Archive | February 2020

Look past the surface clutter

On November 4th, 1922, while exploring in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, Howard Carter found the steps leading to Tutankhamen’s tomb.  He wired Lord Carnarvon, the financier of his expedition, to come.  Three weeks later, on November 26, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter, and others in attendance, Carter made a “tiny breach in the top left hand corner” of the doorway.  With the party waiting behind him, Carter was able to peer through the hole by the light of a candle, and he could see that many gold and ebony treasures were still in place.  Someone behind him asked, “Can you see anything?”  Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things!”

That’s how I often feel when I peer into Scripture, that I am gazing upon wonderful treasures.  But, as with Howard Carter, sometimes we have to go through the work of pushing the sand aside and drilling a hole in the door in order to get past the surface appearance and discover the treasure within. 

Many people fail to get past the surface clutter.  They stay, as it were, outside and think that’s all there is to a passage.  It’s when we dig in deeper that we actually gaze into the heart of God and find treasures that are richer than we would expect.  

That’s how I feel about a passage like Colossians 3:18 – 4:1.  On the surface, this is a rather routine (some would say archaic) set of instructions about how to get along in a marriage, a family, and between masters and slaves.  But what might we discover if we push away some of the sand?

The subject matter Paul addresses here was expected of an ethical teacher in Greek or Roman cultures.  Michael Kruse explains, “The ancient Greeks saw the household as the primary institution through which order was kept in society.  To promote effective household management Greek sages would offer their advice…on household management.  These discourses came to be known as the ‘household codes’ or ‘household tables’…. Included in the codes are usually instructions about how the paterfamilias [the head of the household] should manage his wife, his children and his slaves.”

Here is where we need to begin pushing aside the surface clutter.  The ancient Greek philosopher Arius Didymus argued, “A man has the rule of this household by nature, for the deliberative faculty in a woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it was completely absent.”

In keeping with the culture of his day, Paul writes here a set of ethical instructions pertaining to the most fundamental relationships of his readers’ lives.  Yet Paul pushes aside the clutter of his day—the belief that only the “man of the house” mattered and the belief that the most important thing was to keep the order in society by keeping everyone in their proper place.  Since the belief of that day was that only the “man of the house” had adequately developed “deliberative faculty,” the household codes were written only to the husband, father, and slave owner, providing him with instructions on how to keep others in their proper place.  But Paul opens the ethical directives to wives, children, and slaves as well, because everyone matters to God and because everyone is endowed by God with deliberative faculty—a will and a conscience

This changes everything and opens the door to the richer treasures God has in mind.

Briefly, here are a few glimpses we get of the richer treasures we find in these verses:

In telling wives to be subject to their husbands “as is fitting in the Lord,” Paul asserts the lofty role of a woman’s conscience and of her personal relationship with God.  She is called to subject herself to her husband only to the extent that it is “fitting in the Lord.”  The book of Acts provides an example: When a number of Christians in the early church were selling property and giving the proceeds to the cause of Christ, one couple decided to impress others by selling some property and claiming to give all the proceeds to the church while actually keeping much for themselves.  When Ananias, the husband, presented the money to the apostles, Peter confronted Ananias with his hypocrisy, and Ananias fell over dead.  When Sapphira, the wife, came along some hours later and repeated the same story, Peter did not compliment her for faithfully submitting to her husband.  He confronted her over her hypocrisy, and she, too, fell over dead.  Going along with her husband’s wrong simply because he was her husband was not “fitting in the Lord.”  Each of us is called to exercise our will and our conscience in a way that is “fitting in the Lord.” 

Paul instructs husbands to “love your wives,” because God’s heart for marriage is not merely a functional division of labor, or the well ordering of society, or even the increase of the population, but God’s heart is for two to become one.  God longs for love to fill a marriage.

William Barclay points out, “In the ancient world children were very much under the domination of their parents.  The supreme example of that was the Roman Patria Potestas, the law of the father’s power.  Under it a parent could do anything he liked with his child.  He could even sell him into slavery; he could make him work like a laborer on his farm; he had even the legal right to condemn his child to death, and to carry out the execution.”  But Paul sets forth a very different ethic for followers of Christ.  Paul tells fathers, “Do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.”  God cares about the wellbeing of a child’s heart.  That kind of care must govern our ethics.

One of the primary reasons why there were slaves in Colossae is because Greeks and Romans devalued physical labor.  Slaves were needed for jobs that were considered beneath the pride of the nobility.  This perspective leads to the devaluing of workers, and it cultivates within laborers a “get-away-with-what-you-can” attitude.  But the ethics set forward in these verses turns that kind of thinking upside down.  By reminding “masters” that they “also have a Master in heaven,” Paul sets master and slave on equal footing before God, so master as well as slave must act with justice and integrity.  And in calling even slaves to do everything “wholeheartedly,” and by calling us to approach every task by putting “yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters,” Paul stresses the value of every legitimate, ethical job we might undertake.  Any job a person may have has as much potential of pleasing God as the task of any noble or any priest.  God cares for the contributions of every worker.


