This morning we are continuing to look at the letter of Paul to the Colossians, chapter 1, page 983 in the church Bibles; Colossians chapter 1. We’re thinking about the words of verses 3 through 8. Paul has learned of the Christians at Colossae that their faith was being shaken, undermined, assaulted by some false teaching that had begun to infect the church. There were teachers claiming real “fullness” - that was their word; Paul is going to use it repeatedly in this letter as a way to counter their error - real “fullness,” power, spiritual dynamism in the Christian life was to be found not in the simplicity of the Gospel that they had learned and believed at all, but in a form instead of aestheticism mixed with ritual observance. They even seemed to have interesting ideas about the worship of angels and supernatural beings.
Scholars have debated for many years the precise character of the Colossian heresy, but it does seem to share some of the family resemblances with a movement known as Gnosticism. In the early years of the history of the church, Gnosticism really had infected the life of the church and made real inroads into it, and that certainly seems to be the case here at Colossae. In fact, it was shaking the faith of many to the point where they were beginning to wonder if perhaps they hadn’t made a terrible mistake, if maybe that had believed in vain, if maybe their Christianity was in error and they ought to turn aside and follow the distortions of these false teachers.
It still happens today, doesn’t it? We sometimes hear others tell us about this ministry or that new teaching that will simply revolutionize your life. We hear claims about supernatural power and previously unknown insights that are bound to knock your socks off and we can begin to become dissatisfied with the old, familiar paths and patterns of Christian discipleship that we know and have been taught. And we can even begin to wonder if we aren’t missing out, if perhaps our Christianity isn’t the real thing; perhaps we are the ones who have been deceived. And so Paul is writing to encourage the Colossians, to encourage us, to shore up our assurance to help us stand firm on the foundation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
We are going to see him do that in three ways, so here’s the outline before we read the passage and consider its message. Three ways that Paul helps to encourage and bolster the assurance of the Colossian believers. First, the priority of thanks. He starts by giving thanks and giving credit to whom credit is due. He gives thanks to God. Then in verses 4 and 5, he reminds us about the pattern of change. There’s real change that’s taken place in the Colossians’ lives and he wants to encourage them by what he can see. And then finally in verses 5 through 8, the power of truth. There is something about the word of the Gospel that is mighty and living and powerful that can comfort us in our fears and give to us stability in our uncertainties and strengthen our assurance. So the priority of thanks, the pattern of change, the power of truth. That’s where we’re going. Before we read the passage together, let me invite you first to bow your heads with me as we pray.
O Lord Christ, You have the sharp, double-edged sword that comes from Your mouth - the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Would You wield it now in great power to wound and to heal in all our hearts, for we ask it in Your name, amen.
Colossians 1 at the third verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this 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 increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.”
Amen, and we praise the Lord that He has spoken in His holy Word.
When Martin Luther was asked about the Reformation, he said, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word. Otherwise, I did nothing. And then while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with Philipp Melanchthon and Nikolaus von Amsdorf, the Word did the work. I did nothing. The Word did it all.” That was his explanation for the mighty Reformation that began during his lifetime. “I did nothing. The Word did it all.” Now I suspect were you to ask the apostle Paul about the Colossian church and the Colossian Christians and the explanation for their existence, he would say precisely the same thing. “I did nothing. The Word did it all.” You will remember that Paul has never visited Colossae. He didn’t plant the church, and yet there’s a real sense in which the church at Colossae was a fruit of Paul’s ministry.
Priority of Thanks
Almost certainly during his almost three years in the city of Ephesus - you can read about his stay in Ephesus in Acts chapter 19 - during that time, Epaphras, who himself comes from the city of Colossae, was converted and returned. And as he returned to the Lycus Valley, he plants a church in Hierapolis and another in Laodicea and particularly this church here now in Colossae. So Epaphras is a fruit of Paul’s ministry and so also by extension, therefore, is the Colossian church and the Colossian believers. Acts 19:10, Luke tells us that the result of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus was that “all Asia,” all the residents of Asia, “heard the Word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” So people heard about Jesus from all over when they came to Ephesus perhaps for trade and business and are brought to faith in Him. And as they return home, everywhere they go they preach Christ and churches are planted. Epaphras was one such new convert who took the Gospel and was doubtless commissioned by the Ephesian church to plant Gospel churches.
