THE GREAT SECRET
by Steve Zeisler
Most of the enduring stories and great myths of virtually every culture
have to do with someone's undertaking a quest, or accepting a challenge.
We might think back to the culture of the ancient Greeks and the odyssey
of Odysseus or the labors of Hercules; or to the Middle Ages and the quest
of King Arthur and the knights of the round table for the Holy Grail. A
modern example of the same might be the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In each case the hero sets off on an extraordinary challenge, questing for
something that is of great value, suffering and being deprived, but extending
himself because the challenge is so worthy of the effort.
One of the greatest stories of a quest or challenge that I know of is found
not in mythology but in the Bible. The apostle Paul, who began his life
as Saul of Tarsus, represents a life in which a call was extended, or a
quest laid before him, which he took up and lived out. Today in Colossians
we're going to look at his mature reflection on the challenge that the Lord
Jesus offered to him and what it meant to live a life filled by Jesus Christ.
But before we get to that I want to go back to his beginning.
The way Saul of Tarsus became Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, began
with his hating Christ and his cause. Saul was a defender of Judaism against
the incursion of Christianity. In Acts 7 and 8 we find him enabling the
martyrdom of Stephen. Eventually he was sent to Damascus with letters by
the leadership of the Jews in Jerusalem to imprison and oversee the destruction
of Jews who had become Christians. Acts 9:3 records what happened to him
on the way to Damascus::
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from
heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to
him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
The story continues on with how Saul was blinded by this light that interrupted
his journey and was led trembling into Damascus, where a Christian named
Ananias met him. Ananias had been hesitant to be kind to Saul because he
had been so thoroughly antagonistic to the faith, but the Lord convinced
him with these words:
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied.
"Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name
before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will
show him how much he must suffer for my name."
The Lord was saying, "I have set this man on a quest that will take
up the rest of his life. He has received my call to carry my name. He is
going to live a life of high adventure and storied difficulty, and I will
show him how much he must suffer for my name."
Now we'll look at Paul's reflection on what it was like to live that way,
written to the Colossians many years later. A couple of themes from Christ's
call to him reappear in this section of Colossians. One is Jesus' receiving
the persecution of his children as persecution of himself. Saul had been
persecuting Christians, imprisoning them and overseeing their beating and
execution. But Jesus said, "It's me that you're persecuting!"
Another theme is that in suffering for Jesus' name Paul was entering into
intimacy with Christ. Let's begin reading in Colossians 1 with the last
phrase of verse 23 through verse 29:
...the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all
creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister. Now I
rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on
behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking
in Christ's afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according
to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might
fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which
has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested
to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the
glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope
of glory. And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every
man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And
for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily
works within me.
Paul says at the end of verse 23 that he has been made a minister of the
gospel and in verse 25 that he has been made a minister of the church. The
word minister here is not at all a term for an exalted position, but one
for an ordinary servant who has responsibility to his superiors, who must
give up his life and his rights to that which is greater than he is.
We sometimes hear terms today such as prime minister or minister of state
that suggest that ministers are more important than other people. Of course,
in the New Testament it is just the opposite. A servant or a minister is
the subordinate one whose rights are less important than those superior
to him. At times I cringe at those in spiritual leadership who are clearly
using the people of God or the words of God to make money, gain stature,
puff themselves up, and live better than those around them. They are using
up the great commissions that God has given to benefit themselves. But Paul's
understanding of the quest the Lord had put him on was that he was given
the opportunity and the joy of serving both the gospel and the church.
Paul knew that he was to be a steward or overseer of an extraordinary, rich,
and glorious mystery that he was to make plain. By analogy we might well
think of relief efforts in Somalia, or other places where people are in
desperate shape, to bring in food and supplies to save lives that cannot
be saved any other way. Drought conditions have made farming impossible
in Somalia, and these people cannot save themselves. Those who are bringing
relief to them have life itself in their hands, and they must guard it because
there are enemies who will attack and destroy it. They have to take seriously
the life that they bring, and they must care desperately and deeply for
the people to whom they are bringing the food. Paul is thinking of the quest
that he's been given in that way. He has life itself in his hands, and there
are people who need to know it. It's a very high, difficult calling, and
it's worth giving his life to.
