"All and In All"
(Delivered Sunday, May 27, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
... Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11).
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This verse holds out something to us that the world simply cannot produce - true, authentic unity between people. It speaks of the breaking down and complete removal of the walls of division and distinction between all people who are united to Jesus Christ by faith.
Most of us, from the time that we were little, have heard about how good and desirable a thing peace and unity between people truly is. And certainly, none of us would disagree. And yet; for as much as this ideal has been proclaimed throughout the years - particularly in recent years - it seems as if we're as far away from it as we've ever been.
One of the most important events in our nation during the last century was the rise of the Civil Rights movement; but while, thankfully, there isn't as much violence now as there was then, it seems as if the animosity between people of different races or ethnic distinctions is still as present as always. And we still see it erupt occasionally in violence. Religious groups and sects - even groups within Christendom - still seem very much divided from one another. Sociologists speak today of five radically different, clearly distinguishable generational sub-groups within American culture: "builders", "boomers", "busters", "gen-x'ers", and the "millennium" or "echo" generation - all with radically distinct values, radically distinct ways of viewing the world, and radically distinct agendas for the future. The political and cultural differences within our own culture have become so intense that we've now grown accustomed to speaking of the "culture war" going on around us. When it comes to economics, many people are becoming more and more prosperous than ever before; but at the same time, many other people are becoming poorer and poorer; and both groups are growing more and more suspicious of one another every day. Many intellectuals have written in recent years about the alarming and increasing 'segmentation' of our culture - with each minority group demanding recognition, validation, and support for its cause by society at large; and each group being easily offended by the attitudes and actions of the other. Some of us have grown used to constantly walking on egg-shells in this world.
Perhaps we feel as if all this division is more intense in our day than in times past, because we're so aware of it. Perhaps it is more intense than at other times. But even a casual look at history shows that "division" is the ongoing story of the human race. For the most part, it's always been this way with people.
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Where did all this divisiveness between people come from? The Bible says teaches us that it has a beginning point in human history. The first few pages of the Bible tell us how it happened. God had created the first man and the first woman in holiness; and He placed them in a perfect environment. There was nothing but perfect harmony between them and in all of God's marvelous handiwork. No division; just peace. But then, Scripture tells us that sin entered the picture. The serpent tempted the woman to eat the fruit that God had forbidden to her and her husband. Then, she gave it to her husband, and he ate as well. And as soon as sin was introduced into the scene, division immediately began to manifest itself. First, the man and the woman became alienated from God; so that when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden, they quickly hid themselves from Him (Gen. 3:10). There was an immediate division between Man and his Creator. Then, there was division between the man and his wife. He blamed her for his sin; and told God, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate" (v. 12).
Through Adam and Eve, sin was spread throughout the whole human race; and this principle of sin manifested itself in on-going, ever-growing division. It wasn't long before the children of Adam and Eve revealed the evidence of that division. Cain began to resent his brother Abel; and as a result, the first murder in history occurred (4:8). Then, Cain became a man on the run; and God had to set a mark on him, so that no one who found him would then murder him (v. 15). The closing story of Cain's family line includes that of yet another murderer, Lamech, who arrogantly boasted, "I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me" (v. 23). Hatred, murder and division have been regular features of the human story ever since.
There's no other way to look at it. Our propensity toward division is spiritual at its root. It's the product of sin. No amount of education has ever been able to drive it from our hearts. No human 'utopia' has ever been created that could make it completely disappear. No human philosophy has ever succeeded in reasoning it out of our thinking. No religious ceremony has ever successfully purified it from our souls. No amount of moralizing has ever been effective in shaming it out of us. We could all be painted the same color, be made to wear the same clothes, be made to believe the same way about things, receive the same education, be granted the same academic degree, all have the same material possessions, and all enjoy the same status in society; and there would still end up being a war between those who can curl their tongue like a tube and those who can roll their tongue like a sausage! We'd find 'something' to fight about. Animosity and division in the human family is a problem that's inherent in our hearts. It's a spiritual problem caused by sin; and only a spiritual solution from God will ever cure us of it.
