Now if you would take a Bible in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 2, we’re thinking about verses 1 through 5 of Colossians chapter 2; page 983 in the church Bibles. You may remember, if you were with us last time, that Paul at the end of chapter 1 has begun to defend his ministry. There were false teachers at Colossae undermining his message, but also assaulting and undermining his ministry. He’s defending himself; he’s continuing to defend his ministry in these first five verses of chapter 2 as well, only now he really seems to bear his heart to us. We get a sense of the burdens that he feels for the Colossian Christians. Here are the priorities that drive him; the great concerns that preoccupy him and for which he struggles so mightily. Verse 1, he says he’s struggling so much on their behalf, the Colossians and for the Laodiceans and for all who have not seen him face to face, he says, “I’m doing that because I want your hearts to be encouraged,” verse 2, “and knit together in love.” But even that is not his ultimate goal. His great priority doesn’t terminate on their encouragement and on their unity, but that is itself a means to a greater end; the greater end being that they may “reach all the riches of the full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of the mystery of God, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Full assurance - that’s the great priority, the great burden of his heart. That’s what he’s struggling for to see realized in the lives of the Colossians and all the churches of the Lycus Valley, the Laodiceans as well. Full assurance.
You know for most of my Christian life, I’ve enjoyed a real sense of unwavering spiritual certainty. I was aware other Christians struggled with a lack of assurance, but I was never among them, until that is I became senior minister of First Presbyterian Church Jackson. You know people laughed at that in the first service as well. It’s not a joke; I’m not kidding. Since I’ve been the senior minister at First Pres I have, from time to time, been assailed by spiritual doubts and struggles, by doubts about my own salvation, by real spiritual battles; interestingly, often when I’m sitting in that chair just before I get up to preach. So sometimes when I have a smile on my face and I’m preaching to you, I’m really struggling with myself.
I say that not to bring attention to myself but simply to make the point that struggles with assurance, with spiritual certainty, is a common experience for a Christian. If I can put it this way - full assurance can only be enjoyed by a Christian, but many Christians lack assurance and are truly children of God. It’s a normal part of the Christian experience. I know from conversations with you that many of you have struggled with it too. Surely it seems the Colossian Christians have had their struggles in this area. Paul is writing to them because he knows the false teachers have been undermining the message and the Colossians have started to struggle and they’ve had their doubts. There’s been a lack of assurance in their lives as well. So Paul’s great burden for which he struggles and labors is that they “may have full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.”
Now in a few moments, we'll read the passage after we pray. First of all, let me just give you some things to look out for; four themes to look out for in the passage as Paul explores this theme of full assurance. First in verse 1, very clearly for Paul, assurance is a great pastoral priority. He is struggling mightily for this outcome in their lives. It's a great pastoral priority. Secondly, in the first half of verse 2, assurance he tells us is not only a pastoral priority for Christian leaders but it is a community project for every child of God. It's something we all must do together. Our hearts must be knit together in love that we may find the encouragement that we need and so grow up into the assurance for which we are seeking. So it's a pastoral priority; it's a community project.
Thirdly, he says in verses 2 and 3, assurance is a Christ-centered blessing. If all you do is look in at yourself, you’ll never find peace, never find spiritual certainty. No, we must certainly look at ourselves and take stock and examine ourselves to see whether we are in the Lord, but we must always look longer, we must look first and last and longest away from ourselves to our Savior, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Assurance is a Christ-centered blessing. And then finally, Paul says in verses 4 and 5 that assurance is a preventative measure. There are false teachers seeking to prey upon unwary Christians and lead them astray and Paul is saying, “You know, if you can cling to Christ and find spiritual certainty as you lean upon Him, it will keep you and preserve you amidst the predations of these false teachers. So there’s the outline. Do you see it? It is a pastoral priority; assurance, a pastoral priority. Assurance, a community project - it takes the whole church; our hearts knit together in love. Assurance is also a Christ-centered blessing. It’s not found by looking in supremely, but by looking up and away to Christ on the throne who died for us and who lives and reigns for us. And it is a preventative measure. When we find our assurance in our Savior, He keeps us and we are not swept away.
So there’s the outline. Let me go ahead and pray for us and ask for God’s help and then we’ll read the passage and begin to work through those headings together. Let’s pray.
