"A Church In The Word"
(Delivered Sunday, June 24, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16).
Over my years of serving as the pastor of Bethany Bible Church, I feel that I've learned a lot about the Bible. I certainly feel I've learned much concerning the content of the Scriptures as I've studied them with you, but that's not what I mean. What I mean is that I've learned much about the power of God's word to transform the lives of people. I've grown to appreciate that God Himself stands powerfully behind His holy word; and that the most effective thing I can do is to faithfully believe it, and accurately and clearly proclaim it - trusting Him to give success to His own word.
The famous British preacher Charles Spurgeon was once asked how he sought to defend the Bible when it was being attacked in his day. He is said to have replied, "There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked. All you need to do is to open the gate and let him out!" That's how I've grown to feel toward the power of God's word. It is self-authenticating, because it is from Him. He gave it; He preserves it; He stands behind it; and He makes it abundantly effective. He Himself has promised that His word will never return to Him void, but will accomplish everything He sends it out to do (Isa. 55:11). As the writer of Hebrews has put it; "... the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). We truly have no need to defend such a written revelation from God; because God Himself is able to authenticate it to those who hear. All we need to do is proclaim it. I have certainly seen this to be true in my own experience, and I'm sure you have too.
I feel confident that if any man or woman gets hold of a Bible that they can read with understanding, daily invites the Holy Spirit to transform them through what they read, reads just a few chapters a day in the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, and then commits themselves by God's help to do as God tells them to do through it, that man or woman will be a radically transformed person within a short amount of time. God will give them victory over their sins and weaknesses, and use them in powerful ways in His service. Everything that anyone ever needs for complete life-transformation can be obtained through the Bible alone; because "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
* * * * * * * * * *
Something terrible happens to a church or denomination whenever it loses its confidence in the word of God. The Bible says that God established the church on earth to be "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). The church has been entrusted with the Scriptures as the written content of "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3); and the church is to be occupied with continuing "steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2:42). Its leaders are told of only two things that they must devote themselves to continually: "to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). God did not command its preachers to create a new, unique, culturally captivating message by which to impress the people of the world. Rather, God's mandate is simply this: "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Tim. 4:2-4). God's command to His appointed pastors is: "Be diligent to present yourself approved of God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15).
The only thing God has given us that He promises to stand behind 100% is His own word. And so, if a church or its leaders abandon their trust in the Bible, or if its preachers and teachers forsake their confidence in the power of its message, then that church loses everything. It cuts itself loose from its only sure anchor to the truth. It forsakes its only authoritative voice to the lost. It gives away its only objective resource for the transformation of lives. It loses its distinction from the values and priorities of the world. It lays down its most powerful defensive weapon against attacks from the devil.
A CBS reporter was once interviewing Pastor John MacArthur. After the interview, the reporter said to him, "I think I can see the difference now between a true Christian and a false Christian. A true Christian is really into studying the Bible." That was the observation of someone who wasn't even a Christian! And yet, many churches that claim to be Christian foolishly believe that they can survive without making God's word central to their ministries. No local church will ever be able to survive in this world, or do anything of eternal value for the kingdom of God, unless it is a church that's committed to love, believe, obey and proclaim God's word faithfully.
That's why this morning's passage is so important. It certainly has importance to our individual Christian lives; but this particular verse was written as a word of instruction to the church at large. It speaks in plural terms. It's a command from the Holy Spirit to our church - all of us, gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ as one body - to make sure that we work hard at being a Bible-saturated church.
* * * * * * * * * *
Paul - the human author of these words - was writing to the believers in Colossae because they were under the threat of abandoning the truth of God's word. A false doctrine was worming its way into the fellowship - a doctrine that threatened their confidence in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ; a doctrine that tempted them to turn to other things as a way of making themselves "acceptable" in the eyes of God. Much of Paul's letter to these believers is occupied with presenting Jesus Christ to them as their all-sufficient Savior, and with urging them to trust in Him alone as the only One who is able to make them complete before God.
Among the many things Paul felt led to urge them to do, he was compelled to make sure that they were completely saturated with the teaching and instruction of the Scriptures. He taught them to "put-off" the old behaviors and practices of their lives apart from Christ, and - like putting on a whole new wardrobe - "put-on" new practices as those who are "the elect of God, holy and beloved" (3:12). But when we come to this verse, he's no longer speaking of what they were to "put-on" themselves, but rather what they were to have "in" themselves. He writes, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16).
