February 20, 2012

Bible Study Notes on Colossians 1:3-8

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the message of truth, the gospel that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you heard it and recognized God’s grace in the truth. You learned this from Epaphras, our dearly loved fellow slave. He is a faithful servant of the Messiah on your behalf, and he has told us about your love in the Spirit.”

In our prayers for you, we always give thanks -

  • The first thing to note is that Paul and Timothy are praying for the Church in Colossae and doing so on a regular basis. It’s not entirely clear in the original language whether the ‘always’ belongs to the ‘giving thanks’ (ESV, NIV) or to the ‘praying’ (KJV, NLT), but either way the sense from the passage is that they are regularly praying for the Colossians.

    • This is a common component of Paul’s letters, and in almost all of them you find him remarking about his earnestness in prayer for the recipients.

    • One of the most important things that we can do as individuals and as a church is to pray. Of all of the ministries and opportunities for service, this one is vital. Where it is missing, then our ministry and our witness is surely suffering. Certainly, this is a responsibility that falls upon the pastors and elders of a church to be praying regularly for their congregations, but the reverse is true as well. We should be actively in prayer on behalf of the church and its leaders. You can see this in Colossians 4:3, where Paul tells them to pray for him, that he might have opportunity and ability to proclaim the gospel. I can’t help but think that one of the main contributors to the state of Christianity in America is a lack of earnest prayer.

    • What are some barriers that stand in the way of having a consistent and faithful prayer life? How can we begin to overcome those barriers?

  • The next thing to note is that Paul’s prayers are an expression of gratitude. He has seen the work that God as done and is doing in Colossae and is giving thanks for it. In 1 Thess 5:18, Paul tells them to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

    • What about you? Do you find it difficult to give thanks “in all circumstances?” Is it easy to overlook things that God is doing in and around us and not be thankful for them?

To God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

      • In the next phrase Paul identifies the one to whom we pray and give thanks to – that is, God the Father. Just as today, the word God in Paul’s day is not a proper name or a title, but is a more general term. It’s important to know that every major religion appropriates the word God in some way (with a capital G). That’s one of the reasons that “God” is often permissible in public discourse in situations where more explicitly Christian notions would be opposed. Paul makes it clear that the God to whom he prays and offers thanks is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      • Who should we direct our prayers to?

Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus

  • The source of Paul’s gratitude and his motivation to prayer is that he heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all of the saints. You’ll often hear people speak about what their faith has done for them, or how their faith has helped them get through things. There’s even a song on Christian radio with the refrain “that’s what faith can do!” However, faith is only as strong as the object of the faith. Faith in an uncertain thing is no better than not having faith at all. The Colossians put their faith in the Lord Jesus, which is the only reliable object for our faith.

  • This faith in Christ is not simply a belief that Jesus is real, nor even a knowledge that He is the Lord God, but is more akin to a personal trust. John Calvin defined faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely-given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” It is trusting on the basis of the promise of Christ that we have been reconciled to God through his death and will be saved by him from the wrath to come.

  • This faith is the mark of the people of God and is how you identify your brothers and sisters in Christ. When we hear of those who have faith in the Lord Jesus, we rejoice with joy as if a newborn baby has just been born into our family. Paul says ever since they heard about it, they have been giving thanks to God for it and the fruitfulness that has abounded from it.

  • How would Paul have heard about it?

And of the love which you have for all of the saints

  • Along with this faith in Christ is a love for all of the saints. Now, this is not a love merely in the sense of feelings of good-will, or a general positive attitude, but is a love which can be recognized by its actions. It doesn’t exclude positive feelings but consists of more than that.

  • What is the relationship between faith in Christ and love for all the saints?

  • Consider some parallel passages:

    • Galatians 5:5-6

    • 1 Peter 1:20-23

    • 1 John 4:16-17

  • What kind of love is this? What does it look like?

Because of the hope

      • What is the driving motivation behind our love for other believers?

      • Here Paul adds the 3rd aspect of the Christian life, which is always associated with faith and love, namely hope. With the connecting word ‘because,’ we see that the underlying reason for our love to the saints is our hope.

      • What is our hope?

      • Ultimately, we hope for the resurrection and the realization of our inheritance in the Kingdom of God, the judgment of evil and the reign of righteousness. The ground of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus, which marks the beginning of the age to come. And when Christ ascended to the right-hand of God the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in the Church – and he is the source of our hope, a down-payment of our inheritance.

