Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Let’s pray: O Father, our prayer is to see. We want to see and we need to see for the sake of our dry, weary souls. We cry out with the psalmist: “O God you are my God, earnestly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh pants for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” We agree Lord. Earth has nothing to quench our thirst—we drink here but it does not satisfy. Make our experience match the psalmist: “But I have seen you in the sanctuary. I have beheld Your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” Lord let us see you. Let our souls drink it in so that our satisfied souls will have singing lips that celebrate your supremacy and sufficiency. Show us Jesus, so that we can know You Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is our prayer in Jesus’ name, Amen.
I. Intro: The Gravity and Clarity That Come From the Centrality of the Cross
Last week we looked at the centrality of the cross and the right relationship with God that flows from it. We looked at the reality of the cross, which came to a climax with the ultimate rejection and the ultimate irony. That is, the ultimate rejection was the Father forsaking the Son on the cross, which resulted in the ultimate irony that the tree of death for Jesus became a tree of life for me.
We also saw the result of the cross and the response to the cross. What a result! The tearing of the temple veil helped us see that through the torn curtain of his flesh we have a new and living way through which we draw near to God. And what a surprising response from the centurion supervising the crucifixion! We saw the picture of last week’s fighter verse in the face of a centurion. God gave him new eyes to see and he became a new creation: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold [I love the decisiveness of that word]—behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This morning I am excited to build upon that foundation. We have new life in Christ through the cross—a right relationship with God. Where do we go from here? Simplistic cross-centeredness is content with merely saying thanks for this new life. The goal is one of remembrance. Remember all that God did for you at the cross. Recall the past so you can be thankful in the present and live with gratitude. Now here me carefully—I do not disagree with calling the cross to mind for the sake of thanksgiving. A thousand times “yes.”
But we can go further and we should want to go further. After all, we want to make much of Jesus! And there is much more to be made much of! A rich, full-orbed, wide-angle look at the cross sees that it simultaneously gives us life and becomes our life. It brings us new life and then defines that new life. It provides both gravity and clarity for our very identity.
Let me illustrate the gravity and clarity that come with centrality of the cross with the sun as an analogy. First, in terms of gravity, the sun’s gravitational pull has an effect on the earth—causing it to move in a certain way: a big, nearly circular orbit once a year. My contention is that the cross is so central that it will shape the contours of our very identity. Second, the sun gives the people on the earth clarity. C.S. Lewis said it well:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen. Not just because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I believe in Christianity because God has given me eyes to see the cross. And I not only see the cross with these new eyes, but by the cross I also see everything else. So the centrality of the cross brings clarity.
Transition: Therefore, we ask this morning how the cross brings both gravity and clarity to bear upon how we think about ourselves. We continue to sin and yet we are called saints in Christ Jesus. How can we be both sinner and saint as a Christian?
Colossians 2:8–9 has three essential pieces in the puzzle of our identity in Christ: (1) Christ’s fullness (v. 9), (2) our fullness in Christ (v. 10), and (3) our freedom in Christ (v. 8). We have the same categories of thought as last week: (1) a foundational reality, (2) a result, and (3) a response. Let’s take them one at a time.
II. Body: Christ’s Fullness, our Fullness in Christ, and our Freedom in Christ
1. Christ’s fullness (v. 9): the foundation of our identity
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” This is a one sentence summary of orthodoxy on the natures of Christ: fully God (whole fullness) and fully man (dwells bodily). Not part God—very God of very God. Not part man—he does not merely appear to be human—he is fully human, flesh and blood. He got tired, and hungry, and thirsty. He cried and he died. The Bible says he was tempted like us in every way and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He is human so he can sympathize and he did not sin so he can save sinners. These two natures are our very hope for salvation. A mediator must be able to represent both parties. Jesus is the mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) between God and men because he is fully God and fully man.
Right now your mind should be spinning. Heaven and earth cannot contain God—and yet—the whole fullness of deity dwells in a BODY. Saying this is like saying all the oceans of the world could fit into a cup. We are not just talking about regular dawn dish soap and ultra concentrated dawn dish soap with the twice the cleaning power. We are way beyond that! We are talking about the infinite fullness of deity dwelling in a human body—with these two natures joined perfectly and indivisibly.
Illustration: There is a TV show called “how it works.” They go into the inner dynamics of how things work. It is often fascinating. But mark my words—you will never see this on a show like that—because no one but God understands the inner dynamics of the incarnation. The incarnation takes us right up the brink of what our language can say and our minds can understand—and then it gloriously goes further. Our minds are left defeated and we confess to God: You are in another category altogether. Adore the wisdom. Celebrate the mystery. Thank God for the incarnation.
