August 11, 2002

Colossians 1:24-2:7

A few years ago, acquaintances of mine who had been in the ministry for several years—they actually lived in two motor homes and traveled around the country singing—received a gift from someone who deeply appreciated their commitment to Christ and the Church. This man gave them over ten acres of beautiful, wooded land and promised to build each of them a house to call their own. Over the last few years, that is precisely what he did. Today, although they continue to travel on a somewhat reduced basis, these four families have places to call home.

When I visited them last year, I could not help but be struck by the generosity and goodness of the man who gave them such a gift. The land was beautiful, and the houses far more than adequate. I also realized, however, that a fair amount of work came with receiving such a gift. Portions of the property remained to be cleared, a long driveway begged to be paved, and a shed or two were needed to store the lawn equipment. In that moment, I saw again a familiar but crucial principle that operates in many areas of life—when you receive a gift, you must often care for it and build upon it.

Think, for example, of a student who is either awarded a full scholarship to attend college or who has a wealthy relative who offers to pay the bill. Such generosity opens new opportunities for that student, but it remains for her to take advantage of them. It remains for her to go to class, complete her assignments, and live up to the other responsibilities that go along with gaining a college education. When you
receive a gift, you must often care for it and build upon it.

E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist missionary to India, spoke frequently about this principle and how it relates to our spiritual lives. Our text here in Colossians, particularly 2:6-7, was among his very favorites. In these verses, Jones discovered what he referred to as “a gift and an achievement.” “Conversion,” he wrote, “is the act of a moment and the work of a lifetime.” “You cannot attain salvation by disciplines [praying, reading the Bible, fasting, and so on]—it is the gift of God. But you cannot retain it [salvation] without disciplines.” There is a gift and an achievement. As Paul phrases it, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord”—a gift—“continue to live your lives in him”—an achievement. For those of you who are working to receive the gift, you need first to realize that you simply cannot earn God’s favor—it is, after all, a gift. But for others of you who have experienced Christ’s salvation, yet your spiritual lives are dry and stagnant—have you cared for the gift? Have you built upon it? When you receive a gift, once again, you must often care for it and build upon it.

This principle is clearly evident in Paul’s comments to the Christian community in Colossae. Paul had not himself planted the church in Colossae, but he kept abreast with it through contact with the person who did—his assistant, Epaphras. In this epistle, Paul responds to various issues that have arisen in this young congregation, issues that have the potential to tear the community apart. These young believers, first and foremost, are being asked by certain individuals to adopt a way of thinking that runs contrary to the Gospel—the gift—that they had received. While Paul does not provide a detailed description of all that this way of thinking involved—he knew that his original readers were already sufficiently familiar with it—he says enough to at least give us a taste of the conflict.

From all indications, various seemingly persuasive people were pushing the Christians in Colossae to embrace a faulty set of standards and expectations that were in conflict with the Gospel. Such standards and expectations, in Paul’s mind, nullify the central idea that salvation is a gift, and instead turn it into an achievement. Do you see his reactions here in 2:16-23? “Do not listen to people who tell you that following Jesus requires in some legalistic sense that you only eat certain foods, drink particular drinks, and religiously attend every sacred festival. Do not be persuaded by those who demand such a rigorous form of self-denial that they extract all of the joy out of life. Do not pay attention to those who proudly boast of lofty spiritual experiences that have no grounding in Christ.” “If you are in Christ,” Paul concludes, “then stop living as though you still belonged to the world.” “Don’t turn the gift into an achievement.”

It is interesting, however, to notice how Paul wants the Colossian believers to respond to such faulty thinking. If these dangerous teachers have elevated worthless rules and expectations above the gift of Christ, one might anticipate that unbridled freedom is the appropriate antidote. “I can eat whatever I want, go wherever I want, and do whatever I want,”
someone could respond. “Christ died for me, and I am now free from all demands.” Not in Paul’s mind. No, the proper response to faulty teaching and worthless rules is not mindless religion and carefree living, but good theology and godly disciplines. The proper response is to receive the grace of God in Christ Jesus—the gift—and intentionally build upon it—the achievement.

So, Paul repeatedly encourages the believers in Colossae to live what we might call “Word-centered lives.” He reminds them of the gift—the true Word, Jesus Christ, the very image of God, who took on flesh and gave himself for us: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…(1:21-22).” A gift—God has given each of us far more than a few acres of wooded land with new houses or a full ride to the college of our choice.

But Paul also reminds the Colossians of the achievement that follows—cultivating the proclaimed Word, the Gospel, that has been entrusted to them: “All of this is yours…provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard…(1:23).” Accept the gift of Christ, and then build upon it. Center your life on Jesus the Word, and continually fill your hearts and minds with the proclaimed Word—the Gospel—that you have received.

Throughout his lifetime, E. Stanley Jones continued to emphasize these same two ideas—gift and achievement. Whether working among the very low castes and the outcastes in India, preaching in nearly every country of the world, or conferring with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt, Jones always sought to point people to the gift—the living Word—Jesus Christ. Just listen to the titles of a few of his 28 books: The Christ of the American Road, The Christ of the Indian Road, Christ at the Round Table, In Christ, The Christ of Every Road, and Christ and Human Suffering. Jones modeled a Word-centered life by centering his life and his message on the gift of Jesus, the Word become flesh.

