Here is a song all Christians can sing. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
We often think of the gospel as being purely good news, but there is an ominous note which can be heard on almost every page of the New Testament. I’m talking about all of the references to suffering in the Christian life. Probably the biggest difference between the Christians of the New Testament and us is the absence of real suffering in our lives, that is, suffering on account of our faith. Of course I mean those of us who live in countries where Christianity has traditionally been the dominant religion. There are plenty of Christians in plenty of places in the world who are living in exactly the same circumstances as the early church and for whom suffering for the sake of Jesus is a very real part of daily life. There are also some indications that we may all be in that situation before long.
But for most of us, especially those of us who live in English-speaking countries, suffering for the sake of Christ is something we experience rarely, and then usually only in an indirect way. For most of us the greatest thing we have to fear is embarrassment – not loss of income or freedom or even our very lives. But all those possibilities were so real for the early Christians that the writers of the New Testament were continually offering encouragement, advice and exhortation for how to cope with them. I was speaking once with a Chinese Christian whose work involved the training of house church leaders in the Peoples’ Republic of China. He made regular visits into the countryside and met secretly with members of the underground church to conduct teaching seminars. The curriculum he taught house church leaders was quite simple. Subjects covered included the Bible, the doctrine of salvation, evangelism – and how to handle imprisonment!
That last course is one you won’t find in any seminary catalog I know of, but the apostles would have understood and approved of it. How to face suffering for your faith in Christ was a subject that was never very far from their minds. For example, here in his prayer for the Christians in Colossae, Paul concludes his thanksgiving and intercession for their life and faith with the prayer that God would strengthen them.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
(Col. 1:11-14, nrsv)
A SERIES OF CONTRASTS
Did you pick up on the strange contrast Paul introduces when he touches on the subject of suffering? “May you be prepared to endure everything with patience,” he writes (v. 11). The Colossian Christians were all young in the faith. The church had only been established in Colossae a few years previously. Paul knows from personal experience what lies ahead for the believers. He knows that it won’t be easy. There will be much they will have to endure, but his prayer for them is not that they simply grit their teeth and hang on. No, “May you be prepared to endure everything with patience.” Then he adds: “while joyfully giving thanks to the Father” (v. 12). That’s an odd contrast! Patient endurance and joyful thanksgiving don’t seem to go together. What is he getting at? Why does he tell the Colossians not only to give thanks but to give thanks with joy, even as they pray for the strength to hang on in the face of great opposition, hurt and loss?
Well, it’s because of what has happened to them. Whatever will happen or is happening, they must never forget the great change that has already taken place. Here’s why they can rejoice and give thanks to God, no matter what they must endure. It’s because God “has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has rescued us,” Paul writes (that is to say, not just the Colossians but all Christians everywhere), “from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. . .” (vv. 12-14).
Here are a whole series of contrasts. There’s a contrast between then and now, between before and after, between darkness and light, between bondage to the power of evil and the freedom of living under Christ’s rule. Paul sums up all these contrasts in the idea of being transferred.
FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
Christians have been transferred out of one realm into another. When they became Christians, the Colossians became part of the people of God, brought out of the darkness of sin into the daylight reign of God’s grace and truth. The darkness of their pre-Christian life to which Paul refers was first of all spiritual, for these ancient pagans were ignorant of the true God. Once when he was visiting the city of Athens, Paul marveled at the religions on display there. Athens, like Colossae and other Greek cities, was a sort of religious department store, packed with temples and altars and statues. There were gods for men and gods for women, gods for the wealthy and gods for the poor, gods for soldiers, gods for merchants, gods for lovers, gods for artists, gods who offered secret knowledge, gods who offered power, gods who offered prosperity, gods from the east and gods from the west. And in the middle of it all, an altar inscribed “to the unknown god.” So Paul stood up in the marketplace and declared, “The God whom you worship as unknown, I will make known to you!” He is God, the Father of Jesus, and when you come to hear about Jesus and believe in him, then you come to know the one true God. You pass from darkness into light.
