Paul as Faithful Minister of the Kingdom (Part 1) Col 1:23b-2:5
Our journey through Colossians brings us to the part in the Apostle’s letters in which he talks about himself. Here in Colossians 1, Paul does this for two reasons, one is to Enlighten the readers about his Ministry, and the second is to Embody His Message to the Colossians. Let me explain these two reasons a bit more. It is Paul’s usual practice somewhere near the beginning of his letters to use a few lines to describe his present circumstances. He does that in all his letters, but at different lengths. That in Colossians is notable for being quite long. It stretches over eleven verses from 1:23b to 2:5; equal in length to the twelve verses which he used to describe Christ as king in Col 1:15-23a. The nearest to that is what we find in 1 Tim 1:11-20, followed in order of length by Romans 1:7-16. There is another long self-introduction in Eph 3:1-14, but that is placed in the middle and not at the beginning. But this one in Col 1:23b-2:5 is quite long. Of course, like Romans, Colossians is also addressed to a congregation that did not know the apostle in person. Enlightening the readers about his situation and ministry was an extremely important thing to do.
That is partly why it is long in Col 1:23b-2:5. The second reason why Paul speaks about himself here is even more important. He writes to Embody the message of his letter. In other words, he applies the message first to himself before he then applies it to the brothers and sisters. Look at what he says in 1:23: “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister”. Remember what we said about the first part of this verse? We said, Paul’s lofty exposition about the doctrine of Christ in Col 1:15-23a was designed to serve the purpose of stabilizing the believers so they will remain steadfast in advancing the kingdom in this disorderly world. Christ has founded the kingdom built on faith, love and hope. And you, the people of His kingdom, continue in these, stabilize yourself in them, be steadfast in advancing the kingdom, and don’t shift an inch from holding up the good news to your disorderly world.
It is on the basis of this statement of application in Col 1:23 that Paul then says in 1:23b, “of which I, Paul, became a minister”. Of what? It is of this vocation of continuing, this calling of stabilizing, and this obsession with advancing the kingdom “in all creation under heaven”, it is this mandate of making the kingdom of God come to realization and reign here in this world, it is this that is my business, my calling, my pre-occupation, and my ministry. It is of this that I Paul, I became a minister! That is how he begins. And then for eleven verses he gives them details of how he went about doing this ministry of advancement. Paul in other words introduces himself as one who embodied the message of Advancing the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in a disorderly world. Jesus is the founder, and I Paul, am a faithful minister of this kingdom, working to advance it. Now I want to encourage you to follow in that step!
Friends, let me say this to you. When God wants to do something, He sends a man or woman first. God has no machines. God has men and women. God’s machines are men and women! I think it was E M Bounds who in his classic book, Power Through Prayer wrote: The Church is looking for better methods; but God is looking for better men [and women]. When God wants to do something new, let me say it again, my brothers and sisters, when God wants to do something He does not send ideas and strategies and methods. God starts by sending men and women. God does not change society by introducing new policies. He changes society by planting men and women there, you and I, in that place. That is God’s method.
During the Christmas holidays, I spent some time to read over John’s Gospel again. And I really love the way in which John the Baptist is introduced in that Gospel. John 1:5-7 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” There was darkness in the world, and the Light of the world, Jesus Christ shined His Light into that darkness. The darkness fought back. But the darkness could not overcome the light. There was death in this world, and Jesus the Life came to bring life to it. There was disorder in this world, and Jesus the Logos, the Word, came to this disorderly dark world to restore order and redeem that world.
How did He do that? Well, John next says in 1:6-7 “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him”. God did not send angels ahead of Jesus into the darkness. He sent a man. There was a man sent from God. Praise the Lord! That is how the work of God starts. He always sends a man or woman to that place to bear witness.
I pray that when the history of the work of God here in Grimsby and Cleethorpes is written, it will also be said, that there was a man, and there was a woman of this Church, there was you, sent from God, to bear witness to the light. Oh may it be so! May God give us faithful men and women from this Church so that when the history of the coming revival is written it will also be said that there was from this Church a passionate man or woman! A lover of Christ! A man or woman consumed with zeal for the Lord’s cause! There was this man or this woman who felt under the compulsion of the Spirit to bear witness here in our town! May God give us more men and women, multitudes of men and women who will bear witness like John! That is what we need! Men and women! But I digress!
