Sermon: When a Good Church Becomes a Great Church

[nextpage title=”Introduction” ]

This is a lesson I delivered to the Pentecostals of Crosby on Sunday morning, 10/16/16. It is addressed specifically to that congregation, meaning that some of the comments assume a certain common vocabulary and culture and may require some explanation (if you have questions, please comment below!). I wanted to share it more widely, however, because it is biblical exegesis in action and because I don’t think the specific interpretative context renders this lesson irrelevant for the general public. In reality, biblical exegesis always has an interpretative context – this one is just more obvious than most.


Colossians 1:1-12

(1) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, and Timothy, my brother, (2) to the holy and faithful brethren in Christ that are in Colosse, grace to you and peace from God our father.

(3) We always give thanks to God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray for you, (4) hearing of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints (5) because of the hope laid up for you in the heavens, about which you heard beforehand in the word of truth of the gospel (6) which has been present in you bearing fruit and increasing – just as it is in all the world – from the day you heard it and comprehended the grace of God in truth; (7) just as you learned from Epaphras our beloved fellow slave, who is a faithful minister of Christ for you all, (8) and the one telling us of your love in the Spirit.

(9) Because of this also we, from the day we heard it, have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you might be full of the comprehension of his will in all spiritual wisdom and discernment, (10) so as to walk worthily of the Lord with every effort to be pleasing to him in every good work bearing fruit and increasing in the comprehension of God, (11) being empowered with all power according to the might of his glory for endurance and patience in every situation, with joy (12) giving thanks to the Father, the one equipping you for your part in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

I feel that our congregation has Spiritual momentum. And I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling. Perhaps you all have sensed it as well. Over the last who-knows-how-long God has been shaping our little congregation in all sorts of imperceptible ways in a manner that only God can do. I know that God loves this congregation just as it is. We don’t have to be a big megachurch for God to adore us and to be pleased with us. Over the last several months, my prayers before service have been largely ones of invitation: Holy Spirit, come dwell among us and within us. Fill us and empower us. Heavenly Father, visit us today and enjoy yourself. Be pleased with our meager gift of worship. Let our praise be a refreshment to you. Let this house be a place of rest and joy for your heart. Really, I just want us to make him happy. And I believe that is exactly how God feels about us. I think he has been greatly pleased with our worship, by which I mean everything we do: singing praising, praying for one another, teaching and learning, and fellowshipping. I think this little congregation has a special place in God’s heart, and when he visits us on Sunday morning he gets a special joy from being among us. So I don’t think we have to do a thing to be pleasing to God or to be more acceptable to God. He is pleased, and he accepts us.

And that is precisely why, I think, he looks upon us as a congregation that he can work with. Not because we’re perfect, because we’re not. Not because we are wealthy or influential, because we’re not. In many ways, we are a coalition of misfits, people who don’t really belong anywhere. Many of us have experienced rejection from those within the establishment, both within the Church and in society. So we don’t have a whole lot to offer to God in the way of worldly power. But none of that matters to God. He doesn’t need our worldly power or our wealth. He is the king of the universe! He owns the cattle on a thousand hills! What could we possibly offer him in terms of worldly power? The reason God looks upon us as a congregation that he can work with is because we are pleasing to him, because we love each other and we don’t restrict our love simply to ourselves. In whatever way God chooses to minister to the lost and hurting of our community through us, clearly it has nothing to do with any worldly virtue we possess. It would have everything to do with God’s good pleasure. And I think it is God’s good pleasure to reach out to the lost and hurting of this community through us.

Again, I don’t think I’m alone in sensing a shift coming in God’s purpose for this congregation. In a moment like this it is natural for us to fall back on our conventional concepts of what this kind of moment is supposed to look like or consist of. For example, we will pray for revival. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth asking what is it that we’re looking for when we pray for revival? Is it biblical? I think a lot of times when we pray for revival we have in mind Acts chapter 2. And what we end up doing is trying to kind of manufacture what we imagine Acts chapter 2 would look like. A number of contemporary revival movements really have consisted more of human enthusiasm than of God’s sovereign work of bringing about lasting Kingdom change in the hearts and lives of the lost and hurting. And the growth experienced by a church going through the stereotypical “revival” experience often consists more of people from other Christian congregations who are looking for the next big thing rather than the unchurched finding Jesus for the very first time or returning to Jesus after straying. Ultimately, this kind of growth is unsustainable and even harmful. I would argue that we should neither expect nor want stereotypical revival, because I don’t think that’s what God has in mind.

So what should we pray for and expect? What does the Bible have to say about this? We can break this question down into the following two questions:

  1. What does it look like in the Bible when a church is firing on all cylinders?
  2. What does it look like for such a church to go to the next level?