In the eight-thirty service, we had the tremendous privilege and blessing of baptizing upon his profession of faith a man from East Asia. We did not do it at eleven o'clock because of television screens and internet broadcasting. He's about to return to his home country and we did not want to make it more difficult on him as he returns. But we heard him profess his faith in Christ, he was baptized, and he is returning next week and so he goes back with the Gospel to serve and to witness and to labor for Christ. What a joy that was.
That's what was happening on a dramatic scale during Paul's ministry in Ephesus, and the ultimate result was the church at Colossae was planted. And so there really is no wonder that Paul begins verse 3 in the way that he does - giving credit to whom credit is due. Certainly, he honors Epaphras; he's named a couple of times in this letter and he is honored by the apostle Paul. Paul is quick to encourage all of the good things he can see in the Colossians as well, but he isn't praising Epaphras and he's not praising the Colossians. Is he? Verse 3 - who gets the credit for the salvation of sinners at Colossae? Who gets the credit for the planting of this church in a pagan city? "We always thank God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray for you." "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."
Power of God
The explanation for their faith in Jesus, for your faith in Jesus and mine, is not the wisdom of men, not the rhetoric of a preacher, not the intelligence of the hearer, but the power of God who brought us out of darkness into His marvelous light, by whose sovereign power we become His children, and by whose grace we live who once were dead. I did nothing. The Word did it all. God, by His Word, did it all, and so Paul gives praise to God. And that’s enormously helpful for the Colossians as they struggle with their assurance of salvation, because after all, if the reason for their faith in Jesus was merely the rhetoric of a preacher or the intelligence of the hearer, if it rested, that is to say, upon a human being merely, then it rests on a terribly unstable foundation. They can have no confidence, no assurance. After all, human beings deceive and are deceived. But if it rests instead on the sovereign grace of Almighty God who, when He promises keeps His word, who sits enthroned in the heavens and does whatever He pleases and fulfills all His holy will, when it rests in the hands of such a God and all glory belongs to Him, then we can be sure then we can be safe, then we can have glorious confidence.
In Revelation 7, John sees a marvelous picture of the church triumphant drawn from every tribe and language and people and nation, gathered around the throne of God and they're robed in white robes; they have palm branches in their hands. And I imagine them, I imagine them gathered there, astonished. "How did I come here? What a foolish man I was in life! How inconstant! I would make promises and I would follow through for a while and then I'd trip and fall. I was prone to wander, prone to leave the God that I love. How did I ever make it here? Here I am not robed in filthy rags but robed in white linen in the great assembly of the Church triumphant adoring my Savior. However, did I come here? And Revelation tells us the explanation as that great assembly takes up the song, "Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!" That's how we come there. He does it all. Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, and He washed it white as snow."
The Eclipse of Self
And so Paul gives thanks to God, and as he does, he models for us actually one of the ways we can fight fear and uncertainty in our hearts - not only remembering to whom credit is due, but the discipline of giving Him the credit, of giving thanks. It helps us look up and away from ourselves when we are filled with fear and insecurity; oftentimes it's because we have become overly aware of our own weakness, inadequacy, and sin. And self has grown until it has eclipsed the sight of the Savior. In those moments, brothers and sisters, give thanks - not for anything in you but for what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. Look away from yourself to the cross and give thanks. Fight fear with thanksgiving and you'll find, not in yourself certainly, but in the Savior abundant reasons for hope and for confidence. So Paul begins with the priority of thanks. Do you give thanks? Is yours a thankful heart? Fight your fear and your insecurity with gratitude and thanksgiving for what God has done, to whom alone belongs our salvation.
