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Lesson 7: Serving Christ Well (Colossians 1:24-27)

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December 13, 2015

Since Paul is talking in our text about his ministry, I thought about titling this message, “How to be a Good Minister.” But I was afraid that if you saw that title in advance, you might think that it was a good week to skip church! Being a good minister may be interesting for seminary students or a group of pastors or missionaries, but what relevance does being a good minister have for those who are not in “full time” ministry?

The answer is, “It is extremely relevant for every Christian!” If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, then you are just as much a minister of Christ as I am. The word translated “minister” (Col. 1:23, 25) means “servant.” Every Christian is a servant of Jesus Christ. Every Christian has been given spiritual gifts to use in serving the Master. “Church benchwarmer” is not one of the gifts! Every member of the body has a ministry to fulfill.

But maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, but I’ve never been to seminary and I’m not a full time Christian worker as you are. I can’t devote the time to serving the Lord that you do.” True, but the apostle Paul never went to seminary. And he made tents to support his ministry. But he saw his ministry as a stewardship given to him by God. He knew that he would give an account to God for the ministry that God had entrusted to him. And so he worked hard to be a good minister. He wanted to serve Christ well.

So should you. Perhaps you’ve never thought about it before, but the question, “How can I be a good minister (servant) of Jesus Christ?” should be on your mind often. One day soon you will stand before the Lord for judgment of what you have done with what He entrusted to you (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). How did you use your time? How did you manage the money He allowed you to make? How did you use your spiritual gifts?

But perhaps you’re still thinking, “But my gifts are pretty insignificant. I never could prepare and preach a sermon, as you do every week. I’m not gifted as an evangelist. I don’t have millions of dollars to give to the Lord’s work. So I don’t have an important role in the Lord’s work.”

If that describes you, then you must be especially careful! In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), the master gave five talents (a “talent” was a large sum of money) to one servant, two to another, and one to the third. The man with five invested them and made five more. The man with two made two more. But the man with one hid it and gave it back to the master. The master called him a wicked, lazy, worthless slave and threw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The clear warning of that parable is that the servant with one talent is in the greatest danger of not using it for the master’s purpose. Not serving Christ at all is a sign that you don’t belong to Him. So even “one-talent Christians” should be vitally interested in the question, “How can I be a good minister or servant of Jesus Christ?” How can I serve Christ well? Paul’s answer here is:

We serve Christ well by exalting Him in every way.

Paul was writing against the backdrop of the false teachers who were infecting the Colossian church. They diminished the person and work of Christ, so Paul has exalted Christ as preeminent over everything that is. The false teachers no doubt knew that Paul had trained Epaphras who had brought the gospel to them. But to build themselves up, they probably tore Paul down. Perhaps they were saying, “If Christ is the Sovereign Lord of the universe and if Paul is His servant, then why is Paul in jail? Don’t follow a jailbird; follow us!”

So in verse 23, Paul mentions that he was made (or became) a minister of the gospel. In Colossians 1:24-29, he expands on that topic, showing how he exalted Christ in his ministry. In so doing, he shows us how we can serve Christ well in whatever He has given us to do for Him. I can only work through verse 27 in this message. Paul shows us how we can exalt Christ in trials (Col. 1:24); in our service (Col. 1:25); and in our message (Col. 1:26-27).

1. We exalt Christ in our trials by enduring them joyfully for His and His church’s sake (Col. 1:24).

Colossians 1:24: “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 what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” This is a difficult verse for two reasons: It’s difficult to explain and it’s difficult to apply.

When you come to a difficult verse, the principle for interpretation is, always interpret the difficult verse in light of the clear. The difficult verse will never contradict the clear verses. And it is clear both in Paul’s writings and in the entire New Testament that Christ’s suffering on the cross was complete and sufficient for the salvation of all who trust in Him.

Jesus Himself proclaimed just before He died (John 19:30), “It is finished.” The atonement that He procured for sinners was complete. In Colossians 1:12-14, Paul makes it clear that in Christ we have an inheritance, we have been rescued from Satan’s domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of Christ, and we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. In Colossians 2:10, Paul says, “In Him you have been made complete.” He goes on to show that the death and resurrection of Christ resulted in all our sins being forgiven and in Christ’s complete victory over the powers of darkness. Many other verses in Paul’s writings and in the Book of Hebrews could be piled up to show that in terms of salvation, nothing was lacking in Christ’s sufferings. So this verse does not mean that somehow Christ’s suffering on the cross was insufficient for our salvation so that Paul or anyone else needed to complete it.

Paul isn’t talking here about salvation, but rather about service. The word translated “afflictions” is not used elsewhere in the New Testament of Christ’s sacrificial sufferings for our salvation (J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [Zondervan], p. 166). So Paul does not mean and the New Testament never teaches that in some way we by our suffering must add merit to Christ’s sacrificial death that paid for our sins.

