Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A rich relative come to stay...

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...

The church in Colossae was being perturbed. Upset. Thrown about a bit. We have to deduce exactly how by reading between the lines of Paul's letter - we have no other data to go on. It seems that teaching had crept in which had a legalistic streak, taking some Old Testament requirements and imposing them on Christians, perhaps not as a basis of salvation but certainly as a basis of spiritual one-upmanship, of graduation into the premier league of those who enjoyed "fullness". The language was impressive, and, as these things so often do, invited ordinary believers into an apparently higher experience, while in the process being rather dismissive of the "basics" of the Christian life. Deeper knowledge, perhaps contact with angels, a more erudite view of Jesus - who wouldn't be tempted?! Not least when the mystical, even magical, elements to these views seemed more in tune with many of the currents in wider society. The promise of a Higher Life while simultaneously being less counter-cultural will always appeal! 

Paul's answer to all of this is, as ever, to see more of Jesus. To appreciate his greatness, his grace, his glory, his sufficiency, his excellence. He knows that there is nothing these believers need more than a fuller appreciation of what they already have in Christ.  And that solution is always the answer whenever exclusive, gnostic, esoteric, ascetic or other promises of "something special" infect the church and rob it of its fundamental joy in the gospel. When the church loses its gospel joy it ALWAYS becomes less effective in serving the world by getting the message out. 

In our readings this morning we came to the verse above. In a sense it is just a part of the overall solution that Paul is putting to the Colossians. But it is a very interesting part, and I love the way he puts it. 

It is parallel with a very similar passage in the letter to the Ephesians which stresses being filled with the Spirit, and therefore teaching one another scripture through our singing. The Ephesians faced some similar but distinctive challenges, and I don't doubt that the wording is carefully nuanced in each case.  

The Colossians needed to recalibrate their attitude to the Bible. By "the word of Christ" Paul means the gospel, certainly, the message of scripture, not simple the Bible as a book. But as the following words make clear, that message cannot be divorced from scripture itself, if (at the least) the inclusion of the Psalms is anything to go by. Paul is against a wrong, unChristly use of scripture. The false teachers were using the Book as the source for their various Jewish emphases; the believers were inclined  to judge one another over fasts and feast days. They were not reading the scriptures and finding the supreme and sufficient Christ in them. Over against such wrong use Paul wanted to encourage right use. The Bible is read right when we find "the Word of Christ" in it.  

Not for the last time in church history, someone was pushing these Christians towards an attitude which took Christ out of the scriptures. For the Colossians, the OT was a source book for the imposed rules of new prophets who Really Knew God. At other times a critical attitude has denied the essential unity of scripture as Word of Christ - it becomes a book of ancient curiosities. When scripture is at best a blast from the past,  the Now Experience or the New Scholarship is so much more attractive! Such an influence rarely damns the Bible as such - it just sidelines it. And so the Christ of scripture gets sidelined too. 

Against that backdrop, Paul wants the church to revel in talking - and singing - scripture, and to do so in the understanding that the word of scripture is Christ's. It comes from the great Christ he has been talking about, and it speaks of the great Christ he has been talking about. 

He uses the phrase "dwell richly". He says, "Let the Word, the message of the Scriptures, the Book of Jesus, be to you like having a rich relative come to stay. Think of the special treats, the outings, the great restaurant meals, the generally better lifestyle when Uncle Bartholomew stays over - let the Bible be like that among you! Don't look for your fullness elsewhere - let the scripture, let the gospel raise your standard of living!"

In our day too, we are offered attractive versions of the Christian life which claim to be holy and to reach greater heights of love and intimacy with God, while simultaneously downplaying scripture and cosying up to the prevailing culture. The Word of the Bible is not viewed as a rich and generous relative. It is viewed as a rather fusty, musty, picky and embarrassing old person. We wouldn't want to enter into dialogue with postmoderns while we've got her in tow! She's all very well in her place, but we've moved on!

If we've moved on from scripture, we've moved on from Jesus. The language used around us may still press lots of nice buttons - there is much talk of love, of God, of openness, of transformation - but unless it is focussed on the Christ of the Bible in his once-and-for-all work for us, we have come adrift. 

Initiatives like the "Boundless... Whole world reading" programme are good, but there is a way to go before the trend towards a contemporary Colossian heresy is driven back in the SA by the pressure of Christ's rich Word. Let's welcome the rich relative back, big time! 

(The rich relative illustration, possibly implied in the text itself, has come to me from somewhere, and I don't now know where. If anyone can help with a possible source...? Richard Chester? John Stott?)

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