Do You Fear God?

Do You Fear God?

Colossians 1:15-23

Dr. Jim Denison

The most famous sermon in American history was preached on July 8, 1741 in Enfield Connecticut, by Jonathan Edwards. It contains these famous words:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up.

There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

Nothing could be more counter-cultural today. No words could better express an outdated Puritanism our culture is glad to leave to the history books. “Everybody knows” that God is whatever you believe him to be, that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere and tolerant, that a loving God would not send anyone to hell or judge anyone’s personal morality. But what if Jonathan Edwards was right?

Do you fear God?

Our text makes seven distinct and unique claims for our Lord.

First: he is God. Paul calls him the “image” of the invisible God (v. 15a). “Image” means the exact representation, the very stamp of God, one who shares in the nature of that which it pictures. He is the image of the invisible God, enabling us to see the God we cannot see. He is not just a prophet of God like Mohammad, or a religious leader and example like Abraham and Buddha. He is God.

Second, he is infinite in existence, the “firstborn over all creation” (v. 15b)..

The phrase doesn’t mean that he was born in time, but that he came before all creation, as the firstborn comes before the other children. John says of him, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

Other religious founders were part of time. Jesus created it.

He is divine and infinite. Then he touched our finite world, personally and directly.

Third, he created all that exists: “by him all things were created” (v 16). His miracles showed the power of the Creator over his creation; his resurrection proved it 20 centuries ago, and his ability to answer our prayers today proves it now. He is Creator over all the universe.

Fourth, he sustains all that exists: “in him all things hold together” (v. 17). He created the world, and holds it together now. As I understand it, atomic physicists cannot explain fully why the negatively-charged electron and positively-charged proton can exist in the same molecule, but they can. Jesus knows why.

Fifth, he rules all that exists: “so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (v.18b). He rules the church, which is his body (v. 18a), even as he rules all things. He is the only person in all of human history to claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

Now his creating, sustaining, ruling power over the universe becomes personal. Sixth: he reconciles all that exists to his Father: “through him to reconcile all things to himself” (v. 20a).

“Reconcile” means to restore us back to the state from which we fell. Jesus did this by the blood of his cross (v. 20b), where the innocent sacrifice paid the price we owed and purchased our salvation.

We were alienated from God because of our evil behavior (v. 21). But now by faith in Christ we are “holy,” set apart for him; we are “without blemish,” acceptable to God; and we are “free from accusation” by the court, for we are declared innocent. This is the gospel, the good news entrusted to Paul and preached all over the world.

Conclusion: he is the unique and supreme Lord of all, “so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (v. 18). No other person who has ever lived can compare with him. That’s what Christians believe about Christ, and it’s what we’ve believed since the beginning of our faith.

Do we fear God?

But it’s not what the enemies of Christ in Colossae believed, then or now. They were known as “Gnostics,” from the Greek word for “knowledge.” They believed that right knowledge is sufficient for salvation, that the “spiritual” is irrelevant to the “secular.” Many therefore argued that you can live any way you wish; personal ethics are subjective and immaterial, as “religion” is irrelevant to life.

Gaining What You Cannot Lose

Gaining What You Cannot Lose

Colossians 1:24-29

Dr. Jim Denison

“The End of the Spear” is the current movie which retells the 20th century’s most powerful missionary story. Fifty years ago, on January 8, 1956, Nate Saint, Jim Elliott, and three other American missionaries were killed by spear-wielding tribesmen in the Ecuadorian jungle.

Nate Saint’s sister and Jim Elliott’s widow subsequently lived among the tribesmen, leading many to Christ. Nate Saint’s son Steve consulted on the movie; Steve’s son and his family presently live among the tribe. Then and now it is a stunning story: how five men would leave secure and prosperous careers, risking their lives to tell a tribe they had never met about God’s love in Christ.

We are a risk-averse culture. A recent Wall Street Journal reported on the growing cryogenics movement, where people arrange to have their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen so they can be brought back to life in the future. The article profiled one man who has left $5 million to himself. Such “personal revival trusts” are becoming more and more common.