There is language throughout the section we just read and the paragraph
that follows that would fit well in any adventure story. It is the language
of the quest, the challenge; it's filled with references to riches, glory,
mystery, wealth, and treasure. And yet Paul describes what it meant for
him to deal in such things. Verse 24 reminds us that in the challenge he
has been given, he rejoices in suffering. And at the end of the paragraph
he speaks of labors in which he struggles mightily. Because he was a minister
of the gospel and a minister of the church, he was called on to suffer and
to rejoice in his sufferings. He was called on to labor, to do the hard
work of caring for people, spending himself physically and emotionally,
shouldering the burdens and pains of other people. This was the quest the
Lord gave him when he interrupted the journey to Damascus. Remember the
word to Ananias: "I will show him how much he must suffer."
In verse 24 there are some modifications to the statement, "I rejoice
in my sufferings." He doesn't rejoice in his sufferings because he
likes being beaten. There's no delight in being hurt. He rejoices in his
suffering because it's purposeful; "It is for your sake," he says
in verse 24.
Remember that Paul was under house arrest in Rome, awaiting he knew not
what at the hands of Caesar. For more than two years he had been set aside
from any freedom to move or minister at all. Before that he had been the
target of a band of terrorists who had wanted to destroy his life in Jerusalem,
and had escaped only by the skin of his teeth. He had been shipwrecked on
his way to Rome, as a prisoner. Prior to all of that he had been imprisoned
in other places. He had been beaten and left for dead. He had been misunderstood
by his own people, and rejected by those he cared for. Time and again he
had suffered deprivation, hatred, loss, physical harm, emotional pain, and
the pressure of caring for others. But he says, "Even if this life
doesn't pay off for me, and if my lot as a servant of the gospel and of
the church is to give away what I have and to lay down my life for others,
I rejoice because other people in other places are going to grow in their
faith by the letters I write, the words I teach, the encouragement I give,
and my example of faith. Other people are going to have life, and that's
enough for me."
INTIMACY WITH CHRIST
The other wonderful truth that Paul elucidates in speaking of his sufferings
is that it draws him near to the Lord. "...and in my flesh I do my
share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up that which
is lacking in Christ's afflictions." Now there is nothing lacking in
Christ's afflictions in the sense that Jesus did not entirely pay for our
sins on the cross. That is not at all what's in view here. The suffering
of Christ in dying on the cross, defeating sin and death was absolutely
complete. It cannot be added to, and there is no need for further efforts
of people to suffer so that we get more saved or anything like that.
What Paul is referring to is the hatred by Jesus' enemies that Jesus endured
all his life and the hatred of the prophets and patriarchs before him. The
hatred of those who live a life of faith in every generation is ultimately
hatred of the Lord Jesus. He was misunderstood, denigrated, beaten, ridiculed,
cut off, and executed as a criminal in his own lifetime. The world, which
is still committed to its sinfulness, still hates him. And it will take
out its hatred of him on those who have his life within them. Paul is saying,
"I rejoice in my suffering because I am doing my part in living out
the suffering that Jesus still experiences in the world." Remember
what the Lord said to Paul on the Damascus road: "Why are you persecuting
me?" We can imagine that for every tear that falls from our eyes and
pain we experience, especially that caused by persecution for our faith,
tears are in the eyes of our Lord. It still hurts him to have his people
hurt. He still receives the blows. He is still sorrowing over those who
hate him and over those who love him when they are hurt for his name's sake.
Paul says, "I do my part in filling up what remains of the afflictions
of the Lord, and so I rejoice. I'm not going to fight back against the assignment
I've been given. I'm going to take the hardship of the quest." The
quest, the challenge by definition must have difficulty in it. To go wherever
he sends us, to labor at great length because we choose to, to suffer with
joy because there is no avoiding it, is the language of the challenge. It
would be true in any story. Even Indiana Jones, a made-up story, is filled
with danger, deprivation, and difficulty.
