Cross Connections

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Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience ~Colossians 3:12

Patience is one of those fruits of the Spirit that most of wish we had more of, but aren’t eager to be in situations where we actually need it. We often pray, “Lord, give me patience,” hoping that he’ll somehow zap us with a patience gun, not realizing that the way he answers that prayer is by putting us in situations where we are forced to grow in patience. Like a muscle, patience grows and strengthens as it is used. Noisy kids, irritating classmates, frustrating family members, pesky neighbors, uptight church people, slow drivers, cable company customer service… these are God’s means of grace in our lives to grow the precious, Christ-like fruit of patience.

And yet, how does that growth actually happen? What’s the difference between blowing your temper at your kids after a long day, and being able to treat them with grace under the same circumstances? You know that sometimes those difficult circumstances push you to exercise patience, and other times just push you to the end of your rope. Those difficult people in your life that God wants to use as means of grace could quite easily just be means of grumpiness. Circumstances by themselves aren’t enough to change our hearts; God doesn’t use those circumstances only. The most effective way to grow the fruit of patience in your heart is by the Holy Spirit connecting the gospel of God’s patience towards you to those circumstances in your life that require you to exercise patience towards others.

THE CHIEF OF SINNERS

The apostle Paul knew a thing or two about God’s patience, and was continually and increasingly amazed at the undeserved, gracious, patient way that God treated him. His story is well known: before his dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, he was your typical Middle Eastern terrorist on his way to firebomb some churches and round up and execute Christians. He was a zealot, a fundamentalist extremis– basically a first-century Jewish version of Osama bin Laden. Acts 9 begins the story of his conversion with this description of Paul (then Saul): “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Breathing threats and murder: this guy’s whole life and existence was bent on blood and killing. It’s helpful to see his anti-Christian activities in this harsh light of truth, because it highlights the incredible transformation that took place in his life. The terrorist, the murderer, transformed by grace and made not just a believer but a missionary, an apostle, and the human author of nearly half the New Testament. For the rest of his life he stood as a monument to mercy, to the breathtaking truth that no one is beyond the reach of sovereign, saving grace.

Paul never got over what God did to him and for him. He never got used to grace. In fact, as the years passed, his amazement only increased. You can actually see this progression from his earliest letters to his later ones, as his self-understanding of grace deepened. From 1 Corinthians, one of his earliest letters, to Ephesians, to 1 Timothy (one of his later letters), see how his self-description changes:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. ~1 Corinthians 15:9

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. ~Ephesians 3:8

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. ~1 Timothy 1:15

Early in his Christian life, amazed by God’s grace, he freely confessed that he was the least of all the apostles. “If you line up all the leaders, I should be at the back!” he would have said; “I don’t deserve to preach about Jesus.” Fast forward a couple years, and you hear how his self-assessment has declined: “I’m not just the least of the leaders; I’m the least of all the saints! I’m the worst person in the church.” Finally, as an old man, he’s gone even lower: “I’m the foremost, the chief of all the sinners. I’m the worst person I know.”

Does that sound depressing to you? Or do you see it as the key to joy, humility, and patience? This is the mark of all true holiness. Growth in godliness is always accompanied by a growing sense of your own sin. If you think you’re growing as a Christian but don’t see your sin more clearly, you’re deceiving yourself. But this isn’t bad news, because true godliness grows at the foot of the cross, where all your sin was paid for and covered. New awareness of indwelling sin should lead to newer appreciation of grace, and new appreciation of grace should lead to fresh grieving for the sin that still remains. This is the “vicious cycle” of gospel-centered self-awareness in which all the fruits of the Spirit, especially patience, thrive.

Paul’s last statement, from 1 Timothy, is particularly instructive for us in our study of patience. Here’s the entirety of what he said to the young pastor Timothy:

“Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”

Paul connects the extravagant, astonishing mercy he received to us; the reason, he said, that God showed him mercy is so that his life would display Jesus’ “perfect patience” as an example to every other sinner who worried that God’s grace wouldn’t go deep enough to rescue them. Paul says, “If Jesus could save me, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

I believe that the best way to grow in patience toward others is to live in daily increasing amazement at the perfect patience of Jesus towards me. Like the rest of the fruits of the Spirit, patience is a flower that grows best in the blood-soaked soil of Calvary, cultivated from brokenhearted, humbled meditation on Jesus’ sacrifice there.

