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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:What does faithful ministry look like?
Text:Colossians 1:24-29 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Preaching
 
Preached:2014
Added:2014-07-11
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Hymn 5

Psalm 51:1,2

Psalm 87

Hymn 81

Psalm 148

Scripture reading:  Acts 14

Text:  Colossians 1:24-29

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Would you know a false teacher if you saw or heard one?  If you were flipping through the channels on TV and saw a false teacher preaching, would you quickly be able to pick up on the fact that he or she is a counterfeit?  Or if you were driving along and a false teacher was on the radio, would you be able to discern?  Sometimes it can be difficult.  Sometimes false teaching can come in a very subtle way.  It can sound appealing.  It can take time and effort to figure out that this person is not faithful to the Scriptures.  After all, they might talk about God, they might refer to Jesus, they might quote Bible passages.  They might say many of the right words.  False teachers can sound very convincing.  But because what they teach is false, they can also be very destructive.  They can endanger our salvation in Christ.  All of us should be very interested in learning how to detect false teachers.

False teachers were threatening the Colossian church in the days of Paul.  There were people who were teaching destructive doctrines that undermined the gospel.  Just like today, some of it sounded reasonable or plausible, at least at first.  In Colossians 2:4, Paul writes about how there was the possibility of being deluded with plausible arguments.  He wrote to the Colossians so that they would not be deceived, so that they would be able to discern truth from error. 

Our text is designed for that purpose.  Our text is about helping the Colossians and us to be able to tell the difference between a ministry that destroys and a ministry that builds up.  Paul wants his readers to be able to discern between those who are faithful and those who are not.  He is arguing for his own apostolic credentials, showing that his ministry is faithful to the Lord, and therefore the Colossians should heed his words in what follows.

With that in mind, I preach to you God’s Word.  We’ll see how Paul answers the question:  What does faithful ministry look like?

We’ll see that it involves:

  1. Suffering and toil
  2. A commission to bring the Word
  3. The disclosure of a gloriously rich mystery

In Acts 17, Paul and Silas were in Thessalonica.  There they preached the gospel and some were brought to faith in Jesus Christ.  But others reacted violently.  Luke writes of how some of the Jews in Thessalonica dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities.  The Jews shouted, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”  Note how Paul and Silas were said to be men who were turning the world upside down.  They were disrupting the social order with their preaching of the gospel.

We see that happening in what we read from Acts 14 too.  There it was not Paul and Silas, but Paul and Barnabas.  Same gospel message, though.  And the same kind of violent response to the message.  In Iconium, the Jews stirred up crowds of Gentiles and plans were made to kill the preachers by stoning them.  Paul and Barnabas caught wind of it and moved on.  At Lystra, initially they met a positive reaction.  They healed a crippled man and the people thought they were gods.  But then the Jews showed up.  The Jews persuaded the people of Lystra that the apostles were dangerous.  They picked up rocks and began to stone Paul.  Once they thought he was dead, they dragged him out of the city and left him there.  Paul and the other apostles were bringing good news, but their good news often stirred up a violent response and brought suffering upon the preachers.

Paul’s faithful ministry was characterized by suffering and he writes about that suffering in verse 24 of our text.  Even as he’s writing these words, he’s in prison, suffering for being an apostle of Jesus Christ.  From his prison, he says something surprising:  his sufferings are a reason for rejoicing.  Why on earth would anyone rejoice in suffering?  How could someone walk away from Lystra nearly dead from being stoned and then rejoice?  How could someone be in prison and rejoice?  What is Paul thinking? 

He rejoices in his suffering as a faithful minister because his sufferings are for the sake of the church.  They are for the benefit of God’s people, including these believers in Colossae that he’s never personally met.  His suffering promotes the advance of the gospel, because when people see and hear him, they are seeing and hearing Jesus Christ, the one who also suffered and even died for sinners. 

I’m sure that many of you are scratching your head over what Paul writes in the second half of verse 24.  He writes, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”  You might look at that and say, “That’s odd.  How could there be anything lacking in the afflictions of Christ?  Isn’t his suffering and death sufficient for us?  Didn’t he do enough?  What does Paul mean here?”  He’s not writing about Christ’s redemptive work for us.  It’s clear from elsewhere in Scripture that his sacrifice was sufficient to pay for all our sins.  There is nothing lacking in his sacrifice on the cross.  This is not about the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus in our place.  It’s not about the wrath of God, but about the wrath of people.  It’s about the anger and the hatred of the human enemies of Jesus.  We could think again of the Jews and what we read about them in Acts 14.  They really hated Jesus and what he preached.  They were not finished with him when he died on the cross.  They want to continue to afflict him and they do it by going after his apostles.  Jesus is in heaven now and they can’t touch him there, but they certainly can inflict suffering on his followers, especially on his preachers.  The hatred that they have for Jesus is falling on Paul.  He is sharing in the sufferings of Christ, filling them up. 