O Lord, when there are so many competing voices vying for our attention, we pray now for ears to hear what Your Spirit says to the church. Settle our minds, quiet our hearts, open them to receive the pure, spiritual milk of the Word. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
Colossians 2 at verse 1. This is God’s holy, inerrant Word:
“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”
Cory was mentioning earlier our plans to engage in disaster relief on the Florida panhandle. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of the devastation there. Whole city blocks on Mexico Beach just wiped out. And yet here and there, there are a few buildings still standing. I did some digging around. Turns out that most of the buildings that survived were built after 2002. You see, in the 90s, when Hurricane Andrew did such damage in southern Florida, Florida began to pass much more stringent building codes and so houses built after 2002, according to the Florida code, were able to stand much more effectively against the storm. Seventy-five percent of the homes in the path of the hurricane were not built according to those codes, were built before 2002, and so many of them were simply wiped off the map. It’s a sobering picture.
Assurance is a Great Pastoral Priority
Colossians 2:1-5 provides for us you might say Paul’s building codes for a Christian life that can weather the storm. It’s a blueprint for assurance; Colossians 2:1-5. Here’s how to build a faith that is stable and strong when the hurricane winds begin to blow. Let’s look at it together. The first thing Paul says about assurance is that it is an overriding pastoral priority for him. Look at verse 1. “I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face.” They are strangers to one another, they have never met, but he is immensely burdened for them. The language he uses, the word “struggle” is the word “agon.” It was often used of wrestlers locked in a fight, in a struggle. And that’s what Paul is saying how he feels toward them as he thinks about the great priorities that burden him on their behalf.
Struggle of Prayer
We know that if you scan through the New Testament the kind of things with which he struggled. We know there were physical struggles on behalf of the Gospel. He was imprisoned. He was subject to mob violence. He was shipwrecked and beaten to within an inch of his life; stoned and flogged. There were physical struggles; extraordinary physical deprivations. There were material struggles. The other apostles received their support from the church, but when Paul traveled the known world at the time, he had resolved to be a burden in no way upon the churches he was planting so he worked as a tentmaker supporting himself. And so while he has all the cares of the churches, he also has the responsibility resting upon himself alone to make ends meet. We know there were psychological struggles. In 1 Corinthians chapter 2, I think in verse 3, he talks about coming to the Corinthians in "weakness and in much fear and in trembling." Weakness and fear and trembling.
And some scholars, looking at Colossians 2:1-5, they notice the similarity between these verses and Paul’s reports of his prayers for them in other places, like chapter 1 verse 9 and following. In fact, if you take out “how great a struggle I have for you,” and put in language such as, “how I pray for you,” the passage still reads perfectly coherently, which has led some scholars to conclude that the particular struggle Paul means here is the struggle of prayer. He’s wrestling with God for these things on their behalf. There’s a spiritual struggle. But whichever it is, or some combination of the above, it’s very clear, isn’t it, that this is a great burden, a great priority of his heart for them. He’s struggling and wrestling and fighting that “their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, in order that they might reach the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.”
You get the picture. This is a great pastoral priority, which I think is profoundly challenging for those of us who are leaders in the local church, whether we are here on the pastoral staff, elders or deacons, or leading in some other capacity as a volunteer in our ministry. It’s challenging for two reasons. First because of the dedication and intensity of Paul’s example, right? He’s struggling for them. He’s not coasting. He’s not doing the bare minimum. He’s not just doing enough to appease his conscience. He’s pouring himself out for their sake. There’s an intensity and a costliness and a sacrificial character to his labors. And if you’re in Christian leadership this is your calling - to give yourself for the good of the flock of God; not just to touch the surface but to give yourself wholly for their welfare.
Focus and Clarity of Paul’s Concern
And that brings me to the second thing that I find really challenging as a Christian leader in Paul’s example. And that is the focus and clarity of his concern. He’s not interested in simply showing up and making small talk and giving enough attention to everybody so no one feels left out. That’s not his business. No, he wants full assurance for each of the people of God in the churches for which he is concerned. In other words, he wants to go deep. He doesn’t want to skim the surface. He wants to get to the heart of the real spiritual needs of the flock of God. Those of you who are spiritual leaders, isn’t it easy just to skim the surface, to keep things light and superficial. It’s much less complicated, much less messy, but Paul is calling us by his example to struggle, to pour ourselves out, to get into the fight for the good of the people of God and to go deep; to get past the superficial to the concerns of the heart. For Paul, that great concern was their assurance. So here, first of all, it’s a pastoral priority. And I think it’s worth our while noticing the challenge of Paul’s example if we are leaders in the local church.