Forgive: The Impossible Command

The God we worship is a God of the impossible.

God has a knack for doing what is impossible, creating the universe out of nothing, creating humans in the likeness of God with souls that can laugh in joy and cry in compassion, turning water into wine, overcoming death with resurrection, setting the Holy Spirit in the receptacle of our frail and fallible souls.  Mark 9:23 declares, “All things are possible with God.”  Luke 1:37 asserts, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Job 42:2 announces, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”  And Jeremiah 32:17 affirms, “Ah Lord God!  Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm!  Nothing is too difficult for You.”  

God does what is impossible, and God calls us to do what is impossible. 

For example, Colossians 3:13 presents us with this impossible command: “If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

The concept of forgiveness sounds good until we are deeply wounded by the injustice of another.  Shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis remarked, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war.  And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.”

On September 1, 2004, ongoing tensions between two Russian ethnic groups, the Ossetians and Ingush, erupted in intense violence.  A group of Ingush and Chechen gunmen seized a school in Beslan, Russia, taking 1,100 hostages.  By the end of the 52-hour siege, 334 people had been killed—most of them children.  Tanik Kuizev’s 12-year-old daughter was among the hostages.  Though she made it out safely, her cousin did not.  When interviewed about the tragedy, Tanik Kuizev responded, “They say, ‘forgive, forgive.’  How do you forgive something like this?  How do you explain this?  Forgive?  No way!” 

Corrie ten Boom’s parents sheltered Jewish persons during the Nazi occupation of Holland. When apprehended, Corrie and several members of her family were locked up in concentration camps.  Some family members died during incarceration, but Corrie made it out alive.  Following the war, Corrie traveled around the world sharing a message of forgiveness…until one Sunday at a church service in Munich, Germany.  Lewis Smedes relates what happened that day: “After the sermon, greeting people, she saw a man come toward her, hand outstretched: ‘Ja, Fraulein, it is so wonderful that Jesus forgives us all our sins, just as you say.’  She remembered his face; it was the leering, lecherous, mocking face of an SS guard of the shower stall.  Her hand froze at her side.  She could not forgive. She thought she had forgiven all.  But she could not forgive when she met a guard standing in the solid flesh in front of her.”

Sometimes the command to forgive becomes impossible for us.  It is impossible for us to give to others what we do not have within ourselves to give.

But while Jesus hung upon the cross, with guards below Him gambling for His clothes, with a crowd of people mocking Him, and with His disciples deserting Him, Jesus declared, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  

Jesus was able to give what is impossible for us to give because grace, mercy, and compassion live uncompromisingly in Him.

The only way we could possibly keep the command to forgive is if the grace and mercy and compassion of God would live in us.  That’s why in the verse preceding the command to forgive one another, Paul describes us as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12), and he tells us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).  We cannot give what is not in us to give, but when Christ fills us with Himself we can now give from that with which He fills us. 

That is, in fact, what Corrie ten Boom did when she found herself unable to forgive her lecherous shower guard.  Lewis Smedes continues, “Ashamed, horrified at herself, she prayed: ‘Lord, forgive me, I cannot forgive.’  And as she prayed she felt forgiven, accepted in spite of her shabby performance as a famous forgiver.  Her hand was suddenly unfrozen.  The ice of hate melted.  Her hand went out.  She forgave as she felt forgiven.” 

Let’s be clear though: Forgiveness is not overlooking a wrong.  It is not pretending that a wrong was right or okay or even acceptable.  Forgiveness is not necessarily abandoning the prayer for or the quest for justice to be done.  Forgiveness is letting go of the grudge I hold against another.  Forgiveness is the conscious decision to stop holding to my heart the burning coal of hate that is tearing apart my insides.  Forgiveness is recognizing that it is not within my authority to condemn a person.  Forgiveness is giving the person over to the justice and/or grace of God. 

Forgiveness is the best thing we can do, but it is something we can only do with the help of the One who does the impossible.

Christian faith = a life of total upheaval

In Colossians 3:1-2 Paul encouraged the new Colossian believers (and us), “Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  In verse 5 he adds, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”  And in verse 8 he exhorts us, “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”  What Christians often fail to recognize is that a call to Christ is a call to us to turn away from an old way of living and to turn into a new way of living.  

Such a turn from one way of living to another is not easy and should never be taken lightly.

In 1997, just 10 days after she was born, Delimar Vera was snatched from her crib in Philadelphia and whisked away to New Jersey by Carolyn Correa who also burned the house down to cover up the kidnapping.  For six years, Luzaida Cueva, Delimar’s mother thought her daughter had died in the fire.  But the truth was eventually found out, and on March 8, 2004, Delimar was reunited with her real mother.  Delimar had been raised in a home in New Jersey under the name Aaliyah with those whom she thought were her family.  Suddenly she was moved to Philadelphia with a new name and a new mother and a new set of family.  In an article in USA Today on March 10, 2004, David Fassler a University of Vermont professor of child psychiatry remarked, “An unusual and tragic situation like this shakes the very core of a child’s sense of stability and predictability of the world around them.”  University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of psychology Sara Jaffee added, “I would be very, very surprised if things go as happily and smoothly [as they did during the reunion].  There are just so many changes this little girl has to face.  I would be really surprised if this doesn’t take some toll on her.” 

