As you may well know, if you've been at First Presbyterian Church over the last few weeks or so, our new ministry calendar for 2018-2019 is underway, or begins this month. Part of that relates to the teaching theme and you'll be hearing about that theme in various ways in our different ministries throughout the church and across the course of the year ahead. And in the pews, you may still see some of these. Can you see these in the pew racks in front of you – these little blue bookmarks? If you haven't taken one, do take one and put it in your Bible. I'd love for you to have one of these. On the back, there are some prayer points, and perhaps you can use this as you read your Bibles across the course of the year to pray with us for some shared priorities. As you can see, the theme we are working with this year is called "Rooted: Learning to Live From Our Identity in Christ." Union with Christ changes everything. And this year we are going to explore various ways, in various ways, how that is so.
One of the ways we are going to do that on Sunday mornings is by considering together the message of the apostle Paul as he wrote to the Colossians; the short letter of Paul to the Colossians. So we’ll be pausing in our on-going studies in Mark’s gospel. We’ll come back to it again, God willing, in the new year, and we’ll be focusing beginning today on Colossians. So do go ahead, if you haven’t done so already, and take a Bible, turn to Colossians chapter 1. We’re focusing on verses 1 and 2 in this introductory sermon just to sort of set up the message of the letter, and we’re going to see how, in these few verses, particularly as Paul addresses the Colossians, we’re going to see how he speaks about their identity, about Christian identity, in four ways. There are four relationships that define our identity as Christian people.
First of all, there is our relationship to God. Paul says that they are "saints." That is, they've been set apart by God and for God. A Christian is a saint. That's a way to speak of our relationship to God. Secondly, our relationship to one another; we are family. We are brothers and sisters. He writes to the saints and "faithful brothers." We are family. Our relationship to one another. And then thirdly, our relationship to Jesus Christ. He writes to the saints and faithful brother "in Christ;" that is the fundamental new reality about us on the basis of which we can be said to be saints and brothers and sisters. We are in Christ together. And because we are in Christ, we are saints and we are family. And then fourthly – so our relationship to God, our relationship to one another, our relationship to Jesus, and then fourthly our relationship to our context. Our place matters. And so Paul is writing to the believers "at Colossae." And we are here in Jackson, and Jackson, Mississippi is part of who we are and part of the mission to which God has called us. And so as we think about our identity, we are going to be working through those four headings together. Before we read the Scriptures, would you, first of all, bow your heads with me as we pray. Let us pray.
Our choir have been ministering to us singing the words of the first psalm, reminding us when we meditate on Your holy Word we become like trees planted by streams of water, evergreen, yielding our fruit in its season. O Lord, as we come now to meditate on this portion of Your Word, would You nourish and water us with the water of life that we may bear much fruit to Your glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Colossians chapter 1 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
Do notice, please, verse 1. My inbox, my email inbox is cluttered every day with lots and lots of junk mail, usually from people trying to sell me something. And you can generally tell, can’t you, from the email address and the subject line, and so I don’t even open those emails; I just hit “delete” right away. One look at the sender and I know I don’t want to know what this guy is selling. “Delete.”
The apostle Paul starts out his letter according to the conventions of ancient letter writing in those days. An imminently sensible way to write a letter, you don’t have to wait to the end to find out who’s writing to you, he starts off by telling you straight away. Here’s the sender – “Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God.” And unlike those emails in my inbox, probably in your inbox, when you see who the sender is this time, we’re not supposed to hit “delete;” we’re meant to pay close attention because of the significance of the one who is writing. It’s not just Paul, but it is “Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God.” Why should we spend our time examining the teaching of this portion of the New Testament, this ancient letter? Well, we should do it because Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus, sent by the risen Christ as His authorized spokesman and interpreter. “By the will of God” – that is to say his words here carry and are freighted with the authority of Almighty God, so that the letter to the Colossians is the very Word of God to us. It is the voice of the great King speaking to His subjects by His herald, the apostle Paul. And so for that reason alone, we ought to pay careful attention to its message. It is the Word of God. It is authoritative.