Assurance is a Community Project
But then secondly, also notice that Paul says it’s not just a pastoral priority for leaders. Assurance is also a community project. It’s a community project. Look at the first half of verse 2. He’s struggling for them, he says, that “their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love.” Encouragement means more than, “Atta boy,” slap on the back, a few positive words. As helpful as that sometimes is, in the Bible encouragement is more than that. It means to come alongside someone in pursuit of their strengthening and their being built up, both in your words and in your deeds. It’s to come alongside someone and to strengthen them and to build them up. That’s what he wants for them. That’s actually what we need. So many of us struggle with assurance and doubts and besetting sin and we stumble and wonder, “Why can’t I get over this? Why am I so filled with spiritual uncertainty?” not realizing that the solution of God, part of the solution of God, part of the remedy of God is the life of the local church where, as our hearts are knit together in love, we begin to find the encouragement that we need. We’ve forgotten, haven’t we, that the fight with sin that rages in our hearts, the battle with doubt and spiritual uncertainty with which we may all wrestle day by day, is not a fight we can win on our own. And so Paul says the way in which we will find the encouragement that we need is when our hearts are knit together in love.
Body is Knit Together
Paul uses the same language later on in the same chapter, chapter 2 verse 19, to describe the way the human body is knit together, joints and ligaments holding it all together. It’s language that evokes profound intimacy and connection and unity. “We need each other,” he’s saying. We need to get past the brief, “How are you doing?” “I’m fine” as we slide out the door. We’ve got to start making a connection. Let me plead with you if you’ve been keeping yourself purposefully on the fringes of the life of the people of God, let me plead with you to understand that you neglect the church is to neglect yourself. The encouragement that your heart needs as you struggle and wrestle with yourself and all the daily challenges to your faith as you seek to live for Jesus, the encouragement that you need is right here if only you will plunge in and build some relationships.
Get yourself into a small group where you can find some accountability. Talk to David Felker. Where is David? Where are you? Are you here? There he is in the back corner. Go find him and talk to him and say, “Where can I plug in? How can I get involved? I’ve been drifting. I’ve been on the edges of things for too long and I’m really struggling. I need help!” Get yourself into a Sunday school class. Get yourself into a place where people know you and can stand with you in the fight. And let me say to you if you are a mature member in this church and you’re here and you’re serving, I praise God for you, but there is a call here to you and to me to take the initiative in pursuing those who are on the edges of things. It’s our calling, our task, to go after the new face of the person we don’t know very well, to invite them for coffee, to open your home, open your life so that our hearts might be knit together in love. And when they are, we begin to be built up, strengthened, encouraged.
That kind of corporate church life, community life, is the only environment where we ought to expect, it’s the rich, fertile soil where we ought to look for the fruit of assurance to grow and ripen in our lives. That kind of community life together is the place to look for spiritual confidence and certainty. If you lack it, it might be because you have been living at a distance from the people of God. I am thoroughly persuaded that so many of our spiritual struggles as Christians are a consequence of our superficial connection to the life of the people of God in the local church. So Paul says not only is assurance a great pastoral priority for Christian leaders, it is a community project; it’s something we all must work on together. I need you and you need me if our hearts are to find the encouragement that we seek.
Assurance is a Christ-Centered Blessing
And then thirdly, Paul says that assurance is a Christ-centered blessing. Do you see that in the second half of verse 2 and in verse 3? Look there with me; verses 2 and 3. He struggles for them “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach the full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” A loving community is the context for assurance, but its source is Jesus Christ. You remember the exhortation of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. “For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” Why is that so helpful? It’s so helpful because when I look at myself, I see so much of my remaining corruption, my wicked heart. We look in and we see pride and vanity, we see anger and self-righteousness, we see spiteful angry thoughts; we hear the venom on our tongue and the self-defensiveness that brings others down and puffs self up. And we see all of it festering away and we wonder, “Am I even converted? How can this still be here and be a follower of Jesus?” Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one? Where you look at your heart, you see the reality of your remaining corruption, and you’re left to wonder if it’s real, if “Maybe I’m self-deceived.”
