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Jesus. (Period) 1: When Your World Shakes

Karen and I were in Malibu attending some Bible lectures. Yes, I know the path to a woman’s heart, don’t I? But when the setting is Pepperdine University and you get to breath in the coastal air, it’s a good trade off.

We were in a meeting at night for one of the main lectures. Before the speaker would speak, the worship leader would lead worship. We were standing, singing with the crowd, when I suddenly felt like I was going to fall over.

“Too much California sun,” I thought. Then it happened again. I looked at Karen and she said, “Did you feel that?” At first I imagined it was the Spirit moving through the crowd. Then I remembered most of the people in the room were from the church of Christ and that probably wasn’t a possibility.

That’s when one of the event organizers took a microphone and told us there had been a mild earthquake. Apparently the Californians in our midst hardly noticed. The rest of us did. It was enough to shake us up for the evening.

Earthquakes have a way of doing that. One hits and everything is upended. The people of Haiti will never forget January 12, 2010 when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake turned their world upside down. Already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the quake left over 200,000 people dead and some 895,000 Haitians homeless.

It left Evans Monsignac buried for 27 days. A dirt-poor slum dweller—married with two children—Evans had gone to a market to sell rice that day and had just finished selling his last batch when it hit. Suddenly things were flying all around him and he found himself pinned underneath rubble. Unable to move to the left or right, he could only lay straight. He heard the screams of others but said those only lasted a day.

For 27 days he had no food. The only source of drink he had was by sipping sewage that trickled underneath the rubble where he was buried. He said that no one else was involved in his great struggle for survival; just himself and God.[1]

Maybe you have not experienced the kind of earthquake that Evans did. But you’ve had them.

  • You get a note in the mail that your doctor sent advising you to see an oncologist. One quake was what he told you. That one was followed by how he told you.
  • Another recession hits and your company decides it needs to trim its employee base. You’ve been with the company longer which means you have a higher salary which makes you a target for the trimming.
  • You come home one day to find that one who promised to love you forever has decided that forever is too long and is leaving you for someone else.

Sometimes the tectonic shifts come through the changes around us. Milton Jones categorizes four quakes that have brought us to a postmodern world.[2]

  • There was a time the western philosophy and way of life— “the pursuit of capitalism, urbanization, technology, telecommunications, and Western culture would continue indefinitely simply because it was said to be ‘better.’” Those days are gone. Not everyone thinks our Western culture is the best world and only option. And it may not last forever. Our way is not the best way.
  • Traditional standards have disappeared. Pluralism of values have surfaced. Social mores that once were a given are now up for grabs. There is an endless offering of what a person can believe and in a postmodern world one is as legitimate as another. Truth is relative.
  • Information is available at the click of a mouse. In the past, knowledge was held by a certain intellectual few. Now, everyone thinks they are an expert with information available to anyone who has access to the internet. Each person is an expert. Everyone is an expert.
  • The written word has lost its universal meaning.[3] In other words, a text can mean whatever the person reading it decides it means. Every person decides their own meaning.

These quakes are what have made our world a postmodern world. People felt the tremors shifting from the world of the 1950’s to the world of the 1960’s, from the 1970’s and on through 9-11 to where we find ourselves today. Maybe you’ve felt them. You feel the tremors of a world changing at a break-neck pace. When you pause your pace long enough, you feel some instability yourself. If so, you might find some solid ground in the ancient city of Colossae.

The people there were not immune to earthquakes. The city was originally built on a major trade route in the Roman province of Asia Minor (think southwest corner of modern day Turkey). They were known for manufacturing a beautiful, dark red wool cloth. In fact, they became famous for it.

Then in 100 BC an earthquake hit. At least a figurative one did. The trade route changed and left Colossae stranded. The city went from important to insignificant quickly.

Then in 17 CE a real earthquake hit and destroyed Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Colossae and the other cities were rebuilt but the damage lingered in their memories until another earthquake hit in 61 or 64 CE during the reign of Nero and destroyed the city. Colossae was rebuilt again, but it never regained its place of prominence. By 400 the city no longer existed.[4]

Paul understood how life can hit you like an earthquake. He had climbed the religious ladder of his day having studied under Gamaliel, one of the great rabbis. He was, as he would later say in his letter to the church in Philippi, a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” This could mean that he knew what tribe he was from – the tribe of Benjamin – in a day when many Jews could not name their ancestral tribe. He could also speak Hebrew at home where others did not. And there was no Gentile blood in his linage.[5]

He upheld his Jewish heritage with passion. So when Peter and John and Stephen started preaching about Jesus and his resurrection and causing a stir, Paul felt compelled to take action to preserve all things Hebrew. He started arresting these Jesus followers, throwing some in jail, and watching with consent as Stephen was stoned to death.