      • Hope is our eager expectation for the realization of God’s promises which we believe by faith.

      • Consider this parallel:

        • Romans 5:1-5

      • Why does this hope result in love for the saints?

Laid up for you in heaven

        • Paul says this hope is laid up for you in heaven – this inheritance is a treasure which already exists and we are waiting to receive it.

        • The battle has already been fought and the victory won. There is an inheritance waiting for those who are in Christ and it will be revealed at his appearing.

        • Consider this parallel

          • 1 Peter 1:3-4

        • What is the significance of this hope being laid up in heaven?

Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel

        • The Colossians we already aware of this hope because it is part of the very gospel which has given them life. There may be an emphasis on the fact that they heard it “before” in contrast to the most recent teaching they’ve been hearing from the false teachers.

        • The good news is that in his death on the cross, the sinless Jesus graciously suffered the penalty due to sinful men and was condemned as guilty by a sinful world. In his resurrection, God vindicated him as righteous and exalted him to his right hand and gave him heaven and earth as an inheritance. Those who put their trust in Jesus are freely counted as having been judged in his judgment, vindicated as righteous in his resurrection, and made co-heirs of God with him. What is true of him is true of those who have been united to him by faith. At the return of Jesus to judge the world, what has been accomplished on the cross will be fully realized in the lives of the saints.

        • Does our message still carry this hope? Are there presentations of the gospel that lack this hope?

which has come to you, even as also in the whole world

          • The last thing Jesus did on earth was to commission his disciples to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples of all nations and teaching them obedience to Christ. They would be going forth as emissaries of the King, in fact, the king himself would be with them as they went.

            • Matthew 28:18-20

            • Romans 15:15-21

              • Jesus commissioned Paul himself to this mission of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles (same Greek word as the nations in Matthew 28).

          • Paul testifies that the gospel has indeed gone forth, from Jerusalem to the ends of the Roman Empire. As you read the book of Acts, it’s amazing to see the variety of ways that God used to spread the gospel to different regions.

            • At Pentecost, the gospel was preached to Jews who had come to Jerusalem from places all over the world, representing many different languages and people groups. Undoubtedly, converts from this group brought the gospel with them as they returned to their home lands. Some believe that the church at Rome was founded by one of these early converts.

            • It was the martyrdom of Stephen that scattered the church into the surrounding regions, which led to churches being planted including the one in Antioch, which would later serve as home base for several missionary ventures.

            • There were also the planned missionary journeys of Paul, which resulting in churches being established and the gospel spreading throughout the empire.

          • We all know how we as individuals came to hear of Christ and believe, but have you given much thought to how the gospel reached your region, or the region of your ancestors?

          • This mission of Christ to the apostles is the chief activity of the church in the world. Until he returns, we are to be about the business of bringing the gospel to the nations and people groups who have not heard it, so that Christ may receive the worship of which he is worthy.

          • What are the ways that the church carries this mission forward today? What is your role?

it is bearing fruit and increasing even as also in you

          • The good news of salvation in Christ produces the fruit of a transformed life and contains within itself the seed of multiplication, as those who have been transformed are filled with the love of God and the desire to share the Christ with others.

          • This passage contains an echo of the original creation mandate given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. Adam and Eve were commissioned to bear fruit and increase, filling the earth with their progeny, and in the process subduing and ruling over creation. In the Great Commission, which could be called the new creation mandate, Jesus commands his disciples to multiply and fill the earth with their spiritual progeny (go and make disciples of all nations), subduing and establishing Christ’s rule (baptizing them and teach them to obey all that he commands). Paul reports that this is happening, not only in Colossae but throughout the world.

          • Similar allusions in Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20

          • You’ll also find imagery throughout the scriptures of the Word of God as a seed producing fruit. For example, in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.

from the day you heard and understood the grace of God in truth

              • It is the message of God’s grace in the gospel that creates spiritual children. When the Spirit of God opens the hearts of unbelievers to hear and understand the word of truth, perceiving God’s graciousness towards them in Christ, they are reborn into this new creation.

              • The message of the grace of God is the truth, in contrast to whatever the false teachers would have the Colossians to believe. Those who would lead them astray through different forms of asceticism and legalism have error from the truth of God’s free grace in Christ.

even as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant

          • The Colossians are indebted to Epaphras for bringing the good news of salvation in Christ. He is their spiritual father, and a fellow-worker with Paul. Epaphras is the founder of the church at Colossae, and possibly also the churches at Laodicea and Hierapolis. He clearly has developed a close personal bond with Paul, bringing him news of the churches and staying to care for Paul while he is in prison. He has endured great hardship and continues in faithful service.