Pattern of Change
Then secondly, Paul talks to them about the pattern of change. The priority of thanks, then secondly, the pattern of change. He can see their lives have been transformed by the Gospel. He sees the evidence and he wants to encourage them by pointing it out. Sometimes, if you’re like me at least, when you take a good look at yourself it’s hard to see evidence of grace. Plenty of evidence of sin, much to be ashamed of, much to grieve over, and so we need someone like Paul to come alongside us, put their arm around us from time to time, don’t we, and say, “Let me show you what I can see God has been doing in your heart, dear brother, or dear sister.” We need one another to perform the vital ministry of encouragement.
And you'll notice the encouragement Paul gives. He highlights three marks of real spiritual change. He speaks, notice, about their "faith in Christ Jesus," their "love for all the saints," and the "hope laid up for them in heaven." It's the classic triad; you find it again and again in Paul's writings when he sums up authentic Christianity - faith, hope, and love. Here, the order is faith, love, and hope. He wants to help the Colossians come to a well-grounded assurance and so he wants them to see the marks of spiritual life he can see so very clearly.
Faith in Christ
The first mark is “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” There can be no assurance of salvation without faith in Christ in the first place. That may seem self-evident to you. How can you be assured of salvation? How can you have full assurance of faith when you don’t have faith in the first place? But let me say that’s not at all obvious to very many. There is, I think, a real problem in the contemporary church with people who have no fears about their own destinies, no lack of certainty that they will find a place in the eternal embrace of the living God even while they give no evidence of a life lived trusting in Jesus. When you ask them, they’ll say, well their hope is when they come to stand before the Lord in the judgment that they will somehow measure up. They go to church once in a while, after all. They pray occasionally. They’re kind. They’ve been generous. But you see, they’re trusting in themselves, don’t you. They’re trusting in their own goodness such as it is.
Friends, you’ve got to know that whatever righteousness you may claim, your claimed righteousness will damn you just as effectively as your sin ever could. Your own accomplishments, your best behavior, your kindness, your goodness - none of it will acquit you in the heavenly tribunal. No, only one thing matters, only on the basis of this can you have real confidence before God; resting not in your own goodness, your own righteousness, your own religion, your own philanthropy. It must be the righteousness of Jesus Christ reckoned to your account. It must be your confidence not in your works but in Christ’s work for you. You must go to Jesus saying, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling. Naked come to Thee for dress, helpless look to Thee for grace. Foul I to the fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die!” Do you have faith in Jesus Christ? Are you trusting only, entirely in Jesus to save you? That’s our only hope; it’s our only hope. The only ground on which any of us have any warrant to believe our destinies may be secure - you have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you?
Love for the Saints
Notice next, Paul mentions their “love for all the saints.” These are not two options, by the way. Either faith in the Lord Jesus, and failing that, you know, love for all the saints will come a close second. That’s not what he’s saying. Rather, he’s saying everyone who has faith in the Lord Jesus Christ finds it overflowing in love for all the saints. One of the evidences, the marks, here’s how you know you’re clinging to Jesus - it’s that you love the people Christ loves. Those for whom He died, you gladly pour out yourself. You love Christians; you love them. You love being with them, you love worshiping beside them, you want to pray with them, you want them to pray for you. You delight to hear them talking about your Savior and their Savior. You want to serve them. You know you can share yourself with them, your struggles, your fears. The apostle John in his first letter makes the same point. He puts it this way. “We know,” he says, “that we have passed from death to life because we love the brothers.” We love one another. Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ?
