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This Sunday, we’re starting a new series at City of God Church working through the book of Colossians. I’m always excited at the start of a new series. Without fail, God always (sometimes unexpectedly) teaches me so many things as I slowly make my way through His word.
One of those unexpected things I discovered while reading through Colossians this week was how encouraged I was by the heart and ministry of a man named Epaphras.
If you’re not familiar with his name, you’re not alone. He’s not a prominent figure in scripture, and his name only pops up three times (Col. 1:7; 4:12; Philem. 23). However, what we do know about him presents a perfect picture of how the gospel can transform an individual, and how that individual can play a vital role in seeing a city come to know Jesus.
The first time his name is mentioned is in Colossians 1:7. Here is what Paul had to say about Epaphras.
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf 8 and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
When Paul writes this letter to the Colossians, he is writing to a church he didn’t plant. In fact, he’s never even had the opportunity to visit them at this point, but what Paul has heard about them up to this point has been pretty positive. This is a body of believers who have faith in Christ and love for others that is rooted in their hope of the grace of God. How incredible would it be if this could be said of every church?
News of this church came to Paul by way of Epaphras. As Paul notes here, he’s one of the individuals primarily responsible for preaching the gospel in this city. He is the one through whom the Colossians heard and understood “the grace of God in truth.” A little later in this letter (Col. 4:12), we actually find out that Epaphras is “one of you.” He was from Colossae. These were his people, and he had made it his responsibility to ensure that as many in this city as possible had an opportunity to hear about and respond to the gospel.
Without getting into the details, there are reasons to believe that Epaphras responded to the gospel during Paul’s missionary work in Ephesus in the mid-50’s (Ac. 19:1-10). Notice what Paul says the gospel does in the life of a person when they receive it. It bears fruit and increases (Col. 1:6). This was true of the church in Colossae, and it was true of Epaphras individually.
There are plenty of ways the gospel can bear fruit and increase. This fruit can be the transformation that happens in a person as they are transformed into the image of Christ (Gal. 5:22-24). The increase can also be from new believers being converted as they are presented with the truth of God’s grace.
It’s easy to make the Christian life complicated. However, I think Epaphras gives us a beautiful picture of what God calls all believers to do. We hear the gospel, receive it, experience the joy and peace that comes from knowing God, and that cultivates a desire in us to share that message with the people closest to us.
What happened to Epaphras? He believed the gospel and then spent the rest of his life persuading those he knew to believe. He was a faithful minister to these people (Col. 1:7), struggled on their behalf in prayer (Col. 4:12), and even spent time in prison because of his ministry (Philem. 23). His desire for others to know Jesus cost him something, but I’m willing to bet he thought it was worth it.
This is a picture of a man who sacrificed much so that others might believe. He was so captivated by God’s love for him that he wanted his family members, neighbors, and fellow citizens to experience that same love. It’s an example we see in the Gadarene Demoniac of Mark 5:19-20, and it’s example we’ve seen set by thousands if not millions of others throughout church history.
As we study the book of Colossians together, my hope is that God would raise up many like Epaphras in our church. My prayer is that you and I are so taken by the beauty of the gospel that we are stirred to invite as many as possible to receive this good news. Oh, that God would stir up “unceasing anguish” in many of us, like Paul (Rom. 9:2), over the reality that there are many in Lafayette, West Lafayette, and Purdue who don’t know Jesus.
When you stop and think about those closest to you who aren’t in a relationship with God, it can be a crushing feeling. However, rather than remaining in our despair, we can follow the example of Epaphras who experienced the fruit of the gospel in his own life and gave everything so that others might have a similar experience.
Epaphras loved Jesus. He loved his city. Those two truths led to a church being planted and numerous believers who had been transferred from the “domain of darkness” to “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). May the same thing happen here. May the gospel bear fruit and increase in this city and on this campus. God saves sinners but in his grace, he uses us in that great work of spreading the gospel.
Would you pray with me that our city would experience a similar gospel awakening?
Would you pray that God would give you a desire to see those closest to you come to know Jesus?
Would you pray that the gospel would bear fruit and increase here and in your own heart?
