This morning we are going to begin a study on the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Colossians. At the time of Paul’s writing Colossae was a small city although several hundred years earlier it had been a leading city in Asia Minor in present day Turkey. The church appears to have begun during Paul’s 3-year ministry in Ephesus (AD 52–55) when Epaphras, a Colossian, probably traveled to Ephesus and responded to Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 19:10). As we’ll see, when Epaphras returned home, he began sharing the good news of Jesus Christ which resulted in the birth of the Colossian church (1:7).
This letter is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, Paul is in prison—probably in Rome (Acts 27–28, esp. 28:16–31) when he is writing; Second, as far as we know, Paul never visited this group of believers; Third, despite not knowing this church personally, Paul’s love and concern for these believers just oozes out of this epistle.
I think I find this last point most striking of all because, sadly, I don’t know I’ve ever experienced this level of visceral love for people whom I’ve never met. So, for instance, though I have periodically prayed for Christians in other countries, I find that actually knowing someone in that country is a huge aid to my prayer life. We all know about the persecuted church in China but doesn’t a passion come to our prayers in knowing that Victor and Marie, and Yoyo and Martin—brothers and sisters we personally know—are actually ministering there?
Yet in the letter to the Colossians Paul has effectively written a love letter to people about whom he’s heard, but never actually met. I think that Paul’s love for the people and churches with whom he is involved is a mark of his apostleship—of—as he states in verse 1—his being called by God to be Christ’s messenger and ambassador. Though Timothy is also mentioned as author, he’s probably functioning as Paul’s amanuensis—a fancy term for secretary—as he takes down Paul’s words to the Colossians.
Paul’s greeting is standard for the time. After introducing himself, he states his audience—or the recipients of his letter—God’s holy people in Colossae. By the way, this word for “holy people” is often translated as “saints.” They are “saints” not in the sense of being canonized by the Catholic Church as we might understand, but saints in the sense of being holy not due to their own holiness and obedience but due to the holiness all believers receive as a result of Jesus Christ’s obedience and their subsequent union with him.
It’s worth noting as well, as we’ve been considering various images of the church over the past few weeks, the familial words Paul uses—Timothy is “our brother”; the believers in Colossae are “the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.” To these family members Paul sends God the Father’s grace—his favor—and peace.
Paul begins this love letter, appropriately enough, with a word of gratitude—of thanks—to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ because he is the source of our salvation and kinship. What we will continue to see as we consider this epistle is something we’ve seen before, namely, the strong connection there is between our identity in Christ—through whom we are able to become children of our heavenly Father—which makes us brothers and sisters—and therefore family—to one another.
And the start of the kinship we share with our heavenly Father and one another all begins with the Gospel. If we follow Paul’s line of thinking, he states in verse 3, that he and Timothy always thank God, our Lord Jesus’ Father, when they pray—when they talk to God—for that is what prayer is.
The reason for the Thanksgiving is because they’ve heard about the Colossians’ faith in Christ—their belief and trust in him—and of the their love for all of God’s people. Again, notice that Paul hasn’t witnessed this faith and love firsthand, but he and Timothy have heard about it, primarily from Epaphras, who is part of the Colossian church family. Evidently the Colossian church is living out the sum of the law and the prophets given by Jesus—they are loving God with all of their hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves (Mt. 22:37, Mk. 12:30, Lk. 10:27). By word and deed the lives of the Colossians demonstrate their trust in Christ and love for other believers.
And notice the source of their faith and love in verse 5—it springs from the hope that is stored up in heaven about which they heard in the true message of the gospel. Now we don’t tend to think of hope as something solid, do we?
If we’re planning a day at the beach, we might say “I hope it doesn’t rain”—but we say this knowing fully well that have no power over weather systems;
If we’re small business contractors—oh, say an interior painter—we might say, “I hope such-and-such a customer pays us this week”—but we have no control over when the customer will actually get around to putting that check in the mail;
Or we can share with a friend, “I hope I get that job I’ve applied to” but—having done our best in our application materials and interview—the outcome is out of our hands.
In other words, we tend to equate hope with wishful thinking—with wanting a certain outcome—but without the power to make that outcome come about.
This is not the definition of “hope” Paul is using here. In fact, the hope these Colossian believers have in the truth of the Gospel—in the truth that Jesus Christ takes our sins upon himself and gives eternal life to all who turn away from their old ways and turn to him—this hope in the Gospel is so strong that it has become the source, the reason that they are able to demonstrate faith in Christ and love for each other.
Paul then notes that this, in fact, is the nature of the Gospel—of the good news of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for our salvation. The nature of the Gospel, as is the case with all good news—is that it tends to grow—it tends to spread—people want to share it.
Earlier this summer when we learned that Doug Kimball found work, we rejoiced in this good news and delighted in sharing it with one another.