But more than that, it is also a profoundly relevant Word. Both an authoritative Word and a relevant and a timely Word. There’s never been a generation more burdened with the question, “Who am I?” This generation, our society, our particular cultural moment, is obsessed with understanding identity issues. “Who am I? What am I? How do I determine who and what I am?” Identity. And so the apostle Paul, in this letter, offers us vital teaching that helps us to answer that question from the perspective of the Creator and the Redeemer who, because He creates and redeems, provides an identity for us that is true and wholesome and health-giving. And right away here in these opening two verses, Paul already sets out for us some of the fundamental components of Christian identity in four relationships. Our identity, he says, is shaped by four primary relationships.
Our Relationship to God
The first of them you can see in the opening words of verse 2. Paul says our identity is shaped, first of all, by our relationship to God. Verse 2, Paul is writing to “the saints, the saints at Colossae” – “oi haggio” – the holy ones. That’s what it means literally; the holy ones. It has the idea of being consecrated, set apart from common use to a sacred purpose; consecration, devotion to God. Now you are probably familiar with the way that sainthood and being a saint is commonly understood, both in certain segments of the church and in the culture at large. It’s usually understood to refer to a subset of Christians who are unusually holy, unusually pious. They are “super Christians.” You know there’s the rest of us, rank and file Christians, and then there are the saints. They are the super Christians. That is, I hope I don’t need to say, an entirely unbiblical and entirely foreign to the New Testament way of thinking about what it means to be a saint.
No, Paul is writing to all the members of the Colossian church and he describes them all as saints. Every Christian is a saint. To be a follower of Jesus is to be a saint. The thing that makes you a saint is nothing in you, nothing you’ve done or could do. You didn’t qualify for sainthood. It’s not like ACT test scores that qualify you for a scholarship, you know; you’re in a unique class, a special group – only a few ever get that scholarship. You haven’t qualified for a spiritual scholarship and now you’re a saint because you’re so special, you’re so good, you’re so religious or holy or pious or selfless. That’s not what saints are. No, actually you are a saint not because of something in you or done by you. You are a saint because of the free, sovereign grace and love of Almighty God who looked on you and looked on me in our unloveliness and our sin and put His hand on us and chose us and set us apart, designating us for Himself.
Down here where our new members are sitting you’ll see, you might be able to see there are red “Reserved” signs at the end of the pews. That’s actually a lovely picture in some ways of what God does for every one of us when we become followers of Jesus. He puts His “Reserved” sign on us. We are His. Reserved for Him. Set apart; consecrated, designated His, for His use alone. We are sanctified, set apart; we are saints. That’s what it means to be a Christian.
And that, I think, is a truth we may all need to reflect on more deeply and preach to ourselves more consistently because I know many of us struggle to shake a deep-rooted fear that actually somewhere along the way in our Christian lives God is going to require us to qualify, to meet a standard on the basis of which He will continue to love us. We look at our hearts and some of us feel like we’re losing the fight with sin more often than we are winning it. And were I to ask you to characterize how you feel about your relationship before God and with God, many of us would say that the predominant feeling we have is guilt and shame. “When I think about relating to God I’m just ashamed. I’m such a failure.” Let me say that if you are living in a persistent pattern of disobedience before God, you should be ashamed. Sin is shameful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment suggesting that it doesn’t matter how you live. Not at all. But I am saying that for most of us as we cling to Jesus, as we stay in the fight for holiness, as we wrestle to be obedient, if shame is the dominant experience of our hearts and guilt is how we primarily characterize our Christian lives, we haven’t yet allowed the wonder of the Gospel of free grace to penetrate our hearts the way that it should. The fundamental truth about you, Christian brother or sister, is not that you still struggle with sin. That is true, and it will be true until you go to be with your Savior. But that’s not the fundamental truth about you anymore – not that you are a sinner. No, the fundamental truth about you is that you are a saint. You have been set apart by the grace of God for God. And part of the task Paul has set himself as he writes to the Colossians is to help them both understand and appropriate that identity and then begin to live it out consistently, not being side-tracked by those who were seeking to infiltrate the Corinthian churches with false teaching.
