Faith Under Fire
November 9, 2003. © 2003, J.W. Carter
www.biblicaltheology.com Scripture quotes from KJV
When Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians during his Roman imprisonment, the relationship between the church and the world culture was not unlike its relationship today. In recent years, the liberal, hedonistic, and relativistic philosophies of this world view the faith of Christianity as being ignorant, unenlightened, and intolerant. This is simply because the world philosophies teach of a new "enlightenment" that comes from their acceptance. "New Age" religions, which find peace through the heart and mind, independent of any need for salvation at the Cross of Jesus, share this idea of enlightenment. It is interesting to note that there is nothing new about these philosophies. These same systems of belief were prevalent in the ancient Greeks, and it was many of these same systems, as well as several others that are not so popular today, that competed with God for men's hearts and minds.
Consequently, it is no surprise that the church today is under fire from the pagan world in which it thrives. In some parts of the world, Christians are severely persecuted, particularly in regions of heavy fundamental Islamic influence. There have been more Christians martyred in the last 100 years than in all of the other 1900 years of faith. The persecution of Christians in Western societies is more subtle. They are portrayed as ignorant and intolerant in the media, movies and television. When leaders in the faith act in a manner that is inappropriate with Christian teaching, the media takes advantage of the situation by publicly embarrassing and harassing them. Christians are even more persecuted within the walls of the church when its persecuting members are more identified with the world's philosophies or controlled by their own pride and prejudices rather than the Holy Spirit.
The temptation to avoid persecution is powerful. Most people are silent and ineffective in their Christian walk because of fears of embarrassment, rejection, fears of speaking to groups of people, fear of failure, etc. Embarrassment, rejection, failure, and other objects of fear can be avoided by simply not taking part in the Call to Christian service. Consequently, when you look at the church today, you find only a remnant who are actually serving. The others are attending, are unchanged, and are undetectable from non-Christians when outside the doors of the church.
The Colossian church was engaged in the same conflict with the world as the church is today. To the Roman leadership, they were hated because of their refusal to worship Caesar (as were the Jews.) To the Jews they were hated because they did not keep the laws and traditions of the faith. To the Greeks they were hated because of their perceived ignorance and intolerance. It had been over a generation since Jesus had ascended, so there were few first-hand witnesses left to personally validate the teachings of the faith. The pressure to assimilate back into the pagan society and its beliefs was tremendous. Consequently, as is the case today, there was no shortage of worldly and heretical doctrines and actions being practiced in the church. Epaphras, the pastor-leader of the Colossian church found himself under fire within the church body. It was the introduction of these doctrines into the Colossian church and the conflict that it engendered that led Epaphras to visit Paul to seek help, and led Paul to write this letter.
We can learn much from this letter as we deal with the same issues today. How do we remain faithful when we find ourselves under fire from both within the church and without?
If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister;
If anyone personified holding to the faith under persecution it was Paul. In this letter he has so far (1) introduced himself, (2) commended the church for their faithfulness, and (3) defended the supremacy of Christ against the heresies being propagated in the church. In this portion of the letter, Paul gets down to business as he begins to present a solid doctrinal foundation. His first statement identifies the necessity for having a faith that is grounded in the truth of the gospel. One who is not so grounded is likely to be swept to-and-fro by every wind of doctrine and philosophies. Such an individual, ignorant of the truth, has few resources to put to bear when presented with doctrinal error.
Paul brings up this issue first for good reason: a lack of grounding in the truth is the most pervasive weakness of the church. Almost all Christians own Bibles, but very few actually use them effectively. Most think that by attending a corporate service once or twice a week will ground them in the faith. Most preacher's homiletic styles (the style of preaching) are characterized by a 20 - 30 minute speech based upon a single verse of scripture or cluster of verses. Even if the preacher fully expounds on that verse (which may not be the case in many churches), a church member will be exposed to only 52 verses of the Bible in a year if he never misses a weekly service. The relationship a Christian has with God is not limited to corporate worship, but is a 24-hour per day experience. It is appropriate that Christians become grounded in the faith by personal involvement in Bible study. When one is so grounded, they are not as likely to move away from the hope of the gospel when conflict arises. They will not be as likely to "lose their faith," as some might refer, when their trust in God is compromised by their submission to the stressful circumstances of this life.