Jesus predicted that this very thing would happen.  In John 15, shortly before he died, he told his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”  That was part of the reason why Paul could rejoice in his sufferings.  His sufferings and the hatred of the world proved that he belonged to Christ and was being faithful to him in his ministry.

But these sufferings were also used by the Lord to grow his church.  The church father Tertullian once famously wrote that “the blood of Christians is seed.”  Sometimes we hear that quote as “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  The church mysteriously grows through persecution and suffering.  The gospel spreads even faster and stronger when the world so violently attacks it.  The world hates the gospel and finds it offensive and tries to destroy it.  But all that negative attention only seeks to further the cause.  That’s what happened in the days of the apostles and it still happens today wherever there is persecution.

Paul’s ministry involved suffering and that was a mark of faithfulness.  Verse 29 fills this out a little bit more.  Paul writes there about the toil and struggle in his ministry.  To be a preacher of the gospel is intensely difficult and agonizing work.  Preachers work hard to bring the gospel to broken sinners.  They want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  What that means is that they want to give encouragement to the contrite, but prick the hearts of those who are complacent and don’t see their need for repentance and faith in Christ.  This is hard work and Paul worked at it harder than anybody.  And yet he didn’t do it out of his own strength, but from the strength that God gave him.  God gave him the energy to be faithful in his ministry, to work hard for the salvation of his hearers.  So we can say that faithful ministry includes suffering for the gospel (or at least being prepared to suffer for the gospel) and intense effort.

How can we concretely apply this today?  A couple of ways.  First of all, beware of preachers whose gospel message does not offend raw human nature.  Beware of preachers who hand out theological marshmallows.  Theological marshmallows are teachings that are soft and sweet, but have no real nourishment.  Beware of preachers who never speak of sin, who never talk about holiness, or the wrath of God against sin and sinners.  False teachers are notorious for keeping people from seeing their deep need for Jesus.  A faithful ministry is going to confront and upset sinners and provoke some kind of reaction in them and oftentimes out of them.

Second, please pray for your pastor and the other preachers in our churches.  We all face the real temptation to avoid suffering and pursue acceptance.  Just like you, we want to be liked.  We want to belong.  The temptation is also there for Reformed ministers to water things down and steer away from talking about stuff that will offend or upset.  We need your prayers so that we can be faithful and say what needs to be said when it needs to be said.  We also need your prayers so that we will strive and toil and agonize in our ministry.  We need his energy to powerfully work within us, so that we can do what we are called to do and do it with all our heart and strength.

Like ministers today, the apostle Paul had a commission in the church and for the church.  We see this first in verse 25.  Paul writes that God gave him a stewardship.  What that means is that God entrusted him with a calling, a commission.  What was that commission?  It was “to make the Word of God fully known.”  Paul was entrusted with the commission to be a preacher of the Word.  He was called by Jesus Christ, not to enlighten people with his own ideas and opinions, but with the truth of God revealed in the Bible.

At the center of the Bible is Christ.  If we skip ahead to verse 28, Paul writes about Jesus, “Him we proclaim…”  We proclaim Jesus Christ from the Scriptures.  He is the golden thread that runs through the entire Bible.  The Puritan Thomas Watson once said, “The Scriptures are the dish; Christ is the food on the dish.”  Watson was right.  The whole Bible in some way or other points us to Jesus Christ.  Why do we say that and how can we know that for sure?  First and foremost, because Jesus himself said so.  He said to the Jews in John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…”  There in John 5:39, Jesus was speaking about the Old Testament.  The New Testament hadn’t been written yet.  But if the Old Testament bore witness to Jesus, wouldn’t you naturally expect the same in the New Testament?  Brothers and sisters, the whole Bible teaches us about our Saviour Jesus.  He’s on every page – you just have to look.  And because he’s on every page, he’s the one that faithful ministers are to proclaim. 

Faithful ministers have to proclaim the truths of Jesus’ person.  We need to proclaim him as the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  We must proclaim him as the true seed of David, the second Adam, perfect man.  We must proclaim him as Saviour, as Messiah, as Lord.  From the Scriptures, he must be preached as prophet, priest, and king.

Faithful ministers have to proclaim the truths of Jesus’ work.  We are called to preach him as the one who took on our human flesh and lived in an obedient life in our place.  We must proclaim Jesus as the one who took our sins on himself on the cross, suffering the wrath of God for us.  We must herald the good news of his resurrection, that he is victorious over sin and death!  We must proclaim him as the ascended Saviour who sits at God’s right hand, interceding for us as our sympathetic High Priest.  And we must preach him as the one who will come to judge the living and the dead.  From the Scriptures, we must faithfully preach every aspect of Christ’s person and work.

