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Getting to the meat

I confess that I have never been one to relish vegetables. When I was younger I would hastily eat them up so as to get them out of the way and get to enjoy the real bit of the meal – the meat. And though I now appreciate the value of vegetables more, as part of the full balanced diet, I still prefer to get to the meat.

I say this to illustrate the fact that often I bypass parts of Scripture that don’t, at first reading, offer up much for me to chew upon. And that is a mistake, as I discovered a few days ago as I was reading Colossians.

Now I think I may not be alone in wanting so much to get to the “meat” of a passage that I consume all too quickly verses that I should linger longer over. God’s Word, after all, is all of it and not just bits of it. God has a reason for preserving for us sections of the Bible that we struggle to get any relevance from. The problem is not with God’s Word in those cases, but with us.

One verse that I have often skipped over in my reading of Colossians (and there are similar verses in the other letters) is Colossians 1:2 “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae. Grace to you and peace from God our Father.”[1] I am not even sure why those words should have arrested my attention when they did (unless, of course, one counts the guidance of the Holy Spirit) but I am glad I was brought to linger on them more than I usually have done. They are, after all, amazing words.

First off there is the very fact that Paul could say those words at all. Think on it for a moment. Paul is conveying to his readers in Colossae grace and peace from God. What an astonishing thing to do" If true, they are words of immense comfort to us. So, on what basis can he say what he says? It is either astonishing hubris on the part of Paul or Paul has good reasons for saying it. And the reasons in part lie in the very text itself. What Paul is telling his readers is that there is peace with God that is graciously bestowed. And this peace is a peace that is won for us and not by us. It is obtained by the sin bearing death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the actual sins of all those whom God saves are borne in Christ, God is able to justify the ungodly and still be righteous and just in his actions.[2] And the result of this, Paul tells us in Romans 5:1, is that we have peace with God.

In these words of Paul, at the start of his letter to the Colossians, we are presented with something truly beautiful. He opens with “Grace to you…” Grace is something, like mercy, that is bestowed on those who have no claim to it by right. If you have a right to it, what you get is justice not grace. Grace signifies the giving of something without payment. It is neither earned nor paid for. Paul tells us elsewhere that there is not one living human being (other than Christ) who can claim to be righteous or good. And in order to make that absolutely clear he adds “no, not one.”[3] And that means that none of us have anything to commend ourselves to God. But God acts in grace so as to bring us to Him. He draws us (John 6:44) and brings all those whom He calls to Him and justifies them (Romans 8:30). That is He declares them to be in the right with Him. And He is able to do that because for each of those whom He calls, Christ has borne the punishment they should have carried so that they can be free to enter into God’s peace.

Peace; sweet, delicate sounding yet robust in reality, enduring, heart soothing, fear quenching peace. If we have peace with God then we have no need to fear anything or anyone else. So Paul wants us to understand that if we are in Christ Jesus then we have grace and peace from God. And that this God is now our Father. Not just in the sense of being the Creator of us all, but in the sense of being adopted into His family through His beloved Son.

And it is important to see that this grace and peace is very specifically for those who are “in Christ”. There is a very definite scope for this grace and this peace. It is only for those who know themselves to be sinners deserving of God's wrath and who have turnd to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Those who have been joined to Jesus in faith, by the Holy Spirit, are those who have died with Him and risen with Him to newness of life.[4] The record of their sin is wiped clean. That is why Paul can address all of the believers at Colossae with the title “saints.” We tend to think, these days, largely because of how this term came to be used in the Catholic Church, that a “saint” is an especially good person. He or she is a person who stands out as holy, good, almost perfect. And that means that many of us hear what Paul says in this verse without hearing it spoken of us. How can it? We know ourselves to be far from perfect. But Paul makes no distinctions. All those who are Christ’s people are those he also calls saints. How can he do that? The answer is that what “saint” means here is “one set apart” and set apart, moreover by God and for God. It is to say that we are God’s chosen people. Not because we are special. Not because we did more good things than others. Not because we are superior to others; simply because God chose to set His unfailing and undeserved love on us. God does not justify the good, or even the almost good. He justifies the ungodly.[5] But when He does so He turns them into saints, into people set apart for Him.

And in so far as “saint” means more than that; in so far as it means “righteous, holy” etc. it is able to be said of us only as those who are “in Christ” and who therefore benefit from His righteousness and not our own. When we are joined to Christ we get all that belongs to Him. This is amazingly beautiful. Jesus is the only person who never sinned. He is the only person who always followed God’s ways. And His perfect righteousness becomes our righteousness and this enables us to be truly called “saints and faithful brothers in Christ.”[6]

I said earlier that these words are a great comfort, and so they are. If the status of being part of God's chosen people has nothing to do with any merit in me and is all to do with the merit of Jesus, then I can be greatly comforted in the midst of my daily failures. My security, my hope, my status before God is all to be found in Jesus. Nothing I did earned it in the first place and nothing I do now alters it either. God did not choose me because I was a success but because He loved me. And His love is unconditional. When I sin again as a Christian, as I will do often, I need not fret that I have blown it. In the eyes of God, because I am joined to Jesus, I am a saint. He looks at me and sees only His beloved child. What an amazing consolation! Can there be a better one? Can there be a better reason to forsake my rebellion against a God who loves me that much? Oh, what a marvellous thing grace is when you fully understand it! How beautiful is the very word to our ears! Grace and peace our ours from God Himself, won for us by His beloved Son giving Himself up to death so that we might live. When we understand exactly what we were like, and are still prone to be, and see the grace of God in salvation, we know we cannot claim any thing in us as a ground for our receiving God's mercy.

And as a result, we cry out, from glad and grateful hearts, “Soli Deo Gloria!" ("To God alone be the glory").

And there was me thinking that I could skip this verse in order to get to the meat of the book!



 



[1] English Standard Version.

[2] Romans 3:21-26.

[3] Romans 3:10.

[4] Romans 6:3-10. The concept of union with Christ is a difficult one for many of us to get our heads around. Paul tells us that we are so identified with Jesus that when He dies on the cross, those who come to believe in Him are in some sense actually in Him and their sins are very definitely being dealt with. Jesus does not just die for sin in general, He dies to take upon Himself the actual sins of all those who are united to Him in faith.

[5] Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2015), 254. See also Romans 4:5.

[6] See for example the exchange that takes place in 2 Corinthians 5:21.

 

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