Who is this One “in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily?” The phrase “all the fullness” takes us back to Colossians 1:19, where it occurs for the first time. O what a glimpse of Christ we get in Colossians 1:15–20. There is so much here to make much of! In a word, Christ is supreme. Paul confronts us with the supremacy of Christ from three angles: (1) Christ’s relationship to the Father, (2) Christ’s relationship to the creation, and (3) Christ’s relationship to the church.
First, Paul describes Christ in terms of his relationship to God. Christ is supreme because he is the “image of the invisible God” (1:15). Jesus is God the Father made visible with human flesh. Paul is not the only one to say this. Jesus did. Philip said, “Show us the Father.” Jesus said, have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8–9). The God who dwells in unapproachable light took on flesh and is now visible.
Second, He is portrayed in terms of his relation to the creation. Christ is exalted in his headship and rule over creation, who enjoys all the rights of the inheritance of the creation as the “firstborn of creation” (Colossians 1:15). His status as Lord of creation is established because He is the one through whom and for whom it was created (1:15–16), as well as its sustainer (1:17).
Third, Christ is described in His relation to the church as its “head” and “firstborn from the dead” (1:18). That same headship shows up again in Colossians 2:10—Jesus is the head of all rule and authority.
Therefore, if you see Christ’s supremacy in these three areas you will conclude with Paul that Christ has first place in everything—he is preeminent (v. 18).
This is too good to wait to apply later! How does all of this help us get to know ourselves? Three things are vital here: (1) verse 16: we are made by him and for him; (2) verse 17: he is our sustainer; (3) he has first place—not us.
First, we are all familiar with t-shirts that have a tag on the collar that say where they were made. One of the funniest I ever heard of was a t-shirt that on the front said “Made in America,” on the tag said “Made in China.” This verse says that all of us, both Christian and non-Christian, visible and invisible have a tag that says, “made by Jesus and made for Jesus.” The goal of my life is to have the message written on the front of my life match what is already written on the back: made by Jesus and for Jesus. Does the message match?
Second, we along with all of creation are “sustained by Jesus.” He holds the universe, including our life from breaking apart at the seams. The argument from greater to lesser helps here: he is holding creation together from breaking apart at the seams, do you really think that it is too difficult for him to hold your life together? You can let go of the lie that you have to keep things together—he is doing the work. Are you aware of it? Have you praised him for it?
Third, Jesus, not us, has the rank of 1st place. This is helpful knowledge because sometimes we act like we do have the rank of 1st place. In those moments, we will confess pride not as some minor sin, but as a major rift in our identity. We will confess pride as the sin of contending with Jesus for the first place that He alone deserves. Loving Jesus means loving the fact that He has first place. Hating sin means hating the times when we contend with him for first place through our pitiful pride.
2. Our fullness in Christ (v. 10): the result of union with Christ
“And you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (v. 10)
How did you feel when you came to church? Empty or full? How we characterize ourselves here is the barometer concerning how much we understand our union with Christ and our identity in Him. Paul will not let us picture ourselves as empty if we are in him. Christ is complete—he lacks nothing. In him, I am complete, lacking in nothing. How could you have more than Christ?
I love the tense of the verb here. Paul does not say that we were filled or we will be filled or we are being filled. He says we “have been filled” (perfect tense). We were filled up and we are still full. There is no leak in the fullness of Christ. There is no leak in our identity. Do you feel the fullness that you have in Christ?
Illustration: Let me give you an analogy to make this plain. My wife and I used to play a game early in our married life—though not as much now that I use it as a sermon illustration! We would not just say “happy anniversary” every year, but every month. We would try to be the first person to say it, even if it meant waking the person up at midnight to say, “happy three-month anniversary.” We also would say, “I love you.” And the other person with a twinkle in their eye would say, “I love you more.” Oh, that is the way you want to play. Well then let the games begin. I love you 10 times more. I love you a billion times more. It would always end when we would say, “I love you infinity.” You had to stop there. You could not pull a Buzz light year and say “to infinity and beyond.” You can’t say I love you infinity plus 10—it is not romantic; it is just bad math.
In the same way, it is simply bad theology to say that we have Christ but we need a supplement. In Christ, we have all the fullness.