According to verse 28, that proclamation in faithful ministry is going to include warning and teaching for everyone.  Warning means admonishing.  It has the sense of telling people what they’re doing wrong and the consequences they’re going to suffer if they continue.  Warning means laying out the threats of Scripture for the disobedient and unrepentant.  Everyone needs to hear those warnings so that they will flee to Christ for salvation.

Teaching is the flip side of that.  It has the sense of instructing people in a positive way of what they need to do and what they need to believe.  Preachers are called to unfold what Scripture teaches people, how it directs them in their way, and especially how it directs them to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. 

This warning and teaching that make up the proclamation needs to be done “with all wisdom.”  There is a wise way to warn and teach, and there are foolish ways.  The wise ways are laid out in God’s Word and everything it teaches us about communication.  We could think about the book of Proverbs and how much of that book is about the way we use our words.  Think of Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  Preachers are men who use words; we’re “word people.”  We don’t really work with our hands, we work with our words.  Finding the right words for the right moment is a matter of wisdom.  Our message is already offensive.  We don’t want to add offense by using foolish words.

The goal of this kind of faithful ministry of the Word is at the end of verse 28:  “that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”  Paul and other faithful ministers make it their aim to have those who listen grow in their faith, so that at the end, they become who God has called them to be.  Faithful ministers can never be satisfied with the status quo in themselves or in their listeners.  The goal is always growth towards spiritual maturity.

What Paul writes here about his commission needs to be taken into our lives today.  First of all, I want you to see how it applies to the matter of false teachers.  False teachers don’t faithfully make the Word of God fully known.  They might make the Word of God known to some degree, but it won’t be the fullness of the Word.  There will be a selective approach.  False teachers don’t faithfully preach Christ from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.  They fail to show that Jesus is on every page.  Instead, you often end up on every page.  With false teachers, the Bible is more about you than it is about Christ.  And admonitions?  Warnings?  False teachers might have them, but if they do they’re usually not from Scripture.  There might be instruction, but typically it’s their own ideas, rather than the gospel.  As a result, false teachers do not help Christians to become mature in Christ.  False teachers will retard your spiritual growth.

Second, ministers today need to take these things to heart and apply them in their work.  I need to apply what’s in this passage as I do my work among you.  Again, I ask for your prayers so that I would faithfully and fully make the Word known, proclaim Christ, admonish and teach in a wise way, so that you grow into maturity as God’s people and can finally be presented before him fully mature.  The elders have that responsibility to supervise the preaching, but so do you in a sense.  I encourage all of you to have the attitude of the Bereans in Acts 17.   Remember the Bereans?  When Paul preached, they examined “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  That’s what all believers should be doing under the proclamation of God’s Word.

That brings us to the third application we can draw out in this point.  If you’re listening with an open Bible and the minister is faithfully and fully making the Word known, proclaiming Christ with admonitions and teaching, what are you doing with it?  Brothers and sisters, here take a page from the Thessalonians.  Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  They accepted it as the Word of God – they believed it.  Earlier in 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul wrote of how they received the Word with the joy of the Holy Spirit and then became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  The Word preached had an impact on their lives.  Loved ones, by God’s grace, let it be like that for us also.  Hear the Word, believe the Word, live the Word.  Then you too will someday be presented mature in Christ before the Father.

So faithful ministry involves sufferings and toil and a commission to bring the Word.   It also includes the disclosure of a gloriously rich mystery.  We find that in verses 26 and 27.

For Paul, making the Word of God fully known included announcing something remarkable to the Gentiles.  He was privileged to disclose something to people who, like the Colossians, were not physically descended from Abraham.   Paul writes about a mystery.  Usually when we today hear that word we think about a puzzle or a crime show.  Here the word mystery is used in the sense of something that’s been hidden and can only be known when God reveals it.  There was a mystery hidden for a long time, “for ages and generations,” writes Paul.  The mystery was this:  the Messiah is a Saviour for all types of people, regardless of their ethnicity.  That truth had been largely hidden before the coming of Christ.  Sure, there were hints in the Old Testament.  One of those hints was in Psalm 87, which we sang before the sermon.  Psalm 87 prophetically speaks of all sorts of nations being included among God’s people.  Yet that was all a time of shadows.  Nobody quite expected what happened in the book of Acts.  Even though Jesus had told the disciples that the gospel was going to the ends of the earth, it didn’t register until later.  Peter didn’t get it until he had his visit with Cornelius in Acts 10.  Cornelius becomes a believer.  In Acts 11, when Peter reported what happened to the other disciples, that’s when you read the conclusion, “And they glorified God saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’”  God suddenly and dramatically made the mystery known that his redemption in Christ is for people from every tribe and nation.

