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 No words could better express an outdated Puritanism our culture is glad to leave to the history books.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.

Sound familiar?

Conventional wisdom today dictates that all knowledge comes from experience; that experience is subjective; and so knowledge is subjective. There is no such thing as “objective truth” or moral absolutes. So long as we’re sincere and tolerant, our personal beliefs are just that–personal.

Queen Latifah was interviewed in last week’s Dallas Morning News before her newest movie was released. She claimed that if we can just set aside irrelevant things like race, politics, and religion, we’ll discover that we’re all good people inside. Religion divides us, and should be set aside by an enlightened society.

That’s certainly the message our culture is sending these days.

NBC’s new show, The Book of Daniel, portrays a drug-addicted Episcopal priest whose wife is a near-alcoholic; their family includes a 23-year-old homosexual Republican son, a 16-year-old daughter who is a drug dealer, and a 16-year-old adopted son who is having a sexual relationship with the bishop’s daughter. The priest’s secretary is a lesbian. The show’s writer is a practicing homosexual who describes himself as being “in Catholic recovery” and says he doesn’t know if “all the myth surrounding [Jesus] is true.” But since religion is irrelevant, it all makes for fun television.

The DaVinci Code will be released as a movie on May 19. It will portray Jesus as the husband of Mary Magdalene, a man elevated to divinity by the Church. No other religious founder would be so blasphemed in our society, but since Christianity is personal and irrelevant, it doesn’t matter.

Brokeback Mountain portrays two gay cowboys, won two Golden Globes and is expected to win Academy Awards as well. Since sexual orientation is personal and private, biblical objections to homosexuality don’t matter.

Boston Legal a week ago had William Shatner’s character in a sexual relationship with a woman he met in a bar. So long as they close the shades, whatever they do in his office is private and personal. Biblical objections to extramarital sex are irrelevant, of course.

We live in a culture which believes in no rules, whether they come from God’s word or not. We accept no accountability, since private acts between consenting adults are to be tolerated always. And we expect no consequences from our choices, so long as others are not hurt.

The bottom line is simple: our society no longer fears God. We no longer see Jesus Christ as the infinite creator, sustainer, reconciler, and Lord of the universe. We no longer fear his judgment when we break his word and will. The culture’s message is so loud and clear that it infects and affects us all. When was the last time you refused a temptation, not because you didn’t want to get caught or knew someone would get hurt, but because you feared the wrath and judgment of God?


The “fear of the Lord” is one of the most prominent themes in all of Scripture:

‘The fear of the Lord–that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).

“The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous” (Psalm 19:9).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding” (Psalm 111:10).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7).

“The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short” (Proverbs 10:27).

“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27).

“Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil” (Proverbs 15:16).

“The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom, and humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33).

“Through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (Proverbs 16:6).

“The fear of the Lord leads to life: then one rests content, untouched by trouble” (Proverbs 19:23).

“Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).

“Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 23:17).

The Bible promised that Jesus “will delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3).

The Bible says of the first Christians, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31).

What happens when we do not fear the Lord? We live as we want. What happens then? We miss the leading of God in our decisions, the blessing of God on our lives, the power of God for our problems. We live on our own, wondering if this is all there is.

If our culture so dishonors and ignores God, we wonder why he doesn’t visit us in judgment and wrath. But what if he is? He will deal with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. Did he allow 9-11 to show us that we are defenseless without him? Has he allowed the immorality of our culture to show us that we are directionless without him? Has he allowed the current drought to show us that we are resourceless without him?

Only one percent of America’s churches are growing primarily through evangelism and new converts. Has he allowed the irrelevance of the Church today to show us that we are powerless without him? That business as usual, self-reliant church work, religion for our sake, private morality which breaks God’s word and will, cannot have his blessing and joy?

If the absence of his blessing is not enough, will we next encounter the presence of his wrath? It couldn’t happen to Assyria, then it did; to Babylon, then it did; to Greece, then it did; to Rome, then it did; to the Soviet Union, then it did.

Alexis de Toqueville said of America more than a century ago, “America is great because Americans are good; and if Americans ever cease to be good, America will cease to be great.” The former Cuban pastor Oscar Dellet, my dear friend, believes that God has blessed America so that America’s churches can bless the world. But if we do not fear God, can we bless the world? If we don’t, can he bless us? If we will not fear God, can he not judge us?