Understand, of course, that Paul isn’t talking about a mere feeling here, much less is he talking about a form of words, loving your brothers and sisters, loving the saints, the people of God, the Church. He’s not talking about having warm feelings toward some people in this room, or saying, “I really love her, bless her heart, but…” That’s not what he’s talking about. Paul is asking whether we love one another with a self-sacrificial, patient, kind, forgiving, thinking the best, keeping no records of wrongs, going the extra mile kind of love. Loving others the way you’ve been loved by Christ who gave Himself for you. It’s one of the marks of the work of Jesus in our heart. We begin to love the way He loves - sacrificially and selflessly.
And then notice how Paul, in verse 5, grounds all of that on their hope. By hope, he’s not talking about aspiration. “I hope it doesn’t rain this afternoon, but I’m not sure.” That’s how we use hope, right? It’s uncertain; it’s vague. That’s not how the New Testament thinks about hope. Hope in the New Testament, the Christian hope, is an objective rather than a subjective thing. It’s an objective reality that has subjective effects. The objective reality is the inheritance that God has in store for all who believe. That is the Christian hope. It is kept in heaven for us. We’re longing for the day when faith will give way to sight. Think of it. In the great assembly, dressed all in white, and the nail-pierced hands of our Savior; we’ll feel His fingers on our cheeks as He wipes away our every tear. No sin ever again to intrude between us, to interrupt our fellowship. No misunderstanding to cloud our sight of His face. With Him, forever. That’s the hope and it has present effects. It helps us.
That’s what’s happening in the Colossians’ lives. They are able to keep believing in Christ, keep trusting Him and keep serving one another amidst all the pressures to turn aside; amidst all the challenges that they are facing, they can keep at it because they are not living for this world, but for a hope yet to come. It’s a hope laid up for them in heaven. It’s the ground on the basis of which they are sustained. Paul says, “If only for this world we have hope, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Let me say this bluntly. It’s not a cheap shot. But if you are “living your best life now,” you are going to hell. This is not the place for your best life! You never will live your best life now! No, brothers and sisters, our best life is yet to come. There’s glory that waits. “Lift your eyes to the hills. From whence doth come mine aid? My safety cometh from the Lord, whom heaven and earth hath made.”
The King is coming and we are to train our eyes on that great day so that here, while we pass through a veil of tears with all its trials, all its challenges, all its temptations and diversions, we are able to continue clinging to Christ, continue loving one another, living out the Christian life because we are not living for this world. And we have every expectation that it's going to be hard. We're not overwhelmed, we're not surprised "by the fiery trial that is coming upon us," as Peter puts it. We remember the words of Jesus who said, "In this world, you will have tribulation," or the apostle Paul who said, "Through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God." That's life here. We're not living for here. We are looking for a city to come, whose builder and maker is God. Are you looking for that glorious hope yet to come? What are you living for? Really, what are you living for? Is your horizon, does it go no further than the end of your nose? Or have you fixed your eyes on the throne and the One seated there and the glory He promises to give you?
Power of Truth
The priority of thanks. The pattern of change. Paul can see it in their lives. Can you see it in yours? Can you see it in one another? Then look at verses 5 through 8. Lastly, here’s the third tool Paul uses to strengthen their assurance. It’s the power of truth. The power of truth. He wants them and he wants us to remember the power of the Gospel. You remember what Luther said. “I did nothing. The Word did everything.” Look how Paul describes the Word in verse 5. “Of this hope you’ve heard before, in the Word of the truth, the Gospel.” The Gospel is the Word of the truth. Or look down at verse 6. “They heard and understood the grace of God in truth.”
