My patient was the church warden of a local village church. After the medical part of her consultation was over I enquired how her church was progressing.
'It isn't easy nowadays. We are getting smaller and older, you know.'
'I am sorry', I replied, 'but, tell me, do people in the church talk about the Lord Jesus with others in the village?'<'Good gracious me, no. We don't even talk about him amongst ourselves.'
It is obvious that, humanly speaking, such churches must die if the Lord and his gospel mean so little to church members. Even in King Solomon's time the importance of sharing the gospel of forgiveness was seen as important.
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life and he who wins souls is wise. (1)
In the Old Testament the history of God's people was one of a cyclical drift away from a close walk with their Lord and Saviour. There are some wonderful exceptions such as the life of the young shepherd David and the godly relationship he had with the Crown Prince, Jonathan. Their secret was that they were both committed, absolutely committed, to living under the authority (and therefore protection) of their Lord, even when to do this was to go against what seemed expedient.
The New Testament portrays a Christ-centred early church which faced a variety of pressures and also rapidly drifted away from this core focus – to live for their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The subsequent history of the church is just the same - a constant drift away from Jesus. Why does this happen? Instead of living to please our Lord, we major on organisational, political and ethical matters. The root cause is nearly always a drift away from biblical authority and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus.
The church reached horrendous depths in the days of the Borgia Popes of the 15th and 16th centuries. Rodrigo Borgia had himself elected Pope in 1492, and became Pope Alexander VI, by the simple means of buying votes. He had several mistresses and numerous illegitimate children. His daughter Lucrezia was also notorious for her parties and the poison ring she wore. The Pope himself regularly organised orgies in the Vatican.
His successors were little better. Pope Julius II also had illegitimate children and the next in line, Leo X, who was ordained at the age of seven, was an agnostic. However their greatest sin was not their promiscuity or murder but the underlying problem of unbelief. This extreme example demonstrates how easy it is for both individuals and organisations to drift from their core values.
Luther reminded the world of this biblical way of thinking:
'This is the sin of the world: that it does not believe on Christ. Not that there is no sin against the law besides this; but this is the real chief sin, which condemns the whole world even if it could be charged with no other sin.' (2)
Perhaps the greatest problem that doctors face is that with the busyness of life, the desire for popularity and our selfimportance, we can so easily drift from a close walk with Jesus.
Paul's letter to the Colossians
The main problem of the young church at Colosse was to take their eyes off Jesus, the centre of the Christian faith, and concentrate on experiences, philosophies, asceticism and 'worship techniques'. The relationship with Jesus was sidelined. The remedy in the whole book is to refocus Christian lives back on Jesus Christ. The book begins:
'Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus ...' (3)
'... to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse.' (4)
'We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus ...' (5)
There can be no doubt what Paul sees as the core of the Christian faith – it is a living relationship with the Lord Jesus. When we became Christians, that is become 'Christ's men', we did so when we heard the good news about the Lord Jesus. The news is not so much a doctrine as a person. Paul reminds the Colossians how they had become Christians.
'You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellowservant, who is a faithful minister of Christ ...' (6)
Just as we become Christians by accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour so we should continue to live our Christian lives by allowing him control over every aspect. To drift from a close walk with Christ, however worthy the cause that takes his place, is to sin. Paul prayed that the young Christians at Colosse would remain faithful to Jesus himself.
'We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God ...' (7)
This last phrase is important. Paul clearly recognised that Christians could be absorbed in doing many good works but fail to grow in their personal relationship with Jesus himself. One way to stay on track is to keep remembering the very essence of the gospel, that although we are sinners, Christ came to take responsibility for our sin and so rescue us from the otherwise inevitable fate of an eternal separation from God. In Paul's epistles, he repeatedly calls his readers back to this.
'For he [the Father] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.' (8)
For the apostles, the essence of the Christian faith was the recognition of who Jesus is. Paul goes on,
'He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created ... all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.' (9)
No wonder Paul emphasises who Jesus really is. When we have a relationship with Jesus, God's Son, we have everything. We can lack nothing of real worth if the fullness of God is with us.
'For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.' (10)
Today many so-called Christian organisations have a tendency to leave aside the centrality of Jesus. His importance is not stressed in their literature. Though this may attract finance or wider support, it undermines the gospel message. Christ himself warned us that his message will not be popular. It is humbling to be told that we have all turned our backs on God, and the only remedy is Christ himself. We prefer to emphasise the good things we are doing. Yet to focus on good activities – however noble they are – at the expense of emphasising the Lord Jesus Christ, must be wrong for Christians as it is not bringing glory to Christ. Christ alone can bring unity to this world and he alone can forgive us for our rebellion against him. Of course we should work conscientiously and care for others, but our motive should be 'because this is what Christ wants'. So it is vital that we do not drift away from him. Paul continues,
'Once you were alienated from God and were 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.' (11)
To continue in the faith is to continue emphasising who Jesus is and what he has done for all people. The gospel has not changed. Acceptance of this gospel will inevitably affect the way we live. So, for example, higher standards of medicine will inevitably come when health professionals wholeheartedly follow Jesus. When the cornerstone is in place – that original apostolic message about Jesus – the edifice will be very strong. However, to emphasise the effects but forget the effecter is not Christian.