Conversely, to live in the fear of God is to hate what he hates and love what he loves. It is to live every day by his word and will. What will such a lifestyle cost us? Private sin, which destroys our souls and lives. Public sin, which destroys our homes and families. Disobedience, which prevents his power and joy in our lives.

To live in the fear of the Lord is to lose nothing that matters and gain everything that does. If your life has missed the blessing and joy of the Lord, perhaps this is why. If your life has been good to this point, imagine what God can do with it when it is fully his.

So I call you today to live in the fear of the Lord. To know that Jesus Christ is the only eternal, creating, sustaining, redeeming Lord of the universe. To fear the absence of his blessing and the presence of his wrath. To walk through this week afraid of displeasing him, excited about obeying him, expecting his blessing and power and peace in your life. And they will be yours.

You may be a sinner in the hands of an angry God today, but you don’t have to be. You can be a soul in the hands of a loving Father. The choice is yours.

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.

For his purpose we have his power. Without his purpose, we have none of his power. Great risk, great reward. No risk, no reward. His purpose, his power.

Our choice

Now let’s make this personal. Do you know God’s purpose for your life? Paul knew he was to be God’s apostle to the Gentiles, and was willing to pay any price to fulfill that calling. As a result, he had God’s power, and the Father is still using his ministry today. Nate Saint and his friends knew they were called by God to the tribespeople of Ecuador. They had God’s courage, and he is still using them today.

Do you know God’s call on your life? Determine it today.

First, trust Christ as your Savior. Paul’s call began on the Damascus Road, when he gave himself to Jesus. Ask him to forgive your sins and become your Lord. Give your life to him.

Next, choose to walk in his word and will daily. Paul spent three years in isolation, seeking to understand God’s word and call on his life. Only then did he begin his public ministry. Surrender the day when it begins; connect with God through his word in prayer and worship; confess when you sin; stay in his will for today.

Now seek his overarching call on your life, his ministry for you. Learn your spiritual gifts. Pay attention to open doors and opportunities. Listen to the Spirit as he speaks to your heart. Attend to the ways he uses other people to encourage and guide you. Know that he wants you to know his call more than you want to know it.

Get with God until you can complete the sentence, “My ministry is ____________.” Give that crucial decision all the time it requires.

Know that God’s call will come at a price, and be rewarded with his power.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“Just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Corinthians 1:5).

“On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:18-20).

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18).

“But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

“If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).

“The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter5:10).

Determine to be faithful to his purpose, and expect his power. Do you experience his power? If not, you’re not in his purpose. If you’re in his purpose, count on his power. So, what is God asking you to do at a risk? Is there a call from God you have not been willing to obey? What is the risk/reward ratio for that opportunity to sacrifice for your Lord?

Are you standing strong for Jesus at school, or afraid of what your friends might think? What are you risking? People who do not follow Jesus and don’t want you to follow him may reject you. But they’ll see Christ in you, and perhaps be drawn closer to him. You’ll avoid everything they want you to do which God does not, and that’s all to your good. And you’ll have the power and joy of God for your soul.

Are you standing for Jesus at work or in the community? What are you risking? You may in fact lose money or your job, or status in your society. But God promises to meet your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). He’ll use your witness for eternity, and give you his power for your obedience now. He always pays his debts and more.

Are you obeying Jesus with your money and means, your time and abilities? What are you risking? What will it cost you to forfeit the blessing and power of God in your life? What will you gain if your money and time and life belong to the God who made the universe and loves you at the cost of his own Son?


The most famous statement to come from the 1956 missionary martyrdom was this sentence later found in Jim Elliott’s journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Last Monday we held Jarman Bass’s memorial service in Ellis Chapel. There I retold one of my favorite stories. It concerns an elderly man, a lifelong resident of the island of Crete. He was a fervent loyalist to his country, a nationalist to the core. When it came time for him to die, his sons carried him out of his stone cottage and laid him on the land of his beloved Crete. He scooped up a handful of its soil, and was gone.

He approached the gates of glory, but the attending angel asked what was in his hand. “Crete!” was the reply. “I go nowhere without it!” The angel told him he would have to leave his dirt outside to enter the perfect Paradise. He refused, and sat down beside the wall outside of glory.

A week went by, and one of his oldest friends, now a resident of heaven, came outside to urge his friend in. But he refused to give up his dirt, and stayed where he was. Another week passed; the soil drew dry and dusty, and began to trickle through his worn and calloused fingers.

