Introduction: Destined to rule?
Earlier this year, I received an email asking if KVBC Trust, the organisation I serve with, is interested to team up to produce a Bahasa version of a book that seeks to warn the church about prosperity gospel.
What is prosperity gospel? Let me read you an excerpt from a popular book that’s associated with this movement. Chapter 1 begins: “You are destined to reign in life. You are called by the Lord to be success, to enjoy wealth, to enjoy health and to enjoy a life of victory …” Why? Paragraph 2 explains: “Whatever your vocation is, you are destined to reign in life because Jesus is Lord of your life. When you reign in life, you reign over sin, you reign over the powers of darkness, and you reign over depression, over poverty, over every curse, and over every sickness and disease. You REIGN over the devil and all his devices!”
Sounds good? No wonder people all over the world are flocking to churches that preach prosperity gospel. In a time when the pressure around us seems relentless: work harder, do more, be better, we all welcome some positive assurance that “Yes, I am destined to succeed!”
So, if people are energised by prosperity gospel, if it is growing churches, what’s the issue?
The problem is: this is not exactly what the Bible shows us! The Bible warns that, just because Jesus is Lord of all things, don’t expect the church to rule over all things now!
This is precisely what we see in Colossians. Last week, in 1:15-23, we saw how Paul wanted the church to have a larger vision of who Jesus is – Jesus is Lord and Reconciler of all things. But what does Paul go on to say next? 1:24: “I rejoice in my sufferings”! Paul doesn’t encourage any expectation about success or victorious living. Instead, he boasts about his sufferings, his ongoing persecution by Jewish and pagan authorities … a very different picture from what prosperity gospel preaches! How come?
Friends, if we are not careful, we can be easily misled by all kinds of teachings around us, and end up with all kinds of unrealistic expectations in life. Let us therefore pay careful attention to God’s word, and understand more clearly what is the real deal – what is authentic Christianity!
This morning, in particular, we want to consider 3 biblical truths: Why suffering is a mark of an authentic servant of Jesus, what is the purpose of such sufferings, and how such a ministry can bring about authentic encouragement in the church.
The mark of an authentic servant of Christ (1:24-29)
Firstly, Paul rejoices in his sufferings because suffering is a mark of an authentic servant of Jesus.
When a mother is about to give birth, she experiences labour pain – the greatest pain known to mankind. Although it’s almost 17 years ago, I can still remember what it was like standing beside Chui when she was in labour, about to give birth to Ben. I was totally helpless, and worried whether everything was okay. But the nurses and the doctor in the room – they didn’t seem too worried at all! Because they knew: labour pain was a sign that everything was going well!
Similarly, Paul’s ‘sufferings’ is a mark that his ministry is the real thing! He doesn’t want the church to be ashamed because of his sufferings, or worry as if there’s something wrong, or that they might have followed the wrong apostle! Just a few verses earlier, he had just pointed out that the Lord of all things “reconcile[d] to himself all things” by his sufferings – “by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (1:20) He invites them to compare Jesus’ ministry and his: they are same-same! His ‘sufferings’ marks him out as an authentic servant of Jesus Christ, do you see?
1:24 continues: “… and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” What exactly does Paul mean by this?
Firstly, let’s be clear what Paul is not saying. He is not suggesting that the death of Jesus is somewhat lacking, so he must make up for it by his own sufferings. Throughout this letter and every other letter Paul wrote, he preaches total confidence in the cross of Jesus. Surely he cannot blatantly contradict himself, and say that Jesus’ death needs to be supplemented!
What then is Paul saying? Scholars continue to debate on the precise meaning of this, so I’m afraid I won’t be able to offer you a complete answer. What is clear to me, though, is that Paul wants the church to understand that the ministry of Christ didn’t just stop at the cross. It continues through his apostles and his body, i.e. the church, the body of Christ. So down in v29, Paul can say that he “strenuously contend with all the energy christ so powerfully works in me.” In all his struggles, he knows that it is Christ who is continuing his work in and through him. And in this sense, he fills up in his body what is still lacking in Christ afflictions, a process that will only be finally completed on the day Jesus comes again.
The day is coming when suffering will end, when Paul and indeed who are in Christ will receive from the Lord the crown of glory. Meanwhile, the world will learn about the truth of the crucified Lord when the church, his body, faithfully presents the gospel of Christ crucified as we continue to rejoice even in sufferings – especially in sufferings.
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29)
Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, while we wait for that day, let us bear the mark of genuine servants of Christ: Deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow the suffering Christ (cf. Mark 8:34)
Paul’s suffering is purposeful: “to present the word of God in its fullness”
Secondly, notice that Paul doesn’t rejoice in suffering because he enjoys suffering! He rejoices because his suffering serves “to present … the word of God in its fullness” (1:25). In other words, he is not promoting sufferings per se, but sufferings that present or promote God’s Word in all its fullness.