Paul also makes a point here that many Christians neither understand or consider. The Colossians have heard the gospel and have the opportunity to be grounded and strengthened in it. What about those who have not heard of Jesus Christ? In Paul's letter to the Romans (chapter 1) he also touches on this same issue and states that those who have not turned to God in faith are without excuse, whether or not they have heard the gospel, because God reveals Himself to man in many ways. Here Paul states that the gospel has been preached to "every creature," and he is simply a minister (administrator) of that gospel that has already been revealed. The principle that Paul refers to is simple ... Christians have no problem understanding that God "speaks" to them. They hear His "voice" and His will from many sources, all of which are empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. All who have come to faith in God came to Him by the work and prompting of the Holy Spirit, so God speaks to the lost as well as the saved. Even if one has never heard of Jesus, he can turn to God in faith because of what Jesus did on the Cross for them. God's grace is extended to all people. However, one only needs to observe this lost and dying world to see that even when people hear the clear message of the gospel the far greater number of them reject it.
Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: 25Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;
If anyone personified holding to the faith under persecution it was Paul. In this letter he has so far (1) introduced himself, (2) commended the church for their faithfulness, and (3) defended the supremacy of Christ. Now, as he gets down to the heart of this letter, he describes his ministry, not as the presentation of a highly-to-be-regarded resume, but as an example of how the holding to the faith in this wicked world will bring about suffering, but a suffering that is bearable because of the One for whom we suffer.
As James writes in the first chapter of his letter when he commends Christians to "count it as joy when you suffer," Paul states that he rejoices in his sufferings. When one suffers for no real purpose, they are truly without hope, and they truly suffer. However, when one suffers for a purpose, that purpose can give them hope and true joy. It is recorded that Karl Marx was once brutalized because of his beliefs, and when experiencing the blows of the gauntlet, held tight to the book that gave him strength: "The Communist Manifesto". We see Islamic fundamentalists who are willing to gladly commit suicide thinking that they are serving God by doing so. How much more strength does one have in suffering when their cause is that of the God of creation? When Paul experienced suffering, he did so at the hands of men who stood firmly against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul learned on the Damascus road who the real object of persecution is when Jesus said, "Paul, Paul, why do you persecute me." Paul was persecuting Christians only to find out that it is not they who are persecuted, but Jesus Christ himself. Consequently, when Paul took the stripes of the whip he was bearing them, not for himself, but for Jesus Christ. He was sharing in the afflictions that evil men would put on Jesus Christ for the sake of the church.
When Christians find themselves persecuted, condemned, criticized, or otherwise abused by people both within the church and without, can they also respond like Paul and count it as joy? If that persecution is the direct result of true faithfulness to God's will and purpose in their lives, they most likely can. However, when that persecution comes at the hands of other Christians it is impossible to avoid disappointment when one observes wicked actions by those who profess faith.
Again, Paul points to his commission as a minister, and in this context, a minister to the church. What he is experiencing is not only for the good of the gospel, but for the good of the Colossians, for the good of the church. This implies that there is a sense of duty engaged in his suffering. Likewise, when all Christians suffer at the hands of wicked people, they are experiencing the reasonable result of a life that is characterized by a fulfilled duty to the gospel. Paul's persecution was a direct result of his calling to present the gospel. This was the commission (dispensation) that God gave to Paul, and the same commission that is given to every Christian. However, as Paul has personified in his own life, when one is true to that commission, they will find themselves at enmity with this world and will share in Christ's sufferings at its hands.
Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:
This word, "mystery" that Paul uses in reference to the gospel is used in a little different way than it is today. The Greek term that is translated 'mystery' was a very common and heavily used word in their culture. The type of mystery that is described here is that of one that is completely revealed to a select few. Many pagan religions of their day operated on such a premise: that they had the answers to a mystery that is revealed to no other. One does not have to search very far in today's society to see a similar pattern. Many cults operate on this same premise. In this manner, the Jews perceived Christianity as a cult, and by all definitions it is when viewed from the relative standpoint of Judaism. The truths of the gospel are openly revealed to anyone who would place their faith in God through Jesus Christ. At the same time, its truths appear as foolishness to those who reject God and choose to live a life in rebellion to him.