Then what does Paul mean by this statement? Many views have been suggested, but I think that two offer the best explanation. First, Jesus taught that His followers must suffer because of their identification with Him. He told the disciples (John 15:20-21),

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus prophesied that before He returned, there would be a time of unprecedented suffering for His followers (Matt. 24:9, 21-22). In Revelation 6:9-11, the apostle John saw the martyrs in heaven, who were crying out, asking God how long would it be until their blood was avenged. The Lord told them (Rev. 6:11) to rest for a little while longer, “until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.” So there is a sense in which Christ’s sufferings must be filled up or completed by His body, the church, before He returns. Because the church is His body, when any member suffers for His name, Jesus also suffers. As Paul learned on the Damascus Road, when he persecuted the church, he persecuted Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4).

But also, Christ’s sufferings do not need completion in terms of propitiation, but rather in terms of propagation. Christ’s death provided perfect atonement for all who believe, but people can’t believe unless Christ’s followers go everywhere proclaiming the good news. As Paul put it (Rom. 10:14), “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (John Piper develops this explanation in Desiring God [Multnomah Books], 1996 ed., pp. 223-238).

William Barclay offers a helpful illustration (Flesh and Spirit [Baker], pp. 80-81). He affirms that the work of Christ is done and completed. No one can add to it. But he supposes a great scientist or surgeon who has spent his life and ruined his health to find some cure for a disease. That discovery remains useless unless it is taken out of the laboratory and made available for people all over the world. Those who take it to others may have to sweat and toil and risk their lives to do it. They aren’t adding to the scientist’s work. But it may be rightly said that they are completing the sufferings of the scientist by taking his discovery to the far corners of the earth. The thing lacking in Christ’s afflictions is not the full salvation He secured on the cross, but the price that His followers must pay in the struggle against the powers of darkness to take the salvation Christ offers to every person.

But if that is Paul’s meaning, it is still difficult to apply to us American Christians because very few of us know what it means to suffer for the gospel of Christ. Our brothers and sisters around the world know it very well, as you are aware if you read “Voice of the Martyrs” magazine. The way things are going in this country, we may soon get our turn. But in addition to praying for and helping those in other countries who are suffering for Christ’s sake, how can we apply this here and now?

First, note that Paul is not only talking about suffering for Christ’s sake, but suffering joyfully. He was in prison and he tells the Colossians (1:24), “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Paul rejoiced that his sufferings for Christ would help the new Colossian church to stand firm when they suffered. Our Lord also told us (Matt. 5:11-12):

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

His words give us a hint for how we can apply this short of being imprisoned or beaten or dying for our faith. If it comes to that, I trust that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to rejoice. But in the meantime, we should rejoice when people insult us and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of Christ. Perhaps you’re teaching Sunday school or you’re on a worship team or you’re working behind the scenes to serve, and someone criticizes you or they even lie about you. They gossip to others, maligning your motives. What do you do?

I’ve seen wounded Christians quit serving the Lord. Some have even dropped out of church and in a few cases, stopped following Christ. I’ve seen pastors leave the ministry because of criticism. But what should you do? You may need to talk to the critic to try to get things cleared up and to be reconciled in your relationship. But first, you need to rejoice! Count it a privilege that you have been considered worthy to suffer shame for Jesus’ name (Acts 5:41). In some small way, you are filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions! When you endure trials joyfully for Christ’s sake and for His church’s sake, you exalt Him.

2. We exalt Christ in our service by doing it in the power of His Spirit as stewards appointed by Him (Col. 1:25).

Colossians 1:25: “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, …” Twice (Col. 1:23, 25) Paul says that he was made or became a minister. How did this happen? Did Paul take an aptitude test where the results indicated, “You’d be good as a minister”? No! In Galatians 1:15, Paul says that God had set him apart from his mother’s womb.

In Acts 9 we read how it happened. As Paul approached Damascus where he planned to persecute and imprison Christians, a light from heaven flashed around him, he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying (Acts 9:4), “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul asked (Acts 9:5), “Who are You, Lord?” The Lord answered (Acts 9:5b-6), “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” Then the Lord told Ananias to go and lay hands on Paul so that he might regain his sight. When Ananias expressed concerns about doing that for a known terrorist, the Lord replied (Acts 9:15-16),

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

That’s how Paul became a minister of the gospel: he was not a volunteer for Jesus; he was a conscript! It wasn’t Paul’s chosen career path. Rather, the crucified and risen Lord laid His hand on Paul and said, like the old Army posters, “I want you to serve Me!” Paul didn’t join God’s army; he was drafted!