But Jones also modeled the Word-centered life by challenging people to care for and build upon that gift by living a life of discipline. In fact, among his many noteworthy achievements was the formation of the “Christian Ashram”—an adaptation of the Indian Ashram or “forest retreat.” All around the globe, Jones led such retreats in which Christian disciplines were taught and practiced. Among these disciplines, Jones encouraged people to spend considerable time studying the written Word—the Bible—and following its teachings.

In his book entitled How to be a Transformed Person, Jones briefly outlined a series of attitudes that can help people draw from the rich resources of the Bible. These attitudes are no substitute for careful analysis, nor do they replace the interpretive skills which we need to develop as we read the Bible throughout our lives. Jones believed, however, that our attitudes toward the Bible help determine the impact that it ultimately has on our lives. Here are his suggestions:

1. Come to the Bible expectantly. I recall with clarity how I felt when I opened my wife’s letters during the summer I lived in Jordan. We were out in the desert, so mail came only once a week or so. During the lunch hour, someone would stand and read off the names of those who had received mail. You could sense the anticipation. After reaching out for mine, I’d find a quiet place all by myself and devour the letter—it is funny how often you can read the same letter! I wanted to know how she was doing and what was happening in her life. I wanted to reconnect, in a sense, with my wife, and that letter enabled me do that. So it can be with the Bible when we come to its pages expecting to meet with God.

2. Come to the Bible with a willingness to surrender to its teachings. Throughout most of my high school years, I rarely paid attention to much of what my teachers said. “They don’t have anything that is of use to me,” I often thought. It is funny how, in retrospect, I wish I would have taken my teachers more seriously. I sometimes think about the things that I might actually know now if I had—my German would certainly be a whole lot better! It is often that way with the Bible. When we read its pages, we encounter wise counsel and life-changing instructions, but what are we willing to do with them? I remember reading through Ephesians one time, and I came to 4:28: “Thieves must give up stealing: rather let them labor and work with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Those words just struck me that day. The opposite of stealing is not simply “not stealing,” but generosity. Though perhaps not a thief in the strict sense of the word, I was not “off of the hook.” The Bible probes further—am I generous? Do I share with the needy? If we refuse to take its teachings seriously, the Bible tends to dry up for us. But as we listen and follow, it becomes an increasing source of strength, guidance and correction.

3. Come to the Bible, Jones suggested, with a commitment to share what you find with others. Like a child who enthusiastically announces a valuable discovery, so we are to see ourselves as channels through which the truths of the Bible can freely pass. It has often been said that we might be the only Bible that some people ever read. Being Word-centered Christians involves a commitment to sharing the good
news of the Bible with others.

4. Come to the Bible unhurriedly. In Jones’ day, and even more so in our own, we have been conditioned to expect things quickly—on the run. It often does not work that way in the spiritual world, and we rarely encounter the deeper truths of Scripture if it is for us little more than a billboard to glance at as we drive by.

5. Come to the Bible with a balanced approach. Nutritionists often remind us of the obvious—eat from all of the food groups. In a similar sense, Jones encouraged his readers to pay attention to the whole of the Bible. While we, as Christians, will understandably and rightly focus greater energies on the New Testament, we need to regularly explore the many riches of the Old Testament as well.

6. Finally, Jones encourages us to come to the Bible even if nothing obviously changes at the moment. We must be careful, in other words, not to read the Bible purely as an easy, self-correction manual. In a recent conversation that I had with a struggling believer, he questioned the value of reading the Bible and of going to church, for that matter, because he could not see any noticeable difference in his life. There could, of course, be any number of reasons for that. He might simply be going through the motions, thinking rather like the false teachers in Colossae that such behaviors are at the very heart of the faith. Reading the Bible in and of itself is no substitute for knowing Jesus. But assuming that you do in fact love the Lord and that you have received his gracious gift, don’t be put off by seasonal dry spells. Don’t stop reading the Bible when you feel empty and weary, any more than you would totally stop eating when you feel like your physical health is failing. Read your way through the barren places, and trust God to guide your steps.

E. Stanley Jones is a hero of the Christian Faith—one that we should pay careful attention to and try to imitate—because he, like Paul hundreds of years before, modeled the Word-centered life. In the same way that those acquaintances of mine are enjoying and eagerly developing that incredible gift of wooded land and houses that they received, so Jones accepted the gift—Jesus Christ, the living Word—and cultivated it by filling his heart and mind with the written Word. Have you received the gift? If not, you can today. If you have, are you caring for it? Are you building on it?

Jones enjoyed sharing a legend that was popular among the Khasi people who lived in Assam, a region in the Northeast corner of India. According to the legend, God gave the Khasi people a book. When the flood came, the people eagerly ate the book so that it would not be lost. As a result, the book became a part of them—it got into their blood. Is the book in your blood?