Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Colossians 3:1-4 – The security of the Christian life

Paul also reminds the Colossians of their twofold security – they are hid in Christ and in God. His words remind us of Jesus’ twofold description of the safety of believers when he said that no-one could take his sheep out of his hand or out of his Father’s hand (John 10:28-29).

Who is it hidden from? It is hidden from physical opponents (remember that many Christians suffer martyrdom), but their attacks do not affect the real life of believers. It is hidden from their spiritual opponents: the devil cannot find it and therefore he is not able even to attempt to destroy it; death itself cannot find it and instead of being an attack by a ruthless antagonist death becomes the door through which believers enter into an higher form of spiritual life.

Where is it hidden? It is hidden in heaven, with the Father and the Son on the divine throne. Remember the picture in Revelation of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. That is what and where our hidden life is. Our spiritual life comes from God and cannot be stifled. Although it is hidden, it flows to us because we are united to Christ. And so their life is secure.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Colossians 3:1-4 – Strategy for living the Christian life

Since the believer knows details about Jesus that others cannot see, he is able to live a different way and have alternative priorities to others. This way of life Paul describes as seeking the things that are above and setting one’s mind on them rather than on the things of the earth. So the strategy for the Christian life is heavenly mindedness.

The ‘things that are above’ are contrasted with the things of earth in the following sections of Paul’s letter. They include heavenly attire (sin and holiness are likened to two different wardrobes in 3:5-14), heavenly goodwill (peace and gratitude in 3:15), heavenly praise (what we should sing and how we should sing in 3:16) and heavenly aspirations (all our actions and how we should do them). It is noteworthy the place that thanksgiving has in living the heavenly life.

We are used to going elsewhere to obtain things. The strategy for the Christian life is to go to heaven for our adornment, go to heaven for our inner experiences, go to heaven for our celebration songs, and go to heaven for our motives in performing actions. All these provisions can only come from heaven, from where Jesus is. Our strategy must be to go there continually in order to always have fresh attire, fresh peace, fresh expressions of praise, and fresh motives for Christian living.

We don’t have to travel far to work out our strategy for the Christian life, because after all we are united to Jesus in heaven. The same link that unites us to him is the conveyor belt by which they are sent to us from him. That link is the Holy Spirit, and he can convey these blessings immediately, increasingly, and endlessly.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Colossians 3:1-4 – The Secret of Christian Living

Paul moves in his letter to the implications of practical union with the risen Christ. He gives a summary of what such practical union is before developing various consequences in more detail (3:5ff). The summary can be itemised as follows: (1) the secret of Christian living, (2) the strategy for Christian living, (3) the security of Christian living, and (4) the sequel to Christian living, and we can give a reading to each.

Normally, when individuals are eager for an achievement, they have an inner incentive which spurs them on. Some may engage in noble pursuits because they want to enhance their family name. Others may even give their lives because they love their country. There are many possible secret motives for a person’s outward actions.

What is it that makes Christians behave in particular ways? Paul is concerned about the behaviour of the Christians in Colosse and knows that different arguments are being used to influence them to behave in certain ways. These options are detailed in 2:16-23, and the motives for such lifestyle choices are also stated. Paul knew that these options were wrong, but he also knew that the Colossians had to have incentives that would produce right living.

The overall incentive for Paul was union with Christ. Paul wants the Colossians to consider a whole Christ, not a partial one. He has already referred to the motives and benefits that come from thinking about the Saviour’s death, but he knows that other aspects of the Saviour’s work must also be areas of focus. So he reminds the Colossians of another three features of Jesus – his resurrection, his exaltation (seated at the right hand of God), and his return.

Christians know some things about Jesus that others cannot see. This is the case with the deeper significance of what occurred at the cross (many saw a crucified victim, but saw nothing else; we have never seen his crucified body, but we know that he performed great achievements while he was crucified), and it is the case with what has happened to Jesus since then. We don’t know about them because we have seen them, but because we experience the consequences of them. We have not seen the risen Jesus, we have not seen him exalted, and his return has not yet happened. Yet each of these aspects affects us, and should affect us all the time.

As an illustration, imagine a person living in an obscure village who has a relative in an important government position in the capital city. The person in the village may not have seen the office in which the relative works, but he experiences his power in two ways. First, he experiences his power generally because the decisions the government minister makes affects everyone. Second, he experiences his power graciously because the minister has a family bond with him. In a similar but greater way, every Christian has this twofold link with Jesus – and the knowledge of this link is the secret that every Christian possesses for living the Christian life.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Colossians 2:20-23 – How not to Live the Christian Life (c)

Paul has already pointed out the pointlessness of rituals and esoteric experiences as far as the Christian life is concerned. He then mentions a third wrong emphasis of the false teachers in Colosse, which was that Christians should live by a set of rules based on human wisdom.

In Colosse the false teachers had compiled a list of items regarding which it was wrong even to touch or handle. Paul’s response is that because the false teachers were concerned with perishable things such as food they were giving a focus to things that did not matter a great deal and were of no benefit for living a holy life.  