And so if you look at the letter to the Colossians, even just superficially, you’ll see that the pressure was on and the Christians there were being tempted to turn aside. Perhaps the way they had understood their faith thus far was incorrect. They were hearing from false teachers offering a different model and a different solution. In fact, they were saying, “We’ve found it. We’ve found the silver bullet. We’ve found the shortcut. We’ve discovered the secret, hidden insight which if you’ll only buy into it, adopt our model and our philosophy and our ritual paradigm, you will know fullness.” That was their favorite word. Paul uses it a number of times throughout the course of his teaching in this letter to combat their error. “The path to fullness, the path to intimacy, the path to real spiritual power – we found the secret!” And Paul is very aware of the pressure of that temptation. And so he is writing to the here to say, “Understand who you really are and stay the course. What you really need is not some new insight, some new-fangled ministry to come along and sweep you off your feet and show you something you’ve never seen before. That’s not what you need. What you need is to know who you are by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and to live it out day after day. Be who you really are. You are a saint, set apart for God, consecrated for Him, and your task is to live for Him.”
So for example, in chapter 1 verse 11 he prays that they would have endurance and patience because he wants them to stay the course. Chapter 1:22, he wants them to continue “in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel.” Be who you really are. Don’t waver. Don’t get diverted. Don’t be sidetracked. Stay on track. Chapter 2 verse 4, he doesn’t want them diluted by plausible arguments from the false teachers. Chapter 2 verse 8, he doesn’t want them taken in by that vain philosophy. And we could go on outlining the attacks that were coming against them. No, he says know who you really are, and your task isn’t to go looking for a silver bullet, it isn’t to go looking for some special insight that you have missed. Your task is to embrace your identity in Jesus, set apart for God, and then to begin to live a consecrated life, a life devoted to Him.
Our Relationship with One Another
And then secondly he says our identity is shaped not just in relation to God – we are for God, you are for God, set apart for God – but also is shaped by our relationship with one another. We are, he says, "faithful brothers." Don't let that just sort of zip by. It's Christianese, isn't it? It's church language. It sort of drips from our lips. We don't think about it. The wonder of it doesn't really hit us. It is remarkable that Paul should address the Colossians in this way. Over in chapter 2 verse 1, he says, "I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for all those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face." You see, he doesn't know these people, not personally. Epaphras, chapter 1 verse 7, who seems to have been converted under Paul's ministry during the three years or so Paul was in Ephesus, Epaphras was the one who led the Colossians to faith in Jesus. And so Paul has heard about them from Epaphras, but he doesn't know their faces; he doesn't know their backstory. He can't picture the place where they gather on a Sunday for worship. He doesn't know them personally, but he calls them "faithful brothers." That word "faithful" may indicate that they have been consistent and pressing on in fidelity to Jesus, but it may also mean they are believing brothers. That is to say, the reason they are brothers is because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are his brothers; he considers them family. That's why he's willing to endure and struggle and suffer for them so very much. "I rejoice," he says, "in my sufferings for your sake. I'm hurting, and I gladly submit to the trials that come upon me because I know that in my sufferings I am serving you." He loves them. They are family to him. Family first. That's why he's willing to suffer for them, because they're brothers, brother and sisters.
If you were to do a quick survey – this would be a good thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, just to take your New Testament and spend thirty minutes flicking through and identifying the metaphors and the way that the Church is described in the New Testament. What a rewarding study that would be. The Church is called many things in the New Testament, isn’t it? It is the temple of the living God. We are living stones, built and fitted together into Christ the chief cornerstone. We are to declare the praises of Him as royal priests, declaring the praises of Him who brought us out of darkness into His marvelous light. We are a city set on a hill. A light not hidden to bring good news to the ends of the earth. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, elect exiles of the Dispersion. We are the bride and Christ our bridegroom. We are the body and Christ our head. We are the sheep and Christ the Good Shepherd. And there are many others beside, and each of them is precious and provides an insight into our relationship both with Jesus and with one another in Christ.