WEARING JESUS’ ATTITUDE TOWARDS ME

That brings us to Colossians 3:12-13, our Cross Connection verse for patience. In this text, Paul calls believers to put on Jesus’ own attitude as “clothing,” if you will, for their heart.

Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

You can see that this text is much more than a Cross Connection about patience; it encompasses compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and mercy as well. This is a treasure trove of practical gospel living, so we will be returning to this verse several times in our study of other virtues. What I do want us to see now is how each of these virtues that we are commanded to “put on” are virtues that Jesus himself displays on our behalf in the gospel. The context of Colossians 3 makes it clear that the command to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and mercy is nothing more than a command to put on Christ himself. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). So let’s look briefly at each of these virtues, so that before we try to “wear” them ourselves, we first see them exhibited in Jesus.

COMPASSION

Three times each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we are told that Jesus had compassion. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36)– so he taught them truth and told his disciples to ask God to send more laborers into the harvest. “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat” (Mark 8:2)– so he multiplied bread and fed the entire multitude. “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep,'” (Luke 7:13)– so he raised the widow’s son from the dead. Those three examples give us a clear working definition of compassion: empathy translated into action.

Stop and consider for a moment: Jesus had empathy with all the people he encountered. I find that remarkable– the Sovereign, Eternal One, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, sympathized with and pitied suffering whenever he saw it. Our God is not high and exalted and transcendent only (although he certainly is those things!); no, he is also lowly, empathetic, and compassionate. Jesus empathizes with us, feels our pain, and in fact has made our pain his own, so that he would forever not just be a conquering Savior, but a compassionate Savior. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). He was fully human, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, so that he could be an empathetic King. “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).

You can see in those two texts, Isaiah 53 and Hebrews 2, how Jesus’ compassion is not just shown in his healing and feeding and raising, but in his sacrifice for sin on the cross. “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”– to the cross. He was “a merciful and faithful high priest”– so that he could make propitiation, become a wrath absorbing sacrifice, for our sins. It was Jesus’ compassion that drove him to the cross and qualified him to be our Savior.

Compassion is an essential quality of kindness. Kindness is focused on the good of others; compassion looks outside of your own circumstances and puts yourself in the shoes and suffering of others, and looks for ways to ease their burden. Compassion, then, is the practical heart of kindness– which the next divine attribute that we are told to put on.

KINDNESS

In Luke 6:35, Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies, and connects their motivation to the gospel and the very heart of God:

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for (because!) he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

Look and see what Jesus says about the heart of God: “He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” Incredible! Not, “He is kind to those who respond with appropriate gratitude and goodness.” No– he is kind to exactly the opposite people you’d expect; the ones who don’t respond with gratitude, the ones who rebel against him– in short, you and me.

If you don’t see your own face in the words “ungrateful and evil,” take a look at yourself in the mirror of the Word and ponder your own life. To what extent is your life marked by thankfulness and gratitude? Think of all the blessings God has given you– life and breath and friends and family and prosperity and forgiveness and eternal life and fellowship with him, and the list goes on and on (and will continue going on and on forever). Are you more aware of what you’ve been given, or what you lack? Are you continually thankful for those things God has given you? If not, you’re ungrateful, like a spoiled kid at Christmas who, in the midst of all his presents, throws a tantrum because he didn’t get everything he asked for.

We need to see and feel the depths of our ingratitude, so that the force of Jesus’ words will hit us with the wonder he intends: “The Most High is kind to the ungrateful and evil– to me!” Seeing ourselves as the unworthy recipients of the Most High’s kindness will break us into a posture of humility out of which we can start being kind to others who don’t deserve it either.

HUMILITY

Funny, isn’t it, how this meditation on the list of attributes in Colossians 3– “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”– has so seamlessly flowed one into another (it’s almost like Paul intended it that way!). Compassion is the practical heart of kindness; God’s kindness brings us to humility.

