The Authentic Church
“Is it for real?”
Colossians is a letter from authentic servants of God, Paul and Timothy, to authentic people of God in Colossae, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ (Col 1:1-2). The church in Colossae was a young church, started through Epaphras, a co-worker of Paul. At the time of writing, Paul was in prison. Epaphras visited him and reported to him the good news of how the gospel has been preached in Colossae, Laodicea and the surrounding region.
But Epaphras also told Paul some worrying news. Some people have been going around causing confusion in the churches. They were suggesting to the Colossians that believing in Jesus is a good start, but not enough! To be “real Christians”, they need something extra!
I can still remember quite vividly the time when I wondered if I was really a Christian. I had come to know the Lord when I was studying in Sydney. But when I came back to Malaysia, I remember waking up the morning I was back with the thought:
‘Was everything just a dream?’
‘Becoming a Christian and all those stuff that happened in Sydney: were they real?’
‘Have I really become a new person, or was it just another passing phase that I needed to move on from, now that I’m back in Malaysia?
Friends, do you ever wonder about these things? Maybe some of you are asking these questions right now. How can you be sure if your really are a new creation in Jesus?
Marks of an authentic church (1:1-8)
Paul longed to assure the young church in Colossae that Yes, they really have become God’s holy people, as well as warn them against those who were misleading them. How can you help a church to tell the difference between real vs counterfeit Christianity? Answer: The same way how bank workers learn to spot counterfeit money – by becoming very very familiar with the real thing!
So, as Paul thanked God for the Colossians, in 1:3-8, he draws their attention to three key qualities that mark them out as an authentic church of God.
“Faith in Christ Jesus”
Firstly, in 1:4, Paul praises God for “[their] faith in Christ Jesus”.
To have faith in someone is to trust someone completely. It is against our nature to trust someone completely ... especially those in authority! One of the key elements of Pakatan Harapan’s first 100 day manifesto is institutional reform – to have proper checks and balances between executive, legislative and judicial powers. Because ‘absolute authority corrupts absolutely’.
For some of us, we may have even developed a deep sense of distrust toward others, a certain scepticism toward any authority, because we have been deeply hurt by someone we thought we could trust.
While the Colossians surely had every reason to doubt others, they have learned to trust Jesus completely. Friends, make no mistake, this is nothing short of a miracle! Because only when the Spirit God is powerfully at work in them that they are able to trust Jesus like this! Which is why Paul give thanks to God for their “faith in Christ Jesus” (1:4).
Friends, this morning, let us likewise give thanks for everyone in here who have been blessed with faith in Jesus Christ. Rejoice that God is clearly at work in you! Faith, complete confidence in Jesus, is the first mark of authentic Christianity!
“Love for all God’s people”
Secondly, in 1:4, Paul thanked God for the Colossians because their “faith” is clearly expressed in “the love [they] have for all God’s people”!
The Bible teaches that authentic faith is never a stand-alone quality, but is expressed clearly in godly love. And notice also how this love is expressed in 1:4 – not so much by singing love songs to God, but in “love … for all God’s people”.
Recently, I visited one of the fastest growing churches in Klang Valley. Just from the Sunday service alone, I could see why: Good music, inspiring speakers, every part of the service is well-thought-out and well executed – even the announcements and the food!
And yet I left the church service feeling uncomfortable. Why? When they sing and pray, they dimmed the lights and pumped up the volume, so you can’t really see or hear the people around you, as if worship is just between me and God. And when the service is over, we had to clear the hall quickly, to make way for the next group, like at the end of watching a movie. So, although there were hundreds of people at the service, I walked in and out without any meaningful engagement with anyone! Friends, I wonder how visitors to St Andrew’s feel about us each Sunday?
But in God’s design, being a Christian was never meant to be just a private matter between you and God. Authentic Christian faith is expressed in eagerness to be a part of a authentic Christian community, eagerness to meet to encourage, serve and provide for one another. Didn’t the Lord Jesus himself say, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35)? Because “… whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
Let me mention another church I know of. Just a simple church that is a fraction of the size of St Andrew’s, full of shortcomings, but known for two things:
1) the Bible is clearly important to them, evident even in the songs they sing, and
2) when the service is over, they love to hang around – so much so that the leaders have to kick them out when it’s time to lock up for the day.
Friends, would you like St Andrew’s to have such a reputation?
Paul praised God for the love the Colossians has shown for all the saints! “Love in the Spirit” (1:8): that’s another mark of an authentic church of God.
“Hope stored up in heaven”
In 1:5, Paul gives thanks for showing a third mark of an authentic church: “the hope stored up for [them]in heaven”.
“Hope” means being assured of something they have not yet received, something that remains hidden now, only to be revealed some time in future. The Colossians’ hope is in the inheritance that God’s people will share in Christ’s eternal kingdom (1:12) – a secure hope that is “kept in heaven”, where thief cannot steal and moth cannot destroy, kept safe by God himself!
