Well now would you please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 1; Colossians chapter 1. Page 983 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. As we continue to consider Paul’s message in this letter, we have come to chapter 1 at the twenty-first verse. Chapter 1:21-23 will be our focus this morning. In verses 15 through 20, we considered these verses when last we were together, we saw Paul probably quoting a hymn to Christ that was known amongst the churches with which Paul was associated in order to turn the diamond of the glory and greatness of the Lord Jesus. It seems there were false teachers who were weeding their way into the Colossian fellowship and they were undermining the uniqueness and the dignity and the glory of the Lord Jesus and Paul is writing to set them straight. He shows us Christ as the Lord God, preeminent over creation and preeminent in salvation. So Paul displays in a marvelous way in just five verses the glory and sufficiency and majesty of the person and work of Christ. And seeing that, we might legitimately ask, “Well if that’s who Jesus is, so what? What’s the difference this exalted Christ makes?” Verses 21 through 23, we might say, tease out the answer to that question. Here is how Paul’s exalted doctrine of Christ makes all the difference in the world.
If you’ll look at the passage with me for a moment, let me give you an outline before we read the text and consider its message. Verses 21 through 23. And notice especially the tenses that Paul is working with. He starts, doesn’t he, in verse 21, in the past. He speaks to the Colossians about who they once were. He says, “you who once were alienated, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.” He takes them back to their pre-conversion days before they were Christians and characterizes their life – “who they once were.” And then he moves on in verse 22 to who they are now. Now that they’ve become believers, “you who once were alienated…he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death,” speaking of the cross. You once were alienated; now you are reconciled by means of the cross. And then finally in the second half of 22 and into 23 – how we go on. Those who respond to this marvelous message of reconciliation through the cross of Jesus Christ – now what? How does that change our lives day by day? There’s a call here to Christian holiness.
If you’ve ever looked for the elevator speech that sums up in just a few short moves what Christians believe, you would struggle, I think, to find a better summary of Christian truth than verses 21 through 23. Who we were – the problem; the bad news. Who we were – our predicament. Who we are now by the grace of God through the cross – God’s remedy, His solution, His answer to the problem. And how we go on – what is required of those who, having responded to the Gospel, seek to live the Christian life. There’s an elevator speech. If you perhaps are here intrigued by the Christian faith and struggling to get your head around what it means to follow Jesus, here’s an admirable short summary of the good news. Who we were, who we are now by the grace of God, and how we go on by His grace.
Well before we read the passage together, let me invite you please to join me as we pray one more time. Let’s pray together.
Lord, open our hearts to Your Word by Your Spirit that we may behold the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Lead us to Him and grant to us grace to receive and rest upon Him as He is offered to us anew here in the Gospel. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
Colossians chapter 1 at the twenty-first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
Some of you will have had this experienced – we've had it in our home – where you're not well, something's not right, but you're not quite sure what it is. You may even have had a diagnosis and begun treatment, and yet as time goes on it's clear there are symptoms that don't quite line up with the diagnosis and the treatment's not really working. Some people go their whole lives in search of an explanation for what ails them. They don't really know what it is, but something's not right. The same is true, I think, spiritually speaking. You may well have a sense a bit like that that this is not the way things are supposed to be, that life is somehow wrong, that there's almost a glitch in the software as it were. Sure, it goes on, life goes on, and yet it's somehow broken at some deeper, existential level, something mysterious that you may not be fully able to articulate. You may have tried to tune it out from time to time with entertainment and all the distractions of the world may be to avoid it, busying yourself with work and family, and yet there is this persistent stain. You know, like a grease mark on the wall, no matter how many times you paint over it, it just keeps shining through in the end. You just can't seem to get away from it; you can't shake this perception that you have that this is not the way things are supposed to be. What is going on? What is the accurate diagnosis?