Just having the word of God is not enough. The Jews have had God’s Word for a long time … at least since the time of Moses – easily 1,500 years before Christ. And yet, they didn’t have God’s Word in fullness because they didn’t receive Jesus.
Take, for instance, the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. The Jews certainly took Sabbath very seriously – so seriously that, in addition to God’s Word, they have over 1000 supplementary rules to spell out further details – details like how heavy an object people can carry; or what can/cannot be saved if your house is on fire on a Sabbath!
And yet in all their zeal, they totally missed the point about the Sabbath. Sabbath is supposedly about saving lives and showing mercy and, in particular, prepares Israel to find rest in their Redeemer: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). But in all their zeal, those Jewish leaders turned the Sabbath into a terrible burden for all people. Instead of bringing life, it brought death!
Without Jesus, the Word cannot be known in its fullness.
Friends, this is why we too must be careful how we read our Bibles today. We must learn from what happened to the Jews: it is possible to read and teach the Word in such a way that kills. So let us read the Bible in the light of Jesus, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” of God! (2:3)
But “making the word fully known” also means something else. In 1:26, Paul talks about “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.”. This is not the kind of “mystery” in our story-books, something you solve by searching for clues and piecing them altogether. Rather, “mystery” means something that remains “hidden” until God makes it known.
What is this mystery that God has finally made known to all his people? Answer: the gospel declares that not only Jews, but Gentiles, people from every nation, have also been qualified by God to share in the inheritance of the saints (cf. 1:27). In other words, God wants the gospel to go out to all kinds of people, to people in all places, so everyone can know and enjoy God’s kindness and goodness toward them in the Lord Jesus. This is why Paul labours and suffers, in order to fulfil God’s purpose for him.
It is wonderful that our church has this phrase attached to our name: “international church of Kuala Lumpur”. We recognise that people of every nation needs to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I rejoice also that we have a role in reaching out to Orang Asli in east coast and Bumiputras in East Malaysia. Though it is good to remember that this is just a fraction of what God wants us to do as his people, for surely God also wants to reveal Jesus to the thousands who work around us in Bursa Malaysia, Menara Maybank, and so many other businesses around us; not forgetting also many more studying at SEGI, St John’s, Bukit Nenas, etc.
Friends, are we ready to do our part so they will learn the truth of the crucified Lord? May God help us to be ready to fill up in our flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for their sake, that many more can become a part of the body of Christ!
Paul’s intended outcome: “Presenting everyone mature in Christ”
Finally, Paul reveals another intended outcome of his ministry of suffering: full maturity in Christ (1:28) – outward and inward growth!
In 2:1-5, Paul describes what such a maturity looks like – a matured church that is genuinely “encouraged in heart and united in love” (2:2).
I am reminded of an article I came across with this title: “Too much praise can turn kids into Narcissists”. A narcissist is someone who is excessively in love of himself. Apparently, research done in Ohio State Uni has shown that constant praise for kid’s accomplishment leads to over-inflated ego.
Praise culture doesn’t always work!
Friends, what brings about genuine encouragement and love in the church? Paul’s answer: give the church a healthy dose of reality. Rejoicing in Christ? Yes! But also to suffer for Christ!
I think it is a great idea to occasionally invite members to share their testimony during our Sunday services. But when we do that, we must be careful not to feature only success stories, but also stories of patient endurance, stories of rejoicing in sufferings! Why? So we won’t fill the church with unrealistic expectations.
For we live between two ages. Yes, Christ is with us. But our hope is laid up for us in heaven, not quite ours just yet! Jesus doesn’t promise us healing now, or dream job now. What he promises is that his grace is sufficient for us; as we struggle, his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9).
As the church grows in maturity, it will no longer be dependent on Paul or any particular leaders for progress or spiritual fulfilment. Rather, we will appreciate more fully that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are found in Christ and nowhere or in no one else. We will not be so easily deceived “by fine-sounding arguments”. And when we hear distressing news like the apostle Paul in prison or Ps Raymond Koh abducted, or anything like that, the mature church will remain firmly rooted in Christ!
Having the right picture in mind
Someone once said that the human mind is more a picture gallery than a notebook: we think in images, much more than words. When our mind is constantly filled with images of success, wealth, great health, a life of victory now, we become vulnerable to all kinds of persuasions, and are easily misled.
The apostle Paul encourages us to look to the only picture that can bring about genuine maturity in faith, genuine encouragement, love and unity in the church: the picture of a suffering servant, the picture of the cross of Jesus. May God help us to keep this picture always fresh in our minds.
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.”