But God has provided that solution! Look again at what this passage says! God has introduced something new into the human situation. God has redeemed us from sin through His Son Jesus Christ. God has made it possible for us to "put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all" (Col. 3:9-11).
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When I first began to study this passage, I kept wondering why this verse was in it. It seemed like sort of a strange interruption to Paul's thought. But as I considered it in its context, I began to appreciate why it's here.
This particular passage teaches us to "put off" the sinful practices of our old life apart from Christ. Such sins as fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire and covetousness are to go (3:5), as well as anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language, and lying (vv. 8-9). And then Paul tells us to "put on" the new practices of a man or woman raised up in Christ, and renewed in His image. Suddenly, Paul reminds us that, in such a process of renewal in Christ, there exists no such divisions as those between Gentile and Jew, or circumcised or uncircumcised, or as between barbarians or Scythians, or slaves or freemen. And the implication is clear: to continue in such divisions, and to evaluate people on the basis of such external things, is to hang on to the very sin Jesus died to save us from. Such divisions are out of keeping with our renewal in Christ. Such division is a sin that must be "put away".
The criteria that the world uses to make distinctions between people have lost all continuing significance in Christ. And I think that the relationship that my wife and I enjoy can help illustrate the reason that this is so.
My wife and I like to tell people what we believe to be the secret to a good marriage (and we always enjoy the response we get whenever we tell them). We believe that the secret to marital harmony is this: we both have learned to love Someone else more than we love each other.
Both my wife and I, as individuals, have sought to place Jesus Christ at the very center of our own lives. We've sought to love Him above all else. We've learned to see an intimate relationship with Him as our chief good, and as our primary source of happiness and fulfillment. We've learned to accept that we've been made absolutely complete in Him. We've both sought to embrace Jesus Christ as our "all".
I admit, we've both got a long way to go in this; but we're growing. And as we've both learned to give Jesus His rightful place upon the throne of our own hearts individually, we've both learned to accept that He is also enthroned in each other's hearts as well. My wife and I both have the same divine Person running our lives. And we've grown to love each other more and more - to accept each other's faults more graciously, and to accept the differences between us more thankfully - because we know that, at the most fundamental level, we're both heading in the same direction. We're both ruled by the same Lord and Master. We both love the same wonderful Person more than we love each other; and we both come together in harmonious union in Him.
I believe that this same principle applies when it comes to our relationship with every genuine follower of Jesus Christ that we ever meet. I've spent time with believers on the other side of the globe; and I've enjoyed a deep union with them - even though we didn't speak the same language, or understand one another's culture. It doesn't matter what external things may distinguish believers from one another. It may be the color of skin; or it may be religious experiences; or it may be cultural backgrounds; or it may even be social/economic status: none of those things matter anymore. If Jesus Christ is dwelling in both of us, and if we are both made "complete" in Him who is our "all", then we have no right to treat those distinctions as significant any longer. We're in basic union with one another - at the most fundamental level - in Jesus Christ. In Christ, as Paul tells us elsewhere, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:4-6). What a basis for unity we have in Christ!!
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Let me ask you a question. Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin, and have you given your life over to Him; and yet, does some of that old spirit of division still remain somewhere in you? If you meet another brother or sister in Christ, do you value them as a temple of the same Jesus who dwells in you? Or do you fall into the old pattern of evaluating them on the basis of things that divide the people of this world? As I've come to this passage, I've had to ask that question of myself, and have asked that the Lord would reveal any such attitude that remains in me.
The Lord Jesus is presented to us, here in this verse, as our "all"; and as He who is equally in "all" who trust Him. He is our basis for fundamental unity; and in Him, all other things that used to distinguish us have ceased to matter. He makes us "one" from the inside out.