The darkness in the world is also moral. When Paul talks about how Christians have been “rescued from the power of darkness,” he is referring to the unseen influence of the super-human evil powers which exist in the invisible realm and influence human behavior for the worse. Before they knew Christ, the Colossians were enslaved, not only by their own moral weakness and compulsions and bad habits – we all know about those – but enslaved to the power of darkness. Is there really such a power? Are there truly forces outside and beyond us which can hold us in bondage and even destroy us? The answer is yes. And we need to be rescued from them. Someone who needs rescuing is helpless to save himself. If you’ve been shipwrecked on a desert island, you don’t need advice or encouragement, or a chart showing your exact position, or supplies to keep you going while you save yourself. You need to be rescued! You need someone to come and get you in a helicopter. That is exactly what God has done for Christians. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. He has brought us out of slavery to evil and the Evil One and under the power and protection of Jesus Christ, out of our old life and into a new life under Christ’s gracious and loving rule.
FROM DEATH TO LIFE
A final contrast is between death and life. “In Christ,” Paul adds, “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (v. 14). Redemption, one of the great Bible words for salvation, means to have our sins paid for by Christ so that they may be forgiven and we might belong to God. Paul explains it later in Colossians:
When you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our sins, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross
“Before you knew Christ,” Paul is saying to the Colossians, “you were dead as a result of violating God’s law.” Spiritually speaking, from God’s point of view everyone in their natural state is dead. We stand condemned, bearing the guilt of the sins we have committed. There’s no spiritual life, no eternal life, within us. God’s law with its demands is like a promissory note, an IOU with our name on it. “I owe God obedience to his will. [Signed] My Name.” Each of us has failed to pay that bill. And so it hangs over us to threaten us with ruin. And like a dead person, we are completely unable to help or save ourselves.
But here is what God has done through Christ. He has wiped the bill clean. He has erased it, blotted it out. What is more, God has taken the canceled note and nailed it to the cross so all creation and every power can see that it is paid and no longer threatens us with condemnation. When God raised Christ from the dead, he also raised us who believe in him to a new life in Christ, free of guilt, free of penalty, free of punishment. No wonder we’re told to rejoice and give thanks, whatever we endure!
John Newton was a man who knew all about these contrasts: the before and after, the darkness and light, condemnation and forgiveness, death and life. As a young man in the middle of the eighteenth century, Newton went to sea and eventually became an officer aboard a slave ship, participating firsthand in the horrors of the slave trade between west Africa and North America. But then came the marvelous change. As he put it later, “John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” Newton wrote about the contrast in words Christians still love to sing –
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
HE HAS RESCUED US
If you know anything of darkness, of hopelessness, of fear, of personal failure, crippling depression, you know that you need to be rescued. The question is: by whom or what? Some people think we can be rescued by politicians. But they always disappoint us in the end. Don’t expect a government to save you. Governments can sometimes do a little to help; they can also do a great deal to harm. But they can never save.
Others are looking to be rescued from their problems by self-proclaimed human saviors, people who claim to be endowed with supernatural abilities or psychic gifts, or who say they are in touch with super-human forces. In this respect, our world is very much like the world in which the Colossians were living, and Paul’s word to them, as to us, is still the same: there is only one who can rescue, only one who can save.
Jesus Christ is our Rescuer. It is he in whom we have redemption. He frees us from the death grip of our sins and obsessions. He rules over us in the kingdom of light. He is the center of all God’s plans and purposes. He’s the one through whom God does all his work. This is God’s message of hope to the world and to you, whoever you are, wherever you’re living, whatever your problem. Jesus Christ can rescue you! There’s no need to ask anyone else. He is here for you today.
One other thing. If you are a Christian, if you’ve been made alive in Christ and been transferred from darkness into his kingdom, is there a contrast in your life? Can you see a before and after? If you can’t, shouldn’t you?