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Jesus. (Period) 4: Church is Hard Work

Wouldn’t it be great if being a part of a church required little effort, like flying the friendly skies? Some prosperity gospel preachers seem to think so.

A recent headline told how one televangelist was “believing” God for a “Falcon 7X, a three-engine private jet capable of carrying 12 to 16 passengers at speeds up to 700 miles per hour. The Falcon 7X, which would be the fourth plane owned by [this] televangelist’s ministries, has a range of almost 6,000 miles and costs about $54 million new.”[1]

And why should he not have the Falcon 7X? After all, God told him he needed the plane in “one of the greatest statements the Lord ever told [him].” Jesus asked him, “… you wanna come up where I’m at?” When asked for an explanation of what he meant, Jesus then replied, “I want you to believe in me for a Falcon 7-X.”

With it he can get closer to Jesus, both literally and figuratively. To pay for it he is asking his ministry followers to “believe for” it, which means believe for it enough to give donations for it.

He said that if Jesus were to be on the earth today he would not be riding a donkey. So why shouldn’t he fly a private jet that doesn’t have to make any stops. That would be inconvenient.

We like convenience, don’t we? Let’s face it, if you had a choice of an easy path or a rocky one, which would you take? Many would choose the path of least resistance. Steady climb to the top in your work. Little if any conflicts along the way. It would be nice to arrange our lives in a way that our surroundings make our life more comfortable.

We might like that with church too. Don’t be asked for much. Drop in when it fits the schedule. Send in a few dollars and let God return the favor through increased convenience in life. Maybe even a Falcon 7-X.

Imagine the Apostle Paul’s reaction to this approach to ministry. Paul believed in spreading the gospel too, but for him it entailed hard work. In one word he would sum it up with “suffering.”

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church.

While others rejoice in their jets, Paul rejoices in his sufferings. At first his statement is perplexing. Is Paul saying that there was something “lacking” in what Christ has done for the church? Your gut feeling is right about that. Of course not. What Jesus has done for the church through his suffering on the cross is all that was needed (v. 22) for our reconciliation with God.

So how does he “complete” in his flesh what is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions for … the church”? First, let’s look at what Christ did. He suffered in his life: he went without, had no place to lay his head, was rejected and ridiculed, and died on the cross. But he also suffered for a purpose: to redeem the world.

In the same way Paul is suffering too. He is suffering in life: hard, dangerous travel, stonings, beatings, he has gone without, has been in and out of prison, and wrestles in prayer for the church. He also suffers for the same purpose as Jesus did: to bring others to salvation.

In Rome you can visit the Mamertime Prison where Paul and Peter are said to have been detained before their executions. It is dank, dark, and described by the ancient historian Sallust as: “disgusting and vile by reason of the filth, the darkness and the stench.”[2] There is a top level and a lower level that was 6.5 feet high, 30 feet long and 22 feet wide. Prisoners were lowered through a hole in the floor of the top level to the lower one.

Prisoners would not be kept here for a long time but would see it as a last stop on the way to execution. Paul was later beheaded and a church now sits on the location where his beheading took place.

Paul knew suffering as Jesus did. It came as no surprise to him. Jesus had told him he would suffer. When Paul was blinded on his way to Damascus, Jesus sent a man named Ananias to Paul. Jesus said, “…this man is my chosen instrument to take my name to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul had a purpose as Jesus did. Jesus came to the Jews as their Messiah. Paul was sent to the Gentiles. It would take more suffering to take the gospel to the world. And so in that sense, Christ still had suffering yet to do through Paul and the church. Paul’s sufferings are the sufferings of Christ because he—Paul—has become a member of the body of Christ. Paul is joined with Christ and therefore Christ suffers in and through Paul.

Amazing, isn’t it? That somehow Paul would count suffering as something to rejoice in? I’ve often thought about the importance of his encounter with Christ. It had to have been very real. It had to have been very strong. I can imagine that after my first beating or stoning I might have started to doubt the experience.

But Paul did not. He was given an assignment by the risen Lord and he would fulfill it. He said:

25 I have become its [i.e. the church’s] servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 I labor for this, striving with his strength that works powerfully in me.

Paul mentions three things he was commissioned to accomplish. First, “to make the word of God fully known.” The false teachers who were not suffering for the gospel were telling the church there was more to know than what they had been taught. But Paul declares that he has made the word of God “fully” known. Make no mistake: Paul chose the word “fully” on purpose.