There are lots of places in the Bible where we could look for answers to these questions, but this week I was led to meditate on the first twelve verses of Colossians, which is probably not the part of Colossians that you have heard the most sermons from.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”Firing on all cylinders” ]

What does it look like when a church is firing on all cylinders?

What I mean by this question is this: when the church is being what it was designed to be, when the body of Christ is truly being the body of Christ, what are the characteristics and characteristic actions of the church? Clearly, the Bible has a lot to say about this, but it is extremely important that we have an accurate image in our heads of what it means to be the true Church of the Living God, because there are all sorts of counterfeit ideas that our enemy would like to seduce us with to distract us from our God-given Kingdom mission. What does Paul say here in Colossians?

(3) We always give thanks to God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray for you, (4) hearing of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints

First and foremost are the characteristics of faith and love. Paul is thankful to hear of the Colossians’ faith in Jesus and of their love for all the saints because, for him, that means they are a healthy church. “Faith in Christ Jesus” may be kind of broad, sweeping summary of all their confession and of all its benefits, but I think we can propose a hypothetical contrast: faith in Christ in Jesus as opposed to what? To unbelief, certainly, but really to faith in something else, perhaps faith in themselves and in their own goodness or power. One of the things that differentiates a healthy church from an unhealthy one is the focus of their trust. A healthy church trusts in Jesus and in him alone for their justification before God and for their ultimate salvation from sin and from the coming day of wrath. A healthy church does not trust in its own goodness, or in its own ability to “change the world.”

A healthy church is also characterized by a generous, borderless love. The members of such a church love each other with selfless and non-judgmental love, and they freely extend that love to others not in their congregation. Here Paul says “for all the saints”, which likely means that the Colossians were well known for generously and cheerfully receiving traveling Christians, showing outstanding hospitality, and helping them on their way. If you were a Christian traveling in Asia Minor and wanted to stop somewhere for the night where you could get a hot meal, godly conversation, a clean bed, and maybe a little money in your pocket to help you in your mission, Colosse was where you wanted to go. One place where I feel like our congregation excels is in our non-judgmental love one for another and, significantly, for other Christians who are not a part of our congregation or even a part of our organization. This kind of love is pleasing to God, because its opposite is judgmental pride. A judgmental, prideful church is not a church that God can work with, because he cannot trust it with the lost and hurting. God is looking for a church that is a safe place where he can deposit people who need healing. This is why love is so important, because it is at the heart of what the Church is intended to be and do. However God chooses to use us for his glory, you can be sure that it will involve caring for the lost and hurting.

Next, Paul says:

(5) because of the hope laid up for you in the heavens

The faith and love that the Colossians were famous for proceeded from their hope. This echoes something I said a couple of weeks ago about the difference between wicked people and righteous people. Wicked people are driven by fear, while righteous people are driven by hope. It is our hope and our steadfast confidence in God’s faithfulness to bring about what we hope for that provides the foundation for our Christian conduct and the seedbed for our Spiritual fruit. What is our hope? It is the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting for those who are in Christ. It is the promise of God’s final judgment when he finally makes everything right and brings us to our eternal home, where everybody is good and kind to each other, where we don’t ever have to say goodbye anymore, where children are not abused and old people are not forgotten. As the Church we live in the front end of that hope, but we know that a day is coming when the conflict between the present age that is passing away and the coming age will be completely resolved. This hope is the only rational foundation for Christian ethics. To try to live Christian ethics without the Christian hope is nonsense.

about which you heard beforehand in the word of truth of the gospel (6) which has been present in you bearing fruit and increasing – just as it is in all the world – from the day you heard it and comprehended the grace of God in truth; (7) just as you learned from Epaphras our beloved fellow slave, who is a faithful minister of Christ for you all, (8) and the one telling us of your love in the Spirit.

Our hope isn’t something we made up, and it isn’t just wishful thinking. We learned of this hope when we heard the true word of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is that gospel? That Jesus died for our sins but was raised again on the third day. That he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God as ruler of all creation. And that from there he will come at the appointed time to judge the living and the dead. Paul here describes this gospel message as a kind of entity. It is present in and with the Colossians. It is at work in all the world bearing fruit and increasing. Importantly, it is the gospel message that is bearing fruit. We need to keep this in mind. The treasure that we have that solves all our problems and that we have the privilege of sharing with the world is the good news of Jesus. That should be our singular focus: learning, understanding, articulating, applying, and sharing the good news of Jesus. Our ability to be used by God to minister to the lost and hurting in the world derives exclusively from that gospel message. We have no other message of hope and healing. It is all about Jesus.