          • Paul’s mentioning of Epaphras may serve as Paul’s statement of support for the gospel that Epaphras taught the Colossians over and against the false gospel tempting them now.

He is faithful on your behalf as a minister of Christ

              • The text here is either “your” or “our.” If the former, then Epaphras ministers on behalf of the Colossians, meaning that he works and serves for the benefit and well-being of the Colossians. If the latter, he is a minister of Christ on behalf of Paul, meaning that he is working in Paul’s stead as a delegate, preaching the gospel to the Colossians and others.

              • Paul has nothing but glowing words for Epaphras, both at the beginning and end of the letter. He has been a help in work, a personal support, and a faithful servant of the cause of Christ.

              • Has God placed any Epaphras’s in your life? How can you be an Epaphras to others?

And he has made known to us your love in the Spirit

              • Part of Epaphras’s ministry was to bring a report of the churches to Paul, so that he may continue in prayer and keep up to date with what is transpiring there.

              • The Holy Spirit indwelling believers serves as the One who unites them in love. Whatever differences they may have, in Christ they are united in one Spirit.

February 12, 2012

Colson and Fickett: The Good Life

   The Good Life: Seeking purpose, meaning, and truth in your life by Charles Colson with Harold Fickett (2005). 4 out of 5 Stars.

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” That’s how the Preacher begins the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, and that’s the best way to describe the pursuit of life that is grounded in anything (whether self, or money, or sex, or fame, or power, or legacy) other than joy in the Creator and the hope of fullness in him. Although I’m a rank amateur in the realm of philosophy, I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone who accepts the premises of atheism and materialism can reach any other conclusion but that of nihilism, utter despair, and absolute moral relativism. The fact is, however, that no one can consistently live that way, and those who try are hardly welcome by the society that embraces their philosophy. Colson’s book vividly illustrates the truth of Ecclesiastes 1-2 and seeks to provide an alternative that brings significance, hope, and genuine truth.

This book takes an approach very similar to the other two Colson books I’ve read, Loving God and Being the Body. The method could best be described as “don’t tell me, show me.” Combining stories from his own illustrious life experiences with those of others he has encountered along the way, Colson conveys builds his case through a series of windows into reality. The result is concrete, powerful, and readable. Through these accounts, you’ll see the brutality of human nature, the utter vanity of a life lived for self, the unspeakable beauty of sacrificial love, the transforming power of God’s grace, and the life and death importance of the truth. This is a well thought out book and because of the way it’s written never gets boring.

February 6, 2012

The Apologetic Value of Excelling in Your Field

In my last book review, I referred to this quote by C.S. Lewis on the importance of Christians mastering their field of work and the impact that this would have:
"What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian" (God in the Dock, 93).
I thought I would provide some examples of Christians who have done this very thing and because of their demonstrated expertise have earned the respect of colleagues in their field. It's important to note that they do this in a way that is consistent with the Christian worldview they hold and is not simply a respect earned from compromising their beliefs to be in line with the current scholarly consensus. These are some notable examples, and there are many others who could be mentioned. May their tribe increase.

A generation ago, the consensus in the world of analytic philosophy was that theism had long ago been placed in the dustbin of philosophy. That attitude has changed and one of the big reasons is the contribution of Alvin Plantinga and his revived form of Common Sense Realism. His works on epistemology and the problem of evil have been hugely influential. In her book Saving Leonardo, Nancey Pearcey writes that thanks to Plantinga's influence,
"Christians now fill graduate programs, occupy key teaching positions, and write important books in the field of analytic philosophy...As Quentin Smith observes, in other fields, Christians typically compartmentalize their religious convictions from their scholarly work out of fear of committing academic suicide. But 'in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, academically respectable to argue for theism'"
C.S. Lewis himself serves as a great example in this field. His Chronicles of Narnia fantasy books have garnered appeal and acclaim across generations. The same can be said of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In the area of fantasy books, you might also add Nate Wilson, whose 100 Cupboards and Ashtown Burials series of books are garnering quite a following. Examples abound in novels, two of my favorites being Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, etc.) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, etc).

