By Neil Earle
These past years in our fellowship God has opened our minds to the deeper hopes of our salvation. From Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3 in particular, we have been mining some substantial and mind-expanding truths.
For example, verses 2-3: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
This short verse not only confirms the Son’s intimacy with the Father, a relationship to which we are invited, but it shows how protected we are from judgment and defeat – we are hidden in Christ.
One TV preacher used to say, “When God looks at us he doesn’t see weak sinning us, He sees Jesus.” Now that’s really good news.
Colossians is like that. It’s one of those small books with a big punch. The assurance of salvation through such passages as Colossians 3:2-3 can lift us to the skies. But some get carried away and assert their full deliverance from the flesh, already, what the Edinburgh Thomas Torrance called “spiritual vertigo.” Paul apparently faced that in Corinth also (1 Corinthians 15:12). Some misunderstand and misinterpret and think that the Christian life is simply contemplating out spiritual navels and sitting out the game of life.
Not so. Paul follows these soaring verses in Colossians with a call to Christian witness in this life. He writes, “Put to death therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust…” (Colossians 3:5).
In other words we have a job to do. We are not saved by good works but saved to do good works. In particular, Colossians 3 fleshes out for us the kind of internal spiritual attitudes we need from God to make a success of the Christian life and to enhance our Christian witness in and to the world. These are found in Colossians 3:12 and there are about five or six of these key virtues, some call them Christian graces. “Clothe yourself” with these, Paul begins this mini-section.
As Christians then we should be interested in what it is we have to put on. In other words, what do well-dressed Christians wear?
Well here are the indispensible Five Graces. Let’s look at each one in turn.
First, compassion. The more colorful translation is “tender mercies” or even “bowels of mercies” in the King James Version (KJV). Those who know Greek know that this refers to a “heart of pity.” And oh how rare the ingredient of pity is these days of tyrannical talk show hosts to murderous attack ads to atrocities bloodying our TV screens. Just from surveying the news for one day you could think that pity is a rare trait in our day and age. But that’s not so. Everyday life offers superb examples of people extending pity and mercy to others. In the Bible we meet some of the best examples of all.
Let’s take King David’s friend, Jonathan, for example. We meet him in 1 Samuel 14.
Jonathan was a robust aggressive warrior who routed an entire army on one momentous occasion (14:45). He saw the same bold spirit in the shepherd-boy who would be king, David (18:3). Even though Jonathan could see that David’s rise to the kingship would come at his expense as the crown prince he did not let that influence his feelings for David. He stayed loyal (20:28-34). He was even loyal to his maniacal spear-throwing father, King Saul, by choosing to fight with him in a hopeless battle that he knew must almost certainly mean his death.
This soft heart of compassion and loyalty (1 Samuel 20:42) earned Jonathan a tribute from David that has become a classic of world literature: “How are the mighty fallen! I grieve for you Jonathan; you were every dear to me, your love for me was wonderful…” (2 Samuel 1:25).
The commentator Eugene Peterson pointed out that Jonathan’s tender mercies towards David probably saved the young up-and-comer his crown and his spiritual life for while Jonathan was pleading for him at the king’s court, David knew he had at least one firm friend in Israel. Jonathan stood up for David at all costs. We all need friends like that. Peterson adds: “It’s highly unlikely that David could have persisted in serving Saul without the friendship of Jonathan…Jonathan’s friendship entered David’s soul in a way that Saul’s hatred never did” (Leap Over a Wall, page 53).
That’s powerful way to put it – friendship can help save your eternal life. Mature Christians know this: We need to be friends if we are to have friends.
Number Two on Paul’s list of graces is kindness, which has been defined as “mercy with good cheer.”
