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The one thing you need to know

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Colossians 1:1-8

2006 is off to an unsettling beginning.

Athletic success is uncertain. Vince Young led the University of Texas to its first national title since 1970. Meanwhile, Maurice Clarett, the freshman who did the same for Ohio State a few years back, is under arrest for robbing two people of their cell phones.

Economic success is uncertain. Alan Greenspan will end 17 years at the Federal Reserve this month; Ben Bernanke will then take over, and no one is sure what he’ll do with interest rates and the economy.

We’re not safe at school. This week’s Dallas Morning News described the growing problem Parent-Teacher Associations are facing with theft and embezzlement. One official recently stole more than $50,000 from the organization. Another stole $140,000.

We’re not safe at home. Last Sunday morning, a three-year-old boy asleep in his bed was seriously injured by a drive-by shooting in Oak Cliff.

We’re not even safe in church. Last Sunday night, a gunman broke into a church service in Maryland, and made off with an undetermined amount of cash and valuables.

With the future so unpredictable, how will you measure success this year?

Time magazine named Bill and Melinda Gates, and the rock star Bono, their People of the Year. Bono played a significant role in persuading the world’s richest countries to forgive $40 billion in debt owed by the poorest countries. Meanwhile, the Gates have created the largest charity in history, with a $29 billion endowment. However, they and every person they help will still step into eternity. When that happens, financial success won’t matter much.

We can measure success by possessions, job advancement, grades, points scored, friends impressed. Recently my brother and I went through four boxes of family memorabilia, much of it a century old. Report cards, pictures of houses and cars and vacations. Now just forgotten snapshots, relegated to the attic.

There’s another way to measure success in 2006. Let’s discover it together.

Serve God alone

Colossians sets out the preeminence of Jesus Christ more fully than any other book of the Bible. Back in AD 60, no one would have expected such. Colossae was the only church addressed by Paul which he never visited, and the smallest church to receive a letter in all the New Testament. Located 100 miles east of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, it had been a thriving town before its neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hieropolis passed it by. Think of Big Spring in relation to Midland or Ennis in relation to Dallas, and you’d have the idea.

The church had been founded five to seven years earlier by a man named Epaphras. He was from the city (Colossians 4:12), and had now brought news to Paul in Rome that the three most important Christian virtues were thriving in Colossae.

Paul has heard of “your faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 4a). The phrase means their faith exercised in his presence, walking always in communion with him. They are practicing the presence of Jesus. Would those who know you make the same report to Paul about you?

He has heard of “the love that you have for all the saints” (v. 4b). In the New Testament, the “saints” are those made holy by Jesus, synonymous with the Church. Because they walk with Jesus, they love his family as their own. “All”–without discrimination or contradiction. Would everyone you know tell Paul the same of you?

And he knows that their faith and love come from “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5). This hope is the source, the motive behind their continual practice of Jesus’ presence and love for his people.

They walk with him and love each other because they know that they will receive eternal reward for their faithfulness. They are living for that reward, not for anything the world can offer them.

They are obeying Jesus’ command to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).

They know that this reward is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

They heard about this hope, this purpose for living, in “the word of the truth, the gospel.” It changed their lives, and is changing their world.

Everywhere it goes it is “bearing fruit”–the analogy refers to spiritual reproduction. Christians who live for God alone and his heavenly reward lead others to follow Jesus as well, multiplying themselves.

And it is “growing”–the word points to their internal spiritual transformation. By living for God and his heaven they are growing to be more like Jesus every day.

By choosing to serve God alone and live for his reward alone, the Colossian Christians have joined their founder and their apostle.

Paul is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” “Apostle” means “one sent by the authority of another.” As such, he gave up all rights to himself–to where he would go, what he would do, what he would say. His only definition of success is obedience to the One he serves.

Epaphras is “our beloved fellow servant” (v. 7); the Greek calls him Paul’s “fellow bondslave.” We know from Philemon 23 that he had been imprisoned with Paul, perhaps in Ephesus or Rome. He gave up his plans and ambitions to serve Jesus and his Kingdom alone.

And now their work has helped spread the good news of God’s transforming love “in the whole world.” 20 centuries later, we are still following their Lord and moved by their example. 20 centuries from now, who will remember this year’s Rose Bowl football game?

So here’s the sermon in a sentence: find out what God will reward in heaven, and do it on earth. God wants us to serve him alone, for he alone can make our lives significant–now and forever.