In Philippians 2, Paul entreats the Philippian believers to “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others more significant” than themselves. He points them to the example of Jesus in the gospel to shape and motivate their own humility:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

We’ll be tackling the virtue of humility in a future Cross Connection as well, so we won’t spend a lot of time unpacking this rich text. Just a simple observation again: Jesus is simultaneously the only person in the world to have ever displayed perfect, absolute humility, and yet the only person in the world who has nothing to be humble about. He is the exalted, glorious God– the most worthy Person in the entire universe. Unlike us, he has nothing intrinsic about himself to be humble about. He has no defects, no failings, no lack, no inabilities, no sins, no shortcomings. This is practically the definition of what it means to be God.

So consider the wonder, then, that this perfect God modeled perfect humility for us. The One who is worthy of all worship did not count equality with his Father a thing to be held onto, but willingly surrendered it for us. The One who is all-powerful and all-glorious emptied himself of all his divine prerogatives to rescue us. The One who is worthy of all service assumed the body, role, and position of a servant, feeding, healing, washing feet, and serving us all the way to the cross. The One who is the Author and Sustainer of Life humbled himself all the way to the fullest possible extent of humility: the helpless and horrible indignity of a brutal, shameful, naked death on the cross. Oh the glory of Jesus’ perfect humility!

MEEKNESS

Meekness is what Jesus’ kind of humility looks like practically. Meekness is not weakness; rather, meekness is strength under control. Jesus, the omnipotent and divine Son of God, was not weak. He calmed storms, cast out demons, overturned tables, rebuked religious leaders, and raised the dead. And yet, at the same time, he was meek and gentle; he wept with mourners, pitied outcasts, touched lepers, and cradled children. Both his emotions and his divine powers were fully governed and controlled by his humility and love. In Matthew 11, he invited his followers into the beautiful rest and salvation of his perfect meekness:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and meek in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

This invitation into the character of Christ is an invitation into the blood-bought, cross-wrought gospel. The invitation is given to those who labor under the impossibilities of God’s holy law, and to those who are heavy laden under the burden of sin and guilt. Jesus’ humility and meekness took him to the cross to fulfill the law and forgive guilt, so that with perfect gentleness and tenderness he could say to every struggling sinner, “Let me exchange burdens with you; I will take your sin, and the only burden I place on you is the command to rest in me.”

PATIENCE

Our survey of Jesus’ attributes in Colossians 3 now brings us to patience, which is the main focus of this Cross Connection chapter. Here’s the whole text again:

Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

We’ve seen how each of Jesus’ attributes here builds on the one before it into a crescendo of glory, arriving at the pinnacle of Paul’s command here: “patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Patience, forbearance, and forgiveness are really different dimensions of the same thing– the shining forth of God’s heart in Jesus. When Moses asked for a face-to-face encounter with the glory of God, here’s what he got: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). This is, literally, the heart of who God is: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. His “perfect patience” towards the apostle Paul is also the same way he treats stumbling, bumbling, sinful me.

The command to be patient, then, is the command to wear the heart of God on your sleeve, to put on Jesus’ perfect patience towards you, to bear with (literally, “to put up with”) others like God has patiently and graciously borne with you, to extend the same forgiveness to others that has been lavished on you. Patience is nothing more or less than acting towards others like Jesus has acted towards me. The reason that the last several pages have focused on all of Jesus attitudes towards me is because extended meditation on those attributes is the best way to start growing them in your own life.

Think of those in your life who treat you with ingratitude, hostility, or disregard. In other words, who treats you like you treat God? The great question that Jesus’ patience puts before us is: will you treat them like God has treated you?

Lord Jesus, Your patience towards a slow-to-learn, slower-to-obey sinner like me is astounding. Thank you for treating me, not as I deserve, but in accordance with your own great heart of compassion, patience, and kindness. Help me, by the Holy Spirit’s enabling, to more clearly see your heart towards me, and to wear that as my own heart towards others, so that they would see more of you and less of me.

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