Most of us like to avoid risk and find security and comfort where we can. 2005 may have been the hottest year on record, but we have air-conditioned houses and cars, and even car seats. There may be a drought, but we have sprinkler systems; traffic may be a problem, but we have our car navigational systems; crime may be a threat, but we have our car and home security systems. No society in history has had it easier in terms of daily comfort and security than we do.

Today’s sermon in a sentence is therefore somewhat counter-cultural: we will experience God’s blessing and power to the precise degree that we sacrifice to obey him. No risk, no reward; great risk, great reward. When we’re done, I’ll ask you this one question: when last did it cost you something to serve Jesus? Why should you pay that price this week?

Paul’s choice

Saul of Tarsus had it made. The prize student of Gamaliel, he was a Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford valedictorian all in one. He was headed for a life of sheltered rabbinic study and prestige. Then he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and changed his loyalty to Christ.

But he could have kept his lifestyle. He could have been an unnamed and unknown scholar and scribe for the infant Christian movement, showing the Jewish authorities and scholars how Jesus fulfilled Scripture and warranted their faith. But that was not God’s call on his life. God wanted this former Pharisee and Gentile hater to be his “apostle to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:7-8), to take his word to the Colossians and people like them around the world.

Now that’s a different story.

He would have to live in the pagan Gentile world, where his Jewish sensibilities had never allowed him to go before. Imagine a Civil War doctor in the KKK whose practice was now confined to African slaves.

He would have to take the gospel to the Roman Empire, confronting their emperor worship and military might. Imagine a call from God to evangelize the dictator and military leaders of the Communist party in North Korea.

He would have to take the gospel where it had never been before, speaking to people who had never heard of the Law or the name of “Jesus Christ,” planting churches where none existed. Imagine selling computers to a remote tribe which has never even known electricity.

The cost to Paul would be high: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

Which brings us to the Colossians.

Paul is continuing to share the afflictions of Christ on earth for the sake of his body, the church (v. 24). What Jesus had suffered, Paul now suffers.

He has been commissioned by God to present the word of God in its fullness, whatever the personal cost to Paul (v. 25). He has been instructed to explain to them “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v. 27).

He would “proclaim” (teach) and “admonish” (correct and confront sin) “everyone” to present “everyone” fully mature in Christ when he returns. He would not stop until everyone was ready to meet Jesus. None would be outside his work or burden.

To this end he would “labor” (to work to exhaustion) and “struggle” (strive and exert, like a runner trying to cross the finish line or a football player struggling to cross the goal line).

But here would be the good news, and the point of our conversation today: “struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (v. 29). As we work, God works. Only when we work, does God work. God empowers us to the exact degree that we are serving his purpose with our lives, in his fear, and for his glory.

He cannot empower that which does not glorify him, extend his Kingdom, or love his people, if he is holy and righteous.

He cannot fail to empower all that obey his purpose, if he is faithful and Father.

The One Key to Every Door

The One Key to Every Door

Colossians 1:9-14

Dr. Jim Denison

The recent Business Week cover caught my eye: “Dream Machines–The future of cars: smart tech, sizzling design, more choices.”

I’ve been fascinated with cars since my father and I built my first Pinewood Derby Cub Scout racer–which still sits on my shelf at home, by the way. My first car was a 1966 Dodge Dart, which wasn’t. You’d hit the gas and it would laugh. It featured manual steering, brakes, windows and locks; vinyl seats which became a summer-time furnace in Houston; a push-button AM radio; and an under-dash air conditioner which dripped ice cold condensation on the floor.

According to the article, the newest cars have a few innovations my Dart did not. Sensors which warn the driver when the car veers out of its lane or heads for a possible accident. Plasma-based technology which releases charged ions into the air conditioner to filter out mold and bacteria. Navigation systems which will soon tell us where the traffic jams and accidents are. Radios which connect to an iPod or memory card. But none of these are the innovation I need most.