He wants us to be his “slave,” as Paul often called himself, his “prisoner,” as the apostle often described himself. To measure success only by faithful obedience to him. To live for his heavenly reward rather than temporal success. To turn loose of every other definition of success, of every other ambition and agenda. Then he can reward us, now and forever.

To decide that popularity, position, and possessions are not as important as faithfulness to Jesus. To surrender our lives in unconditional devotion to him, living only for his heavenly and eternal reward. That’s success to Paul. Is it to us?

Why to serve God alone

Why should it be? Why does God require such unconditional discipleship and devotion? Our culture certainly doesn’t see him this way. If conventional wisdom is right, God is our “Higher Power” who helps us when we have a problem, who inspires us to be the best we can be, who cheers us on from the sidelines, a kindly grandfather watching his children play in the park. Paul makes him sound like a Stalinistic dictator or power-driven CEO. How can the Bible claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and yet tell us that we must surrender to him as though we were his servant or slave?

Fact number one: our lives must focus on one purpose to be significant. A laser cuts more steel than a light bulb. You’ve heard me quote Abraham Maslow: “An artist must paint, a poet must write, a musician must make music to be ultimately at peace with himself.” Churchill told the House of Commons in June of 1941, “I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” Last Sunday you heard Chris Elkins remind us that Paul had “one thing” (Philemon 4:13). So must we.

Fact number two: only God knows what our “one thing” should be. Only he sees tomorrow from today. He made us and knows the purpose for which we are created, the purpose for which we are suited, the purpose which makes us happy and significant. He is perfect, omniscient and omnipotent. He sent his Son to die for us, that we might be forgiven and made his children. His will is our best, always.

Fact number three: even God can lead only those who will follow him. He is sovereign, but he has chosen to limit himself at the point of human freedom (cf. 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4). He will not do for us what we try to do for ourselves. Self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide.

When the body will not obey the mind, we call it diseased. When a soldier will not obey the general we call it treason. When a sailor will not obey the captain we call it mutiny. When an employee will not obey the CEO we call it insubordination. When a Christian will not obey Christ we call it “self-reliance.”

Conclusion

So, how do we join the Colossians and their apostle and founder? How do we begin this year in surrender and submission to our Father and Lord, choosing to live for his heaven as his servants and children?

Expect to be tempted by self-reliance, every day. Satan still whispers in our ears, “You will be as gods.” The will to power is still the basic drive in human nature. Know that you will decide between your will and God’s, all day and all year long.

Begin the day in surrender. Before it starts, give it to God. Make it your habit to spend a moment first thing in the morning, praying through your day and placing it in his hands.

Pray first as decisions come your way. Develop the reflex of going to God first. Before you take the phone call, answer the email, or step into the meeting. Before you go on the date, or to the concert. Before you make your next parenting decision.

Evaluate today by eternity. How will this glorify God? How will this demonstrate faith in Christ, love for all the saints, hope in heaven?

And expect God to redeem your faithful obedience. Expect this to be the best, most fulfilling, most significant year you have yet experienced. Expect him to guide you, use you, and bless you. Expect your life to bear fruit until Jesus returns. Expect joy.

I stole my title for this message from Marcus Buckingham’s latest business bestseller: The One Thing You Need to Know . . . About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success.

What is the “one thing you need to know”? In a sentence: find out what you don’t like doing, and stop doing it. Then you’ll maximize your strengths and engage others to handle your weaknesses, and all will be well.

Paul would say it differently: find what you don’t do for Jesus and stop it. Find out what he’ll reward in heaven, and do it on earth. Start now.

Here’s how the sermon applies to my life. In 1978, I was in my first church, serving as youth minister at Temple Oaks Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. In April of that year I left Temple Oaks to return to my home church as their youth minister. At my going-away reception on April 9, the Temple Oaks people gave me a set of Barclay’s commentaries; I still use them each week.

Everyone had left. I was walking to my car under the glare of the one streetlamp in the church parking lot. I read Barclay’s introductory paragraph, where he called himself a “theological middleman.” That was my Damascus Road. Lights flashed, bells clanged. I somehow knew that I was to spend my life making theology relevant to life, using academic resources to help people follow Jesus and build the Kingdom.

This week, preparing this message, the Holy Spirit took me back to that evening and that call. He led me to renew my commitment to it, as the servant of Jesus Christ alone. To answer to him only, to please him only, to live for his reward only. It has been one of the most joyful, freeing, encouraging weeks I can remember.

Find out what God will reward in heaven, and do it on earth. All year long. Starting now. This is the invitation, and the call, of God.