Earlier this morning Doug Goins told us about the six weeks he and his family
just spent in the Philippines at a center where Wycliffe missionaries come
during the summer to do their translation work. He came back with a number
of stories that were absolutely heartrending to me about what these missionaries
have had to go through. They go to the most remote and out-of-the-way places
and stay for decades, often desperately lonely, caring for people who don't
listen in many cases, their physical health deteriorating, serving the Lord
year after year. Many missionaries, especially those who go into tropical
areas, get diseases they will never be cured of. They learn to live with
the diseases and spend a high percentage of their lives being sick. They
get up and work until they get too sick, and then they lie down until they're
strong enough to work some more.
These missionaries leave behind their home culture, undergo the deterioration
of their physical health, and then with all the changes that take place
in their absence, finally come back to a world that is totally unfamiliar
to them, where they feel like a misfit. Doug's description of his immensely
heightened respect for these missionaries echoes in my heart as well. But
it's worth it, they say, because someone else will benefit. And the Lord
understands the difficulty that they undertake and enters into it with them.
These are the choices made by a servant (minister) of the church.
Servant of the Gospel
Listen carefully to what the apostle Paul says now in verses 26-27 about
what it means to be a servant of the gospel, how excited he is about the
message that he has, and how extraordinary he understands it to be to have
this message, this life, to give away to others: "...I [must] fully
carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has
been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested
to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the
glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope
of glory." That's the language of the quest, isn't it? It's
a mystery, it's hidden, it's been revealed, and he has it to give away.
It is the richest of truth, the most glorious of notions. So he wants to
offer them the extraordinary thing that God has made known to him.
There are several arresting things here. The word mystery in the New Testament
does not refer to something you can figure out by finding clues. And Paul
says, "I've been let in on a great truth. It is a rich, glorious, and
ancient mystery, hidden from past ages and generations, but now made manifest
to the saints."
Note that saints are not exalted people. Modern use of the word saint, especially
in the Catholic church, suggests that it is the highest level of believer.
It is exactly the opposite in the New Testament. Saint is the most ordinary
term for everybody in the kingdom. You're a saint if you belong to Christ
at all, brand-new and knowing nothing. It is the most inclusive of terms.
The thing that Paul is saying here is, "Listen carefully. The past
ages and generations didn't know this. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob didn't know clearly how God would meet the needs of his people. But
the mystery has been revealed to me, and I have the privilege of passing
it on to you, the saints, the plain folks (including Gentiles!). "Christ
in you the hope of glory."
Now, if we jump back in our thinking to the section that began in Colossians
1:15, remember what Paul said there about Christ: He is the Lord of the
original creation and the Lord of the new creation. He was at the beginning,
and he is the one who sustains the entire universe. He is the one for whom
everything exists; he will wrap it all up for himself at the end. He is
the master of principalities, powers, angels, demons, history, humanity,
the heavenlies, and what is on earth---everything. This is the Christ who
is in you. The one who is supreme over all has taken up residence in your
life and mine. That is the means by which God is going to put everything
right. And the quest Paul is on is to serve that truth and serve these people.
He must join them together by letting them know what the Lord has done.
The phrase "the hope of glory" tells us something that the message
"Christ in you" explains. It means that there is coming a day
when all the glory and the wonder that is his will be true of you. Our hope
of glory is our certainty that this world is not all there is and that on
the day when Christ is revealed for who he is, we will share in that glory
because we are united with him. It's a tremendous anchor in the future that
gives us life now.
But in addition, Paul will say farther on in this paragraph, divine strength
is what energizes him. He is struggling, laboring with, enduring sleeplessness
and difficulty; he spends full nights in prayer; and through longings, chains
and all that he is going through, it is the power of Christ that sustains
him. That's what he says in verse 29: "...striving according to His
power, which mightily works within me." So while the message "Christ
in you" is about the future, it is also about the present. It's about
all that we have to face and how we will face it right now---by the power
of the Lord of all, who has taken up residence in us. He will meet our need,
whether it is for endurance, courage, wisdom, or love for people we can't
love. Whatever the power requirement in our life is right now, his power
is mightily at work within us because Christ is in us.