'This is the gospel that you heard and has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.' (12)
Such a message will not be as widely received. It is not a popular message to remind people that their sin of rebellion against God's son is a capital treasonous offence against God himself. Doors will sometimes be closed and the teachers will suffer. But to pass on the message about Christ as found in the Bible is the greatest priority for God's people. Paul could say,
'Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you . . . I have become its [the churches] servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness.' (13)
Elsewhere Paul reminds us that this same commission has been given to Christ's church. We Christians are all new creations who have a job to do – to win people back to God.
'Therefore, if anyone [this means every Christian] is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.' (14)
What a disaster it is when the message they hear from us is a request to support some good cause, or a programme to improve standards, but leaves Christ out. Good causes and programmes are not wrong but they are not the church's priority. Our message must include, just as Paul does,
'We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' (15)
This is the Christian message. To share less than this may be helpful and useful but it is not the Christian message. Much moral teaching, such as that from many religious leaders of other faiths, may contain much in common with the Bible's teaching on ethics; but we must ensure that everyone understands that the Christian message is not behavioural or ethical, but one of redemption that has been won for us all by Christ.
What is the core Christian message? Paul continues to stress that the Christian message is about Jesus Christ.
'To them [the Christians in all societies] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.' (16)
Any message less than this is not the 'Christian' gospel. The Christian message centres on Jesus Christ.
'We proclaim him ...' (17)
In the next chapter Paul again emphasises that our message centres on Jesus,
'... in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge.' (18)
There were those who wanted to make the message more attractive and draw more adherents by diluting what was taught, or compromising with the religious thinking of the day. Perhaps they considered that being less confrontational was a way to be more acceptable. Such logic may sound attractive but it is in fact a betrayal of the gospel.
'I tell you this so that no-one may deceive you by finesounding arguments ... I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.' (19)
It is 'faith in Christ' that is central to apostolic thinking and proclamation. Paul continues in this emphasis.
'So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught.' (20)
In those days (as today) there were false teachers who wanted Christians to have different emphases. This may be because it is more comfortable to teach ideas that are close to contemporary thought. But again Paul insists that our message is Jesus Christ and all he can give us. We are all so easily seduced.
'See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.' (21)
Christ is the Christian message because of who he is – God incarnate.
'For in Christ all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ...' (22)
And so the letter continues. Everything centres on Christ. 'God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins . . . and having disarmed the power and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.' (23)
'...the reality, however is found in Christ.' (24)
Why is it then that contemporary Christians are ashamed of Christ? When Christians appear on television, why do they so often just give pragmatic arguments based on the same utilitarian principles of their opponents? It is not that these arguments are wrong, but to rely on them alone suggests that we are ashamed that Jesus has come from God and spoken. The usual response is that broadcasters are only interested in utilitarian pragmatic arguments. But surely if we insist that such arguments are valid, then in the end there must be some response.
Why do we advocate medical teaching programmes that talk about spirituality but use humanist definitions of it? All people have spiritual instincts telling them that life has a meaning; that conscience and guilt are valid, that love and beauty are real and that right and wrong have an absolute basis. The Bible teaches that such spiritual values are present because we have been made in the image of God and that they will not be fully satisfied until we return to live in harmony with him through his Son.
There is a danger that we can all think of ourselves, and treat our own ideas as being more important than Christ and his good news. Too often Christian broadcasters and teachers talk more about their insights and reasoning based on pragmatic arguments than about God's teaching given us in Scripture. Have we lost our confidence that God has spoken through his Son? Of course we should use secular arguments to obtain a hearing – the problem comes when we fail to use these opportunities to promote Jesus Christ who alone is the light of the world.
'Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head.' (25)
The Bible explains that God has given us these instincts of 'otherworldliness', 'purpose' and a desire for 'integrity' to draw us back to God. The Bible teaches that we are made for another world where the Lord Jesus reigns supreme. Paul's conclusions are the same as his introduction,
'Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God … For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.' (26)
Why should Christians be so different from other doctors in our society? Surely it is because we know that in the long run, when Christ returns, it will all be worthwhile.
'When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.' (27)
So let us make it our ambition to be biblical Christians whose priority in thought and speech is the glory of Jesus. Let his confidence fill us – we are, after all, serving the living God. Everything we do should revolve around him.
'Christ is all, and is in all.' (28)
'Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ...' (29)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another ...' (30)
There is no other Christian position.
'And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.' (31)
Our family and social interactions should be based on this personal relationship with Jesus.
'Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.' (32)
'Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.' (33)
'Slaves, obey your earthly masters . . . with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.' (34)
'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the lord as a reward. It is the Lord Jesus you are serving.' (35)
So our priority in all we do must be to be Christ-centred. Paul then includes a short section on the importance and methods he wants seen in sharing the message about Jesus Christ with others.
'And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.' (36)
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly said that the passion of his government would be 'education, education, education'. In this wonderful little letter to a small church that Paul had never met, we are all told clearly that our priority must be 'Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ'. What better description of a Christian could there be than this,
'Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings.' (37)
As individuals there is a great danger that as we become busier in our working lives and with our families so we, like the church at Ephesus, 'lose our first love'. (38) This same problem affects so many Christian organisations and even churches. Yet it is this close walk with our Lord that he wants, above all else, to see in us. He wants us to love our Lord Jesus with an undying love. (39)
Let us never allow anything to distract us from this highest of all callings. Let us test ourselves to ensure that my first love is the Lord Jesus, that I read his Word daily, that I am regularly praying, that I love to speak about him and the purpose of my life is to please him. We will be failures in all this but what a joy it is to know that the Lord still loves and accepts those who are his. This is why we all need to daily remind ourselves about that cross.