Now if you would please take a copy of the Bible in your hands and turn with me in it to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We are working our way through the letter of Paul to the Colossians on Sunday mornings, noticing Paul’s focus, his resolute commitment to the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ. False teachers have been urging various mechanisms upon the Colossians as shortcuts to spiritual fullness. Some had suggested a sort of esoteric philosophy; others dabbling in the occult or an unwholesome obsession with the spirit world. And then last time as we looked at verses 11 and 12 of chapter 2 we saw some were urging the necessity of circumcision as part of what it means to faithfully follow the Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul, you will remember, has responded to each with a clarion call back to trusting only in Christ. Jesus is all that our hearts really need. He told them in verses 11 and 12 of Colossians 2 that circumcision points to an inner spiritual reality. That’s an old covenant sign pointing to that spiritual reality. The new covenant sign that has replaced circumcision is baptism, pointing to the same reality. “So you, Colossians, don’t need to be circumcised. You have the real thing – the spiritual change to which it points. And you have the outward sign – baptism. And you shouldn’t trust in your baptism either. What really matters is faith in Jesus Christ. Christ is the one you need.”
And now in verses 13 through 15 of chapter 2, our portion this morning, Paul is going to elaborate on the many benefits and blessings that are ours when we do trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. What is it that we receive when we are brought by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit into union with Christ? In particular, he's going to show us that the Gospel works along three axes. It travels on three directions, as it were. First, in verse 13, he's going to show us the power of the cross toward us. You see in verse 13 he speaks to the Colossians and us, "You," he says, "You, God made alive." So the power of the cross toward us. Then in verse 14, the power of the cross toward God. He speaks of God as like a heavenly creditor to whom we owe a great debt we could not hope to pay. But the cross has settled the debt so that our heavenly creditor holds our debt, the debt of our sin, fulfilled. The direction along which the Gospel travels first toward us, then toward God, and finally in verse 15 it has respect also to the power of wickedness, to Satan and his servants in the spiritual realm. He speaks of rulers and authorities over whom God has triumphed and put them to open shame through the Lord Jesus Christ. And so there are these three axes along which the Gospel travels and we need to understand them each in turn.
In a moment we’re going to consider them in order. Before we do, we’ll read the text of holy Scripture. And before we read, we need to pause and pray and ask for the help of God. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, open our eyes and open our hearts to receive the engrafted Word. Help us to hear the voice of Jesus addressing our own hearts by the Scriptures and draw us to Him to rest on Him, to receive and rest on Him as He is offered to us in the Gospel, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Colossians 2 at verse 8. This is the Word of God:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Pilots talk about the three axes of flight. So a plane, an airplane has three axes along which it must travel. There's roll – so the plane can move that way (front to back). There's pitch – so it can move that way (side to side). And there's yaw – so it can move that way (vertical). And a pilot needs to pay attention to the instruments in the cockpit that give him the data about roll, pitch, and yaw if he is to fly the plane safely. And actually, it's not at all uncommon for pilots not to trust their instruments with disastrous consequences. I did some digging. Let me quote to you from a National Transportation Safety Board Aviation Accident Final Report that says this, just before a plane crashed: "The pilot said he was in a right turn and had turned his head to the right to look at some instrumentation. He felt the airplane accelerate and looked at his flight displays which indicated he was in an extreme, unusual attitude, possibly inverted" – that is, upside down. "He attempted to recover from the unusual attitude but realized he had severe vertigo and spatial disorientation so he activated the plane's ballistic parachute recovery system" – he ejected. "After the parachute deployed, the airplane struck terrain in a nose-low attitude sustaining substantial damage. Post accident inspection of the airplane disclosed no pre-impact mechanical problems with the airplane. Federal Aviation Administration guidance indicates that if neither horizon nor surface references exist, the attitude of an airplane must be determined by artificial means from the flight instruments. However, during periods of low visibility and night conditions, supporting senses sometimes conflict with what is seen. When this happens, a pilot is particularly vulnerable to disorientation."
In other words, he didn't believe what the onboard instruments were telling him so he made a series of what he thought were minor course corrections on those three axes – roll, pitch, and yaw – and he ended up upside down, inverted, eventually having to eject from the plane before it nose-dived straight into the ground. I hope you don't have to fly anywhere anytime soon! Sorry! I'm really not trying to exacerbate your phobias here!
I bring it up because I want you to think of Colossians 2:13-15 like onboard flight instruments. I don’t want you to trust your private opinion or to trust mere emotion, to trust subjectivity or even the opinions of others. We need instead to pay attention to the data, the Gospel data that the instruments, the Word of God, is telling us. Here’s what you can trust. Here’s what you can safely rely upon. If you trust in anything else other than the data given to us by the Word of God in Colossians 2:13-15, you may find you make a wreck of your Christian life. The safe path, the trajectory, the axis along which the Gospel safely travels are these three.