May God search our hearts this morning; and may He see to it that we truly love all our brothers and sisters in Christ from the heart as our equals - holding on, no longer, to fleshly, worldly distinctions.
Let's begin by looking at the distinctions that God has removed between us in Christ. Here, we see ...
I. OUR UNITY.
Paul, in this verse, describes four basic areas of distinction that we are to "put off" from ourselves in Christ. First, he mentions ethnic distinctions. He says that, in Christ, there is "neither Greek nor Jew".
From the standpoint of the Scripture, there are only two basic people groups: "Jewish", and "everyone else". Here, that "everyone else" is presented to us through the designation "Greek"; meaning, in this case, non-Jewish people groups. The world really knows no greater distinction between people groups than the one the Scriptures speak of when it speaks of the distinction between "Jew" and "Greek". But in Jesus Christ, even this distinction ceases to be significant in an ultimate sense.
There's a story from the Book of Acts that illustrates this. A Roman named Cornelius - a centurion living in Caesarea - was praying to the God of Israel. He was a devout man who feared God and did good; but he worshiped God in ignorance. The Bible tells us that, one day, an angel appeared to Cornelius and told him to send to Joppa for a man named Peter; and that Peter would come and tell Cornelius what he must do. And so, immediately, Cornelius called some of his servants and sent them to Peter.
Meanwhile, the apostle Peter, who was staying in Joppa at the house of a man named Simon the Tanner, was resting on the roof while waiting for lunch. (People often went up to the flat roofs of their homes in those days as a place to rest and relax.) Suddenly, the Lord caused Peter to fall into a trance; and He showed Peter a very strange vision. A sheet, bound at the four corners, descended from heaven; and as it fell open, in it were found all kinds of animals that were forbidden to Jewish people as food. "Rise, Peter," the Lord told him; "Kill and eat" (Acts 10:13). But Peter was horrified at the thought! "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean." But the Lord responded to Peter's pious words by saying, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (v. 15). God revealed this same vision to Peter three times. (Some of us take a little while to get the point.) And then, the sheet was drawn back up to heaven; and Peter was left to wonder what it all meant.
In God's perfect timing, it was right then that the three Romans from Cornelius' household arrived. The Lord told Peter to go with them; and so Peter came down from the roof and went with them to Caesarea. And when he arrived at Cornelius' house, Peter found a whole crowd of people - Cornelius' family, friends and household servants - all waiting to hear the Good News that God said they would hear from him.
From a Jewish standpoint, this trip was a pretty shocking one for Peter to have made. He told Cornelius, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (v. 28). In fact later on, when Peter reported this incident to his Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, they were quite upset with the fact that he would go to the home of non-Jewish people and actually eat with them (11:3). But once he was there, Peter looked at it all, and said; "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works in righteousness is accepted by Him" (v. 34-35). They believed in the same Jesus as Peter and the apostles did; and when they believed, they received the same Holy Spirit as he and the rest of the disciples had received; and having received the Holy Spirit, all these Gentile Christians were baptized in the name of Jesus by these very same Jewish disciples.
And I love the lesson Peter said he had learned in all this, don't you? In every nation - whatever nation that might be - anyone who reverences God and seeks to do righteousness is accepted by Him through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. Ethnic distinctions no longer matter. We all become brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, the the Book of Revelation describes the wonderful, glorious scene in heaven in this way: "... A great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Rev. 7:9-10).
As you can see; Jesus isn't the Lord of the Jews only. He isn't strictly the Savior of white people; nor is He only the Savior of black people, nor red people, nor brown people, nor yellow people. He isn't the Savior of the Western world; nor only the Savior for people of the Eastern world. Every human being on the planet has only one Savior. Jesus Christ is the Savior of all.
In heaven, people from all people groups will praise Jesus equally as their Savior. And if that's our destiny together in heaven, how can we continue to even care about ethnic and racial distinctions on earth?
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Not only do ethnic distinctions cease to matter in Jesus, but so to distinctions between us based on religious ceremonies and rites. Paul says that, in Christ, there is neither "circumcised nor uncircumcised".