I have found it helpful, when I study the Bible, to pay attention to what are called 'imperative' statements - that is, commands. That's what this verse is: a command. And it's one that's given in a form that indicates a continual, progressive action. We - as a church - are commanded to see to it that "the word of Christ" is continually, progressively dwelling in us. We're to allow it to make its continual home in us. We're to make sure that it's a permanent fixture of all that we are and do together. As this verse is paraphrased in The Message, we're to let the word of Christ have "the run of the house", and "give it plenty of room in our lives".
* * * * * * * * * *
Why does Paul refer to it as "the word of Christ", instead of in the more generic phrase "the word of God"? I believe that one reason is because of the whole focus of his letter. In it, Paul had been emphasizing that Jesus Christ is our all-sufficient Savior; and that if we have Him, we are as accepted and complete before God as we could ever possibly be. And so, Paul naturally encourages us that if we let "the word of Christ" dwell in us, we'll be indwelt by the all-sufficient revelation of our all-sufficient Savior.
But I also believe that Paul uses this unique phrase to stress that Jesus - as the Son of God, who came in human flesh - is Himself both the divine Author and the main Theme of the entire Bible. It's called "the word of Christ" because its main purpose is to point us to Him.
The phrase "the word of Christ" certainly must refer to the things He Himself said and taught. Jesus told His disciples, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you" (John 15:7); so, no doubt, His own personal teaching and instructions are in view. But the phrase "the word of Christ" also embraces much more than that. It embraces the whole message of who He is and what He has done. Paul spoke, at the beginning of the letter, of what his readers heard before "in the word of the truth of the gospel" (Col. 1:5) - meaning the Good News of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. This "word of Christ" also embraces the whole written testimony of the apostles on His behalf as contained in the New Testament. Before Jesus went to the cross, He told them, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you" (John 16:12-14). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles declared the ongoing message of truth from Christ; and so, their written declaration is also rightly called "the word of Christ".
In fact, "the word of Christ" is a phrase that rightly embraces the whole Bible - Old Testament as well as New. It's all about Him - from its beginning (Gen. 3:15), to its end (Rev. 22:20-21). As Jesus told the Jews, "You search the Scriptures [meaning specifically the Old Testament Scriptures], for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me" (John 5:39). After He rose from the dead, He met two of His disciples, and "... beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Luke 24:27). And before He ascended to the Father, He opened the understanding of His disciples, so that they could understand the Old Testament Scriptures; and He told them, "all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me" (Luke 24:44).
And this should be a reminder to us that we, as a church, need to embrace the whole word of God. Many Christians tend to focus only on their favorite portions of New Testament. Some churches even refer to themselves as "New Testament" churches. I remember one Christian telling me that he didn't bother reading the Old Testament, because "only the New Testament is for us today." But that's simply not true. When it comes to allowing "the word of Christ" to dwell in us, we need to make sure that we're embracing the whole Bible - not only the New Testament (in which the promises of the Old Testament are exposited), but also the other three-fourths of the Bible in the Old Testament (in which the glories of the New Testament are anticipated). We need to be a "whole Bible" church; because the whole of the Scriptures is truly "the word of Christ".
* * * * * * * * * *
Notice also, that the word of Christ is not only to "dwell in" us; but it's to dwell in us "richly". It's to be in us in an abundant and fruitful manner. I believe that, for the word of God to dwell in us richly as a church, it must be dwelling in us richly as individual believers. A church that's powerful in the word is made up of individuals who are powerful in the word.
There are many professing Christians who have a marvelous amount of contact with the word of God. They own several Bibles, and have many Bible study helps; and even listen often to great preachers on the radio and television and on the internet. The average Christian with a Bible Study program on the computer has more notes and reference tools and helps at his or her disposal than the average pastor had twenty or thirty years ago. And yet, in spite of all these things, the word still isn't dwelling "richly" in many of them. Why?
I believe that one thing that may be lacking is a daily habit of reading personally from the Bible. A rich indwelling of the word of God can come only through a daily exposure to it. Its life transforming power doesn't reveal itself best through just an occasional encounter. I believe the life-changing power of the Bible shows itself best over time; as exposure to the Scriptures becomes a daily habit - transforming one's thinking and attitudes, informing one's beliefs and convictions, guiding one's daily steps and decisions. Even with all the wonderful Bible study helps available today, here's still really is no substitute for a plain, old fashioned, daily habit of reading from the word.
