Union With Christ
If you have a bible, I’ll mostly be in Colossians 1:9-12, but I would like to begin with a brief word about the whole message of the book and one of Paul’s main pictures he uses of the Christian life here and throughout his letters.
INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY OF BOOK
Colossians is a book about Christ, about walking in Christ, about bringing forth by the Spirit the fruit of the free, unbounded gospel of God as Christ’s fellow-workers, not laboring under the dictates of human traditions and techniques but under the already-complete qualification of the Father, through union with the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If you will note in 1:2, Paul addresses his audience as “those in Colossae.” This city is located in what is modern day Turkey, and it was only about 12 miles or so from Laodicea, perhaps a similar distance as Waverly and Waterloo (and, ominously, Laodicea is one of the seven churches to which John wrote the Book of Revelation). In fact, these churches are so close that at the end of chapter four, Paul indicates that he sent a separate letter to the Laodicean church, and he asks the Colossians to trade letters with them after they have read this one to the church. The two churches were sisters, watching out for one another, praying for one another, building up one another.
But even more important to Paul was the other phrase in verse two (depending on which version you are using, it comes before or after—the NIV gets it right; the ESV moves things around for some reason). This other phrase says far more about those reading Paul’s letter, about the world in which they live, and far more about their relationship with the church in Laodicea. This phrase, in fact, changes the very story and meaning of their lives. Right there in verse two Paul addresses those who are not only in Colossae but also “in Christ.”
Union with Christ
This is a major picture and reality in Paul’s teachings. Paul mentions being “in Christ” in Colossians 17 times. But what does it mean? That is a pretty vague phrase. Is this a locative sense, meaning that we are present “where” Christ is? Is it instrumental, in that “by” Christ we accomplish something? Is it simply exhortational, driving us to think about our general relation to Christ and to conduct ourselves accordingly? Is this a “spiritual” union (not in the sense of “not real” but rather “ghostly”) as opposed to something physical and tangible? Or should we simply not make a big deal about it?
Well, it is not just a neat concept or metaphor for our relationship with God. Union with Christ means that we are really present in the person of Christ—and he is really present with us—because he took on a human nature and has united his people to himself through his Spirit. In 1 Cor 12:13 Paul says, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” And verse 12:16 he says, “He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in Spirit.” John Jefferson Davis, professor of systematic theology at Gordon Conwell, puts it this way, “The Spirit is like an umbilical cord that unites us to Christ, and through which he imparts his life to us, like a vine to the branches (John15:5).”
John 14:20: In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
John 14:23: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
John 17:26 (Jesus’s High Priestly prayer): I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
Rom 6:3: all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.
This is union with Christ. In Christ’s death, Christians have really died (Gal 2:20; Col 2:13). In Jesus’s resurrection, Christians have really been raised (Eph 2:5; Col 2:19). In Jesus’s ascension to the Father, Christians have really been exalted and are present with him in the throne room (Eph 2:6). Christians participate in Christ’s relationship with the Father. Grant Macaskill, professor of theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has said,
“What the Spirit realizes in the believer is the identity of the Son: he unites us to him, allows us to share in his cry of ‘Abba’, implants us into his death and resurrection and conforms us to his likeness. At every point, the identity of the believer is derived from that of the Son.”
To have union with Christ is to be saved. Think of union with Christ as the site in which we receive justification, sanctification, and glorification. To be in Christ is to be united to the one who overcomes the world, the one who is remaking the world. All those in Christ are newly created and begin, here and now, the mission of the future kingdom of God, the restoration of all things. We make the Lord present, and by his Spirit we make the world anew. The old has passed away for those in Christ. Though we often sin, and act like the old still lives, we have truly passed through the waters of death in Christ, and we truly live in him.
Perhaps a couple of you are wondering: How do I get to be in Christ?
You ask the Lord for entrance. You do this by recognizing his complete purity, his holiness, and yet his unfailing love for you in the sending of his son, Jesus, to die for not just the sins of the democrats or the republicans, but for your own sins. You confess those sins, and you put your trust in the final work of the cross of Christ. You then come to Jonathan, whom God has called to help lead you into the whole Christian life, which is baptism, service to others, and gratitude to God.
We who profess faith and have been baptized have been united to Christ, and in Christ we are members of one another, and so we must walk in that union. (Chapter two will make a huge deal about this).
Now, as you might imagine, union with Christ has implications for us as a whole church. Union with Christ is not a private matter. If I had thought more deeply about the title of this sermon, I would have named it “Union Together with Christ.” Because, in fact, you are not only united to Christ, but you are also united to his people. You become a member in Christ’s body. A body part. And as a body part, you work with the other body parts. You care about what happens to them, because they are also part of you.
Your pastor and his family are in Christ with you.
The church staff and other members are in Christ with you.
And those who are especially in Christ with you are the children’s workers.
Union together with Christ is the basis for what Paul will say in Colossians 1:9-12, to which we will now turn:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
Paul, in verse 3, expresses his joy at the very existence of the Colossian church! Giving thanks is the banner across this whole section, and I’d like it to be the banner across this whole sermon. We always thank God when we pray for you. And he doesn’t leave us wondering what it is about the Colossian church that causes such gratitude, he tells us right in the following verse: since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for the saints.
