appearance of this radical new group that involved different races, all levels of society, and did not participate in any of the official religions. One of Paul’s responses to such potential difficulties for the church in Colosse would be to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’   

The church in Colosse had lost its pastor Epaphras. He had brought the gospel to Colosse after he had been converted through hearing Paul in Ephesus. Over the next decade or so, he had guided the church in Colosse. He then had gone to Rome to see Paul and had himself been arrested. There is no hint that Epaphras was about to be released and we can imagine the anxiety that the church would have when Tychicus and Philemon appeared – without Epaphras (vv. 7-9). Paul’s advice, I am sure, would be to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

Two men had left the church in Colosse in the past while. One was their faithful pastor Epaphras and one was the unreliable slave Onesimus who had ran away from his master Philemon in whose house the church in Colosse met. I am sure that they prayed for both men, although with different desires for each. They would have prayed for the release of Epaphras and the conversion of Onesimus. Now they could see that the Lord had kept his promise and answered prayer for Onesimus. But what were they to do with regard to their prayers for Epaphras? The answer was to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’ Be thankful for Onesimus and continue to pray for Epaphras.

Of course, Paul wanted them to pray for him. He knew that his colleagues Tychicus and Philemon would convey information about his circumstances when they delivered the letter to the church, and in their report they would mention his confinement as a prisoner. We will look in a future reading at what he requested about himself, but it is the case that with regard to these specific requests in verses 3 and 4, Paul would want them to ‘continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.’

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Reading about Jesus in the Old Testament

In Colossians 3:16, Paul also says that the word of Christ should dwell in us richly. He means the word of Christ must live in our minds – often when we read the Bible, it goes in one ear, but instead of dwelling, it goes out the other. We are to be like the psalmists who meditated on God’s word day and night (Ps. 1), who hid God’s word in their hearts that they would not sin against God (Ps. 119:11), and who discovered that God’s word was a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Ps. 119:105).

An obvious matter that should come to mind is how the Colossians could do this when they did not possess individual Bibles. Before the invention of the printing press, it was not possible for believers to have personal copies of the Scriptures, and in any case most of them would not have been able to read one. The answer to this situation was that the Scriptures were read publicly in church gatherings (a blessing is made on the person reading and those listening in Revelation 1:2: ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it’), the contents were remembered (memorised), and they were repeated again and again by the believers.

Of course, the best way for us to remember it is to read it. I recall being told by someone that there are more words in our daily newspapers than there is in some of the larger books of the New Testament. There is no reason why we cannot read some of the books of the Bible in one sitting.

Paul here is speaking about the scriptures that the Colossians would have had – the Old Testament, and he calls it ‘the word of Christ’. This can mean that it belongs to Christ or it is about Christ, and both aspects are true. Because it belongs to him, obeying it is an aspect of acknowledging his Lordship; because it is about him, it means that he is found on very page. So, in a sense, having the word of Christ in our hearts is the same as having Jesus in our hearts. He shows himself in the Bible, he speaks to us in the Bible, and we have a living relationship with him through the Bible.

We should not be surprised at Paul’s teaching here because he is saying what Jesus himself said about the Old Testament when he spoke to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus on the day he arose from the dead (Luke 24:27) and what he taught the apostles when he met with them later that day (Luke 24:44). He made the same teaching to his opponents when he rebuked them for searching the scriptures and failing to see that they were about him (John 5:39).

Right away, we face an important challenge – how much of the Old Testament do we know?

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Attire of Christlikeness

In Colossians 3:9-14, Paul calls on his readers to get rid of old clothes and to put on new clothes. The old clothes are sinful thoughts and actions and the new clothes are good thoughts and actions. We were born wearing the old clothes, and they are nothing but rags, but we can get a free set of new clothes from the heavenly store. The new clothes are fivefold – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, and they are worn long with love and forgiveness.

Sometimes, the owners of an earthly store arrange a special day when their privileged guests can observe a model wearing the latest designs and so give them an example of how to wear the attire. And if they need to consider the presentation in more detail, the owners will provide them with a DVD that they can watch at home in order to know how to best put on the new wardrobe.

Similarly, there is a model in the heavenly location and he is the Owner’s Son and he wears the attire all the time. In the heavenly store one will not find new fashions, but neither will one find dated items either. And the Owner provides an equivalent of the DVD, and that is the records of Jesus in the Gospels and we can go through each of them and discover how best to wear the heavenly wardrobe.

So how did Jesus wear the item of a compassion heart? On one occasion, he used his tongue to show compassion when he taught those he saw as sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). He also used his tears at times, as when he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). And at other times, he used his hands as when he broke the few fish and rolls with which he fed the 5,000. There were many other ways by which he showed compassion, but these are three that we can imitate – we can tell the truth of the gospel to those who are deceived by sin, we can weep over the perishing, and we can use our assets and possessions to bring relief to those in need of it. And if we find ourselves forgetting how it should be done, we can take out the Gospels and see how Jesus did it.

Or we can look at some of the ways in which Jesus showed kindness. Kindness is the practice of goodness – it is the display of grace in all kinds of situations. A way of seeing kindness in Jesus is to focus on incidents when it was unexpected, when it was shown to those who would not have received kindness from others. One such person was the woman of Samaria – how kind Jesus was with her, a social outcast despised by her neighbours, but to whom he gave the water of life (John 4). Another was Simon Peter – how kind Jesus was to a failure when he restored Peter to the work of an apostle (John 21). Or we can think of the criminal on the cross – what kindness Jesus showed to him when assuring him of a place in heaven (Luke 23). Of course, we can see Jesus showing kindness in other ways than just to those who did not expect it. But you will see them in the Gospels.

Then Paul mentions humility. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus described himself as gentle and lowly in heart, and both these character traits are mentioned here by Paul. We see many example of humbleness of mind in the Saviour. His birth reveals his humble beginnings. Although all things are his, he made himself nothing. He identified with his people when he humbly went to the Jordan and was baptised. And the best-known occasion is when he washed his disciples’ feet in the upper room. Humility is the willingness to perform what others think is beneath them, and Jesus was constantly marked by gracious humility as he lived a servant lifestyle.

The fourth characteristic is gentleness. One way by which we can look at this feature in the life of Jesus is to consider his work as shepherd of his people. He gently guides them to waters of rest when they are struggling to cope with the pressures of life. When they fall, he gently restores them. The grace of gentleness is perhaps the hardest to live out in today’s pressurised world, but it is how Jesus expects his people to live.

The fifth aspect is patience (or long-suffering) and Paul connects it to bearing with one another and forgiving one another. How patient Jesus was with his disciples, and with us! We tend to confuse patience with placidity whereas it is better to link it with perseverance. How long are we to bear with one another? As long as we will know one another. Of course, it is easier to persevere with a person if we do not hold grudges against him or her. I suspect that the failure to forgive in the past is at the root of many church troubles.

Paul informs the Colossians of the level of forgiveness they have to show – ‘as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’  That is a high standard, but I don’t think it should be a difficult standard to follow. How can one who is forgiven innumerable sins by Christ not forgive one or two faults in another Christian! What was the Lord’s forgiveness like? First, he desired to forgive – this was true of him before he came into the world and remains true of him. Second, he delighted to forgive; he fully forgave all who asked him for pardon, and he gave his forgiveness joyfully. Third, he forgives permanently – Jesus does not remind us of the sins he has forgiven. We will remember them with shame, that is true. Yet if we imitated Jesus in desiring to forgive, in delighting to give pardon, and in forgetting the faults of others, we would be very attractive.

I hope we are wearing our best clothes today, the attire of Christlikeness.