God kept the Jewish people distinct in the world because it was in God's sovereign plan to reveal Himself to the world through them. They truly are His chosen people. In his letter to the Romans, Paul spoke of his own countrymen; "who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came ..." (Rom. 9:4-5). "Circumcision" was the ceremonial sign that God gave, by law, to Israel to mark them out upon the earth as His distinct covenant people. This meant that Jewish people - called "the circumcised" - were "insiders" in a covenant relationship with God; while all other people - called "the uncircumcised" - where "outsiders". This division between the "circumcised" and the "uncircumcised" was a result of God's law. There was no way around this "dividing wall" of the law. No human "wall" could ever be erected that would divide people more than the way the ceremonial law divided the "circumcised" from the "uncircumcised"; because it had been erected by God Himself.
But in Christ, even this ceremonial wall of division, which came about through God's ceremonial laws to Israel, has been taken down and has ceased to be an issue. Paul wrote to the Ephesians - an "uncircumcised" people - and said,
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh - who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands - that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:11-18).
And so, the Bible tells us that, now, "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation" (Gal. 6:15). Someone isn't made more saved if they observe the Jewish ceremonial laws; nor are they made less saved if they don't. Those outward ceremonial signs no longer matter; the only thing that matters is being made brand new on the inside through Jesus Christ.
The ceremonial laws God gave to Israel had the greatest possible authority when they were in effect. But now that they have lost their significance in Christ as a basis of distinction, how can we keep from loving - as complete equals - our brothers and sisters who might be from a different denomination, or from a different tradition of the Christian faith than ourselves?
Those differences are important, of course; and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. There's always room for sincere disagreement between brothers and sisters in Christ. But we must never despise a brother or sister in Christ because of those differences. Heaven will be filled with Baptists, and Presbyterians, and Methodists, and Catholics, and Messianic Jewish believers, and Episcopalians, and Orthodox Christians, and believers from a host of other denominations; and even many believers who have no denominational connection at all. The thing that binds us all together is a genuine union through a common faith in Jesus Christ. How can we ever let such distinctions keep us from loving our brothers and sisters in Christ any longer?
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Paul speaks of cultural distinctions as well. He said that, in Christ, there is also no distinction between "barbarian nor Scythian".
When we hear the word "barbarian", we tend to think of a large, brutish warrior who's dressed in skins and armor, and who brandishes a battle-axe. But a "barbarian", as Paul was using the word, simply meant someone who was unschooled in the ways of Greek learning and culture. They may have lived within the Greek world as very nice, honorable people; but they lived in Greek culture as people from a foreign country, and who talked a little funny. In fact, the word "barbarian" came from the way you'd describe a foreigner's speech. You couldn't understand him; it all just came out as "bar-bar-bar ...". He or she was simply "uncultured" in terms of Greek learning and customs.
But while a "barbarian" was simply a way of describing a foreigner; to call a person a Scythian was no complement! Scythians were the people who had invaded the Asian world many centuries before Paul's time. In Paul's time, they were considered to be the most uncouth people you could ever be around - nothing more than savages! In fact, some ancient Greek books and plays depicted Scythians as the dirtiest, nastiest, most brutal people you could think of. And in those days, if you wanted to particularly insult someone, you would say, "That guy is dirtier than a Scythian!" That's pretty dirty!
So; what should all this mean to us? I don't know about you; but I can't remember the last time I even tried to figure out whether someone else was a "barbarian" or a "Scythian". What I believe Paul is saying is this: when it comes to cultural distinctions - being well-schooled or uneducated; being culturally refined or culturally inept; being well-bred person of society or a hillbilly - such distinctions no longer matter in Christ. If a man or woman has come to faith in Jesus, having studied classical music at a conservatory in Paris, he or she is precisely as important to Jesus Christ as a Christian who was saved in a grass hut in a South American rain forest.