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
Growing up, I loved playing sports. By the time I got to high school it became clear that basketball was going to be my thing (being 6'7 will do that). Some of my favorite moments were spent on the basketball court when I was in high school.
There's one thing that always sticks out to me about my games during those years. We would play a couple of times a week, and sometimes we'd travel a couple hours somewhere in the state of Kentucky for a road game. Regardless of how far we traveled there was one thing I could always count on when I walked out onto the court. My dad would be sitting somewhere in the bleachers.
I didn't realize it when I was a teenager, but coming to every single one of those games required a lot on his part. Just so that he could be there he was willing to give up time for work, hobbies, or at home. There are few things anyone has done to show me how much they care about me than him being present at those games throughout high school.
My guess is that most of you have a memory of someone going out of their way to support you with their presence. I'm reminded of the time my now wife (then fiance) woke up early on a Sunday morning to drive a few hours from Missouri to Kansas. I was preaching one of my first sermons at a church in Lawrence, and I didn't expect her to be there.
However, when I saw her walk through those doors, I felt loved. It meant more than she could know. When someone goes out of their way to be present with us it demonstrates just how much they care about us.
In a way, this is what Christians celebrate
It seems like a bad trade-off. Why would he do this?
Tim Keller offers his answer to that question in his book Why Christmas Matters.
"[But] if Jesus Christ is actually God come in the flesh, you're going to know much more about God … If Jesus is who he says he is, we have a 500-page autobiography from God, in a sense. And our understanding will be vastly more personal and specific than any philosophy or religion could give us. [Because of Christmas] look at what God has done to get you to know him personally. If the Son would come all this way to become a real person to you, don't you think the Holy Spirit will do anything in his power to make Jesus a real person to you in your heart? Christmas is an invitation by God: Look what I've done to come near to you. Now draw near to Me. I don't want to be a concept; I want to be a friend."
Here is the incredible truth about Christmas. God was willing to become a man so that he might be present with us. Not only did he want to be present with us, but he became a man to invite us into a relationship with Him. If we know that people care about us when they go out of their way to be present, how could we not see the love of God for us in his willingness to take on flesh and become human?
However, as we think about Jesus coming to earth we also know that he came here to accomplish a mission. He came ultimately to die as a substitute in our place for our sin. Jesus was willing to do more than simply be present with us to show us his love. Jesus was willing to do more than invite us into a relationship with Him to show us his love.
Ultimately, he was willing to go to the cross and die in our place for our sin. He was willing to take our rebellion against God on himself. He endured the judgment of God that we deserved. He did all of this because he loves us.
If you remember nothing else at Christmas I hope you remember this. God wants you. He's inviting you into a relationship with Him. He went to a cross and died in your place to remove the obstacles that were keeping you from Him. At every step in the process God moved toward us, and now he invites us to move toward Him.
You might have reasons to doubt whether God would want anything to do with someone like you. I know I've had those thoughts from time to time. It's easy to fall into the mindset that if people know who we really are, then they'll want nothing to do with us.
And yet, God knows who you really are, and he wants you. He came to earth to show you that. He died on a cross to show you that. You might have plenty of things that you doubt in this life, but the incarnation and the cross prove to us that we can't doubt God's love for us.
If I'm being honest, the past couple of weeks have been incredibly difficult. Not so much because of things that have happened to me, but more because of things that have been happening inside me. This all came to a head on Sunday morning. As soon as I finished preaching, I walked into a side room off of our stage, and I sat in the dark for about 20 minutes. While sitting there, a few thoughts ran through my mind.
These thoughts were the culmination of several weeks of sharp self-criticism. The criticism started in small ways. "I'm not the husband I want to be." "I'm really failing my kids in some important ways right now." "I'm never going to be like these successful pastors I see on Instagram." "These people deserve better."
However, those thoughts that were few and far between came much more often and much louder in the coming days. It reached the point where I felt this constant wave of anxiety rush over me. I couldn't sleep. I physically felt sick. I was exhausted. The weight of who I wasn't was crushing me.
Following church on Sunday, my wife could tell something was wrong with me. We were standing in her grandmothers living room, and she was asking me what was going on. Finally, after a few minutes, I looked at her and exclaimed: "I can't live like this anymore." I burst into tears (which is unusual for me), and we went out to the garage so I could compose myself.