Well, verse 21 provides us at last with an accurate diagnosis. If you would look there for a moment, Paul reminds the Colossian believers who they once were. He takes them back and says, "You remember, you remember the problem; you remember your condition." Here's the diagnosis. They were once "alienated, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds." Let's think about each of those phrases in turn for a few moments. Here's God's diagnosis of the human condition apart from Jesus Christ. Here's what's really wrong. Here's perhaps what you have struggled to put your finger on and find vocabulary for – alienated, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds. It's a difficult diagnosis to hear, but until we face up to the diagnosis, the true and accurate diagnosis, we never will find the remedy that we need to help us.
Alienated from God
So what's the diagnosis? First, Paul says we are alienated from God. That's what our sin has done. Some of you know what it is to be estranged from a family member. Alienation has etched itself into the life of your family and there's this constant open wound. It's like a heavyweight that just sort of sits on your chest. It doesn't go anywhere; a dark cloud that's always there on the horizon. The relationship has been fractured and you have not been able to affect reconciliation. Paul says that is precisely how things are between your heart and the God who made you for Himself. You were made to have fellowship with Him, to live in relationship, communion with Him, and yet your sin has alienated you from Him, estranged you from the life of God. The original indicates they were in a steady condition and state of alienation from God. This is the stable, the default setting as it were, of the human heart apart from Jesus Christ – alienation.
And that alienation has some symptoms. We are "hostile in mind," Paul says. Now we must resist the temptation to read back into Paul's use of the word translated "mind" here. Everything we tend to mean when we talk about our minds, we usually mean something like the intellectual life. For Paul, however, the mind is much broader than that. It's shorthand really for the self, the whole of our interior lives; our perceptions, the way we frame ideas, the way we think of ourselves; our self-consciousness we might say. Our emotional and intellectual and affective lives. And Paul says the whole of our inner life is framed and set in a pattern of hostility to God. There's a bent to it; there's a bias to who we are that is set in opposition to God. Not that we're always mad at God – that's not what Paul means. But deeply woven into the warp and woof of our humanity is a bias toward rebellion. We don't want to be ruled. Do we? We don't want to submit. Do we? We want to be independent and have it our way.
I've had conversations many times with non-Christian friends as I've sought to share the Gospel and they close the thing, the whole conversation down, by saying something like this. "You know, I really cannot believe, I'm so sorry but I never could believe in a God who condemns X or who condones Y." You see what they're saying. "When I put God in the dock and prosecute Him by my standards of morality, I find God to be unjust and immoral and I want nothing to do with such a God. I have no room for Him." They're saying in effect, "I'm God and I decide. And when I stand in judgment over Him, I find Him wanting." We're alienated, hostile in mind. That's what Paul is saying about us.
It is Lived Out
And thirdly, all of that shows up; it’s lived out in certain ways. He says we are prone to evil deeds. We do evil deeds. Alienated from the life of God, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds. Isn’t it remarkable how the convictions we develop according to which we sit in judgment on the God of Scripture, dismiss His law as restrictive and harsh and narrow. Those very convictions always seem to align perfectly with the way we already like to live. Our values have been adjusted to validate our lifestyles. But Paul says here, the truth is, God is the real Judge and He stands over us. We’re in the dock and He is the prosecution and when evaluated against the standard of His own infinitely pure and righteous character, the deeds that we may indulge, even celebrate, are found to be evil and condemned. We pursue them, indulge them, celebrate them, hoping that by them we find relief and escape, at least distraction, from the sense we have that things are not right. And yet the further we pursue them, the worse our sense and awareness of alienation from the life of God becomes. Instead of relief and peace, that gnawing sense of an undiagnosed ailment grows and persists. The truth is, we are natively alienated from God. We are hostile in mind, rebels, doing evil deeds.
And look, I understand, that’s a difficult diagnosis to hear. None of us want that call from the doctor with the worst case scenario. Do we? But it’s not unkind when we get that call. No, that’s a call we need to hear, because we never will receive the treatment that can rescue us till we hear the bad news with its plain, hard facts. Here’s the bad news about us. We have been alienated from the life of God. We are rebels against Him and He stands over us as Judge and finds our deeds to be evil. Bad news. That’s what’s wrong. That’s the problem diagnosed – who we were.