Think of it this way: if you only eat a meal once in a while, it doesn't matter how good the food is, or even how helpful the comments are of someone else who ate some of it; you still won't get the nourishment you need from it. Good health is, in part, a product of regular patterns of eating well; and a significant part of a rich indwelling of the word of God comes only from a regular pattern of personal reading. It's been my practice, over the past twenty-five years or so, to read two chapters from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament every day. I wish I could say that I've been perfectly consistent in this practice; but I'm afraid I can't. But for the most part, that's been my regular habit. I believe God has used that one discipline to establish the word of God in my life more than anything else I have ever done.
I think that another reason the word of God doesn't dwell richly in some folks is because, though they may read it, they don't take the time to truly study it. There's no way around the fact that a rich indwelling of the word of God is the by-product of hard work. It requires the discipline of looking up words that we aren't familiar with; or consulting maps to understand the places being spoken of. It requires the discipline of building bridges over the gaps in our understanding. It takes the discipline of memorizing and meditating on the word - digging deep until we find the treasures God has for us in it - before we can really enjoy all the benefits of it that God wants us to enjoy. We can only experience the rich indwelling of the word to the degree that we work diligently at it. Christians who enjoy a rich indwelling of the word do so because they have been willing to pay the price, and do the work that it takes.
Another reason the word doesn't dwell richly in some folks is because of a failure to depend on the enabling power of the Holy Spirit as they read and study it. There are unbelieving people who have doctoral degrees in biblical literature - men and women who are brilliant scholars in the field of biblical theology, or who have had years of training in the ancient languages and history of the Bible - and yet, for whom the Bible remains a completely pointless, meaningless book of riddles and mysteries. The reason is because the Bible presents us with spiritual truth; and spiritual truth cannot be discerned apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote, "... We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given us by God" (1 Cor. 2:12). He added, "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (v. 14).
It's impossible for the word of God to bear fruit in us, unless the Spirit of God helps us. That's why, whenever we pick up our Bibles to read, we should always begin with prayer. We should do our very best to read the Bible in a continual spirit of dependency upon God, asking that the Holy Spirit would enable us to rightly understand and apply what we read to our lives. When we depend on the Holy Spirit's help, He causes His word to bear its fruit in our lives.
I think that one more reason why the word of God doesn't dwell richly in some folks is because of a failure on their part to obey it. There are some people who have adopted a strictly intellectual approach to the Christian faith; and they study the Bible as more of an exercise of the mind than as a submission of the heart or as a transformation of the life. For them, the study of the Bible has become an end in and of itself, rather than as the divinely appointed means to an end. In other words, they simply think that it's enough to read and study it, to have their heads filled with the knowledge of it, and to do nothing more. They think that spirituality is measured in terms of how well you'll do on a Bible drill. But the apostle James wrote, "... Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:22-25). Perhaps one of the greatest reasons that the word of God doesn't dwell in us richly is because we fail to repent of the sins that it calls us away from; and because we refuse to do the things it tells us to do.
God's desire is that His word dwell richly in our church. And God's pattern for a church in which the word dwells richly is that it be made up of individual believers in whom it dwells richly. May God help us to read His word daily, study it diligently, trust the Spirit of God dependently, and submit in obedience to it faithfully. And as we do so, may He cause it to manifest itself in our church richly.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now, what does it look like to be a church in which the word of Christ richly dwells? Paul goes on to tell us that, when the word indwells a church richly, that word comes bubbling out in the things that it does. He says it's expressed in a church in two ways. First we see that such a church of individuals expresses the word of Christ to one another in one-on-one ministry. He says, "... in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another ..."
This sounds very much like what Paul says he sought to do in his own ministry. Earlier in this letter, he spoke of the ministry of proclaiming Jesus Christ; saying, "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (1:28). That was Paul's great goal - to see people brought to a state of perfection in Christ; and in pursuit of that goal, he sought to admonish and teach his brothers and sisters in all wisdom. But here, Paul isn't simply telling us what he and his co-laborers did; he's telling us what we should be doing for each other as a result of being indwelt richly by the word of God.
When we're indwelt richly by the word of Christ, that word will manifest itself in the fact that we'll be ministering the word to one another through "teaching". Teaching is a ministry that's primary focus is the mind. In it, we instruct one another in the content of the truths of the faith - helping one another understand what the word of God says, and what God expects from us in it. Just before He ascended to the Father, Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission; which involved this important ministry of teaching. He said, "... Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you ..." (Matthew 28:19-20).
But another aspect of ministering the word of Christ to one other is that of "admonishing." The Greek word itself means to "put someone in mind of something"; and it involves the idea of exhorting someone to take action or warning them of the danger if they fail to do as they should. While "teaching" has the instruction of the mind as its primary focus, "admonition" has the imploring of the will as it's focus. We admonish one another when we appeal to each other to put into practice what we have learned from the word.