Transition: And now with that reality in verse 9 and that result in verse 10, we work our way back up to the response in verse 8. The logic of the passage is made clear by the word “for” that begins verse 9. Verses 9–10 are the foundation for the response in verse 8.
3. Our freedom in Christ (v. 8): the response to protect and proclaim our identity
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).
The problem here in Colossae is false teaching. The problem is not that people are holding people to a standard—the problem is that they are trying to hold people to the wrong standard. There is a division in the community as some are taking others captive with things that do not accord with Christ.
There is some debate here as to what is going on in Colossians. I do not have the time in this sermon to lay out all of the options and tell you where I land concerning the wider background issues here. I would like to focus on one thing that is crystal clear. Three times in this chapter we see a similar structure of thought: (1) a warning against being judged or held captive (2:8, 16, 18), (2) explanation of the wrong standards (2:8, 16–17, 18) and (3) recognition of Christ as the right standard (2:8, 17, 19).
Verse 8 commands the Colossians to not be taken captive by the things that do not accord with Christ. Verse 16–17 commands them not to let anyone “pass judgment on them” concerning things that are simply “shadows”—Christ is the substance. Verse 18 commands them not to let anyone seek to “disqualify” them by insisting upon the value of certain experiences that puff them up and make much of them. Verse 19 says that a devotion to these false standards would cause them to not hold fast to the Head, who is Christ. And dear friends, there is no growth apart from Christ. If you do not hold fast to the head, the body will not be connected and nourished and will not grow the growth from God (v. 19).
These images of judgment are powerful and troubling. The first one is the image of a live capture—like pirates coming and taking over a ship and claiming the people on the ship as its prisoners. But they are creating live captives with things that do not accord with Christ. Verse 16 means to act like they are the judge and pronounce judgments over people—but the judgment is based on shadows not the substance of Christ. Verse 18 uses an image that our culture really relates to: that of a sports referee or umpire. The referee makes judgments on if someone is out of bounds or if someone is thrown out of the game. Now there are plenty of times when the crowd will question an umpire’s decision, but it is almost ridiculous to think about people in the stands dressing themselves up like an umpire and trying to call the game in an official capacity when the duly appointed umpire is on the scene. Imagine what confusion and chaos would ensue!
But do you see that this is what was happening in Colossae? And it happens in our churches—even Bethlehem. We can take it upon ourselves to make distinctions and use labels. We draw boundary markers as to whether someone is in our group or not. Some in Colossae were dividing up the church into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The problem is that they were doing it in the wrong way: Christ is the standard of measurement and yet how ironic that in a Christian church Christ was not even in the equation. Paul responds in a way that is ferocious for the gospel. He protects their identity in Christ by declaring that someone cannot have Christ and be defined a “have not.” In the same way, you do not have anything of lasting worth if you do not have Christ. He determines the haves and the have-nots!
Do you see what this does to your identity? Let me talk to both unbelievers and believers at this point. Here is the problem in a nutshell. You do not have the ability to define who you are. You do not have the power or the right—because you are not the Creator. You can decide what your identity is going to be—but that does not make it reality because you are not the Judge of reality. Unbelievers you may try to define your lives by what you wear, what you drive, how many points you score, what grades you get, what job you have, how many sexual partners you have, how much money you make, but there are two very big problems with this assessment of life: (1) you will only find fullness in Christ, not the things of this world, and (2) you are not the Judge. Let me tell you who you are in a loving, direct way: you are what the Judge says you are. And a day is coming when He will make His private verdict public in the sight of all the universe. If you get Jesus wrong, you cannot get your identity right and you cannot get God right.
The Christian stands in the same position. Christian are not the Creator or the Judge. How sad when Christians buy into the lie of defining their lives by what others use: money, sex, good marriage, a big house, well-behaved children, etc. For the Christian, Christ is our life. He is our identity. We need to stop living the lie that other things are our identity. And here is the biggest difference between a believer and an unbeliever because of the cross. Both believers and unbelievers are what the Judge says we are. But believers already know the Judge. He is our Father. We are in His family! What a defining difference! Christian, You are who your Father says you are. I am who my Father says I am. Through the cross, I am not guilty. Through the cross, I am a child of God.
Soak in the difference:
Unbeliever: I am what my Judge says I am. What I am I am on my own before Him.
Believer: I am what my Father says I am. What I am I am in Christ.