Paul had seen the same thing happening in his ministry.  He had heard from Ephaphras about what God had done in Colossae too.  The gospel came to this city, it was preached, and people believed in Christ.  Christ was evidently in them with his Holy Spirit.  The mystery says verse 27 is “Christ in you,”  -- Paul is saying, Christ is in you Gentiles with his Holy Spirit, I find it amazing!  He not only comes to believing Jews, but also to the Gentiles.  And with Christ living in you with his Spirit, you have the hope of glory.  You have the expectation of eternal life in the presence of God. 

Paul writes that these are great riches.  This mystery that has been revealed is gloriously rich because it speaks of a generous God who bestows his grace far and wide.  These are glorious riches that speak of a God who lavishes his salvation without discrimination on the basis of skin colour or language.  And because these riches speak of God in this way, the result is praise for God.

What Paul is highlighting here is the catholicity of the church.  The church is catholic.  With that word, part of what we’re saying is that the church includes people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.  Christ’s church is broad and inclusive.  Anyone who repents and believes will belong.  A faithful ministry embraces this truth and celebrates it.  Loved ones, we all need to believe that Christ is a Saviour for all sorts of people, not just for the grandchildren of Dutch immigrants.  The church is not a “Dutch club,” but a body of believers in Jesus Christ.  The church is the community where one finds Christ in people through his Spirit.

Since God’s Word teaches it and since we believe it, the revelation of this mystery will have an impact on the way we live as a church.  Paul embraced God’s plan and design.  He celebrates it here as a good thing – for him it’s something great, there are glorious riches here in God’s big plan for the nations.  What if the Lord did something amazing in our community and brought a whole bunch of people from a totally different ethnic background to our church?  Oh, I think we’re okay with a few.  But what about a lot of different people?  Would we be comfortable with that?  Would we embrace it and celebrate it?  What might we say with our looks, or actions, or maybe even words?  Would it be, “Welcome!  We’re so thankful that God brought you here.”  Or would we be saying, “This church is not really for you.  This church is just for people of our ethnic background.  You belong somewhere else”?  No, I trust that we would want to reflect the words of our text and see that as something great, glorious riches:  Christ in these people, bringing them to faith with his Holy Spirit, bringing them to his church.  Loved ones, our faithful ministry together as a church must look like that.

It’s important that we know what faithful ministry looks like.  It’s important because we need to know the difference between true and false teachers.  It’s important because without faithful ministry we’ll be led down the broad road to destruction instead of the narrow road to life.  But most importantly, it’s important to know what faithful ministry looks like, so we can do it.  We want to do it; we want to be faithful as a church in every respect, because of who our God is.  We want to honour him by only speaking his truth, by only believing his truth, and living out only his truth.  We want to glorify him by listening to what he says and following it -- all because we love the one who first loved us and gave his Son for us.  So our prayer should be that God would be glorified by a faithful ministry among us and through us here in this church.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Heavenly Father,

We’re thankful again for your Holy Word.  We ask that your Word would continue to equip us.  Please let your Spirit help us with your Word so that we can readily detect false teaching.  We pray that we would receive only the true teaching of your Word here in our congregation.  Please help our pastor to be faithful in proclaiming the Word.  We ask that you would give him strength for that calling.  And we ask that you will help us all to have a Berean attitude and approach, help us to examine everything we hear in the light of your Word.  When the preaching conforms to Scripture, please give us faith to accept it and believe it. 

We also thank you for the gloriously rich mystery that has been revealed after Christ’s coming.  Thank you for the broadness of your church.  We praise you that Gentiles like us can have Christ in us, the hope of glory.  Father, we ask for your help to embrace this truth and celebrate it.  Help us to love the catholicity of your church.  Please help us have a warm and hospitable attitude towards those you bring our way.  And we do pray that you would bring many our way.  Please use our church to draw in the elect from among the nations.  Please let us be instruments in your hand for the salvation of our neighbours, people we work with, also with our lost family members.  We ask for you to sovereignly give us the opportunities to share our hope and strength from your Spirit to do it, and to take those opportunities.  Let your Spirit work repentance and faith in the hearts of many, so that we can together praise your Name!

And Father, we also pray again this morning for your suffering church, especially for the preachers who faithfully bring the Word even though it might mean imprisonment or torture or other horrible consequences.  Help our brothers and sisters who are persecuted to remain faithful.  Please give them strength.  We pray that through their witness for the gospel, the church would continue to grow and the gospel would continue to advance in this dark world.    




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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