Notice the implication: if it is kept in heaven, it is not visible now, not glory now!
The Bible repeatedly warns that the life of a Christian is not going to be a bed of roses. Let’s not forget that Paul himself was in prison while writing this letter! Faith that is focused on living a good life now is unrealistic, and it is just a matter of time before it will lead to disillusionment!
But faith and love that springs from hope in what God is keeping for us in heaven, what remains hidden now but shall be revealed when Christ comes again … This is how authentic Christians can continue to trust in Jesus and love others whatever our present situation!
“True message of the gospel”
In 1:5-6, Paul reminds the church that throughout the whole world, this is the same pattern, the same fruit or outcome when the true message of the gospel is preached. Faith and love that spring from hope – these are the marks of God’s authentic church, marks of God’s people who have truly understood God’s grace. And so, having demonstrated these marks, the Colossians have every reason to be confident in the gospel that they have learned from Epaphras, who is indeed a faithful minister of Christ!
Marks of authentic spiritual growth (1:9-14)
In 1:9-14, Paul continues to pray for the Colossians.
1:9, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives”
Our prayers reflect our priorities, what we truly value. Notice what Paul does NOT pray for:
he doesn’t pray for God to make life better or easier for the church. His prayer is consistent with what he has just shown to be authentic marks of a church, firmly focused on faith, love that springs from hope in heaven. He prays for authentic spiritual growth.
In the light of the true message of the gospel, two things are of primary importance to Paul:
Continual growth in spiritual understanding
These days, “spiritual knowledge” could mean all kinds of things, so let’s be clear about what Paul is not talking about here: He is NOT referring to some extra secret knowledge that Holy Spirit will reveal to the extra spiritual persons in an extra holy mountain somewhere through some extra spiritual disciplines.
In chapter 2, Paul explains that when he talks about “the full riches of complete understanding”, he is talking about the “mystery of God, namely, Christ” (2:2). Paul is putting his finger on the key to real spiritual growth: having a fuller grasp of “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” that God has hidden away in the past, but now fully revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ (2:3), the power to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)
Which is why we want to encourage everyone here to make time to attend ALPHA or ACE! Whatever stage of Christian life we’re in, we need to prioritise and take action to keep growing in our knowledge of God’s will for us in Christ. It is great to hear that Marvin’s class has outgrown the capacity of our meeting room. But don’t you worry – Jaya will make sure that there is always room for more!
Continual faithfulness in life
But growing in knowledge is not an end in itself.
In 1:10, Paul prays for growing spiritual understanding “so that [the church] may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” There is no such thing as a Christian who is so heavenly minded but of no earthly use! Paul would later devote an entire chapter (i.e. chapter 3) to teach the church how having hearts which are no longer set on earthly things, but on things above, where Christ is, will impact the way we live and relate to each other.
But here, in 1:10-12, Paul prays that the church will grow in four areas:
“in every good work”
“in the knowledge of God”
“[in] endurance and patience”, and
“[in] giving joyful thanks to God”
This means the true measure of the effectiveness of ACE is not the size the class, not even how well you will score if Marvin should decide to introduce exams in ACE. Christian education is not an end in itself, but teaches hope in Christ that grows faith and commitment to loving service for the glory of God! The effectiveness of ACE is seen in growth that leads to godly living and godly service – in lives “worthy of the Lord and pleasing him in every way.”
Life and doctrine cannot and must not be separated!
Complete assurance in Christ
A few years ago, I was involved in a school-leavers program. As part of the program, we sent the students to an inter-church prayer meeting, held not far from St Andrew’s, to encourage them to pray for the city.
Little did we realise that, instead of praying for the city, the coordinator turned the prayer meeting into an intensive training session on how to pray in tongues! (i.e. praying in dialects of angels, heavenly lingo). Moreover, the students were told that they have been resisting the Spirit all this while, even though they are Christians – which is why they couldn’t pray in tongues! So they must stop resisting, that they can be truly Spirit-filled people of God!
The students tried hard to follow all the instructions on how to “open their mind” so they could speak in tongues. But most of them just couldn’t receive the “gift” of tongues, and left the meeting feeling utterly disillusioned. They left wondering: ‘is there something wrong with me?’
Friends, has anyone tried to persuade you that believing in Jesus in not enough, but you need something extra to be a real Christian?
Let us take heed of what the Bible says and be very clear about the real thing: “your faith in Christ, the love you have for God’s people, because of the hope stored up for you in heaven”, which comes from hearing “the gospel” – here lies the marks of authentic Christianity, the only foundation you will ever need to be assured of who you are in Christ!
Faith, love, and hope!
Do you want assurance in Christ? Then let nothing or no one lead you away from your confidence in true message of the gospel. And ask God to help you grow in true spiritual understanding and in living lives worthy of the Lord.