But then look at verse 22. There is marvelous good news for alienated, guilty sinners like me, like you, by nature. Verse 22, there is a remedy. Having reminded them of who they were, Paul reminds the Colossians of who they now are by the grace of God; who God has made them. They were alienated, but now He has “reconciled you,” he says, “in his body of flesh by his death.” When we hear the diagnosis of our trouble, our initial instinct is to say, “Okay, well what do I do about that? How do I fix it? Tell me, Paul, what the path back to health looks like. Give me the regiment. Give me the words to say. Give me the work to do.” The bad news is, there is nothing for you to do. There’s no way for you to fix it. There’s no obedience you might perform, no ritual you might enact, no words you can say that will remedy your spiritual condition before God. But the good news is, He has done it all for you in Jesus Christ that you might be reconciled to Him. You cannot remedy your condition, but He has acted and provided the remedy in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. “He has reconciled you,” he says to the Colossians. You were enemies, and now you’re children of God adopted into His family. Not just friends, family in the household of faith.
Reconciliation by Christ
And he tells us how that reconciliation was affected. Look at verse 22. It was affected, speaking of Jesus, "in his body of flesh by his death." That's an interesting phrase. Isn't it? "In his body of flesh by his death." Probably Paul has the Colossian false teachers in his crosshairs by using that expression. It was not uncommon in ancient Greek thought to view the body, the material world, as inherently evil. And so perhaps these Colossian false teachers were teaching a view of Christ that diminished His real and true humanity. It was illusory and not real and substantial. For them, if the body is evil, for Jesus to have a body of flesh, well that would be a huge problem. But whatever they thought, Paul is insisting here, isn't he – that the Christ of whom he spoke in such exalted terms in verses 15 through 20, telling us of His glorious deity as Creator and Savior is also truly fully really human. He has a body of flesh and in this body of flesh, our reconciliation was effected by means of the cross, by His death. By the death of Jesus Christ, we who deserve to die may live. He was cut off, alienated as it were, crying out, "My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?" that we who deserve to be cut off, who are alienated by our sin, might be reconciled. The sinless sin-bearer, "God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." Reconciliation. There is a bridge over the chasm. It is the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ crucified.
Listen, this is not complicated, is it? It's not difficult to understand. God has opened the way. God has opened the way for you to come back to Him. There's a welcome for you today because of Jesus. He is "the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Him." That is to say, you can come to the Father by Him. The way is open. The cross has opened the way. You need not live in alienation a second longer, but you can come trusting in Jesus and be welcomed home. You remember the story of the prodigal son, don't you? The son who has been alienated from the life of the family resolves to come home. And while he is still a long way off, the Father sees him and comes running to him, and weeping with joy falls on his neck and kisses him and commands that a great celebration be held, "For this son of mine who was dead is now alive; who was lost is now found!" Because of Jesus, prodigals can come home. Because of Jesus, the alienated may be reconciled and the guilty may be pardoned.
In verse 23, Paul will remind the Colossians of the moment when they were reconciled. He talks about the Gospel that was preached to them, that they believed this good news, about reconciliation accomplished by means of the cross. He’s reminding them of the day when they heard about Jesus and entrusted themselves to Him and passed from death to life, from darkness to light, from condemnation to pardon, from alienation to reconciliation, into adoption, into the family. Let me say to you today, there’s nothing to be done – there’s no words to say, there’s no ritual to perform. All you need do is what the Colossians did that day when they heard the Gospel. They believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They trusted Him. And when they did, the alienation was removed and they were reconciled. Be reconciled to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
How We Go On
Well, suppose you come to know Him – now what? What does it mean to live for Him? In the second half of verse 22 and into verse 23, Paul tells us about how we go on living out the Christian life. He tells us in the first half of 22 that the cross has a vertical dimension. That is to say, it's about reconciling us to God by removing the cause of our alienation, paying the debt our sins have incurred, satisfying the wrath and curse of God that we might be reconciled to Him. That's the vertical dimension.