So, too, when we learned the news of good health reports from Denise Melanson and Sue Lindsay, we rejoiced and shared and talked about this good news with one another because of the joy it brought us.
And we celebrated and passed on the good news of the births of Jesse Guarino and Sierra Dietz.
When Ron and I were engaged, this good news spread throughout the contractor grapevine so that for a time Ron was one of the most talked-about painters in the entire contractor community.
If this is the nature of good news about daily events and milestones in our lives—that we share it with those around us—how much more is it the case that the good news of God’s love for us demonstrated in his Son should spread. This is the hope that has caused the Colossians to have faith in Christ Jesus and love for all God’s people. This is a sure hope. It is a hope that is so sure that, we’re told, it’s “stored up…in heaven” for us.
Now what does this mean—that the Colossians’ hope is stored up for them in heaven? It means that their hope has an unshakeable foundation—a foundation as real and unshakeable as heaven itself. This hope isn’t like our human hoping for a certain outcome to happen. This hope is more like treasures we have in a vault—this hope is real because heaven is real.
Our view of heaven will have an impact on the strength of our hope in the Gospel. If we view heaven as something that may or may not exist, then our hope will be weak. But if we view heaven as Scripture speaks of heaven, our hope will have the strongest of all foundations.
A few weeks ago as we were considering the biblical image of church as family, I noted that there are around 250 mentions of the word “brother” “sister” or “family” in the New Testament that don’t refer to biological family. Well, out of curiosity, I searched for mentions of “heaven” and its derivations that don’t refer to sky but rather are references to God’s current dwelling—and believers’ future dwelling— and I found around 270 mentions. That’s right. There are more mentions of heaven in the New Testament than there are of our being family to one another. And, for those who are interested, there are only about 165 mentions of earth!
Brothers and sisters, heaven is real. And because heaven is real, our hope in the truth of who Christ is and what he has done is built on a solid foundation. If we judged by numbers, we might even say heaven is more real than earth! And if heaven is God’s dwelling place—a place we will one day know by sight, not faith—then even now, by God’s indwelling Spirit, we have a foretaste of heaven, a foretaste of eternal life that should offer us perspective on our earthly life. Our eternal life in the heavenly realms with God has already begun because if we know Christ and are thus united with him, we are already God’s temple, both individually and corporately, even as we learned last week.
In his The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires reflects upon the difference a supernatural orientation—a heavenly perspective—can bring to our lives. He says the following:
a prime mark of the Christian mind is that it cultivates the eternal perspective—it looks beyond this life to another one and brings to bear upon earthly considerations the fact of Heaven and of Hell…. It sees human life and history as being held in God’s hands, the whole universe sustained by his power and love, the natural order as dependent upon the supernatural order, time as contained within eternity. It sees this life as an inconclusive experience, preparing us for another; this world as a temporary place of refuge, not our true and final home (67).
Blamires adds that this outlook is in stark contrast with a secular or worldly view that understands what we experience directly with the senses as constituting the heart and totality of reality. But a heavenly perspective understands that “all of Christian revelation deals with the breaking-in of the greater supernatural order upon our more limited finite world” (68).
This is the kind of hope Paul is addressing here. This heavenly hope is so real that is has spurred the Colossian believers to grow in their faith in Christ and in their love for other believers. Again, the nature of good news is to spread and shared it—especially the good news of God’s love for us in Christ. Paul notes in verse 6 that, indeed, this is what is taking place even in the early days of the church’s existence. He says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world even as it has in the life of this local congregation of believers at Colossae. Once they heard and truly understood the nature of God’s grace—the nature of his unmerited favor towards us who turned our backs on him—they shared this wonderful news with others so that the church at Colossae, which at one time didn’t even exist, has begun to grow.
And in verses 7 and 8 we learn that this church began because one person—Epaphras—told and taught them about Jesus Christ. Epaphras is Paul and Timothy’s “dear fellow servant”—“a faithful minister of Christ” who started this church as a result of Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel—and his life as a believer is now coming full circle as he tells Paul and Timothy about the love the Colossians are displaying for all believers by means of the Holy Spirit.
Paul and Timothy are so excited about the faith of the Colossians that we’re told, in verse 9, that “since the day [they] heard about [the Colossian believers], [they] have not stopped praying for [them].” So here we see a way in which the good news of the Gospel differs from good news we may receive about employment or health or some other milestone. Whereas good news we receive may be shared and passed along, it’s mostly information, isn’t it? It doesn’t require that we act upon it. It may very well affect out feelings or outlook momentarily, but it’s something we share—or hear—and then move on with our lives.