Those distinctions will have absolutely no significance whatsoever in heaven; and so, neither should they matter in the church.
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Finally, Paul mentions economic or social distinctions. He says that, in Christ, neither is there "slave nor free".
Paul lived in a culture in which slavery was an everyday reality. Many people who lived in the Roman empire lived as slaves. In some places in the ancient world, slaves even out-numbered those who were free. Someone might be a slave because they had been captured from another nation, or had been conquered in a war. Or someone might have sold themselves into slavery as a way to pay off financial debts, or to survive after having suffered a terrible financial reversal. The rights of citizenship in the Roman world belonged only to those who were "free". Slaves had no rights; and they were often treated as mere property.
But Paul here says that even the economic and social distinctions that so divided the members of that culture no longer mattered in Christ. We're to no longer recognize a "slave/free" distinction between our brothers and sisters as the basis for evaluating their importance; but are to see ourselves as equals in Christ with our brothers and sisters. - regardless of one another's position in society.
There's a wonderful, heart-warming story in the New Testament that illustrates this. Paul was in prison; and somehow, a young man named Onesimus had made his way to Paul. Onesimus was a run-away slave; and Paul led him to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But as it turns out, Paul was also good friends with the young man's master - a man named Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and a leader in the church in Colossae; and Paul wrote a very gracious and tender letter to him; urging him to welcome back his escaped slave Onesimus and to forgive him. You'll find the letter in your Bible under the name of Paul's Epistle to Philemon. In it, Paul encouraged Philemon to look at the matter this way: perhaps he lost Onesimus for a season so that he might receive him back forever - "no longer as a slave but more than a slave - a beloved brother" (Philemon 16).
What a radical thing this is! Only in Christ, could a master welcome back an escaped slave as a true "brother"!
Church historians tell us that there were occasions in which a slave had become an elder in a church. Such a man was a slave in another man's household; but then, that same slave served as his master's elder and spiritual leader in the church. Slaves and masters worshiped together on equal footing in the household of God. Those distinctions don't have any significance in Christ. We must never hold on to economic or social or class distinctions in the body of Christ. It's very inappropriate to treat such things as the criteria by which we judge people's worth in the church. The apostle James wrote;
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, "You sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "You stand there," or, "Sit here at my footstool," have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4).
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We enjoy a fundamental unity that transcends the distinctions of the world. And what is the basis of that unity? It's not a principle. It's not a policy. It's not a pact. It's a Person! This leads us to ...
II. OUR UNIFIER.
Paul says that none of these distinctions matter any longer; "but Christ is all and in all." We are unified in Him.
First, Jesus is "all". He is everything that any woman or man needs in order to be complete in the eyes of God. All that anyone needs is in Him; because "in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him" (Col. 2:9-10). A relationship with Him by faith is all that is needed to make someone completely acceptable in the eyes of God; "For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 19-20).
And second, Jesus is "in all". He who is everything that anyone needs is as completely "in" one believer as "in" another. None of us has more of Christ than another; and so, none of us has more of "everything" than another.
He is truly "all and in all"; and so, how can there be any divisions between us anymore if we've all been made complete in Him?
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The world feels that division very much; because those divisions are the product of sin. It is a spiritual problem; and it can only be cured by a spiritual solution. The world simply can't produce true unity between diverse people. It tries; but all it really ends up doing is shifting the divisions. Division is only ultimately taken away in Christ. He unifies us because He is "all and in all".
But let's be honest. Does the world see that unity when it looks at us today? Do we testify to the world, by our actions toward one another, that we really believe Jesus truly is "all" and equally "in all" who believe in Him? When the world looks at us and sees us distinguishing ourselves along the same old party lines as everyone else; then it really doesn't see anything different about us, and assumes that the gospel isn't really anything worth believing.
May God help us to "put away" all those things that used to distinguish us from one another. May the world truly see that we are Jesus' disciples by our unqualified love for one another. As Jesus said, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
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