Some time ago a Jehovah's Witness knocked at my door and asked, did I believe in God? Well, I have to admit I just wanted to get rid of him. So I cut to the chase and said, 'Are you a Jehovah's Witness?' He said, 'Yes.' So I said, 'In that case I don't want to hear what you've got to say, because you have absolutely nothing to offer me – in fact, you can only rob me of what I've already got.' He looked rather taken aback and said, 'What do you mean?' So I said, 'Well, can you say you're absolutely sure God accepts you?' And he said, 'No. You can't be.' To which I said, 'Well, I am sure, and that's why I said you can only rob me of what I've already got.' And hoping that would be end of conversation and I could get back to what I was doing, I was rather taken aback when he said, 'Could I come in and could you explain that to me?' It was the first time I'd ever had a Jehovah's Witness ask if I could do the talking. And it was the most fruitful conversation with a Jehovah's Witness I've ever had, as I explained that I'm sure God accepts me because it depends 0% on what I've done and 100% on what Christ has done for me on the cross. Ie, it depends on Christ alone – which is our theme tonight.
Now if I'd not had the privilege of good Bible-understanding, he could well have unsettled me with the Jehovah's Witness line. He could well have unsettled me by saying, 'Actually, the Bible doesn't really say what you've been taught – not in the original. What you've heard about Jesus being God's Son, and dying for your forgiveness, is really a misinterpretation. And that's dangerous, because it leaves people thinking they don't have to do anything to contribute to their salvation. But you do – let me show you this article in our magazine which explains why...'
That kind of thing can unsettle you. And as we've seen these past few Sundays, that's the kind of thing that was happening in the church at Colosse. Which is why Paul wrote Colossians, to reassure them and us that for relationship with God Christ is all you need. Colossians is like preventative medicine to stop us being unsettled by anyone saying we need something in addition to Christ or instead of Christ.
So would you turn in the Bibles to Colossians 2. And let's re-cap what we've seen in this series so far. Two Sundays ago we saw what Paul wants for anyone reading this letter. Look at chapter 2 and v2:
2My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. [Ie, I want them to understand that Christ is all they need. V4:] 4I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments [ie, by saying you need something in addition to Christ or instead of Christ]. (vv2-4)
Then look at what we saw last Sunday. Look on to v6:
6So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (vv6-7)
Ie, 'Don't move an inch from depending 100% on Christ for your relationship with God.' That gets us to tonight's passage, and my first heading is this:
First, DON'T MOVE AWAY FROM FAITH IN CHRIST ALONE (v8)
Putting your faith in Christ is how you become a Christian, and Paul's already reminded the Colossians of that. Look back to 1.3:
3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus... (1.3)
Now notice he doesn't just say 'your faith', because everyone has faith – there's nothing specifically Christian about that: Muslims have faith in Allah, Hindus have faith in thousands of gods, atheists have faith that God isn't there ('probably'), Buddhists, Jews, agnostics – they all have faith. But none of that faith puts people right with the one God who's really there. Only 'faith in Christ Jesus' does that. And 'faith in Christ Jesus' means trusting that his death on the cross did everything necessary to put us right with God. And Paul's reminded them of that, too. Look on to 1.21 (and these words are true of you too, if your faith is in Christ Jesus):
21Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of [or as shown by] your evil behaviour. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation... (1.21-22)
And v22 captures the wonder of the gospel. The wonder is that if our faith is in Christ Jesus and what he did for us on the cross, God looks at us as people who are completely acceptable, as people whose sins have been removed. So, I'm not without blemish – far from it – but thanks to what Jesus did for me on the cross, God looks on me and treats me as someone without blemish. Again, there are countless sins God could and should accuse me of at the end of the day, but thanks to what Jesus did for me on the cross, God looks on me and treats me as someone who has nothing to be accused of. That's the wonder of the gospel. And you can't add to that. And no-one out there in the world of religion can offer you anything better than that. Like my Jehovah's Witness, they can only rob you if they persuade you you need something in addition to Christ or instead of Christ. And that's why Paul is so strong in tonight's passage. Look on to chapter 2 and v8:
8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (v8)
Now for the rest of chapter 2, Paul deals head-on with the false teaching that was in danger of unsettling them. Now exactly what the false teachers were saying, we don't know. We get hints through the rest of chapter 2, as we'll see, but we don't know exactly what they were saying – and we don't need to. What we need is to take on board Paul's warning in v8, which will help us smell a rat in any false teaching we meet. And the warning in v8 is this: don't fall for any teaching that says relationship with God depends on something other than Christ alone. Or putting it another way, ask yourself this question about anything you hear: 'In this teaching, does relationship with God, acceptance with God, depend on Christ alone?' And if the answer's no, reject it.