This message has been at work in all the world bearing fruit and increasing, just as it has been at work in us. We ourselves have experienced and are experiencing the healing and the spiritual growth of the gospel of Jesus. We are growing and bearing fruit more and more. What is this fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, all of which are internal realities with outward effects. You cannot be loving without touching the people around you. Why? Because the world is so full of hate, and all it is capable of is hate. When you let the Holy Spirit shape your conduct to be loving, you have a very special gift that spills over from you to everyone around you. The growth we will experience in the coming months and years, both numerical and otherwise, all will come from understanding, meditating on, and proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the resultant present reality of the Kingdom of God. Or, in Paul’s words here, in comprehending the grace of God in truth.

This is the first occurrence of this word, comprehend, in Greek epiginosko as a verb and epignosis as a noun, but it will occur two more times in the coming verses, and it is an important keyword in Paul’s description of the healthy church. Epiginosko is a stronger counterpart to the standard Greek word for “to know” ginosko. It means to know fully, to grasp, to perceive, to recognize. I use the English word “comprehend” because it connotes insight and understanding. When you comprehend the grace of God, you don’t simply know the standard Bible verses or theological propositions about grace, but you understand it on a deeper level, an experiential level. We don’t simply say God is gracious because that’s what a Christian is supposed to say. We have experienced the grace of God for ourselves. We know and understand it in our core. To comprehend the grace of God in truth is to take hold of a life changing knowledge, and one that brings power for real change rather than just empty promises.

So to summarize, according to Colossians 1:3-8, a church that is healthy, that is firing on all cylinders, has faith in Jesus alone, shows generous love for all, is driven by hope, bears fruit and increases because of the active presence of the gospel of Jesus, and comprehends the grace of God that is found in that gospel.[/nextpage]

[nextpage title=”The next level” ]

What does it look like for such a church to go to the next level?

That all sounds pretty great. But for Paul that’s not a stopping point. He continues:

(9) Because of this also we, from the day we heard it, have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you might be full of the comprehension of his will in all spiritual wisdom and discernment, (10) so as to walk worthily of the Lord with every effort to be pleasing to him in every good work bearing fruit and increasing in the comprehension of God, (11) being empowered with all power according to the might of his glory for endurance and patience in every situation, with joy (12) giving thanks to the Father, the one equipping you for your part in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

“Because of this” – Paul says that it is because the Colossians are doing so great that he prays this. In other words, there is always another level of devotion to attain to. The depth of the riches of God’s salvation in Jesus can never be exhausted. Not that we are earning anything by continually pressing forward, but for Paul there is only one thing that is needful, and that is the Kingdom of Christ. When such a glorious reality is before us, why shouldn’t we exert all of our energy to grasp it and comprehend it? So his prayer for the Colossians, a church that is firing on all cylinders, is that they might be full of the comprehension of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and discernment.

There’s that word again, comprehend. But didn’t he already say that they had comprehended God’s grace? Yes, but I think for Paul there is always more, and his prayer is specifically that they would be full of this comprehension. This word “full” is an easy word to pass over, or as it is often translated “filled”, but I think it is worth pondering for a moment. What is it that Paul has in mind here? I don’t think it is something that is to be achieved once and then you’ve reached a new level in Christ, and this is why I prefer “full” to “filled”. Paul is describing a state that he prays the Colossians will maintain. He wants them to be “full” of the knowledge of God’s will. Full, so that there is nothing lacking. Full, so that there is no room for anything else. I think when Paul talks about the Colossians being “full” of the comprehension of God’s will, he is describing a single-minded obsession, a recognition that nothing else matters but the will of God. Paul is describing a group of Christians who are so completely sold out to God that they can think of nothing else, that nothing else matters to them, nothing can distract them from discerning and doing what it is that God wants.

God’s will is comprehended not through unaided human reason, but through “spiritual wisdom and discernment.” What’s the lesson here? That our obsession for discerning the will of God is not something we can do on our own or something that we fabricate through strength of will. Rather, it is about yielding our minds and our wills to the Holy Spirit, to letting God’s Spirit lead us into all wisdom and discernment. It is also that the will of God is something that can only be discerned spiritually. If we are following the passions and lusts of then flesh, our minds will not be able to discern the will of God, let alone obsess about the will of God. And if we are expecting that the will of God will make sense to a worldly way of thinking, we are mistaken. We cannot come to God with worldly assumptions and questions and expect to discern anything coherent about his will. God alone sets the agenda, not the world. The only questions that will result in coherent answers are those that proceed from the Spirit’s leading.