“Fully” is a Greek word that means…get ready for this… “full.” It means to “fill to the top.” When a waitress refills your glass at a restaurant and gets your water to the top, you get a little nervous because you want her to stop because if she doesn’t water will pour all over the table and into your lap and then that big wet spot will be embarrassing. The water would do that because when a glass is full there is no more room for more.

That’s what Paul is saying. When we have the word of God we have what we need. And so he “proclaims and warns and teaches” everyone with all wisdom. Not some wisdom. But “all” wisdom. He uses the word “all” to let them know that there is no wisdom that they’ve missed. They’ve been given it all in Christ. There are no more mysteries to discover and no more wisdom to search out, which is what they were being told.

That’s why Paul reminds them that he also made known to them the mystery that “Christ is in you, the hope of glory.” A mystery is something that is hidden. In this case it was the plan of God to reconcile all humankind to himself and to each other. When the gospel was taken to the Gentiles—which was a surprise for many Jews—the mystery was made known. No more mysteries.

Then we find what Paul is really after: that we may present everyone mature in Christ. Did you know that is the goal of the church’s ministry? That you and I become mature in Christ? The word “mature” is sometimes translated “complete” or “perfect.” But what it means is that we are transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

How much thought have you given to this idea? Did you know that the main work God wants to do in your life and mine is to transform us more into the likeness of his Son? Look back over the past five or ten years you’ve been a part of a church. Can you see a change taking place in your own life?

If not, it could be that there has been little struggle. Think about it. When have you learned the most in life? When have you had to grow—intellectually, physically, emotionally—or grow up? Usually when asked people will recall a time that was difficult. A time that was hard. A season where they struggled in some way.

The same is true in the spiritual life. Struggle and being stretched is the only way to grow more and more into a mature person in Christ. That is the aim. That is why Paul is struggling. It was not so that he would sell books or be on television or have a worldwide ministry and a jet. He is struggling to present everyone mature in Christ.

Church is hard work.

It’s like athletics. To be great in athletics is hard work. I’m a tennis fan and this year at Wimbledon 2018 we witnessed a marathon of a semi-final match. Five sets. 26 games to 24 in the final set. Kevin Anderson and John Isner were both “striving” to finish and win that match. It was a hard- fought battle.

Paul uses an athletic word to describe the effort he is putting in to present the church mature. It is a “striving” (1:29). Do you want to look like Jesus? It takes work. It takes effort. Paul in other writings uses the word “training” to describe what we go through to be more like Christ. You can’t just try. You have to train. And training takes striving.

Then he uses the word to describe and how he is “striving” for the Colossians (2:1). Why all the hard work? Others are trying to deceive them. It takes hard work to get a church to the point “… their hearts [are] encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery ​— ​Christ.”

Church is hard work when the goal is presenting everyone mature in Christ. Sometimes it’s a battle. When Paul says he is rejoicing to see how “well ordered” they are and “the strength” of their faith in Christ, he uses military language. Church takes striving. Church can be a battle.

And church is hard work when we have a passion to get the gospel to people who have not yet been reconciled to Christ. 96% of all growth in established churches and church plants is from transfer growth. That’s not hard work. That is just setting up something that “sound reasonable” or offers a more “ecstatic or exciting worship” or another set of rules and regulations that make people feel as if they have found something that others have yet to get clued in on.

But getting the gospel to the 4% that few of us are getting to? That’s hard work. And like Paul, it will take some suffering to get it there.

  • We might have to change our schedules.
  • We might have to give up some evenings to spend with the unchurched.
  • We might have to rearrange our priorities so we can be taught and warned and hear the gospel proclaimed.
  • We might have to let ourselves be in situations that are uncomfortable for us. Peter McWilliams once said “Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort.”[3]
  • We might have to be willing to be ridiculed.
  • We might have to spend time with people who think differently about us and learn to listen well to them so they can tell their story. Research suggests engaging people who are different from yourself boosts empathy and builds bridges.[4]
  • We might have to give up the idea of church as an easy ride in a Falcon 7X and return to the idea that church is hard work. But you know what the return is? A “yoke” that is easy and a “burden” that is light.

When you and I give ourselves to this kind of hard work we will know the joy of seeing ourselves and others become mature in Christ. That’s something to believe for.