Take Islam, for example. Unlike other so-called world religions Islam does have a place for Jesus. He's honoured as a prophet – but since prophets can't possibly end up getting crucified, Islam re-writes history and denies Jesus' death on the cross. Ie, Jesus isn't actually honoured at all – he's reduced from being the saving Lord that Colossians has been telling us about, to a mere prophet playing second fiddle to Mohammed. So ask the question: 'In this teaching, does relationship with God, acceptance with God, depend on Christ alone?' And the answer is no. So, v8, you have to say that Islam is 'a hollow and deceptive philosophy [ie, religious system], which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.' (Some of the individual statements it makes are true – eg, there is only one God. But taken as a whole, Islam can only mislead you and can't put you right with the one God who's really there.)
Or take the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and ask that same question, 'In this teaching, does relationship with God, acceptance with God, depend on Christ alone?' And sadly, again, the answer is no. Now the error in official Roman Catholic teaching is different from the error in Islam, which is different from the error in Jehovah's Witness teaching. But it's still error, even though it's more subtle and harder to spot. But the easiest way to spot it is to step back from all the detail and ask, 'Does this teaching leave people with assurance about where they stand with God?' And sadly the answer is no. Now, the point of asking that 'diagnostic question' is this. If you trust (like I said to that Jehovah's Witness) that your acceptance with God depends 0% on what you've done and 100% on what Christ has done on the cross, you can have assurance. But turning it the other way round, if you don't have assurance, you're not trusting 100% in the death of Jesus. You're trusting that, to some extent, it depends on you and what you do – in which case assurance goes out of the window, because you're never sure you've 'done enough' of your part.
So that's the first thing: Don't move away from faith in Christ alone. If you smell a rat in any teaching you hear, ask yourself those questions, 'In this teaching, does relationship with God, acceptance with God, depend on Christ alone?' and, 'Does this teaching leave people with assurance about where they stand with God?' If the answer is no, don't touch it with a barge pole.