Yet the good news of what God in Christ has done for us is different. As we noted last week, it isn’t just orthodoxy—right belief, a true report—but it should lead to orthopraxy—a certain godly lifestyle—and orthopathy—a certain way of viewing our lives through heaven’s eyes. To hear and learn about and commit to Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord isn’t the end of the good news—it’s only the beginning. This is news that needs to be acted on not only in creating in us a desire to share it with others but also in creating in us a desire to change our lives. And—as we all know if we’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution or expressed a desire to make a change in our lives for health or some other reason—change is difficult. Paul and Timothy know this and so they have been praying without ceasing for these Colossian believers.
There’s a reason Paul and Timothy—since the day they heard about the Colossians—have not stopped praying for them. Faith—especially new faith—can be fragile. It requires sustenance and support. It requires deepening. It requires understanding. It requires a changed life.
So Paul and Timothy share some of the things for which they are praying for the Colossians:
In verses 9–10 we see that they are praying that God will fill them with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding the Spirit gives so that they may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way. In other words, they are praying for further orthodoxy—the knowledge of God’s will by the wisdom and understanding of the Holy Spirit—and orthopraxy—that they may live lives worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.
To be a follower of Christ, knowledge of God’s will isn’t enough. Rather we must be those who seek this knowledge, reliant upon the Spirit’s wisdom and understanding, and act on this knowledge so that we may lead lives worthy of the Lord and please him in every way. I remember hearing someone pray publicly once a prayer that I’ve prayed many times with: “Lord, help us to live lives worthy of the sacrifice you made in Jesus Christ, your Son.” Until I was preparing this week’s sermon, I never realized that the man who prayed this had heard it first in Scripture.
Now to live lives worthy of Christ means to live lives that understand the costly grace involved in Christ’s sacrifice and to avoid cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a German Lutheran theologian who actively opposed Nazism—reflects upon the difference of these two types of grace in his Cost of Discipleship.
According to Bonhoeffer, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” And this he contrasts with costly grace:
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation—[and, I would add, the death and resurrection]—of God.”
Bonhoeffer understands the connection between the truth of what God in Christ has done for us and the impact this should have upon our lives, doesn’t he? He is building upon a Pauline understanding that the more we understand the Gospel, the more our lives should be changed and lived in gratitude for all God has done.
Paul goes on to define for us—in verses 10 and following—what it means to live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing to him in every way. It means that we are to bear fruit in every good work—orthopraxy—to do what we do for his sake and for the sake of those he’s placed in our lives;
it means to grow in the knowledge of God—orthodoxy. Unlike those being addressed in Hebrews 9 that we spoke of last week, we are not to remain in the “milk” of our faith but we are to move on to “solid food.”
It means to be strengthened according to God’s might—that we turn to him and acknowledge our need for and dependence upon him in all things so that we might develop great endurance and patience. We like things to happen quickly but learning endurance and patience takes time.
Paul ends this portion of his letter as he started—by giving thanks. Not just thanks (verse 12) but “joyful thanks to the Father” who has qualified the Colossians to share in the inheritance that is the due—by Christ’s sacrifice—of all of God’s holy people—his saints—in the kingdom of light. And what is it that has qualified them for this inheritance? That—verses 13–14—“he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
The Lord knew that our turning from him in the garden as a result of the enemy’s temptation was so serious that the only way our relationship with him could be restored was by his taking the initiative. So before the foundation of the world, our loving, merciful, patient, triune God determined to undo this situation. God determined to take on human flesh that we might know what he is like—if we’ve seen Christ we’ve seen the Father, Jesus tells Phillip—and that we might know what true humanity was intended to look like in the person of Jesus.
It is his obedience that has made it possible for us to know the Father.
It is his righteousness that the Father sees in us if we have trusted him.
It is his Spirit he has given us that we might one day fully and finally be ushered into his kingdom of light.
It is his work that has rescued us from the enemy present in the garden and redeemed us that our sins might be forgiven and we might know his love now and forever more.
Brothers and sisters, as we consider these words from Paul this morning, we need to ask:
Does the truth of the Gospel affect the way we understand the events of our lives? Does the truth of heaven and God’s goodness offer us perspective when we experience evil on earth? When we are faced with the reality of fallen world that is not yet fully redeemed?
We need to further ask: are we as eager to share the good news of God’s love in Christ as we are the good news of our daily lives? And I confess that I ask this with some chagrin because I don’t feel that I am as passionate about sharing Christ with those who don’t know him as I am with those who do.
Finally, are we passionately praying for other believers—even for those we don’t know—as a result of knowing Jesus Christ? Are we praying for the suffering church across the world?
Brothers and sisters, though we are saints—though we are holy ones, God’s holy people by Christ’s work in us—God’s holy temple—holiness is hard work, isn’t it? Let us follow Paul’s lead in gratitude and prayer, knowing that we can’t do God’s work on our own but
because he has given us himself
because he has left us his Word
because he has given us his Spirit
because he has given us each other
we can be his holy people—his saints—we can be the people he has called us to be.
Please pray with me….