Paul instructs the Colossian Christians to recall what happened at their conversion. They died then to the opinions that had gripped their thinking before (he calls these ideas ‘the elemental spirits of the world’) and had replaced these sources, whether human or demonic, with Jesus. Yet now they were putting themselves under a similar source again by embracing the false teaching. They had to realise where it came from.

The biggest danger, says Paul, with the false teaching is that it produces an impressive appearance. Those who followed such instruction about what should not be touched produced an outward display that seemed impressive. Onlookers could admire a person who lived scrupulously according to a set of rules that governed a method of asceticism. But the issue is not the outward effects. Any religion can achieve such changes.

Instead, says Paul, what matters is inner change. And these outward rules cannot bring about inner change. It might be good for me physically to stop eating sweets, but even if I never eat another one my abstinence will not make me even a little more holier. The issue is not what changes me, but who can change me? So the next time someone comes along with a plan for Christian living that does not stress union with Jesus, ignore it.

It is not hard to see that many contemporary wrong claims regarding how to live the Christian life fall into the categories of misapplied Bible passages, mystical encounters and a focus on external activities. There are many books that distort the meaning of scriptural passages, there are many books in which the subjects claim the most exalted of spiritual interactions with celestial beings, and there are many books that deal with issues of sanctification in a trivial and human-centred way. They promise much and deliver nothing of value as far as living the Christian life is concerned.

Since we face similar possible diversions, it means that the instruction Paul gave the Colossians is very relevant for us today. The obvious conclusion is that Paul taught that union with Jesus was the answer regarding how to live the Christian life. Practical union with him is brought about by the Holy Spirit using the means of grace (Bible reading, prayer, church attendance) and not by elaborate schemes and esoteric encounters.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Colossians 2:18-19 – How not to Live the Christian Life (b)

Yesterday we observed that Paul taught that religious rituals taught by false teachers should not be the basis on how we should live the Christian life. Today we will a second area taught by false teachers in Colosse, which was that Christians should focus on supernatural experiences that were connected to asceticism.

It may be that depriving themselves of food and drink brought the participants into a form of trance in which they saw visions that seemed to be angelic. Or their stress on angelic participation may have been based on notions of spiritual hierarchy in which celestial beings played a part in bringing individuals higher up a spiritual ladder and closer to God.

The outcome was that they were proud of their spiritual attainments and delighted to speak about them in great detail to others. They also asserted that those who did not have such experiences were not proper Christians (those who claimed these encounters disqualified those who had not). In contrast, Paul’s assessment is that, whatever the basis of their practices, their experiences were not a consequence of union with Christ.

In order to explain his point, Paul uses an illustration he employs elsewhere, that of a head and body, with Jesus being the Head and his people the body. Those who pursue teachings that did not come from Jesus are like a man who does not use his reason when performing actions. We’re familiar with the advice to someone who has done something silly, ‘Use your head.’ What is a church like that listens to the teaching of Christ rather than the claims of a false teacher? It grows in a balanced way. What is a church like that listens to a false teacher and his grandiose claims rather than listening to Christ? It neither grows or remains balanced.

Paul assures the Colossians that the path of spiritual growth is not by imitating the supernatural claims of anyone. Instead, the path is listening to Jesus and receiving from Jesus. Imagine that you have a profound spiritual experience. How are you to assess it? Ask yourself, ‘Did my experience bring me closer to Jesus.’ Paul would say, taking the false teacher’s claims of angelic encounters, that a steady interaction with Jesus is more important than many esoteric experiences. The latter don’t help in living the Christian life whereas the former does.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Colossians 2:16-17 – How not to Live the Christian Life (a)

How can a believer live the Christian life? This question has been asked since the Christian church began and it was asked in Colosse. Indeed it is this question that lies behind these verses from Colossians. In these verses Paul responds to what false teachers in Colosse were suggesting on this important issue.

In his first response, Paul deals with the aspect that argued Christians should live like Jews and keep the various rituals mentioned in the Old Testament (vv. 16-17). His rejection of them as valid for Christian living is based on the fact that they are only shadows whereas what Christians need is the substance, Jesus himself.

These practices were pointers to the reality that was going to come; they were like photographs we might have to help us identify a person we are going to meet; so these practices gave spiritual insight concerning the person and work of the coming Messiah. Yet just as once we have met the person, we don’t need the photographs, so having found Jesus the Colossians did not need the shadows.

Old Testament rituals were not part of the New Testament reality any more than a shadow is part of an object. Since the Christians in Colosse had the substance, it was wrong for them to live as if they did not have it.

Of course, we have to be careful that we don’t merely replace Old Testament rituals with another set taken from someone or something else (such as Christian leaders or denominations). I suppose the equivalent that we face is the danger of tradition, of doing something in the present merely because it was connected to something valuable in the past. Paul is making it very clear that Jesus is the substance of Christian living.