Unbelievers you will face your Judge and Maker—but you must face him alone and therefore afraid. Flee from the wrath to come. You can have a different identity today. Believers let your hearts soar as you can face your Judge and Maker in Christ and therefore unafraid. He will not receive you with a stern face and crossed arms. See Him with open arms saying, “welcome home, son—welcome home, daughter.”
Illustration: Piper’s Carnival of Mirrors
In a Pastor’s Conference message on C.H. Spurgeon back in 1995, Pastor John used the image of a Carnival of Mirrors. You look in one mirror and you are short and fat. You look in another mirror and you are tall and skinny. You look in another mirror and you have a deformed look as you see yourself contorted and with jagged lines and contours. That is what it is like when you let other people or other things define you. You can let things define you—if you have them you feel rich—if you do not have them you feel poor. You can let people define you—if people like you then you are popular—if they do not like you, then you feel slighted. Too many people use a physical mirror—do I measure up to what society calls beautiful?
This is the difference between self-esteem and having a personal identity in Christ. Self-esteem tells you to speak lies to yourself. You have a mirror like Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live: “I am good enough, I am smart enough, and dog-gonnit, people like me.” That is false. You can never be good enough or smart enough to pass the bar of God’s judgment. The cross causes a believer to turn to a different mirror. This mirror speaks truth. God looks at us and sees His Son and says, “I am well-pleased with you.” We can preach truth to ourselves instead of listening to self-esteem boosting lies.
Dear friends, this is where our disability ministry helps us so much. The world looks at these children and labels them “deformed” or “abnormal” because they only look at the physical mirror. But in their blindness they cannot see that we look up and see a better mirror. In this mirror, they see the Father say, “You are son.” “You are daughter.” “You are the way I want You.” “You are not an accident.”
Dear friends, Christ died so that we could have new eyes and gaze upon a new mirror. Our union with Christ means that when the Father looks at me he sees Jesus.
Conclusion: Spiritual Posture, Spiritual Identity Theft, and Communion
I began the sermon by talking about the gravitational pull of the cross. The gravity creates a certain posture in Christians. Do you know what I mean by posture? You can position yourself in such a consistent way that it becomes a posture. Some develop a posture of texting or video gaming and they are hunched over. Some develop a posture of athleticism and walk on the balls of their feet. Some models find themselves walking at home like they do on the catwalk. My wife told me about the time she saw a teenager walking through the airport in “texting mode.” Not texting, but ready to text should the need arise.
Christian, you need not have a posture of performance. A posture of performance says, “look at what I have done. May my name be lifted higher.” This is an utter contradiction to our identity in Christ. Do not become defensive and embattled as if your identity depends upon how you perform on a certain task or how you look in the eyes of others. Jesus has already performed the only work that can truly count. His performance creates within us a posture of victory, a posture of freedom. Our identity is not on the line in our interactions—a posture of victory in Jesus that shows our identity is already won. This posture of victory says, “Look at what Christ has done. May his name be lifted higher.”
Christian, hear me carefully. We are not living for an identity; we are living from an identity. We are not only walking to victory; we are walking from victory.
Therefore, I want to apply this posture to the issue of spiritual identity theft. I want to think about this image with respect to three areas: (1) our personal struggles with sin, (2) our corporate struggles within the life of Bethlehem (the place of polarities), and (3) how we at Bethlehem engage with people outside of Bethlehem.
1. Personal struggles with sin
Sin specializes in identity theft. Sin constantly attempts to rob us of our identity in Christ by convincing us that our sin defines us. The song “Stronger” offers us a reminder that needs to become a lifeline in our battle against identity theft. It is like a heavy weight fight: sin in one corner and Christ and His cross in the other corner. The reality is simple: Christ always wins. Ongoing guilt for the Christian comes as a result of failing to realize that Christ is stronger and grace is greater than all our sin.
So practice talking this way. Look at the difference:
Some struggle with anger and want to make it an identity statement: I am an angry man. Some struggle with lust and want to make an identity statement: I am a lustful man. Some experience depression, some have been divorced, etc. The problem with all of this is that we feel like we have a big fat “A” (anger) or “L” (lust) or “D” (divorced) on our forehead for everyone to see.
Look at the clarity that the cross brings at this point. Colossians 2:13–14 says that God took the certificate of debt or the charge against us and removed it by nailing it to the cross. The charge against a crucified criminal was nailed above the cross when he was crucified. In Christ, the charge against us was nailed to the cross. What gives you the right to try to take it back down and stamp it to your forehead when Christ died so that you could be free? Rather than remove the charge from the cross and stamp it to your forehead, you can sing: “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”
So let us practice this new way of thinking:
I am an angry man.
