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God’s Enemies Reconciled and Steadfast
Our reading this morning is Colossians 1: 21-23.
“Once you were alienated from God and enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”
There is a huge depth of meaning in those 3 verses and we can’t possibly explore them thoroughly. But this might help. I’m going to keep it simple and lead you up 3 steps which mark out our experience in our walk with Christ. These are; 1) Once we were enemies of God, 2) but now we’ve been reconciled to God, and 3) we need to stay steadfast in our faith.
Enemies of God
In our reading Paul using strong terms, reminded the Colossians that before Christ did his redeeming work in them ‘they were alienated from God and enemies in their minds because of their evil behaviour.’ We can take it as a given that what applied to the Colossians also applies to us. I wonder how many of us have ever thought of ourselves as having been enemies of God. But it’s true.
For many of us in the first half of the 21st century, it may be a bit hard to accept that people who don’t know Christ as saviour are God’s enemies. But the Bible makes it clear that until our sinful, carnal, nature is dealt with and we receive a new spiritual nature we are God’s enemies.
Mary Evans, who was at one time Academic Dean at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology wrote in 2012; ‘We must be very clear about how seriously God takes sin, how deeply he feels about wrongdoing. Previous generations are sometimes seen as concentrating so much on God’s anger at sin that they forgot to emphasise his love for sinners as well. Perhaps our generation sometimes concentrates so much on putting across God’s love for all people that we forget to emphasise his anger at sin. He is ‘slow to anger’ but anger is not alien to his nature. If we forget this awesome, sometimes scary aspect of God we are likely to be overwhelmed when facing the challenges of other religions, political powers, modern atheistic philosophies or even demonic forces.’ end of quote
As Mary Evans pointed out the concept of God’s wrath at sin is something almost alien to many people today both Christians and non-Christians alike. But that was not always the case.
To illustrate the point she was making I want to take the example of Jonathan Edwards. Born in New England in 1703 he was a colonial Congregational preacher, theologian, and missionary to Native Americans. Edwards is widely acknowledged to be America’s most important and original philosophical theologian, and one of America’s greatest intellectuals. He died of smallpox in 1758 whilst he was serving as the first president of Princeton University.
In July 1741 Jonathan preached at Enfield on the border of Connecticut and Massachusetts. When we come to church I wonder do we come prepared in heart and mind to worship God and praise him as we ought or do we come primarily for the social occasion? It seems that was the attitude of many of those early Americans in Jonathan Edward’s church that morning. As they entered the church the congregation seemed more ready for a fashion show than for worship. Edward’s preaching was, to quote an eye witness “easy, natural and very solemn. He spoke with distinctness, clarity and precision.” His sermon was entitled – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and is considered a classic of early American literature.
Here is a brief extract of what he said to the congregation that day –
“Your wickedness makes you as it were as heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell…There are the black clouds of God’s wrath now hanging over your heads, full of dreadful storm and big with thunder…
The God who holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like a fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: it is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night but that God’s hand has held you up: there is no other reason to be given why you haven’t gone to hell since you have sat in this house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea there is nothing else to be given as a reason why this very moment you don’t drop down into hell.
Oh sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in…”
Jonathan Edwards was there trying to show them the great peril that any unsaved, unredeemed person is in. And if they or we are to avoid going to hell they needed to be reconciled with God.
Reconciled to God
Therefore Jonathan didn’t stop there. His object was not to roast them over the fires of hell but for them to be reconciled to God. He was going to do this by showing them the wonder of the gospel. Which is that the God who was so greatly offended by their sinfulness and who as a consequence was so angry with them was, at great cost to Himself, offering them mercy. So he continued;
“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners to come to Him to be saved; ….. many that were lately in the same miserable condition that you are now in, are now in a happy state and washed from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day!”
Before Jonathan finished people began crying out “What shall I do to be saved?!!”
Our text says “Once you, who were alienated and enemies in your mind because of your evil behaviour…. He has now reconciled you.”
Isn’t that wonderful?! That is the glorious message of the gospel. We often sing ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me’ whilst having (it seems) only the slightest inkling of just how wretched we are in God’s sight outside of Christ. Jesus told us that those who are forgiven little love little. I wonder is our love for Him weak and feeble because we fail to realise just how offensive our sin is to God. Consequently, we fail to stand in awe at the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross, for us. Yes, he has flung the door of mercy wide open so we, the evil wicked sinners that we are by nature, can be reconciled with a grievously offended God.
Reconciliation means doing away with enmity, the bridging over of a quarrel. Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, there was a fair bit of animosity remaining between the two sides. Some of the former Unionist troops from the north used to take delight in rubbing the noses in the dirt of any southerners they came across; making sure they didn’t forget that they were losers. One day a group of die-hard southerners gained an audience with President Lincoln. Instead of being aggressive he entertained them in a gentle, friendly manner which soon thawed the ice and the Southerners left with a new respect for their old enemy. Shortly afterwards a northern Congressman approached the President and berated him “for befriending the enemy,” suggesting that instead of befriending them he should have had them shot as traitors. Lincoln replied, “Aren’t I destroying my enemies by making them my friends?”
In effect, Abraham Lincoln was doing what Jesus told us to do. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to those who may hate us; bless those who curse us.’ That may seem a pretty hard call and it is unless we are truly living the life of faith. In fact, it is exactly what God has done for us and reconciled us, his former enemies to himself. So if we have a quarrel with someone we should follow his example and do all we can to be reconciled with them.