But back of all of that, even more fundamental than all of that, is the truth that we are family. We are brothers and sisters. And there ought to be a family flavor to the life of the Church. It's not just that we are saints set apart to God, but because we belong to Him, because He's put His hand upon us and designated us His, we are called to serve one another, to bear with one another, to love and to forgive. Ed was speaking about the "one anothers" to the New Testament. They give voice to a family atmosphere and a family character and tone that ought to be very much on the surface of our life together. Perhaps, First Presbyterian Church, we need to think more about what it means to be and to relate to one another as family – to practice patience, to speak truth in love, to encourage one another and all the more as we see the great day approaching because we are brothers and sisters. One of the things that shapes our identity is the new family into which we have been planted by the sovereign grace of Almighty God. So we have a Godward dynamic – our relationship to God shapes our identity. We are saints set apart for Him. We have a horizontal dynamic, don't we, a one another dynamic. We are family, brothers and sisters.
Our Relationship to Jesus Christ
Then thirdly, Paul says we have a relationship to Jesus Christ that shapes our identity. He is writing to the "saints and faithful brothers in Christ" – in Christ. Our theme for the year is "Rooted: Learning to Live From Our New Identity in Christ." When you become a Christian, you are someone who is in Christ. If you were to ask the apostle Paul for a definition of a Christian, he would say that a Christian is a man or woman in Christ. That's what a Christian is. You've been connected to Him, united to Him, so that His life becomes your life, His righteousness reckoned as your righteousness, His victory your triumph, and His reign your destiny. You're in Christ. Actually, if you scan through Colossians it's everywhere in the letter, actually as it's everywhere in the New Testament – this great foundational doctrine of the believer's union with Christ. So for example, chapter 1:14, "we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in Christ." In chapter 1, 15 through 20, both creation and salvation are "in Christ and through Christ and by Christ." We are reconciled to God, chapter 1 verse 22, "in His body, by His death." In chapter 1:27, the ministry of the Gospel is "Christ in you, the hope of glory." Chapter 2 verse 3, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are "in Christ." Chapter 2 verses 6 and 7, we "received Christ" when we became Christians, and now he says "walk in Him, rooted in Him, and built up in Him." Chapter 2 verse 10, we receive fullness "in Him." Chapter 2 verse 11, "in Him we are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands." Chapter 2 verse 20, "we died with Christ." Chapter 3 verse 1, "we were raised to new life with Christ."
You see, union with Christ, our connection to Jesus, is everywhere in this letter and it changes everything. Every facet of who we are, every blessing promised, every joy we can know, every command to which we are called to give obedience, all of it is in Christ. We are empowered to obey in Christ, we are transformed by the grace of God in Christ, and we are one together as a family because of our union with Jesus Christ. We are saints, Paul says, but we are only holy ones because we are in the holy One, the Lord Jesus. We are family, Paul says, but we are only family because we have been united to Christ our elder Brother and in Him, we have become adopted sons and daughters of God and may approach Him as Abba Father, and so we call one another "brother" or "sister."
You know the world exerts centrifugal force. Centrifugal force. Or do you say it, “centrifugal force”? I can barely wrap my tongue around that, I’m sorry! I’m going to say centrifugal and you’ll have to work it out! That’s how you’ll say it in heaven – “centrifugal force”! The world exerts centrifugal – so the world pushes us away from the center, right, toward the circumference. If Christ is the center, the world is constantly trying by any means to push us away from Him. But the Scriptures exert centripetal force. That’s how I say it and I’m standing by it! Centripetal force. In other words, the Word of God, the letter to the Colossians is designed to push us toward Christ, into the center, that our lives would be absorbed with Him, that our lives would become Christ-centered lives. And so the purpose of this letter is to make you a life, a human being, a man or a woman devoted to, absorbed with, in love with, devoted to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ because everything you need is in Him and you are in Him, and in Him we are one. Are you in Christ? Is Christ in you, the hope of glory? That is the great question that the letter to the Colossians is repeatedly going to push before us and demand that we give our attention to.
Our Relationship to Our Context
And so our relationship to God shapes who we are. We are saints set apart for Him. Our relationship with one another shapes who we are. We become brothers and sisters, family. Our relationship to Jesus Christ, back of all of that, at the root and foundation of it all, that changes everything, doesn’t it? That shapes who we are. We are saints and brothers because we are in Christ. Are you in Christ? And then finally, Paul says there’s one more crucial part of our identity. He writes to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ, at Colossae.” When they became Christians, they didn’t become airheads of no earthly use and irrelevant to the community in which God had placed them. Paul is writing to them to help them understand that in order to be any earthly use they had better become more spiritually minded. He wants them to become Christ-centered people so that they might be witnesses to Jesus at Colossae.