This kind of thinking has always been a struggle for me. I've always tended to dwell on the things I'm doing poorly. For some years, I was able to soothe my conscience by telling myself "You're only ____ years old, you have time to get it together." However, with each passing year, it's gotten harder to convince myself that all I need is a little more time to become the person I want to be.
At the root of this anxiety is a realization of what I'm not. I'm not the husband I want to be. I'm not the father I want to be. I'm not the pastor I want to be. I'm especially not the person I want to be. Over time, I had convinced myself I just needed a little more focus, self-discipline, or motivation to get my act together. I realized that those things weren't going to do the trick.
Sunday night, my wife and I were laying in bed, and she took the opportunity to remind me of something I had said in my sermon that morning (she has a habit of doing this). Earlier, I had told my church that a real relationship with Jesus couldn't begin until we were willing to admit that we need His help. We can't receive the gospel as good news until we're ready to accept that we can't clean ourselves up. Belief in Jesus is an admission that I need someone to save me. I need someone to do and be what I can't on my own.
I told my church these things on Sunday, and I meant it...for them. However, that truth was still having trouble penetrating my own heart and mind. It's easy to tell people that they need Jesus. It's a lot harder to believe that for yourself. Other people might not be able to get their act together, but I can. Just writing the words I see how foolish my thinking was.
I'm never going to be the person I want to be or think I should be. I'm not as good, talented, or strong as I think I am. I'm a person in need of help. These are hard realizations to come to, and they can cause someone to have one of two reactions.
1. It can lead to despair.
When I realized my weakness, it led me to a dark place. I despised myself for coming up short. I assumed others were going to reject me for the ways I failed them.
2. It can lead to freedom.
When we're willing to admit that we're weak, we're also ready to ask for help. God's work in our lives begins at the moment we come to him with our hands open, wholly dependent. "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."
God can use our weakness to drive us closer to Him. If we're not willing to believe that we're weak, we won't ask Jesus for help. If we can't own our shortcomings, we'll not need the gospel.
Martin Luther has been quoted as saying, "“We are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.” I knew I was a beggar, but I thought that meant I needed to work hard to earn my bread. I had been unwilling to ask my heavenly father to feed me.
The Apostle Paul was a man who understood the value of his weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 he wrote to the church, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." When we're willing to come to God in our weakness, Christ can move in our lives in power.
Maybe some of you are in a similar spot. You're frustrated with who you are. You feel like you can't get your relationship with God figured out. However, if you're honest, you're still trying to please God by your goodness and works. Your weakness has been driving you to work harder, not to rest more deeply in the power of God. Maybe what you need right now is to know and believe a few important things.
Your Father saved you, "not because of works
Your Father "
Your Father is the one, "who will sustain you to the end,
There is a lot to be done in this life, and you can rest in the fact that you serve a good God who is at work to make those things happen. You can't do this on your own. It's impossible.
You and I are weak, and that's one of the most important things we can ever come to know.
For those of you wanting to do some more study on your own on the topic of the sovereignty of God we've listed some great resources below. Many of them are free.
|God's Sovereignty (in all things)||In Salvation|
Are There Two Wills in God?
Normally fasting is going without food for a specific period of time. During this time fasting displays a special sense of urgency for the prayers requested, and sets aside more time for frequent prayer (when you would normally be eating). Throughout scripture we see various examples of fasting.
Nehemiah fasted and prayed upon hearing the destruction of Jerusalem (Neh. 1:4)
God connects fasting with sorrow for repentance of sin (Joel 2:12)
The leadership in Antioch fasted over strategic ministry decisions (Ac. 13:2)
It was a routine part of seeking the Lord's will in the early church (Ac. 14:23)
Wayne Grudem offers a helpful definition of the reasons for fasting:
"...fasting expresses earnestness and urgency in our prayers: if we continued to fast, eventually we would die. Therefore, in a symbolic way, fasting says to God that we are prepared to lay down our lives that the situation be changed rather than that it continue. In this sense fasting is especially appropriate when the spiritual state of the church is low."*
*Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (391). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.