Meditations in Colossians: 1: By the Will of God
Col 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
Well over 50% of Paul’s letters start with this sort of greeting, acknowledging who he Paul is, someone called “by the will of God.” Because of these similarities, when you come to write about these different letters it is difficult to write originally, but perhaps it is a wider challenge to all of us not to take for granted the things we read regularly in Scripture or the things that occur more than a few times..
We call these writings ‘meditations’ but they are often more ‘studies’. So often I try to meditate rather than study but as I progress I find I need to check out verses one against another and it turns more into a study. As we start this new series in this letter from Paul to the church in Colosse I have a feeling we may gravitate between study and meditation. Sometimes I go for ‘big sweep’ meditations taking in a verse or a paragraph at a time. Here I feel we will slowly meander through this letter picking up and studying or meditating upon a word here and a word there.
How often we stumble across this phrase, ‘the will of God’. How often in Bible Study groups I have heard the ponderings: does it mean what God would like to happen or does it mean what God makes to happen? Can we thwart the will of God? Did Paul have any choice in becoming an apostle? Do I have any choice in becoming whatever I am in the Church?
The first thing that strikes me on this occasion is that the phrase, ‘the will of God’ seems to convey a strong sense of foundation to life. Paul, for instance, wasn’t a shopkeeper or, perhaps to be more Bible-specific, a full-time tentmaker, and he wasn’t these things because somehow God wanted it like that and it would appear God engineered things at least to bring that about. We know much about Paul but there is also much that we don’t know about him which leaves us speculating about parts of his life
He was a Jew, a Roman citizen, a Pharisee, well educated. How much say did God have in all those things? Well, to Jeremiah He said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5) In other words, even before he was conceived and certainly before he was born, Jeremiah was marked out to be a prophet. Paul himself wrote, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight,” (Eph 1:4) and theologians argue whether that means that God simply ‘knew’ what we would eventually do and become, or that He made us do and become. Indeed, in that same letter Paul wrote, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) There, at least, is a strong sense of God knowing and God going ahead of our lives, plotting them out for us to make them the best that they can be.
So God knows, God sees and God knows what could be the very best for us. So will He force that on me? It appears not, it appears that He wants my cooperation, for He has given me this thing called free-will, the ability to choose. The classic quote here has got to come from Joshua’s challenge to his people: “if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh 24:15) We can choose, it appears, whether to follow God or follows myths. Ultimately it is down to us.
But then we find at least one instance of God giving a prophet direction and when that prophet turns round and runs in the opposite direction, God sends some severe circumstances to bring him to himself. That prophet of course was Jonah. And then you examine God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3 & 4) and you find the Lord laying out His plans for Moses and not taking ‘No!’ for an answer!
Paul’s case had been a pretty severe and dramatic calling, being blinded by God on the road to Damascus and it was then only when he was utterly helpless that the Lord sent little Ananias who was told, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15,16) Did Saul who became Paul have any choice? Oh yes, but perhaps it was more a case that God chose a man whose heart was for him already (although misguided) and who just needed turning in the right direction.
I wonder if that is how it is with us? The Lord sees and knows our potential; He knows our heart, our inclination and He calls us and points us in the right direction by His Holy Spirit when we surrender to Him, a direction that He knows will be the very best for us, the individual, and a direction that will be most fruitful and bring most blessing to us and to His people. But clearly we can back-pedal for some do. Clearly some can fall along the way after having had the most amazingly powerful and effective ministries. Would God make that happen? No, that would fly in the face of His love and goodness, but it does happen for the landscape is littered with casualties.
How fragile this ‘will of God’ appears to be. We can receive it or we can refuse it, it appears. Is it God’s will that people refuse Him and refuse to receive all His goodness for them so that He makes people be unbelievers? Peter had thoughts on that: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) But not everyone does come to repentance so there is surely free will and free will does mean real, genuine ability to choose contrary to God’s wishes. No, God clearly has wishes and knows what is best. That is His will. And then He offers that to us and we are allowed to choose. And that is His will – He allows and sometimes grieves.
But if this talk of being in God’s will, living out my life and exercising the ministry He has given me, brings a sense of stability and security, it also brings a sense of challenge and responsibility. Comfortable and uncomfortable, this talk of ‘God’s will’.