The story goes that in the deep Depression of the 1930s a lady was caught stealing bread to feed her family. The night her court case came up the Mayor of New York, Fiorella LaGuardia, happened to be sitting on the bench. He looked over the file and seemed to be very tough on the woman. At first. “Well, stealing is a serious offence,” he began, “and I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to fine every man in this court $1 to pay your fine since the greater crime is that a poor mother has to steal a loaf of bread in a city like New York.”
There’s kindness in action for you – mercy on the offensive. It hearkens back to Jonathan’s heart for David for all great spiritual traits are fruitage of one Spirit. The New Testament Apostle Paul himself was saved many times by the kindness of friends who interceded for him, who stuck their necks out. In Acts 16 he met Lydia, a wealthy Jewish merchant lady who accepted his message and invited him to use her house as a base for evangelizing the Roman colony town of Philippi. Later he mentions two firm friends, Priscilla and Aquila who had somehow “for my life laid down their own necks” (Romans 16:2 KJV).
Ah, simple kindness – it can’t be beat. Life is dynamic and if we are to receive kindness we must exhibit it ourselves. As Hebrews 12:14 encourages us “make every effort to live in peace with all men…” Think of that when we set out for the day. “Live in peace with all men.” Show the cabbie, the mailman, the bus driver and his passengers, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker the same kindness God has shown to us in his lavish forgiveness of our sins (Colossian 3:14).
According to the Greek New Testament expert, William Barclay, the ancient Greeks had no word for humility. It just wasn’t a big part of their code. Those familiar with the Iliad, the central Greek story, know how it beings with “the Rage of Achilles,” the invincible warrior who feels hard done by his Commander in Chief. Achilles sulks in his tent while the Trojans mow down Greek soldiers. This is the spirit of revenge, which was a big deal in the eyes of the ancients.
Not so the Bible, even in the Old Testament.
Genesis 26:12-25 shows the patriarch Isaac sowing and reaping abundantly as he roamed around Palestine. The jealous Philistines kept stuffing the wells that his herdsmen dug for water. But Isaac simply kept moving on, unwilling to provoke a range war of the kind we see too much of in history. Isaac would rather switch than fight and his career as a peacemaker greatly pleased the Great God who delights in such people.
Be willing to take a loss to make peace. It’s probably the only way that would work. Oh, how we need that spirit in the Middle East today.
Grace Number Four, meekness, is closely linked with humility of course. Barclay delights in describing that when the New Testament says “Blessed are the meek” the word from which it is derived – praotes – is the Greek word uses to describe a wild stallion that has finally taken the bit. To be meek – praus in Greek – means that behind the gentleness, says Barclay, there is the strength of steel. Hence the fiery Moses is described as the meekest man alive (Numbers 12:3). To be meek or gentle is to have oneself under control through God’s Spirit (New Testament Words, page 241-242).
The five graces show the Christian man or woman what it is like to be under God’s control. That is a daily struggle. We all fail to measure up so often and that alone should keep us humble and meek and patient with others, for, as Paul goes on, the Lord has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13).
The wise and persistent embrace of these godly graces would, of course, change our world, beginning right where we live. But this is never easy and here’s why Paul’s fifth grace listed is so important. It is patience, a word easy to misunderstand. The Greek word makrothumia probably conveys more the sense of our English word “fortitude,” that ability to bear up cheerfully and faithfully under pain and stress. No-one exemplified Christian patience better than Jesus our Savior as he prayed for people who were driving nails through his hands, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus on the cross defines the upper registers of forgiveness, of patience, of Christian fortitude. The ancient historians said that through fortitude – makrothumia – the Romans conquered the world. So this New Testament patience is more than a passive “toughing it out” virtue. It gets to the very essence of who we are and to what and whom we are committed in the rough and tumble of life. It challenges us as to whether we can see God in the picture when the going gets tough. It asks whether or not we really believe in faith that the Father is able to make all our troubles work out for good in the end.
Mercy, kindness, humility, meekness and fortitude – these make up the recipe for a happy and successful Christian life both now and for all eternity. Thanks be to God for showing these graces to us.