Now before I got married, I read several books on marriage, one of which talked about protecting your marriage from the temptation of adultery. And among other things, it said: never stop appreciating what you have in your marriage – never take it for granted – and work at it being good, so that you appreciate it more and more. And that way, you'll see that an affair has nothing to offer compared to what you already have. And in Colossians, Paul is out to protect us from spiritual adultery, from moving away from faith in Christ alone. So what he does next is to help us appreciate what we already have in Christ. So my second heading is this:
Secondly, APPRECIATE WHERE YOU ALREADY STAND IN CHRIST (vv9-12)
Look on to v9:
9For [ie, this is the reason I'm saying, 'Don't touch anything else with a barge pole.'...] in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. (vv9-10)
So, Christ was and is fully God and he's now bodily risen from the dead and at his Father's side back in heaven. And if your faith is in him, you're as fully in relationship with God, as fully acceptable to God, as it's possible to be. That's what it means when it says we've been 'given fullness in Christ'. Now, Paul probably used the word 'fullness' because the false teachers did. The bait they laid for people was to say, 'Look, you're not yet really, fully enjoying the relationship with God that you could be. You're not yet really, fully 'in'. So let us give you the secret of how you can be...' And Paul says, No. You're either in Christ – trusting in Christ – or you're outside Christ, not trusting in Christ. And if you're in Christ, you're as fully in relationship with God, as fully acceptable to God, as it's possible to be.' And that doesn't go up and down with the ups and downs of how close to God you feel or with the ups and downs of your sinfulness. It's your permanent standing if you're in Christ. So read on, v11:
11In him you were also circumcised... (v11)
Now this is where it's easy to think, 'I'm losing the plot. Why is he suddenly going on about circumcision?' And the only answer that makes sense is: because the false teachers were. They must have been saying, 'Part of the secret of being really, fully 'in' with God is that you need to be circumcised – like it talks about in the Old Testament.' It's like today you may come across another cult called the International Church of Christ. And they'll say, 'Look, it's great that you're a Christian. And what you've been taught is good as far as it goes. But to be really, fully 'in', you need to be baptised – properly baptised, that is – by full immersion and by us.' Well, it seems the false teachers in Colosse were saying something like that: 'Look, to be really, fully 'in', you need to be circumcised by us.'
So what does Paul say when any human being, any cult or even any church, claims that what it does to you (eg, baptism, confirmation) is necessary to make you one of God's people? Well, look at v11 again. Paul simply says: appreciate where you already stand in Christ and you won't fall for it. V11:
11In him [in Christ] you were also circumcised... (v11)
To which they'd have said, 'Hold on Paul, we haven't been circumcised.' And Paul would have said, 'I'm not talking about literal circumcision. I'm not talking about the physical operation. I'm talking metaphorically about what Jesus did to you spiritually when you put your faith in him.' V11 again:
11In him you were also 'circumcised' [metaphorically speaking – 'circumcised' in inverted commas], in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the 'circumcision' done by Christ... (v11)
Now even if we don't catch every detail here – and we won't – the main point is clear. It's that you come into relationship with God through what Christ does to you, not through what any human being does to you. So, eg, I did the last baptisms here in an evening service. Now, did I bring those six into relationship with God? No. Did I make them members of God's people? No. I just got them wet – as an outward sign of what Christ had already done to them, as an outward sign of that spiritual operation of forgiving them and changing them by the work of his Spirit.
Well, now read on into v12, where Paul talks about that spiritual operation in terms of believers
12having been buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (v12)
Now remember what I just said: baptism just gets people wet as a sign of what only Christ can do for them. So being baptised is secondary – it's not of first importance. Whereas putting your faith in Christ is primary and absolutely vital. So let me re-read v12, leaving out baptism for now, to make it clearer. If you're trusting in Christ, then v12, you've been
buried with [Christ]... and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (v12)
Now that gets right to the heart of the spiritual operation Jesus performs on us when we put our faith in him. But what exactly does it mean? Well, think back 2,000 years to Good Friday and to what happened to Jesus. Jesus died under the judgement our sins deserve and was buried. Three days later he was raised from the dead, out from under that judgement forever. Now, until you put your faith in Jesus, those events are of no benefit to you – a bit like a cheque is of no benefit to you until you cash it. But the moment you turn to the risen Lord Jesus and put your faith in him, he applies the benefits of what he did that first Easter to you. In fact, you can put it more strongly than that. If your faith is in Jesus, if you are 'in Christ' then in God's sight, you were there 2,000 years ago, in Christ. In God's sight, you and your sins were taken to the cross in Christ. You and your sins were judged and buried in Christ. And you were then raised in Christ, out from under judgement forever. Which is why chapter 1 and v22 can say if you're in Christ, you're now 'holy in God's sight, without blemish and free from accusation' – out from under judgement forever.