COMPLETE IN CHRIST
Verses 28 and 29 talk about the quest in language that attempts to help
us see Paul's actual activities. The day that he was called on the Damascus
road, the Lord said, "He is to carry my name, to take it with him...."
And now this is Paul in maturity, reflecting back on what it meant all those
decades to have done that. What he says is, "...we proclaim Him, admonishing
every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every
man complete in Christ." Every man means every person---every man,
woman, child, adult, grandparent. Having dual responsibilities to the gospel
and to the church, Paul's conviction is that he has to bring the two together
by whatever means. He has to make the people of God understand what it is
for Christ to be in them.
The first means mentioned to help people understand is proclamation, to
proclaim Christ. That means everywhere we go we're going to talk about him.
The truth must be broadcast widely.
He also says that he admonishes everyone. Admonition is very personal; it
has to do with challenging you and me directly with the issues in our lives.
It's a lot like counseling. If we're sitting down together privately and
talking about your life, we're going to apply this truth to your life.
He says further that he teaches everyone. That means we give a class on
this truth---get everybody together with notebooks, outlines, and so forth.
The gospel should be laid out systematically and thoroughly whenever possible.
Paul's responsibility to the gospel and to the church is that he must, by
whatever means, with the power of God struggling in him, do everything he
can to let this truth sink into people's lives so that they can be changed
by it. And the goal of all that he says, is that everybody should be presented
mature, or complete, in Christ. Everybody should grow up so that real, mature
Christianity takes place, not just paddling in the shallows, failing at
the same things over and over again, always on a roller-coaster ride emotionally,
receiving the Lord every third week because we're not sure that we're really
Christians. His aim is mature Christians who know how to handle life, who
are sent out on quests of their own, who understand what their gifts are,
who are living as God intended them to live.
This would make a good movie, wouldn't it? If you have a good imagination,
you can see Paul, a short bald man with bowlegs and a big nose, with manacles
around his hands and burly Roman guards hulking over him. He's under house
arrest in Rome, writing letters to his friends about the tough experiences
he's been through. Someone suggested that Ben Kingsley would be good to
play the role of Paul, since he played Ghandi so well. But although the
drama of this would make it a great movie, that's not why Paul is writing
it. He is speaking of himself because he wants the quest he is on to inspire
others to choose the same, to hear the voice of God in their lives setting
them on a challenge of their own, so that everyone should become mature
Don't miss the fact that in verse 28 everyone is mentioned three times:
Teaching every man, admonishing every man, and presenting every man mature
in Christ. It's not just for the elite. The deceivers who were attacking
the Colossians would create an elite in-crowd of advanced folks looking
down on the ordinary riffraff. But Paul will have none of that. It's no
good unless everyone is included.
Now in verse 1 of chapter 2, Paul takes what he has spoken of in powerful,
large terms about his whole life and applies it to the Colossian church
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf,
and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally
seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together
in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance
of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is,
Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
I say this in order that no one may delude you with persuasive argument.
For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit,
rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in
Paul loved these people more in absence than the deceivers did who were
present with them. He hurt more for them, rejoiced more that they were stable,
struggled on their behalf in prayer, and wanted them to be united together
in love, he with them and they with one another. The richness of real Christianity
cannot be experienced except in community. He was saying, "I long that
our hearts be united together in love. Those people are trying to divide
you, but I would love to see you more united together than you've ever been.
I care more about you than they do. Don't let anyone deceive you by starting
with Christianity and proceeding to lies."
Paul began his Christian life struck blind by a light from heaven. He proceeded
through misunderstanding in which his Jewish friends rejected him and his
fellow Christians feared him. He was finally given public ministry only
to be undercut and misunderstood time and time again. At times his friends
deserted him and his enemies jailed him. Read 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 if
you want the whole history of both the physical and emotional deprivations
he went through. The quest he was given at the beginning would cost him
decades of ministry in which only the strength of God could get him through,
that power at work mightily within him. And his intention in writing about
himself and the discovery of the extraordinary mystery now revealed, that
Christ is in us, is to say that this life is worth everything. His life
as a challenge and a quest can be an inspiration to us to choose the same.
Catalog No. 4330
September 6, 1992
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