Content of Truth
A couple of things to notice very quickly and then we’re done. First, the Gospel has content. Do you see that in Paul’s teaching? It has content. It’s not a feeling. It’s not even a lifestyle to be lived out. It is a message the Colossians heard and understood. It’s the Word of truth. If you’ve been coming to First Presbyterian Church for a while, I really do hope you’ve felt welcomed. We’re so very glad to have you here. We do want to be good hosts and serve you in any way at all that we can. Maybe you enjoy the music or you’ve built some relationships; you’re beginning to find some community. And if that’s true, we really couldn’t be happier. But we do want to be clear with you about this one thing. Plugging into the community here, building friendships, finding your place, those are wonderful but they’re just not enough. To be a Christian means to come to know and to believe from the heart a very definite message. You are a sinner, you see, and God is angry at your sin and my sin. Our sin is such we can’t save ourselves. We can’t fix it. But God has acted in His mercy and grace and given His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, so that His record of perfect righteousness might become our own, overwriting the record of our own rebellion and sin. And He died to pay the penalty my rebellion and sin incurs, that I might live. I can’t save me and you can’t save you, but Jesus can save us both. Jesus can save us both. And if we will entrust ourselves entirely to Him, placing all our hope, all our confidence in Him for rescue, He will, He will. That’s our message. Do you believe it? That’s our message. That is the Gospel. Do you believe it?
Power of Truth
Notice, finally, not just the content of the truth, notice the living power of it. He says in verse 6 it is “bearing fruit and increasing” all over the world, even among the Colossians. The Word of the Gospel, he’s describing it like a living organism. It is bearing fruit and increasing like a plant that sends runners under the soil and crops up everywhere and it’s producing fruit and more fruit and more fruit. It’s alive. There’s dynamism and power and vitality in the Gospel. Paul calls it a message about “the grace of God in truth.” That’s a lovely description about the dynamic power of the Gospel. It’s the grace of God wrapped in truth, operating by the truth; packaged for us in truth so that as the truth begins to have its way in our hearts and minds and lives, grace is renovating us till we look like Jesus in His moral character.
Or look down at verse 8; another way that Paul expresses the dynamic of the truth. He's already spoken about the Colossians' love. He could have easily said this about their faith and their hope as well when he tells us in verse 8 of its source. He speaks of their love "in the Spirit." What is the dynamic that gives to the Gospel, that gives to the Word its power? It's not its inner logic and coherence, though it's both logical and coherent. It's not its power to move us and cause our emotions to mount and soar, though it's beautiful. It is that the truth is accompanied by the living power of God the Holy Spirit whose grace makes it fruitful so that faith and hope and love begin to blossom and ripen like fruit in our lives. The Word does it all, by the grace of God. The Spirit is the one who wields the Word and works faith, hope, and love in our hearts. When we share the Gospel and when we believe the Gospel we can have absolute confidence in the Gospel. We can be assured that it is what Paul says it is - "the power of God unto salvation for all who believe" - because God the Holy Spirit accompanies the Gospel to do mighty things by it.
So we can have assurance because salvation belongs to the Lord. He saves sinners. And so we give Him thanks. The priority of thanks. Is yours a thankful heart? A thankful Christian life. Do you give credit to whom credit is due? We can have assurance when our lives bear evidence of spiritual change. There’s a pattern of change that is identifiable and we sometimes need to be agents of encouragement, pointing out to one another what we cannot see easily in ourselves. Faith and hope and love. And we can have assurance when we understand that the truth of God is sure, it is living, it is powerful, and it is at work by the Holy Spirit to accomplish all the purposes for which God sends it into the world. The power of the truth. May God give us, each of us, a well-grounded assurance, not the counterfeit, not presumption, but a well-grounded assurance as we look to Christ and He changes us into His likeness.
Let’s pray together.
Lord, the truth is, as we look at our hearts we often see evidences of sin and our remaining corruptions obscure, at times, our clear views of all that You are doing in our lives. Would You make us a community of encouragement, who speak truth in love to one another, who point out the clear evidence of the work of grace we see in one another. Would You make us quick to give credit to whom credit is due, giving to You all the praise and glory that You are our Savior and not ourselves. And would You continue to work in our own hearts and through us in the lives of others by the Word of the truth, the Gospel, the grace of God in truth. By Your Spirit cause it to bear much fruit that we may be sure, confident of the things we have known and believed, and in that confidence may be bright, shining stars in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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