Strive towards spiritual maturity (Col. 1:24-29) by Judith Smith

Colossians 1:24-29 Mission Statement 5 – Strive towards spiritual maturity.

As you will know by now, we are looking at various passages, from both the Old and New Testament, which together form a ‘mission statement’ for the church.

Now, if a ‘mission statement’ guides the actions of an organisation; if it explains the overall goal and provides a framework for arriving at that goal – what do we find in this passage that is relevant and helpful for us?

It would help to know exactly what ‘the goal’ is… In verse 25 Paul says that the commission God gave to him was to present the word of God… in its fullness, and in verse 27 he describes the goal that this will lead to as “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

But first, this passage is to do with a church leader presenting the word of God to those who are listening to him – teaching the congregation, making God’s message known by proclaiming Christ, and admonishing where people are getting things wrong (verse28). And the reason Paul gives for doing this is that in the end every member of the congregation will have become “perfect in Christ”.

That is some challenge!

Of course this is Paul writing – a giant among teachers and preachers, who proclaimed God’s message all round the Mediterranean world. But Colosse was a place he never visited. 

Probably while Paul was in Ephesus, where he spent 3 years during one of his missionary journeys, two men from Colosse called Epaphras and Philemon, became believers. By the time Paul wrote this letter to the Colossian church Epaphras was its leader.

What Paul wrote in this passage puts forward his views on spiritual leadership, explaining what he did, but at the end of the letter he commends Epaphras highly as a leader from the same mould. By implication, this is the way all Christian leaders down the generations must aim to be.

But before you switch off, thinking this is only about Colin and what he should be doing… there are two sides to this, and we are the other side.

If a minister is to make the word of God fully known, he or she is also, in the process, leading every member of the congregation towards spiritual maturity. … That requires more than a little co-operation from those who are being led – in fact it requires an active participation in the whole process.

Paul insists that this growth to maturity in Christ is for everyone. He includes all the church members in verse 25, saying he is the servant of the church and his God-given task is to present God’s word to them all. And he emphasises this inclusiveness in verse 28 where he says that his job is to “teach everyone …so that he may present everyone perfect in Christ”. 

But, as I said, Paul had never met this group of believers personally, although no doubt he knew all about them from Epaphras. Paul had already taught Epaphras and he in turn could pass on what he knew to the Colossians, but it is important not to miss what verse 27 tells us – ultimately it is God who makes known the riches of his word to each individual. 

So, if we are here, members of this congregation – our growth to maturity is something we should each be actively participating in, with Colin’s help, but above all by each being open to hear what God has to say to us. 

That means we should read the Bible – God’s word; take note and act upon what we hear as it is explained to us – and, interestingly, later in the letter Paul says he expects all the Colossian believers to take a share in Epaphras’ ministry. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another…” he says in chapter 3:16. There is absolutely no place here for passive believers!

What was it that Paul and Epaphras were giving their lives to preach? Verse 28 tells us in one word - it was Jesus – “We proclaim him”. In the previous verses (15-20) we get a good idea of what Paul thought they should understand about Jesus… 

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. By him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” 

And there is more in the rest of the letter, but in today’s reading he talks of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (verse27). This was the goal that he wished all believers to attain. Paul doesn’t waste words, so what is he saying here?

Usually Paul describes a believer as being ‘in Christ’, as for instance at the beginning of this letter which is addressed to “the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse” (1:2). 

In verse 27 he puts it the other way round – “Christ in you”. 

Before returning to his Father Jesus promised to send his Spirit to all who believed in him. On the day he comes, Jesus said, “you will realise that I am in the Father, and that you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20). 

So it is the Spirit of Jesus, who lives in the hearts of all believers, that Paul is talking of here. 

John continues… “The Holy Spirit will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I (Jesus) have said to you” (John14: 26). This is what we saw earlier from verse 27 – that it is God who makes known the riches of his word to each individual. 

The relationship could not possibly be closer if God is in us and we in him. That is what we enjoy now. 

That is wonderful, but Paul says there is more to look forward to – the second part of his phrase is “the hope of glory”.

That sounds as if what we have now is not everything – this “glory” is for the future. The Christ who is ‘in’ us now is also with his Father in heaven. We understand that that is our destination and after we die we shall arrive there – we shall then be in the glory that we hoped for as we travelled through life. That is what we have probably all been taught, and it is so.

However… there could be more to this.

If life is like a journey, which we each make, with “Christ within us” as the closest possible companion and guide, it would be surprising if we arrived at our destination exactly the same as when we set out. The walk must be one of development, of seeing things differently, of doing things in new ways, of pennies dropping along the way – in other words, of us moving towards maturity as we understand more, prompted and reminded by ‘Christ in us’. 

So here is something to think about…

On a Thursday evening some of us have been looking at a series called “Simply Christian” by Tom Wright who used to be the bishop of Durham. He believes, and I quote, “the point of it all is not ‘to go to heaven when you die’” – by which he means simply to move from here to somewhere else, and that is it. He says that heaven and earth already overlap more than we generally realise, and eventually they will be one. The idea of God creating a new heaven and a new earth, which will exist as one glorious whole, is a theme which runs right through the Bible. God does not plan to abandon this world but to renew it and to make it a place for renewed humanity to live in with renewed, resurrection bodies.

I realise these are quite big, and possibly new ideas to take on board – maybe we need another sermon series… but if Christ is in us on earth as well as with his Father in heavenly glory, then the gap between heaven and earth has already been bridged by Jesus – the glory we hope for can already be glimpsed as we move towards the maturity the Holy Spirit is developing in each of us. 

In Paul’s description of Jesus that I read a bit ago heaven and earth are put together twice; once when Paul says all things were created by and for Jesus, and again when he talks of Jesus’ work of reconciliation. “In him all things hold together”. It is in the very same Christ who is ‘in’ believers that all this already exists – if only we could get our heads round it we would take a huge step towards maturity!

The way to spiritual maturity does require effort. Paul describes his wish to “present everyone perfect in Christ” as nothing short of hard labour and toil – a real struggle. It is no different today – but it is our preparation for the glorious future which is only just around the corner.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011