No—I am a child of God in Christ who sometimes struggles with anger.
I am a lustful man.
No I am a child of God in Christ who sometimes struggles with lust.
2. Corporate struggles with polarities of conscience
One sad reality that we must face head on is the fact that we can be complicit in identity theft as well. Our corporate life together will deal with identity theft in one of two ways: we can reinforce it or rebuke it. We can crush others with things that do not accord with Christ or we can comfort others with the things of Christ. Sometimes we have labels at Bethlehem that can be applied to us in such a way that it creates an allegiance. We could be of the Downtown, North, or South campus. We could draw the battle lines around education: home school or public school. We could draw the battle lines around spreading or discipleship; urban or suburban. Just like sometimes you have to drive for yourself and others when they make poor driving decisions—sometimes you can help a struggling brother or sister most in discipleship by lovingly addressing their spiritual amnesia. Brother, you are looking at the wrong mirror. You are acting like that sin defines you. Fight that sin from your identity in Christ. Look in the mirror and see the fullness of Christ. We typically do not need help in tearing each other down—usually we are our worst critics.
3. Bethlehem’s engagement with people outside of Bethlehem
We should not act like everything hinges on how people respond to our witness in our evangelism or our arguments in our apologetics. Our identity does not depend upon the outcome of an evangelistic or apologetic encounter. That kind of thinking makes someone quick to be defensive, quick to speak, and slow to listen. Rather, people should feel love coming from us because we want them to have victory in Christ.
In all three of these areas, we should be armed with the greatest affirmation and the greatest criticism. We have already talked about the cross resulting in the greatest affirmation in which God says “not guilty,” “you are righteous,” “you are my son.” However, we sometimes forget that the cross was first our greatest criticism. The cross says, “you were this guilty and this wicked. It took this to save you.” I do not care what anyone says about me—no one can top that criticism. All of other criticisms or affirmations should roll like water off a duck’s back if I am grounded in the greatest criticism and the greatest affirmation. We are both saint and sinner. We will remember that for all of eternity because Jesus bears the wounds of the cross for all eternity showing us his love and reminding us of the price paid for our sin.
In communion, we remember the cross of Christ. So as Paul says in Colossians 3:1–2, "We have been raised with Christ and seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. We set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth.” We began this service with the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 63. He did not seek the things on the earth because he said, “this is a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Rather he set his sights on the things above—seeing God in the sanctuary, seeing God’s power, glory, and steadfast love. Therefore, in our hunger and in our thirst we look away from the dry ground of the world and set our minds on things above. We feel the bread (or crackers) crushed between our teeth and we remember that Jesus’ body was crushed for our sins. This is our spiritual bread so that we will never hunger again. We drink the cup and remember that Jesus’ blood was poured out for us. This is our spiritual drink that never runs dry, which satisfies our thirst for all eternity.
Paul says that “when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Paul also says in Colossians 3:3–4 that Christ’s coming will be our clearest glimpse of our identity. Colossians 3:3 says that our life is safely hidden with Christ. We do not yet see it clearly because it is hidden with Christ. That means we will not see it clearly until Christ appears. That is exactly what the next verse says: “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” The glory here is not just that our identity is wrapped up in Christ; it is also that Jesus makes us part of His identity! We are united to him.
Paul learned this lesson the hard way at his conversion and he never forgot it. When he persecuted Christians he was knocked off his horse by the blinding light of Christ and Jesus did not say, Saul why are you persecuting Christians? He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4–5). Christ fully identifies with his bride.
The Lord’s Supper is only for people who are united to Christ. We do not treat the table as a table of our performance—it is a table in which we remember the Lord’s performance. We proclaim the Lord’s death. We proclaim Christ’s fullness when we eat the bread by saying “this is the bread that satisfies my hunger fully forever.” We proclaim Christ’s fullness when we drink the cup by saying “this is the cup that never runs dry that satisfies my thirst fully forever.” O how much we proclaim together with the bread and the cup.
So how does the cross bring clarity to the question of whether we are saint or sinner? The cross says that we are sinners. The cost to save us was great. The cross also says that we are saints in Christ Jesus because the work he did there was sufficient. Praise God that our sin has an expiration date along with all sorrow and suffering. One day we will only be saints around the throne. And yet even then, we will see the wounds on Jesus and we will forever remember what we were redeemed from—and what we were redeemed with—and we will sing anew: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.”