Remote door locks have been commonplace for years. But car makers have yet to make one I cannot foul up. I’m constantly pushing the trunk release button when I mean to unlock the doors. I’ve hit the panic button more times than I wish to remember.

Last Thursday morning was the worst yet. I left the 6 a.m. prayer meeting to get my briefcase from my car, walked up to my car, and pushed the remote. I heard the door beep, pulled on the handle, but the door stayed locked. I tried several times. Then I realized I was standing at Bill Rudderow’s car, which is the exact car, make, model, year, and color as mine. My car was eight feet away, beeping at me. My friend Dave Noble walked up, saw me apparently trying to steal a car, and said, “Baylor’s really expensive, isn’t it?”

The day they make a key which unlocks every door I need to open will be a great day in my life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one decision could solve all your problems? Help you with your financial worries, your health issues, your family’s struggles? Guide you at school and work? Give you the wisdom you need for every issue you face? If one key could open every door in your life?

Live in the will of God

Paul has already expressed gratitude for the Colossian Christians–their faith practiced in the presence of Christ and love for all God’s people, motivated by their decision to live for heaven rather than earth. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, when we aim at heaven we get earth thrown in. But even such mature Christians have not yet arrived at their spiritual destination. Paul still intercedes constantly for them: “we have not stopped praying for you” (v. 9a).

Here’s what he prays: “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will” (v. 9b). “Knowledge” translates the Greek word for “full knowledge which grasps and penetrates into the object.” He prays that they might know fully the will of God for their lives. How will they know it? “Through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

Wisdom is the ability to understand God’s will in all life situations; understanding is the ability to relate truths to each other and construct a coherent world view.

He prays that they understand what God wants them to do in every situation, and how that situation relates to his overall purpose for their lives and world. He wants them to know what to do next, and why. What steps to take, and what ultimate destination to seek. How to live each day, and the purpose for which to live their lives.

Why is understanding God’s practical will and ultimate purpose so important? It is the key which unlocks the following doors:

Then we “may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way” (v. 10a). Living in his will is the only way to please God.

“Bearing fruit in every good work”–then we reproduce spiritually, helping others follow Jesus.

“Growing in the knowledge of God”–then we grow spiritually, becoming more and more like Jesus.

“Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience”–then we live with his power, enduring all problems and trusting God in all situations.

“Joyfully giving thanks to the Father”–then we live in joyful gratitude every day to the God who has rescued us from the darkness of sin and hell and transferred us into his kingdom, redeeming and forgiving our souls.

Do you want to please God? To help others follow him? To grow spiritually? To live with his power? To live with overflowing joy? Then you must understand and practice God’s practical will and ultimate purpose for your life. If you are, your life will manifest these results. If you are not, you won’t.

Live for the glory of God

So far, so good. But what is the will of God for our lives? What is the overarching purpose for which he intends us, the north on the compass, the destination to which every step should take us?

Colossians was written by Paul to be read out loud, from a scroll, in a single setting. Teachers like me divide it up into sections, but it is best understood as a whole. If we keep reading, we’ll discover the answer.

Paul next offers what I consider the most profound single theological description of Jesus to be found anywhere in Scripture. We’ll study it in detail next week. Here he tells us: What Jesus is: “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (v. 15). What he has done: “by him all things were created” (v. 16). Who he is now: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead” (vs. 17-18a).

The One Thing You Need to Know

The One Thing You Need to Know

Colossians 1:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

2006 is off to an unsettling beginning.

Athletic success is uncertain. Vince Young led the University of Texas to its first national title since 1970. Meanwhile, Maurice Clarett, the freshman who did the same for Ohio State a few years back, is under arrest for robbing two people of their cell phones.

Economic success is uncertain. Alan Greenspan will end 17 years at the Federal Reserve this month; Ben Bernanke will then take over, and no one is sure what he’ll do with interest rates and the economy.

We’re not safe at school. This week’s Dallas Morning News described the growing problem Parent-Teacher Associations are facing with theft and embezzlement. One official recently stole more than $50,000 from the organization. Another stole $140,000.