Now that truth of being in Christ and of having been involved in his death and resurrection 2,000 years before we were even born isn't an easy one to get your head round. So maybe an illustration will help. As you probably know, Tess, my wife, gave birth to twin girls, Beth and Ellie, back in January this year. But last year, Beth and Ellie went to Canada and did a wonderful road-trip through the Rockies – hiking, lake-swimming, bear-spotting. How? Because they were in Mum. And the thing about being an unborn baby, the thing about being in Mum, is that where Mum has been, you have been and what's happened to Mum has happened to you.
And being in Christ means that in God's sight, you've been where Christ has been and what's happened to Christ has happened to you. V12, you've been
buried with him... and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (v12)
But why does he say here that happened 'in baptism' – ie, at the time of their baptism? Well, simply because in the New Testament, adult baptism (which is what he's on about here) happened pretty much immediately as people came to faith, so the time of your baptism was the time of your coming to faith.
So that's the second thing: appreciate where you already stand in Christ. If your faith is in Christ, you stand as fully in relationship with God as it's possible to be, as fully accepted by God as it's possible to be, because Jesus took you and your sins to judgement on the cross and then raised you out from judgement forever. And if you appreciate that, you won't touch anything else with a barge pole.
And to push that point home, the third and final thing Paul says is this:
Thirdly, UNDERSTAND WHAT HAPPENED ON THE CROSS (vv13-15)
Look on to v13:
13When you were dead in your sins and in the 'uncircumcision' [in inverted commas again] of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. [That's simply repeating what he's just said. Read on:] He forgave us all our sins, [but on what basis? How can we be sure of that as we need to be? Well, on the basis of what happened on the cross, which is what he unpacks in vv14 and 15. Read on. We are forgiven on the basis of God:] 14having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (vv13-14)
Now the word translated 'written code' is better translated in other versions as 'record of debt'. It's the word they used in Paul's day if you owed someone money and you wrote them an 'IOU' note. And Paul's saying: when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, the one person infinitely in credit with his Father took responsibility for all our moral and spiritual debts and paid them off. So imagine the entire record of your lifetime's sins – all your past and future sins; all the sins you're conscious of and all the sins you don't even notice; all the wrong you'll ever do and all the good you'll ever fail to do. And then imagine yourself standing at the foot of the cross. And you look up and you see that above Jesus, nailed to the cross, instead of that charge 'The King of the Jews', there is your record. And my record. In fact, the record of the sins of the whole world. And Jesus is on the cross saying, 'I will own these debts as mine, and pay them off.' No wonder Martin Luther, who understood these things better than anyone, wrote, 'I am Christ's sin, and he is my righteousness.'
That's what happened at the cross. And if your faith is in Christ, then from God's point of view, the last time your sins were seen was 2,000 years ago, where they were paid for in judgement and then buried out of sight forever. Which is why today, right now, and at every moment, God can look at us believers, sinful as we are, sinful as we continue to be, and see us like it says in chapter 1 and v22 as 'without blemish'. It's like looking through Polaroid sunglasses cuts out the glare – God looks at us through what happened on the cross and it 'cuts out' the sin. And all he sees is people he can fully accept.
Now our feelings will often tell us otherwise. And Satan, the devil, will always tell us otherwise. But look at the last verse of our passage, v15:
15And having disarmed the powers and authorities [ie, Satan and all his company], he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (v15)
So if your faith is in Christ, then when Satan accuses you of your sin, and tries to persuade you of the impossibility of God forgiving it, you need to understand that he's holding an empty gun to your head. The ammunition – namely your sin – was taken out and judged and buried 2,000 years ago, and as chapter 1 v22 says, you are now free from accusation forever.
Well, I hope, going back to my Jehovah's Witness, that what I said to him (although too tactless and blunt) now makes more sense – that he had absolutely nothing to offer me, in fact that he could only rob me of what I'd already got. And that's true of anyone who offers you anything but faith in Christ alone. And if you understand what happened at the cross and you appreciate where you already stand in Christ, you won't move. Don't move.