Tuesday, 17 July 2007

The model of Christian ministry from Colossians 1:24

Have you ever asked yourself how many prayers and tears, how much heartache and disappointment other people must have gone through for you in order that you might come to Christ? Even when we read the Bible, we should have the suffering of others close at mind: the blood of martyrs, the fears of persecuted people throughout centuries, the sweat and labour of translators, and the effort of teachers to make it plain and clear.

This is something I've been thinking about as I've been studying Colossians 1 for the cell groups at the University of Cumbria CU in Lancaster (formerly St Martin's College).

Colossians 1:24 is a verse I'd previously found tricky, but I'm now convinced that Paul is speaking about the sacrificial giving for the spiritual growth of others that I've outlined above. In this verse, Paul is saying that the pattern of suffering for the sake of others did not end with Jesus’ death on the cross. When Paul says that he is ‘filling up in his flesh what it still lacking in Christ’s sacrifice’, he's obviously not saying that Jesus’ work on the cross to pay for sins is somehow unfinished (as this would counter the whole idea of the book). Instead, Paul is speaking of how he rejoices that through his suffering, spiritual benefit has come to the Colossians. Paul can look back at his ministry, modelled on the infinitely greater sacrifice of Christ, and see that his own sacrifice results in glory for God and salvation and maturity for other believers. For this reason, Paul can rejoice in his suffering: it is achieving a wonderful purpose.

For Paul, this responsibility was that of apostle to the Gentiles, which he goes on to describe in verses 25-27 (c.f. Acts 9:15-16). Although my Christian ministry is somewhat different to Paul's (!), the method is actually quite similar: teaching people God's word and correcting them to make them spiritually mature. In that respect, I'm sure Paul would have known similar temptations to those I face. It is so easy to become self-indulgent even whilst apparently serving others. It's easy to want the reputation of being helpful or a great Bible teacher.

And so as I have dug into Colossians I have found myself praying that I'd have the same attitude of Paul: that I would be willing to suffer - even joyful to suffer in self-sacrifice - if somehow through his grace God can work to bring spiritual life or maturity to others. As I approach the term ahead, I pray that I'd also be appreciative of the way in which, by grace, God has used others to work towards spiritual maturity in me.

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