Natural Sciences
The current director of the National Institutes of Health is Francis Collins. He was the head of the Human Genome Project and director of the National Center for Human Genome Research for 15 years. He is a protestant evangelical Christian and has been a strong advocate of ethics in genetic research. His most well-known book was The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Another active and influential Christian in the natural sciences is Henry Schaeffer III, who is widely published and cited in the field of Chemistry. He is also an active proponent for Intelligent Design.

Computer Science
Donald Knuth, whose 3-volume book The Art of Computer Programming is a classic in the field of computer programming, is a well-respected computer scientist and a devout Lutheran.

Hobby Lobby was founded in 1972 and has grown to 450 stores across the country and internationally, making them the #3 craft and fabric retailer. David Green founded the company and attempts to operate it on biblical principles. In the stores statement of purpose, he says, "We believe that it is by God's grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, we trust Him for our future."

There are many other fields and many other hard working Christians that could be named, but this will suffice. Churches ought to encourage their members to strive for excellence in their calling and to be salt and light in the world.

February 5, 2012

Paul Marshall: Heaven Is Not My Home

     Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation by Paul Marshall with Lela Gilbert (1998). 4 out of 5 Stars.

This is a book about being human in this world, specifically what it means for a Christian to live in this world as a creature of God in light of what Christ has done and ultimately what he will do. The underlying premise behind this work is the theological notion that “grace restores nature.” In other words, the creation has fallen into ruin because of human sin, but God did not just wipe it all out and start over. Instead, he redeemed it through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This event marks the beginning of a new humanity, a new creation, one in which the true nature of humanity is restored or finally revealed in its fullness. While the consummation of this new creation awaits the end of history and the return of Christ, the restoration has already begun in history. Those who have placed their trust in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit are already beginning to be renewed according to the pattern of this new humanity. Even in the midst of this fallen world, Christians are called to live in light of the resurrection, to live as redeemed humans in a creation that is still very much love by its Creator. This is the message that Paul Marshall seeks to expound and apply.

He begins by confessing that the book is very one-sided. The Bible teaches that the world as created by God is both good and, as a result of sin, profoundly bad. However, Marshall’s intention is to focus on the good, not to the exclusion of recognizing the effects of the bad, but with an emphasis on the good that remains. In terms of the distinction between the “already” and the “not yet” of our redemption, Marshall is seeking to expound upon the “already.” However, his reason for doing this is very much related to the “not yet.” The destination of the redeemed is not to some disembodied existence in a heavenly realm, but is very much an earthly, physical existence in a new earth. At the resurrection, we will be humans living in right relation to God and his creation and we are called to begin living that way now.

Our Place in the World

Humans were created in God’s image and given responsibility to rule over the rest of creation as God’s representative. We are called to “image God in our ruling, forming, and caring for God’s creation.” This responsibility is not removed by sin, but the fall has made it much more difficult to carry out. As a result of sin, our relationship with each other and with creation itself has been corrupted. God’s judgment against Adam and Eve results in the ground itself being cursed. As Marshall says, “Sin is not the reason we have to work, but it is what makes our work miserable ‘painful toil.’” This corruption spread to all of Adam’s progeny and has affected all of life. So why talk about this if creation is so wrecked? Why not just get as many people into life boats as possible and wait for heaven? Marshall answers,

A truly Christian viewpoint is not “lifeboat theology,” but “ark theology” instead. Noah’s ark saved not only people, but it preserved God’s other creatures as well. The ark looked not flee but to return to the land and begin again. Once the flood subsided, everyone and everything aboard was intended to return again and restore the earth…The story of Noah demonstrates that God has not given up on the world. God said to Noah, after the fall, what he had said to Adam and Eve, before the fall: “multiple and replenish.”

Following the description of humanity’s descent into sin, the Bible tells the story of how sin “has been, is being, and will be overcome through Jesus Christ.” Through the Old Testament and into the New, God reveals that he is concerned not just with the people of Israel, but with the whole world, and this is who Jesus has come to save. In the book of Romans, after recounting the wonderful work of salvation brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul describes the creation itself as groaning and eagerly awaiting the resurrection and being set free from the bondage to corruption. The redemption of Christ is truly cosmic in scope.

