At our Friday morning prayer last week a brother quoted Paul, “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27). This mention of the greatness of the mystery of Christ took my mind back to a comment made by a spiritual father some years ago about my theology lectures. “X tells me that all your students are frightened of you. I think it is because you speak of such great things.” This mature man of God did not say that I was great or that I spoke greatly, it was that the subject of whom I spoke i.e. Christ, is very great. I truly want this sense of Christ’s greatness to intensify in and through my life. Where however can we find a sense of God’s greatness in the Church today? We have casualised the divine presence with our “Hey God” or “Super-Daddy” prayers. Compare this to Isaiah’s “woe is me” experience of God’s glory in the temple, Amos’s “How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”” in the face of coming wrath or Peter’s “Depart from me…O Lord I am a sinful man” confession at the miraculous catch of fish (Isa 6:5; Amos 7:2; Luke 5:8). It was the revelation of the greatness of God that turned these ordinary men into extraordinary servants of the Lord. This is exactly the insight which is both needed and resisted in our churches today. How did the Creator of all become small to our sight in the first place?
God first became small in our estimation when Adam and Eve foolishly coveted the likeness of the immortal God as their own possession (Rom 1:23). Their desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” was the ultimate act of idolatry Gen 3:5; Col 3:5). They desired to possess for themselves “the fullness of God” as if by human effort they could squeeze the infinite deity into their puny humanity (Col 1:19; 21). This was a serious effort to downsize God to the level of our thinking and living. Whilst Adam and Eve believed that they “deserved” to be gods the result of their sin was an immediate fear of death as punishment (Gen 2:17; 3:8-10; 1 John 4:18). Fallen humanity always attempts to mask this fear of death through the creation of idols. In his insecurity Aaron listened to the people and made the Golden Calf (Ex 32). Gideon considered himself as “least in his father’s house” and was led astray to make a golden ephod as an object of worship (Judges 6:16; 8:27). Saul who “feared the people” could not resist making a “monument to himself” (1 Sam 15:12, 24). Idols are projections of our self-image reflecting our personal desires for power, pleasure and security. Such objects of self-worship draw us over from our Creator and into ourselves. God hates idols because they leave him no space to be great in his grace, love, compassion and mercy. Our Western churches have lost the sense of the greatness of God because they have increasingly conformed to a narcissistic age which continually bombards us with the message that it is us who are great. The Lord however is not mocked. In a society committed to expanding personal self-image it is no surprise we have many people lost in themselves in an inner world of darkness and depression. Just as frightening, the terrorist cry Allahu Akbar, which means “God is Greater”, is a divine judgement on our self-obsessions. From these judgements only Jesus can deliver us.
How Great Thou Art
Jesus was drawn to the small and despised of his times; demon possessed women, Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers, children and the like (Luke 8:1-4; 18:15; John 4:1-29). These “little people” were open to a vision of the greatness of God which flowed through the humility of Christ. Jesus however was unlike us in one radical dimension; he never focussed on overcoming the limits of his humanity. We instinctively puzzle over scriptures like these; ““My Father is greater than all….greater than I.”” (John 10:29; 14:28). They reveal however Christ’s delight to manifest the greatness of God by being the agency of the Father’s works (14:10). The greatest of God’s works however seems to the natural mind to involve his absence.
The Father’s greatest work was to lovingly persuade the Son to become so very small in his own sight that he seemed to be less than human. The psalmist prophetically speaks of Christ’s condition on the cross; “I am a worm and no man” (Ps 22:6). This absolute nothingness of Christ crucified is however the source of our salvation (Phil 2:7-8). The poverty of Jesus’ dereliction in death created a total space for God to be God in man (2 Cor 8:9). The Son’s guiltless death in our place according to God’s will gave the Father space to be maximally great. When Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father his human mind was filled to overflowing with just how great God is (Rom 6:4; Heb 2:11). This divine love revealed in cross-and–resurrection is the final display of the true greatness of God (Rom 5:8).
Small is Great
When Paul testifies, “how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”, he reminds his non-Jewish readers that they once were spiritually blind and dead, godless and hopeless possessing the status of “dogs” (Matt 15:26; Acts 26:18; Eph 2:1-3, 12; Col 1:27). Unlike places in the world where the gospel is breaking new ground the Western churches have lost sight of the enormity of the reality that salvation has come to the nations. We have somehow come to think that we deserve the things of God. The outlook of Hebrews reminds us of the true state of affairs; “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Heb 2:3-4). The utter greatness of salvation in Christ is witnessed to by miraculous signs, and that these are distributed according the Spirit’s will” is evidence that God is very willing to reveal his greatness. The revelation of God’s greatness in Christ always opens us up towards him (Col 2:9-10). Why then are our churches short of supernatural manifestations and lacking in discipleship? The short answer is that we worship self-comfort. If Jesus could only receive a revelation of the extent of God’s greatness through death-and-resurrection we also must receive experiences of defeat-and-deliverance (2 Cor 1:3-11). There can be no mature revelation of God’s supreme greatness apart from suffering (Heb 12:2).
Totally convinced that God’s mystery in Christ was “great among the Gentiles” Paul was found “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Col 1:28-29). If with Paul we believe in the greatness of Christ for his Church we too will be found “wrestling in prayer” for the maturity of others (Col 4:12). That such prevailing prayer is rare is clear evidence that we have lost faith in the willingness of God to reveal his greatness. The only remedy for our unbelief is the release of the gospel in the power of the Spirit. My prayer is for apostolic preaching with “signs and wonders and various miracles” in our midst, not so much that people would be healed and delivered, but that God might be confessed as great in the salvation which is in Jesus Christ (Heb 2:3-4). May we be prepared to bear the cost of such great things; as they say, “The greater the vision the greater the suffering.”