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wow, I’m glad that the Lord hasn’t called me into the ministry!” But as I said, if you know Christ, He has called you into the ministry. He has called you to serve Him with whatever spiritual gifts, time, and resources He has entrusted to you. It may not be a calling to preach God’s Word, as Paul’s calling was. But whatever your gifts and calling, you can learn something from Paul’s statement that he “might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God” (literally, “make full the word of God”). In Romans 15:18-19, Paul refers to what Christ had accomplished through him in the power of the Spirit and then adds, “so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached [or, ‘fulfilled’] the gospel of Christ.” In 2 Timothy 4:17, he tells how the Lord strengthened him “so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished.”

So the idea is, however God has gifted you, you will only fulfill your calling if you rely on the power of the Spirit and trust the Lord to accomplish His work through you. As Jesus said (John 15:4-5), it is only when we abide in Him as branches in the vine that we can bear much fruit. So view yourself as a steward appointed by Christ to do whatever He’s given you to do. Then do it joyfully in reliance on His Spirit, seeking to glorify the Lord who bought you and rescued you from the domain of darkness. Your ministry is not about fulfilling you, but about exalting the Lord.

So we serve Christ well by exalting Him in every way. We exalt Him in our trials by enduring them joyfully for His and His church’s sake. We exalt Him in our service by doing it in the power of His Spirit as His stewards because He appointed us.

3. We exalt Christ in our message by proclaiming God’s revelation about the indwelling Christ and the hope of glory for everyone who believes (Col. 1:26-27).

Colossians 1:26-27: “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.”

Paul calls his message “the mystery.” Probably he was playing upon a term which the false teachers used. They taught that you had to be initiated into their inner circle to understand the mysteries or secret truths which they would reveal to you. Paul says that the gospel message, especially that the Gentiles could be full partners along with the Jews, is a mystery; not in the sense that it is known only by a select few, but in the sense that it was formerly unknown, but now God has revealed it. The Old Testament predicted salvation for the Gentiles. But God had to reveal the previously unknown truth that the Gentiles would be fellow-heirs with the Jews, one body in Christ with them.

When Paul says, “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27), he means, in this context, “Christ in you Gentiles.” For Paul, this was a glorious truth, but I fear that we don’t appreciate it as much as we should. Before the cross of Christ which opened the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles on equal standing, Gentiles were at best second-class citizens in the kingdom. Gentiles could become proselytes to Judaism, but they could only enter into the court of the women and Gentiles in the Temple. They could not go into the inner court where the Jewish men went. There was a waist-high wall of partition which separated them. Before his conversion Paul was at the forefront of perpetuating this discrimination.

But once he was saved, God revealed to him that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs of the gospel with the Jews. The wall of partition is removed in Christ (Eph. 2:14). As he writes in Colossians 3:11, “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” Christ is in every believer and every believer is in Christ! And the church should be the place where those cultural walls of prejudice are torn down as a demonstration of the power of the gospel. We exalt Christ in our message when we proclaim that the glorious riches of the indwelling Christ are for every person from every race. Racial prejudice has no place in the church.

Paul says that the riches of the glory of the gospel is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I know that you all know that if you have believed in Jesus Christ, He dwells in you and you’re going to heaven. I know it, too. But do we really know it?

If we really knew that the living Christ was in us this past week and that we will soon be with Him in glory, would things have gone any differently? Would we have been impatient, frustrated, angry, grumbling, or depressed if we had stopped to consider that Christ is living in us and we’re destined to share His glory? Would we have spent our time as we spent it if we had been aware of His holy presence in our hearts and thought about being with Him in glory? Would we have grown cold in our devotion to Him and lacked the motivation to read His Word and to pray if we had felt the reality of Christ dwelling in our hearts and had our hope set on the glory ahead? Christianity is not primarily rules or religious ideas; it’s a personal relationship with the living, indwelling Christ, who has called us to share His glory. We exalt Him when we experience and proclaim that message.

Conclusion

Ever since my college days (many decades ago), I’ve had a recurring dream where it’s the end of the semester and I realize that I haven’t been going to a class or doing the assignments and it’s time for the final exam. I panic! It’s a nightmare!

If you know Christ, you’re enrolled in the course called “ministry.” There are assignments and there will be a final exam! Maybe before this message, you didn’t even know you were enrolled in the course. But now you know. Your grade will be based on, “Did you serve Christ well by exalting Him in every way?” Did you exalt Him in your trials by enduring them joyfully for His sake? Did you exalt Him in your service by doing it in the power of His Spirit as a steward appointed by Him? Did you exalt Him in your message by proclaiming that Christ indwells you and will indwell every person who trusts in Him and that He promises glory for every believer? Remember, you’re in the ministry now!

Application Questions

  1. Should every Christian view his job as “tent-making” to support his ministry? Why/why not?
  2. How should a new believer discover where God want him or her to serve?
  3. How should we respond when we’re serving the Lord and catch criticism? What steps should we take?
  4. Practically, how can we gain a deeper sense of Christ’s indwelling presence and of the hope of glory?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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