Well Paul says, “Remember where assurance is found.” Where is this assurance of understanding and knowledge to be found? Where are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge located? It’s all in Christ. It’s in Christ. Look to Christ. Yes, let us examine ourselves, let’s never excuse our sin, let’s flee from our sin, however, to our Savior. The first and last and longest look of our hearts must always be to the cross and to the throne where Christ is. Some of us have tender consciences and as we look at our hearts we’re left wondering, “How can I call myself a Christian while I struggle and stumble and fall so very often?” But we need to ask ourselves another question. We need to ask ourselves when we’re wondering about our hearts, “Do I really believe, do I really want to say that the blood of Jesus is inadequate to address my case? Do I really want to say that I am so wicked, so unique in fact, that while Christ is an adequate and sufficient and wonderful Savior to all others who look to Him - not to me?” Isn’t that a greater offense than anything else we may have brought to Him for pardon to suggest that “While Christ is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by Him, in my case, even though I’ve cried to Him and sought Him, I just can’t quite believe that I am clean and pardoned and beloved.”
Jesus’s Blood Cleanses Us
Oh no, dear doubting Christian, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. That is the promise of God. Do not doubt it. Paul says the reality of assurance is found in Him, sourced in Him. Look to Him. Assurance is a pastoral priority. It is a community project. It is a Christ-centered blessing. It comes by looking to Him, running to Him, resting on Him, clinging to Him, never straying from Him. He is able. You are not unique. Your sin, be it ever so wicked, is not beyond the reach of pardoning grace. His blood can make the foulest clean, and so you must say, “His blood availed for me.” Look to Christ.
And finally, Paul says assurance is a preventative measure. You see that in verses 4 and 5? “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments, for though I am absent with you in body, yet I’m with you in spirit rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” You remember the old saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Right? Something’s going to fill the vacuum. If it’s not growing, deeply assuring fellowship with Jesus, it will be something else. “There are false teachers. They’re trying to delude you. Some of their arguments are actually quite plausible,” Paul says. But if you can grow in this Christ-centered assurance, clinging to Him, resting on Him, you’ll be safe.
I said in the first service that the FBI do this. Actually, someone corrected me and said that it's the Secret Service that do this - that check for counterfeit money. Right? And you may have heard this, that when they're training people to check the counterfeit money they don't start them off by looking at the counterfeit; they spend all their time looking at the real thing. They study the real thing in minute detail, and when they find the counterfeit, they can immediately tell the difference. They are not deceived. They know the real thing and so they're not deceived. Paul is saying, "Look, Jesus Christ is the real thing. Jesus Christ is the real thing. Fix your eyes on Him and when the counterfeit comes, you will not be deceived. When the false teachers begin to assail you and tempt you and try to draw you away or question the reality of your faith, no, your eyes will be fixed on Him, the author and finisher of your faith, and you will be able to run with perseverance the race that has been marked out for you." So Paul is calling us here, isn't he, to look to Christ, to find in Christ more than enough for the needs of our hearts.
It is a pastoral priority, assurance. It is a community project; we need each other. It’s a Christ-centered blessing and because it is, assurance is a preventative measure. So much of what Paul has been teaching us here really comes to an acute focus in what we’re about to do in a few moments as we gather here at the Lord’s Table. Isn’t that true? Here we express our unity. Our hearts are knit together in love. Here, Christ Himself comes to us, is presented to us anew in the Gospel, pictured in the bread broken and the cup. Here, we have communion with Him and our faith is strengthened and we are encouraged. And here, we are sent out into the world to stand firm and to serve Him. Let’s pray together, shall we, and plead with God as we come to His Table that we would have true communion with Christ and “grow up into all the riches of the full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Let’s pray together.
Lord, we are weak, not strong. In ourselves, in our own strength, we are sinners, not righteous. And so as we look at ourselves we don’t find much ground for hope, but on Christ the solid Rock we stand where all other ground is sinking sand. So we pray, O Lord, looking to Jesus, as we come to the Table, would You meet us there for the strengthening of our faith and the glory of Your name, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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