Then his dear little granddaughter who had gone to heaven just the year before came out. “Grandpa,” she said, “the gates open only for those with open hands.” He thought about that for a while, then stood up and dropped the dirt in his hand. He took her hand in his. They walked through the gates into glory. And inside was all of Crete.

God’s power comes to those who fulfill God’s purpose. What’s in your hand today?

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).

Why? Why did Jesus make all things? Why is he head of the church now? “So that in everything he might have the supremacy” (v. 18b). “In everything” he is to have first place. In everything he is to be glorified. He does all things so that he might be glorified in all things. Glorifying God is the purpose of God, and of his creation. Glorifying God is his will for us. Living for the glory of God is the key which unlocks every door, the answer to every question, the destination for every decision.

God says he created us “for my glory” (Is 43:7). He warns us, “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another” (Is 42:8). He tells us, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another” (Is 48:11).

Think about it–for God to glorify anyone above himself would be idolatry. For us to glorify anyone above the all-perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal God would be foolishness. For us to live for anyone or anything but God is to live for that which is finite and fallen. Every person you know will sin. Every possession you acquire will decay. Your body will die and it will all be gone. Living for God’s glory is what is best for us. It is the way to the fulfillment and joy God created us to experience. So the Bible commands, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Right now God is working to glorify himself. He is using and blessing those of us who will live for his glory. And he is using those of us who will not, in spite of ourselves. Moses took God’s glory for himself, so God raised up Joshua to conquer the Promised Land. The authorities stoned Stephen to death, so God used his martyrdom to convert Saul into Paul. Rome exiled John to Patmos, so God gave him the Revelation. The enemy crucified Jesus, so God raised him from the dead.

In this new year, God will use you, or God will bless you. The choice is yours.


How do we live in God’s will, making every decision in light of his ultimate purpose for our lives? Living in ways which please God, lead others to him, grow to be like him, experience his awesome power and live in gratitude and joy? By choosing to live for the glory of God.

How do we do this?

First, obviously, refuse all that dishonors God. We know when we sin and come short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23). We know when our thoughts, words, and actions break his will and heart. Take a spiritual inventory. Ask the Spirit to reveal to you anything which displeases God. Write it down, confess it, and throw it away. Come clean with God.

Second, decide to do good things for God’s glory. Here the enemy is especially deceptive. If he cannot get us to do wrong things, he’ll get us to do good things for the wrong reason. For instance, worship for God’s glory. Miller Cunningham will lead us into God’s presence each week, but we must want to go there. Worship is about God, not us. It’s about his glory, not my desires. It is for him alone, the audience of One. It’s a good thing to come to church for worship. It’s a God thing to do it for his glory. Decide that you will do good things for his glory alone.

Third, examine your motives all through your day. Right now, am I teaching to impress you or God? Are you in worship to impress us or him? Ask before your next expenditure, or decision, or action–why am I doing this? For most of us, the glory of God is more about why we do things than what we do.

Last, trust God to help you. He wants to use and bless your life for his glory, even more than you do. Ask him to show you how, and he will. Ask his Spirit to keep you from wrong things, or from good things which are not God things. Ask his Spirit to show you how to glorify him with your life and work, your friendships and relationships, every moment and every day. And he will.

Living for God’s glory is the key which opens every door in life. I can tell you it’s so, because I’ve tried most of the others.

I’ve told you that my greatest personal fear is that I will misuse my life, that when I stand before God he will tell me that I missed his purpose for my existence. All of my adolescent and adult life I’ve wanted to know what God wanted me to do with my time and opportunities.

Knowing that I am to be a pastor isn’t specific enough. How am I to spend my time? Visiting the sick? Counseling the hurting? Evangelizing the lost? Preparing to teach, preach, and write? Leading the church?

As I told you last week, the Lord has recently called me back to his first purpose for my work: to be a “theological middleman” who translates scholarship into practice, who uses academic resources to build the church and Kingdom. But even that isn’t enough. Even that purpose is missing something, a sense of fulfillment and significance and joy. Even in that I don’t feel that I’m pleasing God, reproducing myself, growing in Christ, living in joy as I should.

Here’s the reason: my ultimate purpose is to glorify God. To glorify God by using theology to build the Kingdom. To glorify God by doing the work he has given me to do. To do this not for your sake or our church’s sake or my sake, but for his. That’s the key that opens every door, that fits every lock. Will you use it for yours?