Having said that, for us to be reconciled to God there is only one bridge, only one way. And the bridge Christ has built is more than adequate to take the weight of our sin. Satan would tell us otherwise. Which is why we need to stay steadfast in our faith.
Staying Steadfast in Faith
Staying steadfast in faith is what is at the very heart of why Paul was writing to the Colossians. At the time of writing, he was imprisoned in Rome but because he as the godly man he was he’d kept his ear to the ground and heard what God was doing in Colossae and what a wonderful witness they were. But he’d also heard that false teachers were at work amongst them, threatening to disturb their faith. Paul had a godly jealousy for them and at the prompting of the Holy Spirit discerned that Satan was seeking to subtly undermine their faith and turn them away from Christ.
That faith was being threatened on two fronts. Firstly the Gnostics were teaching them that there were many intermediaries between the evil material world in which we live and God, who was purely spirit. Therefore they taught that Christ’s work was only one step to bringing about a right relationship with the true God and to take the next step it was necessary to receive special knowledge. As part of that, they taught that Jesus was only an emissary from God, one of many and not God himself. It’s a lot more involved than that but that is sufficient for this morning. Gnosticism has similarities to the Eastern religions of today and to New Age teachings. Unfortunately, that same spirit is also found in some ‘Christian’ Churches today. They teach there are many intermediaries between God and mankind, and many ways to God. Yet the New Testament clearly tells us in 1 Timothy 2:5 that ‘there is one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.’ Jesus is our High Priest therefore we are to come boldly before the throne of grace that we might find help in time of need.
Paul recognised that the Colossians were getting hit from another quarter also by the Judaisers. They taught that to be truly Christian it was necessary to embrace Judaism by being circumcised and coming under the rule of the law and submit to the old covenant, effectively saying that Christ’s sacrifice alone was insufficient, effectively forsaking faith in Christ.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul addresses a very similar situation. In Galatians 3 he wrote “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth?’ ‘Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? ….. He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does he do it by works of the law or by the hearing of faith?”
Paul was deeply concerned. He realised that both the Colossians’ and the Galatians’ faith in Christ and Christ alone was being undermined. Their personal relationship with Jesus was based solely on faith in Christ and the work he had done for them at Calvary and it needed to stay that way. If they listened to the false teachers their personal relationships with Christ would be badly damaged. Consequently, they risked losing the empowering of the Holy Spirit’s in their lives and would cease to witness the miracles God had been doing amongst them. And the fruit they’d been bearing such as fruits love, joy, peace, patience would be wizened at best and may die. Paul didn’t want that to happen. He wanted them to stay steadfast and continue to receive all the blessings God wanted to pour out on them.
Like them, none of us can live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit living within us. Therefore we need to stay steadfast in our faith. It’s only then that we bear the fruit of the Spirit. But it’s never our fruit, so there’s no room for pride. I often find myself praying ‘O Lord please come and be what you are in me and through me.’ Because when we get down to brass tacks it is Christ’s work in us and through us, motivating us, which counts not our work for him.
When we’re born again God doesn’t turn around and say to us. “There you are, I’ve done my bit for you, so it’s over to you now to make your own way.” No! What he’s promised is this; “Whoever drinks of the water I shall give them will never thirst. The water I shall give them will become in them a fountain of water (continually) springing up to eternal life.”(John 4:14) That’s why believers enjoy an ongoing daily living experience of the Holy Spirit welling up in their life as we pray, read the Bible and join in fellowship. So we should never as Christians suffer the range anxiety that people with electric vehicles suffer wondering if they’ll make it to their destination. By staying steadfast in our faith we’ll be continually recharged and by God’s grace will make the distance!
Unfortunately, whether it’s by listening to false teachers or yielding to temptation or simply growing apathetic, our faith in Christ can be undermined. As a result, the Holy Spirit will withdraw the sense of His presence and we’ll struggle. Therefore we need to take seriously Paul’s call to stay steadfast in faith, repenting of any sin and apathy which has developed in us and trusting in the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from all sin.
To summarise. Firstly we considered that we were once God’s enemies. Jonathan Edward’s sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ made two things very clear. Firstly God’s blazing anger at our sin and secondly that Christ has flung open the door of mercy and calls wretched sinners to find salvation. I wonder if there’s someone here who has realised (maybe for the first time) that your sinfulness means you’re in danger of falling into a lost eternity. If so, the door of God’s mercy is wide open for you this morning. Please enter. Don’t let this moment pass. Come to the front after communion and someone will be there to show you God’s way of salvation.
Secondly, we thought about what it meant to be reconciled with God. Reconciliation means doing away with enmity, the bridging over of a quarrel. Christ has made himself a bridge for us to cross and to be reconciled with God. Abraham Lincoln expressed in his own way, what God has done when he said: “Aren’t I destroying my enemies by making them my friends?” God calls us to be his friends.
Finally, we looked at the importance of staying steadfast in our faith in the face of the external threat from false teachers or the internal threats imposed by giving way to temptation or apathy and that we are not to be moved from the hope of the gospel.
In a few moments, we are going to share communion together. As we do so, whatever condition we find ourselves in, let us recognise afresh the amazing grace of God that reached out to those who once were his enemies, how he reconciled us to himself by Christ’s own blood and calls us to be steadfast in our faith.