That’s when it hit. On his way to Damascus to arrest any in the synagogue there who were following the “Way,” he was blinded by a great light. The light was followed by a great voice, the voice of Jesus. During three days of blindness he came to see that Jesus was the Messiah he and his ancestors had looked and longed for.

That “quake” changed the course of his life. Before, it was all about stifling the story of Jesus. After, it was all about sharing the story of Jesus. For Paul, it was all Jesus. Period.

And so, when he received word that there were things being required in addition to what Jesus had accomplished on the cross through which people could be saved in the church at Colossae, he picked up his pen and started writing this letter we have in our New Testament.

Most likely he heard the report from Epaphras (1:7 and Phlm 23). Epaphras was probably a convert of Paul’s when he ministered in Ephesus (from 52 to 55) and had then gone home and founded the church in his home city: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings” (Col. 4:12). Now Paul wants to respond.

He’s heard that there is something being added to the teaching he traveled thousands of miles to spread that Jesus is sufficient for their salvation. It’s something he believes in so deeply he is now in prison again for teaching it.

What is being taught there that would get Paul’s attention? We get an idea when we read Colossians 2:8-23. It begins with this line: “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ” (2:8).

“…rather than Christ.” Paul warns this church that teaching which adds anything to what Christ has done is teaching that will make you a “captive.” It’s a word that means “to carry someone off as a slave.” It becomes legalism. And legalism is never ending. Like being a slave.

As we read the passage we can infer some set of beliefs in Colossae being taught that places an emphasis on “following certain rules and regulations, apparently promising new and greater depths of spiritual experience and insight.”[6] Colossae was predominantly Gentile.[7] Because of that, other beliefs were present in the Gentile culture and could have been woven into the Christian beliefs on which the church had been established.

But it could be that the false teachers were Jewish. There is evidence that there was a presence of Jews in Colossae.[8] If so, they were the ones adding to Jesus’ sacrifice by incorporating Jewish ideas and practices.

And even so, Paul may be combating a combination of both Hellenistic thought and Jewish ideas and practices. The teaching is coming not from outside the church, but inside, possibly by Jewish Christians.

Whatever its origin, it had to do with a focus on human obedience rather than grace as a way to find freedom in this life. People in Colossae were wanting to find stability with their world, with their gods, and with each other. And they were trying to find it through Jesus Plus, not Jesus. Period.

Don’t we do the same? We trust in Jesus. But we don’t trust him period. We trust in Jesus Plus.

  • Jesus Plus Works. “I need to read my Bible more, need to witness more, need to fill in the blank more…” Anytime anyone makes you feel like that it’s Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Mission. “How many people are you baptizing this year?” “How many churches have you planted?” “How many people have you discipled?” These questions may be meant to encourage, but at their root is Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Giving. “Are you giving a tithe to the church?” “Have you given all you can to the church?” When we follow Jesus we give. But we give out of grace, not out of guilt. It’s Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Gifts. “Do you speak in a tongue?” “Do you have the gift of prophecy?” “Do you have a prayer language?” Questions that hint that there is something else you need other than Jesus to be confident in your salvation that some people have that gets them closer to God. It may. But it’s Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Subtraction. “Don’t drink this, don’t eat that, don’t do this.” Some things are harmful to the Christian life, but a focus on “not doing” does not lead to life. It’s Jesus Plus.

Jesus Plus is anytime anyone teaches there is “some gimmick, some experience, some secret that will unlock greater depths of insight.” And usually, when that happens, we feel the earth underneath our feet quake.

Paul’s letter to Colossians will help us find stable footing again. It may bring you to Jesus for the first time. It may bring you back to Jesus, period.

Earthquakes can do that. Underneath the rubble, Evans could not turn to his left or right. He could only turn to God. And when we are trapped underneath the postmodern rubble of a world that is collapsing around us—a culture that has crumbled, a world with diverse beliefs, relativistic morals, individualistic understandings—we may be in the best place we can be.

When we don’t know where to turn, we might turn to Jesus.

Period.

[1] Buried for 27 days: Haiti earthquake survivor’s amazing story by Jacqui Goddard in Tampa, Florida 8:00AM BST 28 Mar 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/haiti/7530686/Buried-for-27-days-Haiti-earthquake-survivors-amazing-story.html

[2] See Milton Jones, Christ—No More, No Less (New Leaf Books: Orange, CA, 2001), 17 for these changes.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] https://www.theologyofwork.org/new-testament/colossians-philemon

[5] https://readingacts.com/2011/09/06/paul-a-hebrew-of-the-hebrews/

[6] Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 7.

[7] Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 20.

[8] Ibid.