A Christian is like someone who had been stolen away from our real home, raised in another home, then rescued and restored to our true heavenly Father.  After being raised in the wrong home, what makes us think that it will be easy to leave the old life behind and to learn easily to live a new kind of life?

No wonder Paul uses such active verbs and such challenging phrases when calling us to move from one kind of way of living into a different kind of way of living:

  • “Seek the things that are above” (verse 1)
  • “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (verse 2)
  • “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3)
  • “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (verse 5)
  • “You must get rid of all such things” (verse 8)
  • “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices” (verse 9) 

The Christian life is not a life of settling in or settling down.  It is a life of total upheaval. 

C.S. Lewis points out, “I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance are inclined to feel that we are now good enough.  He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would leave us alone…. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us….

“Imagine yourself as a living house.  God comes in to rebuild that house.  At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on.  You know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.  But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.

“You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (Mere Christianity, p. 172-173 & 174)

Do not go into the Christian life—or stay in the Christian life—thinking it is a matter of holding your own.  It is a matter of changing over and over again as we are made more and more into the likeness of Christ. 

The Power of Grace

Sometimes, in reading passages of Scripture like Colossians 2:16 (“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.”) or Colossians 2:18 (“Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions….”) it is easy to dismiss them as irrelevant to me since I have never been condemned over my choice of food, and I have never been involved in new moon festivals, and I have never felt pressured toward self-abasement or the worship of angels.  But if I should skip this section of Scripture, thinking it to be irrelevant to me, I would miss the important principle that applies to a broader audience than just this group of self-abasing, new moon celebrating people who lived in Asia Minor many centuries ago.  

This portion of Scripture (Colossians 2:5-23) was written for any believer whose soul has been moved by the love of God and who wants with all of his or her heart to love God back in equal measure.  It is written for every believer who feels bad about the sin in his or her life—who has struggled with a bad habit that he or she wants to get rid of—and who wants to set things right with God.  It is written for those who are trying desperately to please God. 

Sometimes, in such desperation, we will go as far as the Colossians did (observing strict legalistic rules about what we can eat or drink or touch or handle, or by participating is special religious festivals, or by clamoring for visions or other intense religious experiences.  More often we do it through the burden we put upon ourselves to try harder or to do better.  This becomes for us a “Performance Trap,” and we become entrapped or enslaved to the pressure of trying to please God.  In Colossians 2:8, Paul portrays this as being taken “captive.”

The Performance Trap heaps upon us the burden of things we must do to make God happy.  It is as though we have racked up a pile of IOUs that we must pay back to God. 

But Paul offers us words of hope.  In Colossian 2:13-15 he writes, “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Him, when He forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.  He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” 

The “record that stood against them” comes from the Greek word cheirographon which can be translated literally as “hand-written.”  William Barclay explains the significance of this word: “Its technical meaning—a meaning which everyone would understand—was a note of hand signed by a debtor acknowledging his indebtedness.  It was almost exactly what we call an IOU.  It was a signed admission of debt and default.  Men’s sins had piled up a vast list of debts to God.” (The Daily Study Bible, p. 170)

That’s the bad news: Through our sins, we have “piled up a vast list of debts to God.”

Here’s the good news: Jesus has “erased” that debt.  The ink of Paul’s day was different than the ink of today.  It had no acid in it that scored itself into the page.  Rather it lay on the surface of the paper.  It was not unusual for a scribe to choose to use a piece of paper a second time.  He would simply take a sponge and wipe away the writing that had been on the paper and write something new. 

That’s what Paul tells us Jesus did with our IOU, our list of debts to God.  He wiped them away in order to write something new upon the slate of our soul.  The words He has written are “Forgiven,” “Beloved,” “Precious Child.”  That’s who we are to God now—not because of our success in the Performance Trap but through the grace of God

In verse 15 Paul says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].” 

The Performance Trap drives us to do something that we hope might set us right with God, but grace invites us to find our peace and our hope in what Christ has done for us.  Gary Preston offers a helpful analogy: “There’s a story about a traveler making his way with a guide through the jungles of Burma.  They came to a shallow but wide river and waded through it to the other side.  When the traveler came out of the river, numerous leeches had attached to his torso and legs.  His first instinct was to grab them and pull them off.  The guide stopped him, warning that pulling the leeches off would only leave tiny pieces of them under the skin.  Eventually, infection would set in.  The best way to rid the body of the leeches, the guide advised, was to bathe in a warm balsam bath for several minutes.  This would soak the leeches, and soon they would release their hold on the man’s body.”

 The Performance Trap drives us to do something—to put our energy into trying to pull out our sins, our errors, our shortcomings.  But it doesn’t work, and infection sets in.  Immersing ourselves in the grace of God is our only real hope.  No wonder Paul begins this section of his letter with this invitation: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”