This is what motivates Paul again in verse 9: since the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you.
If you have ever had a friend or family member come to Christ, you know some of what Paul is expressing here.
This is life together in Christ.
It is a sharing of joy and it is a commitment to talking with God on behalf of your Christian brothers and sisters.
A good portion of life in Christ is sharing the ordinary and miraculous joys and sorrows of the day to day and the week to week, and then going to the Lord in prayer. Paul says that his prayer for the Colossian church was unceasing—which, for those who had structured prayer
Bonhoeffer, Life Together, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”
There is a tendency in Christian ministry, in church culture, to treat the church as a constant imperfection. The church never quite becomes what we imagine it ought to be. We get envious when another church has something, or is doing something, that we wish our fellowship had or did.
Even if we are not driven to find another church, we may still have an attitude and expectation that undermines the community Paul describes here in Colossians.
We become parts of the body who do the body harm.
Bonhoeffer warns, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
For Paul, the very existence of the Colossian Christian community, even with its faults, was an absolute miracle of God, and a testimony to the power and truth of Jesus Christ.
When you meet another Christian, will you take a step back and consider that heaven and earth moved mightily for their sake. And that the Spirit of God came and made a brand new creation. And that you are connected to that Christian by virtue of you both being in Christ.
Instead of being disappointed, instead of packing up and finding a new church (or, worse, creating a new denomination), seek a spirit of wonder and gratitude for that person or group, and pray as Paul prays. [Caveat: This is not to say that there is never a time to leave a church. There are a variety of legitimate reasons that might cause someone to leave. And there are a variety of poor reasons that also cause people to leave. My call is simply to be aware, be in prayer, and be wise.]
- Pick one family or single person from Grace Baptist, preferably one you “don’t prefer” or you think is “interesting,” and pick a task during which you will pray for that family or person.
For example, every time you do the dishes, say a small prayer for the Davis family (I’ve known Jonathan for 4 years now, he’s interesting). The prayer doesn’t have to be elaborate.
- Prayer is not a substitute for action—treating it as such is the quickest way to becoming a trivial Christian.
How you treat a person, how you talk about them when they are not in the room, how you advance in your career, how you treat other people’s children—these things make prayer richer or poorer. Labels are the currency of impersonal relationships. Acts of love, especially sacrificial ones, are the currency of personal relationships.
The rest of verse 9, through verse 12, is the content of Paul’s prayer for the Christian church in Colossae. He prays for the church to be filled with all knowledge to walk worthily and in his power, never for the sake of gaining the kingdom, but under the final word of the Father who has already brought us into the kingdom.
This is our map for the rest of our time: Knowledge in Christ, to walk and have power in Christ, in the kingdom of Christ.
Knowledge in Christ
Look at verse 9, Paul says, “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”
When we pray, we ask for God’s help for us and for others to better understand and better dwell in Christ. We pray to know God’s will.
[Don’t spend too much time on the topic of God’s will.]
How do you know what someone wants? How do you know what your wife or husband wants? You ask them. [Unless you’re asking about where to go out to eat, because the answer is always, “I don’t know.”] But it is not less than this.
God is a person. He hears your prayer. You are united to him by the Spirit.
We also lean on the church and its leaders for spiritual direction and for discernment. Proverb 15:22 tells us, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” We ought to be helped by the wisdom of those who have gone before us, our elders, our parents, and other older Christians. I think we all know growth in age does not equal growth in wisdom.
But worse than bearing with the advice of others, is listening only to yourself. It feels right in the moment, it feels liberating, free from the constraints of others. But it is precisely the opposite. We are so limited without the constraints of other people. Others have had experiences of life and of God that are likely far different from our own, which is why we need them. So we are constrained without them.
We need spiritual wisdom and understanding, and we must ask God to provide them to us and to our church.
Walking in Christ
I don’t think he means knowledge as opposed to deeds of love, because the purpose of knowing God’s will is that it would be put to action. Look at verse 10:
He prays for them to be filled with knowledge, “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God”
We are not out for trivia knowledge.
WALKING AS PICTURE OF WHOLE LIFE FOR GOD - We are out for a whole life lived before the face of God. This is what Paul means when he asks for the Colossian church to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. Walking is a picture of life with God.
If you were looking for a verse that summarized the book of Colossians, it would be difficult to find one more fitting than chapter 2, verse 6: “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, in him you must walk.”
The knowledge of his will is intended to lead us into paths of responsibility, respect, and honor within the church and even the surrounding community. We are reminded of Psalm 23 here, “He leads us in paths of righteousness for his namesake.”
Christians conduct themselves in Christ. The Christian, when binding up the wounds of a neighbor, is in some sense taking upon Christ’s own ministry of healing recorded in the Scriptures. We get to enter into God’s mission and love for the world.
Now Paul uses a curious set of terms to describe what walking in a worthy manner looks like: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God
This is Genesis language.