In the frame of the letter then Col 1:23b-2:5, does two things. It enlightens us about Paul’s ministry and it embodies Paul’s message to the Colossians. For today and the next two visits here, we will take our time to look at this passage because it helps us to capture how we can practically advance the kingdom here in our land. The piece divides itself into four sections:
1. Col 1:24-25 Paul’s Ministerial Credentials – what qualified him as minister
2. Col 1:26-27 Paul’s Ministerial Creed– what motivated Him as a minister
3. Col 1:28-29 Paul’s Ministerial Craft – how he ministered
4. Col 2:1-5 Paul’s Ministerial Commitments – what focused him as a minister
Paul’s Ministerial Credentials 1:24-25
Paul begins by explaining his qualifications as a minister who advances the kingdom. He does not give an exhaustive CV. He only selected a few, relevant for the Gentile Colossians. If you like, this is his abridged CV. He says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known”.
So three components of his credentials, namely, (a) he Suffered for Christ’s Church – 1:24, (b) he served Christ’s Church – 1:25a, and (c) he Stewarded Christ’s Mystery – 1:25b. These three credentials, as a Sufferer, Servant and Steward, these three also define the kind of person, who will advance the kingdom. Advancing the kingdom demands the faithful believer willing to suffer for the sake of the kingdom, committed to serve the kingdom, and persevere in stewarding Christ’s mystery. Let me just make a few comments about these three credentials.
The Faithful Minister Suffers for Christ’s Church (1:24).
First the faithful minister of the kingdom suffers. Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. I am now suffering in prison under the Roman authorities. In my flesh, I have scars from whippings that I received from the Jewish authorities. In nearby Lystra, I was stoned by the mob, and assumed dead, I was dragged on the floor and dumped on a rubbish heap outside the town (Acts 14:19). And all these sufferings were “for your sake”. In fact he says, these sufferings filled “up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. What does he mean by that? Does he mean that Christ’s suffering was somehow inadequate, and that he had to complete it, make up for the shortfall?
Not at all! You know, when the Lord Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24) He meant when you come to be my disciple, you come also to share my suffering. You come to carry a cross. Not my cross, but a cross nonetheless! It was Bonhoeffer who said, when Christ calls a man he also calls him to come a die. The disciple shares in Christ’s suffering. You come to become a partner, a sharer in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. Paul says in Phil 3:10 that his ambition was “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”.
It is the same idea that he expresses here in Col 1:24. Any man or woman who wants to be a faithful minister of Christ must be prepared to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering. “Lacking”, in the sense that though His suffering is more than enough to secure the salvation of people here in Grimsby, the man or the woman He sends to Grimsby to preach it must also suffer in the propagation of that good news. Somebody nicely put it this way: Christ’s suffering is more than enough for our propitiation; but the disciple’s suffering is needed for its propagation. Someone has to suffer; not just Christ, but His followers must pay some price to spread the Gospel. This is what Paul means by I fill up what was lacking. I make the purpose of His suffering complete.
So, may I now ask you, my friend: where is your scar? Paul said, “I bear on my body the marks [the scars] of Jesus” (Gal 6:17). Well, where is yours? What is your scar? What we need today are men and women willing to pay the price, little prices, to sacrifice a bit more, put their bodies under a little bit more pressure, take a bit more pains, accept a bit more shame, be willing to accept rejection a bit more. Brothers and sister who do that will be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Will you enlist this year?
The Faithful Minister Serves Christ’s Church 1:25a
Paul next says the minister serves. He says, the church “of which I became a minister”. If the first credential was for the sake of the church, the second credential was in service to the church. The faithful minister serves, serves not necessarily in the sense that they do the practical things like getting the room sorted or serving drinks or arranging meetings. They serve in the sense that they minister in submission to the needs of God’s people. The faithful minister is not a reigning prince as we see it in some denominations today. The faithful minister is conditioned by the spiritual needs of God’s people. One of the mistakes some Protestant ministers are beginning to make is becoming mesmerized by the model of ministry that invests pomp, pageantry and power in the priest to the extent that he becomes a prince. That is not the nature of ministry that glorifies God. The minister is a servant of Christ, but also a servant of Christ’s Church. Paul told the Corinthians “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5). That is what we are: Servants of Christ and of His Church!
The Faithful Minister Stewards Christ’s Mystery 1:25b
The third credential Paul mentions about the faithful minister is a Steward of Christ’s mystery: he became a minister “according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known”. Ministry is stewardship. It is a commission. It is something so precious that it must be protected at all cost, kept from adulteration of any form, maintained in its purity regardless, and passed on in its glorious beauty by all means. The minister protects something very precious. And because of that he is diligent at it, devoted to its purity and obsessed with its integrity. Why? Because he knows that as a steward he will have to give an account one of these days to the Lord. It is these credentials which define the kind of man or woman who advances the kingdom. He or she suffers. He or she serves. And he or she stewards God’s mystery.