To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:
What is this mystery? What is this truth that has brought those people who know it into direct conflict with the world? Paul summarizes the mystery as the "riches" and "hope" of glory, or the hope of eternity with God. Furthermore, he states that this hope is given to the Gentiles. Paul came out of Judaism, the religion of a nation that thought that, as the "children of God" they were the only people who would have such hope. However, when Jesus stopped Paul on that Damascus road, He made his commission to take that hope to the Gentiles a clear one. He was to take that hope to the same Christians that he had been persecuting. God had to also teach this to Peter and the other apostles who, without God's direct intervention, would have had a hard time reaching outside of the confines of Israel. It is evident that, even when they knew that the gospel was to be presented to the Gentiles, they found it hard to overcome their own prejudices, as there was no shortage of debate in the Jerusalem church when Paul would come around.
God's plan was that all people would have an opportunity to turn to Him in faith, whether they be Jew or Gentile, whether they be slave or free, or whether they be informed or ignorant. Jesus died for all people so that He could be the Lord of their life on earth and in eternity, for it is Christ in the heart of a Christian, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that the hope of Glory is sealed.
Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: 29Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.
What is this mystery? Unlike the mysteries of the world's cults and religions, they mystery is not a set of rites, rules, or regulations that reveal power, but rather it is the living Person of Christ: the hope of all mankind. The word, 'preach' is also the word, 'proclaim', as it is the commission of Paul and of each Christian to proclaim the gospel to every person. First we see a warning. What is that warning? People of the world think that by following the way of the world, they will find happiness and peace, but following the way of the world is following a way of sin and rebellion against God. Consider the following scenario ...
You are visiting the Grand Canyon of the United States. This canyon is about one to five miles across and about a mile deep. When one stands upon its precipice, the drop-off can be well over 3000 feet. Imagine that you are watching someone taking a photograph of another with a hand-held camera, looking through the lens as the picture is being composed. As many would do, the photographer is slowly walking backwards, taking in a larger field of vision, without watching where he is walking. As he is moving backwards, he is approaching the precipice and is about to step off into the abyss. What would you do? Most likely, you would start screaming and yelling at the photographer to stop his retreat, as he is about to die in his ignorance of the danger. This is the type of warning that Paul speaks of. Christians are witnessing a huge exodus of the people of this world as they walk over the precipice into the abyss of hell, separated from God for eternity because they are ignorant of the abyss, mesmerized like the photographer's composition, in the false teachings of this world. Why are Christians not responding in this same manner as they watch millions of people walk backwards into the abyss? Most would probably claim the fears that Satan places in their hearts.
Christians are called to proclaim the truth, warning of the danger, and teaching the truth. That truth is to be under girded by the foundation of God's wisdom, not that of the rational philosophies of man so that each person can come to know and turn to Christ as Lord. This is the commission placed upon all Christians by Christ, to tell others of His saving grace and power so that they might also come to know Him as Savior and Lord. Upon knowing Christ, God's purpose for an individual is fundamentally accomplished as the Holy Spirit can then work in the heart and life of a Christian. This is the process that Paul refers to here as being presented to God as "perfect." Today's English has a more finite definition of the English word. When the KJV text was translated, the word "perfect" also meant "complete," and this is the intent of the text. A person cannot be complete until they have turned to God in faith because, simply, this is the very reason that God created him/her in the first place.
All Christians are called to this work, as Paul then testifies as he has been faithfully laboring to bring people to a saving knowledge of God, fully recognizing that the work that is done for God is done in His power alone. That is, the work that Christians do for God is empowered by God. Often Christians will shy away from ministry quoting fears of inability and inadequacy, not realizing that it is the inadequate and incapable person who God wants to use. It is not until the work is empowered by the Holy Spirit that it is truly God's work. When God is engaged, people can accomplish tasks that are far beyond themselves. Most Christians are not willing to even try to do something that they are not fully capable of.
The work that God does in us carries His power and authority, the very power and authority that created the universe. That is some serious power. We cannot wander far from the situation of the church: one that has been under criticism and persecution for over a generation. It is through God's power that they can overcome their focus on their own state and look upon the lost state of others with compassion and action. Likewise, when today's Christians are under stress, God's power is more in evidence as He strengthens the heart and the faith of the insulted and downtrodden. Even though the Christian experiences grief and loss, he does not have to lose the joy of the knowledge of salvation, nor the joy of seeing God work mightily in them as He helps them to overcome difficulty. We see the personification of this victory in the life of Paul, and he promises that same victory to the members of the Colossian church, and to all Christians who read his words.