Remember the charge in Genesis chapter 1, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Gen 1:28). The task of Adam and Eve was blessed work, tending the glories of the garden, defending its borders, and venturing out to the surrounding lands to bring their riches into the garden. This is why there are gems and rubies outside the borders of the garden at the beginning of the story (Gen 2:10-12). But they don’t stay there. At the end of the story, God’s garden city has walls that are adorned with these gems (Rev 21:19-21). Eden was to fill the earth. The image-bearers of God were to spread, and the gems of the earth were to be brought into God’s holy realm.
So why does Paul evoke that imagery here?
In Colossians 1:6, Paul describes the spread of the gospel in similar terms. “In all the world it is bearing fruit and growing.” In other words it is being fruitful. Quite in spite of the chains Paul may have on his wrists, the gospel was and is not bound, it runs in the freedom and power of God. Physically, relationally, spiritually—nothing shackles the gospel from spreading.
And the gospel not only spreads throughout the earth, but it spreads throughout churches and individuals. Walking worthily, fully pleasing to God, means being fruitful and multiplying the fruit of the Spirit of God. Or, in Paul’s words in the last part of verse 10, “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
This is bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God
Power in Christ
In 1:11, he describes the knowledge of God as something that empowers us. Not for intense extraordinary acts, but for everyday, ordinary ones. Power for all endurance and patience with joy and gratitude.
This is not knowledge as a download of information. This is personal knowledge. We grow in knowledge of God in the same way we grow in knowledge of another person: we hang out with them, we share sushi, we get BFF tats, we get messy and intertwined in perils of friendship. And in the process we tend to take on the interests of our friends (sometimes even picking up their phrases and mannerisms). Mandy and I rent out rooms in our home – Spirit helps us have patience.
We also hurt our friends, sin against them, sometimes grievously, and with God’s grace we reconcile and grow with that painful memory. And even in this, the Holy Spirit gives us power for knowledge, understanding, patience, and endurance. Paul shows us a bit of that in chapter 2, how he struggles (labors!) over the churches in Colossae and Laodicea, if even from a distance. He labors in prayer and he labors in discipleship, and the Spirit of God empowers Paul in this work.
POINT OF APPLICATION
- The power that comes through union with Christ has implications for those who suffer.
The persecution of Christ’s people amounts, in some way, to the persecution of Christ himself. We see this starkly in Jesus’ words to Paul: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:6, ESV). Some might argue that this is simply political representation. However, Paul’s own words on persecution in Colossians 1:24—“I fill up what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh on behalf of his body”—reveal a much closer intimacy and participation than mere political representation seems to allow. Furthermore, such arguments assume one can separate out the political from the religious or metaphysical, but such elements are intertwined.
I don’t know all the workings of this. I only know that if you suffer, Christ not only knows your experience, not only knows it intimately as one who has suffered, but he is there with you in your suffering. He loves you and has committed himself to you.
Story about Laura witnessing the accident, helping, giving herself to the situation, sitting in the Target parking lot, coming home to tell us.
One of the sadnesses of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin was that they were forced out of the garden, barred from returning, and were cursed to labor for the fruit of the ground, which, even on beautiful spring days, often brings forth thistles and thorns. Life together in Christ is good hard work, done by the power of the Holy Spirit, which produces fruit.
Certainly we still experience a fallen world. We still put babies in the ground, we still have ministry partners and family members leave Christ for the love of the world, our bodies fail, Satan afflicts us and sometimes thwarts our efforts.
But we in Christ no longer have to labor like Adam, under the curse of God. Instead, we labor in Christ, with the free, uncontainable gospel. We labor with the Spirit of God, who empowers us, seals us, strengthens us.
The Kingdom in Christ
And if you look at verse 12, we labor with joy because of the Father’s work: he qualified us, rescued us, and transferred us to his kingdom.
We labor as those who are already qualified and transferred to the kingdom of God in Christ. Our own approval is wrapped up in the approval of the Son of God.
I love this word. GOD DOES IT. Paul begins in verse 3 with thanksgiving, and here again he ends with it. Paul gave thanks for the miracle of Colossian Christians, and he prays they also would be empowered to give thanks to the Father who qualified them.
The kingdom of God, of which all Christians are citizens, crosses every national, ethnic, and linguistic boundary in the world (Luke 13:29; Romans 15:8-13; Ephesians 2:11-19).
The church can rest knowing that nothing--no wall or decree of human government--will overcome this global network, and the church can join with God toward this awesome end (Matthew 24:14; John 20:21; Revelation 7:9).
Daniel 2:20-23 - Daniel answered and said:
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of you, for you have made known to us the king’s matter.”
United together with Christ -
“height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Knowledge in Christ, to walk and have power in Christ, in the kingdom of Christ.
Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon entitled “A Glorious Foundation for Peace”: “We shall never find any rest anywhere in the world till we come to Christ. Wherever we go, we carry our guilty, accusing consciences with us. Men may still the cries of a condemning conscience by stupefying them and hardening themselves in sin, but that is curing the distemper by killing the man. But in Christ the cause malady is removed. The guilt of sin is forever abolished, and the soul is restored to a rational and well-grounded peace.”
So my charge: God give you knowledge of his will, to walk in him with power to endure your present challenges with thankfulness.