Our Response to the World

In the next section, Marshall outlines four fundamental aspects of our life in the world:

  • Learning – We are called to be always learning, using the light of God’s word to illumine our understanding of the world around us. We study the scriptures, but not just to know them for their own sake, but to use them to know God and his world rightly.
  • Work – Our work is part of who we are as humans, and this is not limited to paid employment but includes “repairing the faucet, helping the kids with their homework, taking our the garbage, or making the bed.” In contrast to the medieval elevation of the contemplative life, the Protestant reformation emphasized that the priesthood of all believers means not only that all humans have equal access to God in Christ, but also that all work is equally service to God. As Tyndale said, “to wash dishes and to preach is all one, as touching the deed, to please God.” We must also oppose society’s attempt to consider work antithetical to fulfillment or to elevate some professions above others. We must view work as the responsible activity of God’s image bearer and seek to cultivate that mindset in our workplaces, granting people the responsibility and the opportunity to serve their neighbor and God and not treat them as a commodity.
  • Rest – God has made his view on rest know in the fourth commandment. It is vital to healthy life in this world, and serves as a curb against the inherent tendency to make an idol out of work. It also forces us to place our trust in God and resist the desire to consume and produce without limits.
  • Play – This is simply being “at home in the world and at peace with God.” It is “what we do for no reason at all. Play is not done for any reason outside of itself.”

Our Tasks in the World

Some areas of life where our responsibilities are played out:

  • The natural world – The biblical approach to the environment is neither idolatrous nor destructive. God condemns those who senselessly destroy the earth, and we should exercise responsible stewardship.
  • Political responsibility – “Politics is not simply a fight about who gets what. It is not merely a realm of struggle and sin. It is also a ministry, protecting the lives of human beings, God’s image bearers. It is a means of bringing justice and dignity. The restoration of decent politics is a Christian ministry. It is a hard and necessary ministry and we need to take it up.”
  • Imagination and the Arts – God is the master artist and we are called to imitate him with our imaginations. We should see to do so in our art, our dress, our cooking, and anywhere else we can.
  • Creativity and Technology – Technology is not a savior, but is a reflection of the desires and priorities of a culture and can promote the flourishing of humanity or can have a dehumanizing effect. We should break the idols of technology but pursue technologies that encourage holistically improving human life.

Our Hope for the World

The last section ties up the ways in which Christians impact the future of the world, and the hope that awaits:

  • Worship and idolatry – All humans are religious and are worshipping something, whether it’s the gods of pagan religions, the idols of our hearts, or the true God. In many ways, Christians are also susceptible to idolatry – whenever we’re putting our trust or confidence in something other than Christ. The pattern of an idolatrous society involves serving gods with out lives, being transformed into the image of the god, and creating structures and forms of society in its own image and into the image of its idols. When Christ transforms a culture, the idols become de-idolized and the good which had been corrupted to idolatry is restored to proper use in serving Christ.
  • Evangelism – The great commission calls the nations to obey God. “When men and women turn to Jesus Christ in real, concrete repentance from sin and, by grace through faith, are restored in God’s favor, they are called to being to live out the healing and restoration of Christ’s redemption, taking up their Christian responsibility for the direction of human life and culture.” We need a much deeper view of evangelism and consider how all of our work, art, and actions in the world are a potential testimony to true reality even when they’re not explicitly “evangelistic.” This is a powerful witness to the world, when Christians produce good families, good businesses, good art, good books, and good politics. Quoting C.S. Lewis: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects –with their Christianity latent…Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”
  • Patience and Longsuffering – There remains evil and suffering in this world, and our God bears patiently with wickedness until the final judgment. We are called to perseverance in hope, knowing that the suffering is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.
  • The New Creation – Our hope is for the resurrection, and we get a picture of how real it is in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. He was no ghost. He walked, he cooked, and he ate – we shouldn’t expect to be any different. All that is good in this creation, and all that has been redeemed will be welcomed into the new creation. The fires of 2 Peter 3:7 are not fires of destruction that destroy all of creation, but purifying fires of judgment that destroy the sinful and the wrong. In the meantime, Christians are called to hope and joy in the midst of pain, seeking to patiently do God’s will while they await the blessed hope of the Lord’s return.

In 1 Corinthians 10:31, the apostle Paul exhorts believers that everything they do should be done for the glory of God. That is the message of this book and one that needs to be heard in our churches. So many Christians live a compartmentalized existence, where there is little relationship between what they do on Sunday and what they do on Monday. There are a few things to quibble about throughout the book, but overall the heart of it is right where it needs to be. All of Christ, for all of life, for all the world.