It is no secret that I have recently become enamored with the book of Colossians. What may be a bit of a "secret" is that, through this love and passion for the message of this book, God has prompted me to write a Bible Study on the four chapters of this powerful portion of Scripture. Now, what will become of this Study and who will actually get to read it is still unknown and, frankly, isn't the focus for me at the moment. What I know is that God has asked me to write, and so I do. It's up to Him what happens after that.
All that to say, I'm continually reviewing the lessons I've learned in recent months, holding dear and writing eagerly on the passages that spoke most to me, but then wondering what to do with the stuff "in between." While I prayed this morning over what there was to say, exactly, about Colossians 1:5b-8, He suddenly called to mind what struck me most when I was reading through this passage in the fall. Something which, in light of current events, is still striking me.
In Colossians 1:5b-6, Paul writes, "Of this [referring to the hope for believers that is laid up in heaven] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing - as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth . . ."
All of this sounds pretty standard, right? He's encouraging believers in a growing little church in Colossae and reminding them this gospel that came to them has gone into the "whole world" where it is bearing fruit and growing.
I'm smiling now, because this is where my mind was blown a little.
Because, as one who sits in a comfortable chair in a warm sanctuary on Sunday mornings, organ playing, slides projected on the wall, just under the beautiful wooden cross to remind us all why we're there, I tend to separate my real world with the world of the Bible. Of course, I believe every word of it is true and this is an actual representation of History, but I'm really good at segmenting history history - like what we learn in schools or what relates to current events - from Bible history. As if they exist in two separate realms. And, as far as church history goes, it seems to feel like, yes, the New Testament church was our beginning, but then it jumps in my head from Paul to the English church, Martin Luther, etc. Sometimes it feels like that's where we began - this western church is our history.
But where was this New Testament church of Paul's day?
What was "the whole world." as far as Paul was concerned?
The footnotes on this passage from my ESV Bible Study say this: "It has now been roughly 30 years since Christ's death and resurrection and Pentecost. The gospel has indeed spread from Jerusalem into Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and likely into Egypt, North Africa, and Persia as well."
Notice, it went to Rome, yes, but it didn't just head to Europe, but to Africa and the Middle East. As anyone familiar with modern western missionary efforts will tell you, North Africa and the Middle East is considered the most dangerous region to take the gospel today.
And I consider, then, the spread of the early church and the faith of early believers and I ponder, is it any wonder, or any coincidence, that these are the locations now most known as the seat of Islam?
Is it any coincidence that this is where Satan first planted the seed of this religion which is now the biggest combatant against Christianity?
Is it any coincidence that this region has had such a multitude of hearts hardened against Christ's followers that one cannot even bring the gospel into the very place it originated without threat to one's own life?
But, then, we must also see the further truth of this realization. Communities of believers in the Middle East - Syria, Egypt, Turkey - were born and were bearing fruit and growing the gospel long before King James ever ordained a single translation of Scripture. Would it not stand to reason, if the word which was spread into all the world and continues to grow and change lives, was growing and changing lives in the Middle East in those days, that communities of believers that can trace their lineage back to the Colossian church, or the Ephesian church, or the Philippian church, might still exist?
That maybe, when the gospel was spread, only 30 years after the death of Christ, to Syria, that descendants of those early Syrian believers, who have passed the truth of their faith and the hope laid up for them in Heaven, from one generation to the next, might have managed to reject false teaching, holding fast to the teachings of Paul, who so adamantly warned against "plausible arguments" (Colossians 1:4) that may have deluded new Christ followers, and withheld the spread of the new religion sweeping their nations. Is it possible that, maybe, there are those in the Middle East who have never been swayed by the words of a false prophet, but continue to cling to the cross?
A good friend tells of a time he met a Middle Eastern believer and, awed by his belief, despite his nationality, he asked this believer when he and family came to faith in Christ. The answer he received was, "In Acts, chapter 2."
We tend to forget, as Western believers, that these nations which present such a threat to our lives and our peace, were the birth-place of who we are, as a church, and as the Body of Christ. Yes, it is well-known that Satan has very thoroughly seemed to have accomplished his mission in these regions. But that does not mean God is no longer at work there, as well. His Word continues to grow, spread and change lives, even with very little influence from western believers.
So, maybe, when so many live in terror of those fleeing for their lives from war-battered nations, it could be recognized that some of these that seek refuge are, in fact, believers, who flee for their lives because their blood is demanded from them because they cling to the blood of Christ. And these are not simply new believers, rejecting any sort of false religion they once held, because someone has managed to sufficiently risk their lives to get into the region so many are seeking to escape, but these may be well-established believers because there remains a rich history and heritage of Christ in the very places where the church was born.
Perhaps, armed with this knowledge, we can change our perspective on the Middle East and see what is truly happening - nations torn apart by the ancient battle between spiritual forces. Not because a false religion wins, but because Satan still feels threatened by what God started in these places two millenia ago.
Perhaps when we encounter, then, or hear of those who follow a false prophet we can see them not as enemies, but as those who have been deceived by the one who has been waging war against God himself almost since time began. And our hearts can break.
And maybe we can cry out on our knees for hearts to be turned back to the Father, rather than bodies turned away from our shores.
Let us not forget, there was once Peace born in the Middle East. And if God has not abandoned them, neither, then, shall we.