We’re not safe at home. Last Sunday morning, a three-year-old boy asleep in his bed was seriously injured by a drive-by shooting in Oak Cliff.

We’re not even safe in church. Last Sunday night, a gunman broke into a church service in Maryland, and made off with an undetermined amount of cash and valuables.

With the future so unpredictable, how will you measure success this year?

Time magazine named Bill and Melinda Gates, and the rock star Bono, their People of the Year. Bono played a significant role in persuading the world’s richest countries to forgive $40 billion in debt owed by the poorest countries. Meanwhile, the Gates have created the largest charity in history, with a $29 billion endowment. However, they and every person they help will still step into eternity. When that happens, financial success won’t matter much.

We can measure success by possessions, job advancement, grades, points scored, friends impressed. Recently my brother and I went through four boxes of family memorabilia, much of it a century old. Report cards, pictures of houses and cars and vacations. Now just forgotten snapshots, relegated to the attic.

There’s another way to measure success in 2006. Let’s discover it together.

Serve God alone

Colossians sets out the preeminence of Jesus Christ more fully than any other book of the Bible. Back in AD 60, no one would have expected such. Colossae was the only church addressed by Paul which he never visited, and the smallest church to receive a letter in all the New Testament. Located 100 miles east of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, it had been a thriving town before its neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hieropolis passed it by. Think of Big Spring in relation to Midland or Ennis in relation to Dallas, and you’d have the idea.

The church had been founded five to seven years earlier by a man named Epaphras. He was from the city (Colossians 4:12), and had now brought news to Paul in Rome that the three most important Christian virtues were thriving in Colossae.

Paul has heard of “your faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 4a). The phrase means their faith exercised in his presence, walking always in communion with him. They are practicing the presence of Jesus. Would those who know you make the same report to Paul about you?

He has heard of “the love that you have for all the saints” (v. 4b). In the New Testament, the “saints” are those made holy by Jesus, synonymous with the Church. Because they walk with Jesus, they love his family as their own. “All”–without discrimination or contradiction. Would everyone you know tell Paul the same of you?

And he knows that their faith and love come from “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5). This hope is the source, the motive behind their continual practice of Jesus’ presence and love for his people.

They walk with him and love each other because they know that they will receive eternal reward for their faithfulness. They are living for that reward, not for anything the world can offer them.

They are obeying Jesus’ command to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).

They know that this reward is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

They heard about this hope, this purpose for living, in “the word of the truth, the gospel.” It changed their lives, and is changing their world.

Everywhere it goes it is “bearing fruit”–the analogy refers to spiritual reproduction. Christians who live for God alone and his heavenly reward lead others to follow Jesus as well, multiplying themselves.

And it is “growing”–the word points to their internal spiritual transformation. By living for God and his heaven they are growing to be more like Jesus every day.

By choosing to serve God alone and live for his reward alone, the Colossian Christians have joined their founder and their apostle.

Paul is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” “Apostle” means “one sent by the authority of another.” As such, he gave up all rights to himself–to where he would go, what he would do, what he would say. His only definition of success is obedience to the One he serves.

Epaphras is “our beloved fellow servant” (v. 7); the Greek calls him Paul’s “fellow bondslave.” We know from Philemon 23 that he had been imprisoned with Paul, perhaps in Ephesus or Rome. He gave up his plans and ambitions to serve Jesus and his Kingdom alone.

And now their work has helped spread the good news of God’s transforming love “in the whole world.” 20 centuries later, we are still following their Lord and moved by their example. 20 centuries from now, who will remember this year’s Rose Bowl football game?

So here’s the sermon in a sentence: find out what God will reward in heaven, and do it on earth. God wants us to serve him alone, for he alone can make our lives significant–now and forever.

He wants us to be his “slave,” as Paul often called himself, his “prisoner,” as the apostle often described himself. To measure success only by faithful obedience to him. To live for his heavenly reward rather than temporal success. To turn loose of every other definition of success, of every other ambition and agenda. Then he can reward us, now and forever.