For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; 2That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; 3In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Paul's concern for the churches was never diminished by the persecution he received at the hands of the Romans and Jews, and was through God's power emboldened through it. The "great conflict" stated in King James is literally an expression of how strenuously he strives for the Colossians, and the Laodiceans, a sister church in Asia Minor that was very familiar to the Colossians. The prayers and actions he exerts are done not only for those who he has met, but is also for those who he may never meet. Why would Paul feel a need to strive for the congregations? If these congregations were at peace and growing as they should, his striving would be more characterized by the joy he expresses for the Philippians. However, the Colossian, and Laodiceans were not at peace. Their congregation had become a mosaic of heretical doctrines with each group at odds with the other, and none of these were submissive to Epaphras' teaching. Paul literally agonized over this situation. I am sure that, as some people read these words, they will remember some shed tears or sleepless nights that were motivated by conflict within the church they love. Paul's life work was to teach the truth to churches that often, upon his leaving, would stray from the truth they know because of the infiltration of heresy into the congregation at the hands of prideful, self-centered people.
Paul agonized because of his deep desire that the people of the church would not have hearts that were broken by conflict, but rather comforted with the knowledge of the truth as the congregation would be knit together by love. The metaphor that Paul uses here describes the knitting of a tapestry that contains a multiple of shapes and colors, but when bound together, forms a beautiful image. Paul's heart is broken when he sees the turmoil that is caused in the churches by prideful men and how their actions injure the hearts of the faithful.
Paul's purpose is to teach to all of these, both the heretics and the faithful, the riches of the truth of the gospel. When one begins to understand the power of the truths of God, those heresies are eclipsed by them. The incorrect answers to theological questions that are provided by the heretics are replaced by the full understanding of the truth, the acknowledgement that all truth is from God. Then, the open-secret mystery is revealed to even the heretic, and the peace and love that should characterize the congregation can be found.
Those who are pushing their pride-centered need for power are not motivated by the true treasures of wisdom and knowledge of the gospel. It is evident that their actions are not motivated by love, but rather by their need for self-importance. True wisdom is hidden from these, hidden not by a covering placed their by God to keep them ignorant, but rather by their own selfish pride, the sin that blocks their unimpeded view of the truth.
And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. 5For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ.
Not all heresy that persecutes the hearts of the faithful is obvious. More often than not, the words that lead the congregation astray have a sweet and loving sound, and the positions they espouse may make logical sense, but they are positions that are heretical just the same. People with powerful and charismatic personalities, and people who are skilled at debate or oratory have often used that skill set to lead people to their own purposes both within the church and without. Paul writes to the Colossian church so they will recognize the wolf in sheep's clothing who speaks with enticing words but leads them into the den of his pride.
Paul reminds his readers that, though he is absent from them while in Rome, he will always be with them in the spirit, experiencing their joy, observing the peace and love that they experience, and observing their patience as they endure persecution from both their culture and their heretics. The power behind their perseverance comes not from Paul's words, but rather by the expression of their true and sincere faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that such a testimony engenders.
The situation experienced by the Colossian church is not unlike the church of today. The church has been fragmented into denominations that each have varying, and sometimes opposing, views of the gospel and of the will of God. Within those churches, many are in conflict because of the self-centered expressions of the sins of prideful people. From without the church finds persecution that may range from the subtle as is the case for most Western churches, to deadly persecutions that are experienced in some of the Islamic nations. God has offered to Christians His wisdom, the knowledge of His will, and the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen them against the forces of persecution and evil so that they can stand against it. Christians can both persevere in the face of conflict and use their testimony to teach the persecutor. Indeed, Christians have the resources to maintain their faithfulness when under fire, as they lean on God's grace and on His love, looking to Him for the answers to the many questions that such conflicts generate. God will show the Christian how to respond to conflict with love and with grace, defeating the enemy with love and truth, resulting in an enemy who becomes a brother. God's kingdom is further empowered just a little each time the faithfulness of a Christian, as exemplified in the life of Paul, results in one more person coming to a saving knowledge of God.