James C. Denison
Last Sunday’s Super Bowl was watched by an estimated one billion people worldwide. And quickly forgotten by everyone except the 800,000 or so residents of Indianapolis. Quick: who won last year? The Pittsburgh Steelers. Who lost? The Seattle Seahawks. Who made it all the way to the Super Bowl but lost the year before, and the year before? I had to do some research: the Philadelphia Eagles and the Carolina Panthers.
America loves winners. We don’t hate losers–we just forget about them, the Chicago Bears now included.
The Bears are not the only recent Super Bowl losers. A study suggests that U.S. businesses lost as much as $810 million in productivity during the week leading up to the big game. The report assumes that employees spent 10 minutes a day talking about the game, surfing the Internet, or shopping for a new television. The estimate does not include losses this past week as employees discussed the game or the commercials, or called in sick.
We measure success by winning and owning. Nothing else comes close. Things were no different in the ancient world. Rome was the greatest empire the world had ever seen because they won more battles and owned more real estate than anyone ever had. Not because of their ethics, or contributions to the arts, or social advancement. In spite of them, in fact.
To a world consumed by consumption, the Apostle Paul wrote a little letter which gave the lie to all that. A small epistle whose definition of success would birth a subversive, counterrevolutionary movement which would eventually topple that Empire and extend the Kingdom of God across the world.
If you agree that success is all about winning and owning, you won’t care much for Colossians. If you want to measure and experience success God’s way, you need to master this little book. As soon as possible.
Hope in heaven (vs. 1-8)
Colossae was an insignificant town 100 miles east of Ephesus in that part of the world we call Turkey today. Their church had been founded a few years earlier by a man named Epaphras. He was from their city (Colossians 4:12), and brought some good news to Paul in Rome.
Through him, Paul has heard of “your faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 4a). The phrase means their faith developed in relationship with him, practicing the presence of Jesus.
He has heard of “the love that you have for all the saints” (v. 4b), their unconditional commitment to all God’s people.
And he knows that their faith and love come from “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5). They are living for heaven on earth. Eternal reward motivates all that they do.
They heard about this hope, this purpose for living, in “the word of truth, the gospel.” It changed their lives, and is changing their world. Everywhere it goes it is “bearing fruit” in spiritual reproduction.
So the key to their spiritual success lies in this phrase: “the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel” (v. 5, emphasis mine). Because their hope was in heaven, they had faith in God and love for God’s people on earth. Let’s work on this idea for a moment.
What does it mean to have “hope in heaven”? In the Bible, “hope” means to be so sure of something you cannot see that you’re depending on it. In this sense I am “hoping” that my microphone will continue to amplify my words so I don’t have to wear out my voice. I cannot see what it’s doing, but I’m not going to take it off and start yelling at you. After church, I’m “hoping” that the cook who prepares my lunch doesn’t have a fetish for cyanide seasoning, since I am not going to test my food before eating it. To have biblical “hope” is to depend on something we cannot see.
We can have “hope” in the wrong thing, in which case our hope will not become reality. Years ago I bought a 1965 Mustang in the “hope” that it had been fully restored and would be reliable. Wrong on both counts. I finally sold the car so I could stay married.
You could have “hope” that your good life or church attendance today is enough to get you to heaven, but the Bible says that you’d be wrong: “by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves–it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
If you have asked Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Savior, you now have the biblical “hope” that you will live forever in heaven with God. Now God wants you to live for heaven on earth. To live for eternal reward now, “the hope that is stored up for you in heaven.”
To decide that you will take a stand for Jesus even if that stand costs you business or friends, in the hope or belief that you will be rewarded in eternity for your obedience. To refuse temptation even if it doesn’t seem that anyone would know about your sin, in the hope that you will be rewarded in eternity for your commitment. To tell others about Jesus even if you’re afraid they’ll reject you, in the hope that God will reward your witness in paradise. To tithe from your income to God’s Kingdom even if your stewardship comes at a cost, in the hope that God will reward your sacrifice forever.
That’s hard to do, isn’t it? You and I live in a culture built on the principle of immediate gratification. If we want something, we just charge it. If we feel like doing something, the ads says to “just do it.” I remember an old beer commercial: “You only go around once in life, so go for the gusto.” Life is short–eat dessert first. We can start our diet tomorrow. Get that new car–we can find a way to pay for it later. Our entire economy is built on consumption. The more we have, the more successful we are.
You and I want to be right with God or we wouldn’t be here today. We want to please him, to be rewarded by him. But it’s hard to put eternal reward ahead of present-tense pleasure.
That’s why hope is tied to faith and love. If we will decide today to do on earth whatever God rewards in heaven, that decision will require “faith in Christ Jesus.” The more we hope for heavenly reward, the more we’ll trust in Jesus to give it to us.
And that decision will free us to have “love for all the saints.” We don’t need anything from anyone. We’re not trying to impress them, or sell to them, or use them. They’re not a means to our temporal success or employees of our agendas. They’re part of our eternal family. We will spend forever together, so we may as well get started now.
Such hope is still “bearing fruit and growing” all over the earth.
We’re hearing reports of 10,000 conversions a day in Communist China, as the underground church is doing on earth what God rewards in heaven. We’re seeing reports of 25,000 conversions a day in sub-Saharan Africa, as impoverished Christians are doing on earth what God rewards in heaven.
The secret to the explosion of spirituality in Cuba is the same: oppressed Christians are doing on earth what God rewards in heaven. And people are standing outside the windows and doors of their worship services, wanting what they have. I’ve seen it myself. I want what they have, myself.
Are you doing on earth what God blesses in heaven?
Seek God’s will on earth (vs. 9-14)
How can you? Now we come to the last part of our text, where Paul prays for the Colossians, “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9b). Paul prays that the Colossians will understand what God wants them to do in every situation, and that they will do it.
Why? 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.
If you’ll decide to do on earth what God rewards in heaven, and ask him to show you that will through every day this week, you will please God. You will help others follow him. You will grow spiritually. You will live in his power. You will experience overflowing joy. But only then.
It all comes down to your definition of success. If you think that the one who dies with the most toys wins, that you are what you have and how you look and where you live, you can ignore the last 20 minutes we’ve spent in God’s word. If you want success as God defines it–the eternal reward and present significance which come from doing on earth what God rewards in heaven–then these last 20 minutes will be crucial to your soul this year. The choice is yours.
Last December, I lost one of my dearest friends when the Lord called Leroy Summers home. Our long-time senior adult minister and then minister with the Baptist Foundation of Texas, Leroy lived by our text. His hope was in heaven, his faith in Jesus, his love for his people obvious. He did on earth what God rewards in heaven, and now his reward is eternal.
Leroy’s last email to me, sent just a few days before the illness which took his life, contained a poem which I read at his memorial service. It’s by Michael Josephson and is titled, “What Will Matter”:
Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from, or on what side of the tracks you lived.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So, what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance
but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Why not today?