But in the second half of 22 and into 23 he also tells us the cross has our transformation in view. It’s not just about God; it’s also about your heart and your life. Look at what Paul says in verse 22. “He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” – there’s the cross – “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” We were once characterized by alienation from the life of God, hostility in our minds, hostile to His truth, to His character, to His will, and doing evil deeds. But now, those who have been reconciled to God, the Lord Jesus is at work in them to change them so that instead of alienation and hostility and evil, there is holiness and blamelessness and a life that is above reproach. People who have been reconciled to God are changed and are being changed. Jesus died not to leave you as you were, but to make you like Himself. It’s not possible to have reconciliation to God and life on your own terms. When you come to receive the pardon Christ provides, you also must be willing to embrace the purity to which He calls you.
And if you look at the second half, at the last part of the passage rather, verse 23, and notice the conditional clause there – “Christ died in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel that you heard” – Paul tells us something remarkable about the way the holiness of life for which Christ died is realized in each of our hearts. The Colossian false teachers were seeking to lead the Colossian believers astray from Paul’s gospel. And Paul is writing this letter to help them stay the course and hold the line and “stand firm in the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” He wants them to be secure and stable like a tree with roots that are sunk deeply into fertile soil that is immovable in the storm, like a ship at anchor in a safe harbour so that it’s not pulled and drawn out into the ocean when the tide changes, but it is stable and it’s not shifting from the hope of the Gospel. That’s where Paul wants us to be.
And he’s saying the holiness and a blameless life and a life that is above reproach – how does that happen? It happens when the Gospel that brought you to Jesus is the Gospel you stick with and penetrate down evermore deeply into and never depart from and apply with greater vigor and faithfulness and honesty and humility to your own heart day by day. As the Gospel saturates and penetrates your life, you begin to love the things that God loves and hate the things that God hates. Your values change; your pride is exposed. Your idols are smashed; your insecurities overcome when you recognize that the Lord who gave His own Son for you, “how will He not also along with Him graciously give you all things,” and so many other rich, glorious blessings of the Gospel as they begin to dominate your thinking and penetrate your affections and your value systems, you begin to be who the Lord has called you to be.
How will you grow? Not by moving on from the Good News, not by getting past the cross, but by delving ever more deeply into the ocean depths of the grace of God for you in His Son, Jesus Christ, discovering that however far you may go on in the Christian life, there are riches in Christ crucified you have yet to discover. There is provision for what yet lies around the next bend in the road for you in the cross of Jesus Christ. You don't move past the Gospel. Do you? You sink your roots evermore deeply down into the Gospel and as you do, that's how you become holy, blameless, and above reproach. That's how all Christ died to provide you becomes yours in reality – by saying, "Simply to Thy cross I cling." It's by saying, "All other ground is sinking sand." By saying, "You are all that I need and I rest on You." Paul is inviting us, he's saying, "Park here. Park here in the shadow of the cross, and never move. Stay here. Stick here. And as you do, the Lord will make you like His Son. Beholding Him, you will be transformed from glory into glory by the work of the Holy Spirit."
Jesus is who your heart needs. You may think maturity means discovering deeper truths. No, that desire is an immature desire. Maturity, in fact, is learning to fathom the depths that are there in Jesus Christ whom God has given for the good of your soul. May the Lord lead us, each of us, back to Him, to nourish us with Him, the Bread of heaven, to quench our thirst by drinking Him in who is the Fountain of living water, by resting on Him who gives us Sabbath rest, who is everything our hearts need. May the Lord be gracious to us to help us park in the shadow of the cross and never move. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, it may be that there are some here today that live still alienated from You, hostile in mind, rebelling against You, saying in their hearts, “We will not have You to rule over us,” doing evil deeds. We pray for them that Your diagnosis would awaken them to their danger and in their alarm grant that they may run to Your only remedy – Jesus Christ crucified. Grant that those who are alienated may be reconciled as they trust in Him. And for all of us who do trust in Him, we pray for grace never to move on from Him but to be stable, steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel but clinging always with growing tenacity and resolve to Jesus Christ and Him crucified because we want to be holy and blameless and above reproach. Would You do that please for Your glory? In Jesus’ name, amen.
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