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.

To decide that popularity, position, and possessions are not as important as faithfulness to Jesus. To surrender our lives in unconditional devotion to him, living only for his heavenly and eternal reward. That’s success to Paul. Is it to us?

Why to serve God alone

Why should it be? Why does God require such unconditional discipleship and devotion? Our culture certainly doesn’t see him this way. If conventional wisdom is right, God is our “Higher Power” who helps us when we have a problem, who inspires us to be the best we can be, who cheers us on from the sidelines, a kindly grandfather watching his children play in the park. Paul makes him sound like a Stalinistic dictator or power-driven CEO. How can the Bible claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and yet tell us that we must surrender to him as though we were his servant or slave?

Fact number one: our lives must focus on one purpose to be significant. A laser cuts more steel than a light bulb. You’ve heard me quote Abraham Maslow: “An artist must paint, a poet must write, a musician must make music to be ultimately at peace with himself.” Churchill told the House of Commons in June of 1941, “I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” Last Sunday you heard Chris Elkins remind us that Paul had “one thing” (Philemon 4:13). So must we.

Fact number two: only God knows what our “one thing” should be. Only he sees tomorrow from today. He made us and knows the purpose for which we are created, the purpose for which we are suited, the purpose which makes us happy and significant. He is perfect, omniscient and omnipotent. He sent his Son to die for us, that we might be forgiven and made his children. His will is our best, always.

Fact number three: even God can lead only those who will follow him. He is sovereign, but he has chosen to limit himself at the point of human freedom (cf. 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4). He will not do for us what we try to do for ourselves. Self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide.

When the body will not obey the mind, we call it diseased. When a soldier will not obey the general we call it treason. When a sailor will not obey the captain we call it mutiny. When an employee will not obey the CEO we call it insubordination. When a Christian will not obey Christ we call it “self-reliance.”


So, how do we join the Colossians and their apostle and founder? How do we begin this year in surrender and submission to our Father and Lord, choosing to live for his heaven as his servants and children?

Expect to be tempted by self-reliance, every day. Satan still whispers in our ears, “You will be as gods.” The will to power is still the basic drive in human nature. Know that you will decide between your will and God’s, all day and all year long.

Begin the day in surrender. Before it starts, give it to God. Make it your habit to spend a moment first thing in the morning, praying through your day and placing it in his hands.

Pray first as decisions come your way. Develop the reflex of going to God first. Before you take the phone call, answer the email, or step into the meeting. Before you go on the date, or to the concert. Before you make your next parenting decision.

Evaluate today by eternity. How will this glorify God? How will this demonstrate faith in Christ, love for all the saints, hope in heaven?

And expect God to redeem your faithful obedience. Expect this to be the best, most fulfilling, most significant year you have yet experienced. Expect him to guide you, use you, and bless you. Expect your life to bear fruit until Jesus returns. Expect joy.

I stole my title for this message from Marcus Buckingham’s latest business bestseller: The One Thing You Need to Know . . . About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success.

What is the “one thing you need to know”? In a sentence: find out what you don’t like doing, and stop doing it. Then you’ll maximize your strengths and engage others to handle your weaknesses, and all will be well.

Paul would say it differently: find what you don’t do for Jesus and stop it. Find out what he’ll reward in heaven, and do it on earth. Start now.

Here’s how the sermon applies to my life. In 1978, I was in my first church, serving as youth minister at Temple Oaks Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. In April of that year I left Temple Oaks to return to my home church as their youth minister. At my going-away reception on April 9, the Temple Oaks people gave me a set of Barclay’s commentaries; I still use them each week.

Everyone had left. I was walking to my car under the glare of the one streetlamp in the church parking lot. I read Barclay’s introductory paragraph, where he called himself a “theological middleman.” That was my Damascus Road. Lights flashed, bells clanged. I somehow knew that I was to spend my life making theology relevant to life, using academic resources to help people follow Jesus and build the Kingdom.

This week, preparing this message, the Holy Spirit took me back to that evening and that call. He led me to renew my commitment to it, as the servant of Jesus Christ alone. To answer to him only, to please him only, to live for his reward only. It has been one of the most joyful, freeing, encouraging weeks I can remember.

Find out what God will reward in heaven, and do it on earth. All year long. Starting now. This is the invitation, and the call, of God.