Paul’s Ministerial Creed Col 1:26-27
Paul secondly speaks about this mystery of which he is a steward: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”. To put it simply, the precious thing which Paul as minister protected was the Revealed Mystery of the Indwelling of Christ in Gentiles. This creed was heavy duty stuff, certainly for Paul! That is why he calls it a Revealed Mystery. It was mystery on two levels, one Quantitative, and the other Qualitative. Let’s briefly look at these two levels.
The Quantitative Nature of the Revealed Mystery
It was a mystery in the sense that God took a massive interest in the Gentile. And that took everybody by surprise! Now the Old Testament consistently speaks about Gentiles coming to submit to Israel’s God and believing in Him and worshipping Him. That was never a mystery to the Jew. What was the mystery was the big bang nature of the conversion of Gentiles, of the wide sweeping and rapid coming to faith of the Gentile world to the God of Israel, to the extent that within a space of five decades, there were far more Gentiles believing in Christ than there were Jews. That was the revealed mystery. Paul talks about it this way in Eph 3:6. He says, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”. The Gentiles who were despised and excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, all of a sudden became joint heirs and partakers of Christ, equal partners in Him. That was mind blowing mystery.
Some brothers and sisters were quite slow to pick this revealed mystery up. Brothers in Christ who were reactionaries to the operation of the mystery of Christ! These brothers were so keen to protect their own so much so that they missed God’s open door policy! They kept on being weighed down by their inhibitions and their qualms about the rate at which Gentiles were swarming the Church of Christ. And they opposed it. But not Paul! He said, I became a steward of it. I became convinced that this is the work of God’s Spirit, and I must do nothing to hinder it. No, actually, I must do everything to pass it on. So it became my creed. It became my conviction. I became obsessed with it. I am a steward of that. I will work hard to get it passed on. You know, my brothers and sisters. In our time God is doing new things in our land, even here in our towns here. Will we be reactionaries, holding the spread of the Gospel back? Slow to pick on the activity of the Spirit. Keen to protect our own so much that we keep the door shut in the face of the people whom God is drawing to the Kingdom?
The Qualitative Nature of the Revealed Mystery
While elsewhere in his letters, Paul speaks about the mystery in relation to the massive inclusion of Gentiles, it is only here in Colossians that he now adds a qualitative element to it. He says this revealed mystery is: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. It is Christ in you Gentiles, granting you the hope of glory. Paul’s creed, the thing that kept him going in the sufferings, the unshakeable conviction for which he was willing to serve was that Christ would indwell Gentiles and bring hope of glory to them too! That was his creed. It drove Him. That Gentile pagans can be transformed from a hopeless hell-bound bunch into a hopeful heaven bound people, because Christ Himself comes to dwell in them, that was something to live and die for! Paul says I will stake my life on this, suffer in my flesh for it, and steward it.
Because the transformation the indwelling Christ produces in these pagans is phenomenal. That must always be the creed of a faithful minister. That through the preaching of the word, sinners will become saints! That drunkards will become sober. That drug addict will become the temple of the Holy Spirit! That thieves will become security men. Because Christ will indwell in them! Hope of glory has come! Doesn’t that enthuse and drive you this morning to advance the kingdom?
Let me conclude. The enormity of the social problems in our town is mind boggling. We all knew some of it, but I think I am right in saying that SKINT, the Channel 4 documentary has shown that we Christians here have no reason at all to be complacent about the advancement of the kingdom in our district. The massive challenges of increasing drug addiction, of alcohol abuse, unemployment, prostitution and of petty crimes! I was reading a report the other week and the statistics are sobering. Many of our young people are losing hope. Now I hear that in May this year, a whole new film titled Grimsby is going to be released, once again drawing attention to our social problems. Of course much of this is caricatured. And these problems are not unique to us, and there are lots and lots of places with worse problems than ours. Even so they nevertheless pose the question to us believers here in our towns. What is our response to this hopelessness?
Well, let me tell you God’s response to the hopelessness around us. His response is to plant you and I hear to advance His kingdom in these disorderly towns. His response is to commission you as His faithful minister willing to make the difference, to declare this wonderful mystery that Christ is the hope for all these young men and women blighted by the hopelessness of our society. It is Christ in them. That is the mission and message he has placed in your hands. Will you pledge yourself to be faithful at doing it this year?
May the Lord grant each one of us the grace, fortitude and perseverance to do so! May He re-ignite His fire in us and cause us to advance His kingdom!