Now we’ve already seen, haven’t we, that life at Colossae for Christian believers was challenging. Many of the errors that were current in the sort of philosophical atmosphere and the religious milieu at Colossae were infecting the church. There was a large Jewish community, and so there’s some legalistic Jewish ideas that appear in the Colossian fellowship as we’re going to see. There were many pagan Roman and Greek and mystery cults with esoteric ideas offering worship to angels and ritualized systems of religion. And those problems also surface in the Colossian church and Paul writes to deal with them. It’s a toxic environment and the church is under pressure, but he doesn’t say to them, “Now you’ve got to get out of there! This is a dangerous place for you to be! Why don’t you all go somewhere safer, somewhere quieter, somewhere where it’s easier to live out the Christian life where you won’t be under such pressure.” That’s not what he says at all. “No, you are saints and faithful brothers in Christ, at Colossae, and I want you to shine like stars in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation as you hold forth the word of life in Colossae.”
Our vision as a church, as you know, is “to glorify God by making disciples here on the North State Street corridor, in the greater Jackson area, and around the world.” Years ago, our elders debated actually moving from this location and they resolved to stay put because they believed that a strong witness in the center of the city best positioned us to serve the community, the whole city, and well beyond. The challenge before us today is to give full weight to the vision we have developed, under God, and to the courageous determination of our elders to remain here and serve Belhaven and Fondren and Midtown and Downtown and the greater Jackson area with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jackson. We are saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Jackson, Mississippi. And Jackson, Mississippi matters. It’s who we are and we are called to love and serve and reach these people, our people, with the good news that we have a Savior for them.
You were, many of you, at Laurel Park on Wednesday evening. Wasn’t that a wonderful time to enjoy the sense of being a family together and to serve one another right in the heart of our community. I thought it was a delightful way to express some of these very realities about which Paul is speaking to us. But let me ask you, was that just a flash in the pan? Was that a one-off special event? What else can we do? How else can we push to the fore that we are here with good news for this whole community? What can your small group do on your street, in your block, among your neighbors? What could you do in your workplace among your colleagues to get the Gospel before them, to love them in Jesus’ name and to promote the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ? What can we do as a congregation to reach our city, this place where God has put us and to which we are called to go with the good news?
You see, there are four facts right here at the beginning of the letter that shape Christian identity and we need to cling to them, I think, with renewed tenacity. You see them very clearly in verse 2. We are saints, set apart for God. We need to learn to live out of that fundamental truth lives of consecration and devotion and service. We are family, brothers and sisters in Jesus, and we need to work on reflecting the family dynamics, bearing with each other with patience. And we are in Christ. We are joined to Him, and in Him to one another, and that changes everything. And we are in Jackson, called to be salt and light. So you see, there’s an identity that presses us down more deeply and there’s an identity that presses us out toward others, boldly, and we need to grasp both and hold both together. Who we are and those to whom we are sent. We are saints and brothers in Christ – that’s who we are. And they were at Colossae – we are in Jackson, Mississippi. That’s our mission field. That’s the community within which we are to live and serve. No one can reach this city like you. No one knows it like you. No one has the relationships that you do. No one can reach your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues like you can. The Lord has placed us here for such a time as this and planted you into Christ that you might be His instruments to bring them with you to know Him, that like you, they might be folded into one glorious family and become brothers and sisters, saints in union with Jesus. May the Lord make it so. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we praise You that we are not who we were and we will not be who we are. We have become saints and are being made like Jesus, the holy one. Thank You that You have made us family, bound us together as brothers and sisters. Teach us how to live that out with patience and love and forbearance and joy. And You’ve done all of that by planting us, uniting us to Jesus so that we are holy ones in the holy one. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, having been adopted by His grace into the Father’s family. And You’ve placed us here in Jackson. Would You show us new ways to reach our city and open doors for us to speak boldly for Christ that there might yet be a great harvest of men and women, boys and girls, joining us in bending the knee to the Savior and praising His great name. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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