What is the end result of this single-minded obsession with comprehending the will of God? It is that we will walk worthily of the Lord, meaning that our actions will line up with the Spirit, that our lives will be sanctified to God, and that we will make every effort to be pleasing to him. This is holiness. This is true separateness. Holiness of behavior is not something you can work up and impose on a carnal mind. It is something that results from a spiritual mind that is focused on Jesus and wants nothing so much as to please God, to make him happy. We do good works not because God demands it, with there being an implied threat that if we don’t do them there will be consequences. We do good works because we love God and want him to be happy, and we love our fellow humanity and want them to be well. We are driven by hope and love, not fear.

When we walk worthily of the Lord, what happens? We bear good fruit and increase in the comprehension of God. Two observations here. First, these are the same two verbs used just a few verses earlier to describe the progress of the gospel in all the world and in the Colossian church, specifically. When we are full of the comprehension of God’s will, it’s as if we and the gospel become the same thing. There is nothing left in us but Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me, as Paul says in Galatians chapter 2.

Second, we increase in the comprehension of God. So being full of the comprehension of God’s will leads to us increasing in the comprehension of God. What I see here is a kind of cyclical self-perpetuation. Just as sin produces more and more sin, the Spirit produces more and more Spirit, so to speak. It just keeps increasing and increasing. It gains momentum. And that’s what I was talking about at the beginning of this lesson today. I feel like we have some momentum, that the love of God in us is producing more love, that our faith is producing more faith, and that God is pleased with this.

As we bear fruit and increase in our comprehension of God, what happens? According to verse 11, we will be empowered according to the might of God’s glory. Clearly, this is Holy Spirit power, but what is this power for? It is for endurance and patience. Now, I don’t know about you, but that kind of gives me whiplash if what I am expecting as “the next level” is our popular conception of revival. Lord, send the power! What for? Miracles, of course. But Paul says that this power comes to give us endurance and longsuffering. Well, that doesn’t sound very exciting. But we have to understand that the point of the Holy Spirit’s influence in our lives is to build within us the character of Christ. Suffering and persecution are not an optional part of the Christian experience. Rather, for Paul they are integral to the Christian experience. You don’t know Christ until you’ve followed him in his sufferings. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is given to us to help us endure these sufferings faithfully and – get this – joyfully and thankfully. Why should we be joyful and thankful over suffering? Because we know that through suffering God is equipping us for our part in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

What is this inheritance and how does suffering equip us for it? Let me suggest that the inheritance that Paul is talking about here is related to what we read in Psalm 2:8. In Psalm 2:8, God is speaking to the Messiah, the anointed, ideal king of Israel, which we would identify with Jesus, and he is says, “Ask me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.” As fellow heirs with Christ we too have this inheritance, we too can ask of God and he will give the nations to us as our possession. But it is not an inheritance for us to dominate after the manner of the world. Rather, the nations become our inheritance as we make disciples of them, as we reach out to the lost and hurting of the world with the healing balm of the gospel. We conquer the world through the power of the gospel and of the Holy Spirit, not through the weapons and methods of the world. So this is the inheritance that God is equipping us for.

How then does endurance and long-suffering prepare us for our inheritance? It makes us sensitive, it matures us, it gives an experiential foundation to empathize with the lost and hurting in the world. If you’ve never suffered, how can you possibly minister to someone who has? How does your faith have any credibility if it has never been tested by suffering and persecution? So when we suffer, know that God is building within us the eternal weight of glory and an ability to love others in a way that we could not before. This is why we rejoice, because as we suffer we become better able to take possession of our inheritance.

There’s a lot here today, I know. I really probably should broken this down into multiple lessons. I could have easily gotten two or three. Perhaps we’ll explore these ideas a little more next week. But this was where I felt led this week. As I said, I feel like we have momentum, that we are right on the verge of God taking us to the next level, and I don’t want us to try to fabricate some human conception of what that next level might look like. I want God to take us to a kind of next level that maybe we couldn’t possibly predict. I want us to focus our attention where God wants us to focus our attention. We got here by desiring to please God. We need to continue from here by focusing all the more on pleasing God. The lesson from Colossians chapter 1 for us today is this: that a church’s health is directly proportionate to the degree to which it is singularly obsessed with knowing God and pleasing him. Are we “full” of the comprehension of God’s will? I don’t know, yet, but this is definitely where I think my prayers for this church need to be directed in the coming months. Perhaps all of us should be praying along these lines, that God will add to our love and faith in him and make us full of the spiritually discerned comprehension of his will so that we will walk worthily of the Lord and make every effort to please him. As we do this, God will equip us to take our part of the inheritance of the saints, the souls of the lost and hurting in our community.[/nextpage]

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s