We need both ministries of "teaching" and "admonition" in the church. Many of us have a genuine desire to do what God wants us to do, and to live as He wants us to live; but we just don't yet know what we need to know in order to do so. For those of us in this position, God has appointed the very necessary ministry of "teaching" from His word. And then, there are many of us in the body of Christ who know all to well what God wants us to do; but we hesitate or delay to get up and do it For those of us in this situation, God has appointed the equally necessary ministry of "admonition" from His word. Without the ministry of admonishing one another, we'd all be intellectual hypocrites; and without the ministry of teaching one another, we'd all be energetic heretics. God has provided that a church that is indwelt richly by the word of Christ will express that word through its members teaching and admonishing one another in the things of God's word.
And notice too the manner in which this two-fold, balanced ministry is to be conducted: "with all wisdom". Wisdom has been defined as the practice of "using the best means in the best manner for the best ends". And all of those aspects of wisdom are given to us in God's word. As we grow in love toward one another, and seek to lovingly instruct and admonish one another, it's the word of Christ that reveals to us the best means for doing so, the best way of bringing it about, and the best purpose and goals for such a work. In the Bible, we learn how God's appointed means are to be used in God's appointed manner for God's appointed result - that result being that we all are perfected in Christ together. The word of Christ shows us how to minister to one another "in all wisdom".
All of this should remind us that God has not given us His word to richly indwell us in isolation from one another. He has certainly given us His word to bless us in our individual walk with Him; but He has designed us to be a body, and to serve one another. No believer can ever gain the full benefit of the word of Christ apart from the body of Christ; because apart from the body of Christ, we can never experience the blessing of "in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another ..."
* * * * * * * * * *
So then, that's one aspect of how it looks to be a church in which the word of Christ dwells richly. And there's another. We see secondly that such a church of individuals expresses the word of Christ - together and in union with one another - back to God in sincere worship. Paul says, "... in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."
Music has always been a crucial part of Jesus' church. He meant for this to be so. Just before He went to the cross, immediately after having His last supper with them, the Bible tells us that Jesus and His disciples sung a hymn together (Matthew 26:30). Martin Luther understood how powerfully the word of God can be expressed and ministered through music. He said, "Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music." Consider how many passages of Scripture in the Bible involve music! It's often either describing music, or it's recording the lyrics to be sung. One of the ways God intended the word to be ministered through worship was through music; and so; Paul stressed such worship as a visible sign that a church is richly indwelt by the word of Christ.
Paul mentions three types of musical expression in this verse. "Psalms" comes from a Greek word that means 'to pluck' or 'to touch', as if strumming a cord. It was the name given to the sacred songs of the Old Testament; and Paul's use of it is probably a reference to the psalms in the Old Testament psalter. "Hymns" is a word that was used to describe songs that were sung by pagan people to tell forth the praises of their gods, or of the exploits of their heroes. It's main element is that of praising the subject being sung about; and so, Paul's reference here is probably to songs of praise about the nature and character of the Lord. Colossians 1:15-19 may be an actual example of such a song sung in the church. "Spiritual songs" is a more generic term; but the nature of these songs is specifically defined by the term "spiritual". These would be songs that particularly focus on the things that pertain to God's work in our lives, or the testimony of what He has done for us. They are songs that lift our thoughts to spiritual realities in our life with Christ.
Paul probably didn't mean to give us a complete list in describing these three types of singing. He was simply showing that there is to be a variety of singing and songs in our worship. We're to express the word in worship through "songs, hymns and spiritual songs" - that is, through all kinds of appropriate musical forms that serve as fit vehicles for the word. And notice that we're enjoy such expressions of worship sincerely - with "grace" in our hearts; that is with a genuine, sincere, heartfelt response to what pleasing and blessed things that God has freely done for us in Christ. Paul once wrote that, in Christ, "we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5:2). We have much to sing about; and our singing is to be done with a sense of our true obligation to return thanks to God for His blessings to us.
* * * * * * * * * *
All of this is to be done by us together as a church family; and we're to be guided in it by God's word. God's great desire is that we worship Him together in a way that's in keeping His revelation of Himself in the word. And so, we see the word of Christ returning full circle: the word of Christ is to be in us as a body by God's grace; and it is to be expressed to one another in our care for one another through ministries of teaching and admonishing; and then, finally, expressed back to God in our sincere, heartfelt, thankful worship together.
May God help us to be a church in which the word of Christ truly dwells richly.
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
Missed a message? Check the archives!