Power of the Cross Toward Us
First, verse 13; would you look there with me. Here's the power of the cross toward us. Verse 13 – two things I want you to see. First, in the first half of verse 13, Paul highlights the power of the cross at work inside of those who believe, within us. "And you," he says, "who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Christ." He doesn't say, notice, that they had made some changes to their lifestyle and now, as a result, they have begun to enjoy the good life. He doesn't say the Colossians made some new commitments to the highest standard of personal ethics and their good behavior has really begun to pay off. He doesn't even say that their renewed religious commitments have finally caused them somehow to find favor with God. What does he say? "You were dead," he says, "and in your spiritual death and inability, God intervened by His grace and made you alive. We were helpless," he's saying. "We were lifeless, unable to alter our own condition. And in our helpless, by His infinite mercy and grace, He broke in upon us, uniting us to Jesus Christ and giving to us resurrection life." He took away our hearts of stone and gave us hearts of flesh. He awakened an appetite for His beauty within us. He inclined our wills to choose the Savior. He gave us faith to trust in Jesus. He put vital power into our lifeless spiritual limbs, as it were, so that we would run with happy abandon to Christ.
I want you to listen carefully here. This really is so important. Unless we come to the complete abandonment of all claim to personal merit, all claim to any kind of contribution of our own in the great matter of our salvation, unless we abandon ourselves, wholly and without reserve to Jesus Christ, we never will know the saving grace of which Paul speaks so beautifully here. In fact, when you hear about free, sovereign grace and our spiritual helplessness apart from it, you will find it to be a source of offense to your pride rather than good news that melts your heart with gratitude and joy. “Not the labor of my hands could fulfill Thy laws’ demands. Could my zeal no respite know; could my tears forever flow. All for sin could not atone; Thou must save and Thou alone.” “Nothing in my hands 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.” That’s precisely the point – helpless, hopeless, lifeless. Naked come to Thee for dress; helpless come to Thee for grace. Foul, dirty, unclean I to the fountain fly. Savior, wash me or I die. Is that the cry of your heart? That must be the cry of our hearts. That must be our careful posture before the grace of God.
One more thing to notice before we move on. Look at verse 13 again where Paul says, "God made them alive together with Christ." Do you see that last phrase, "together with Christ"? Nice and neat in English; in the original, there's a redundancy in his language that's not really translated terribly clearly in our versions. The verb that he uses "to make alive," actually is a compound verb but it means "to make alive together with." So he's already saying in the verb, "to make alive together with; God made you alive together with." Then he adds in addition, "with him." So a horrible translation would be something like, "God made you alive together with him with him." You see the redundancy? Why does he use it? Because the music that he's playing right now is so sweet he wants to hit the notes over again. He wants you to see the wonder of it. Where does this new life come from? Where do you get it? It's yours with Christ. It's in union with Jesus Christ that you get it. When you become a Christian by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, you are connected to Jesus in such a way that His resurrection life flows into you so that where once you were helpless and unable, now you live and trust in Him. There's a glory and a beauty to that that we need to see. There is the power of the cross at work within us, making us alive, enabling us to trust in Christ.
But there’s also another note in verse 13. Do you see it? Not just the power of the cross within us but the power of the cross at work for us, on our behalf. Look again at verse 13, the second half of the verse. “God made us alive, together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” So it’s not just a new life worked in us, but a new status and standing worked for us before God that we receive when we are united to Christ. Our sin is forgiven, we’re no longer condemned, but we are counted righteous in His sight. We are justified, pardoned and accepted.
Power of the Cross Toward God
That actually brings us to the second axis along which the Gospel travels. The first is the Gospel, the power of the cross toward us. The second is the power of the cross toward God. If you think, if you conceive of the Gospel as having respect only to us, we are going to miss the central mystery. A large part of what makes the good news of the Gospel so very good is not only the benefits we receive – new life, forgiveness – but it's the effect, as it were, if I can put it this way, of the cross upon God. There's a Godwardness to the work of Jesus Christ. Look at verse 14. We've been forgiven, Paul says, because God has forgiven us by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. "This he set aside, nailing it to the cross."
You see, God's broken law, the sin that causes us to trespass against God's standards, His broken law is like an IOU demanding a payment we could never afford to pay. And every minute of every day when we ought to be paying off our debt, instead our habitual sin plunges us evermore deeply into it. We cannot hope to pay off the debt that we owe. Paul says God has canceled that debt. Some of you know the crushing burden of debt. Some of you have wrestled with, "How in the world are we ever going to pay this off? How are we going to get out from under it?" It's a constant burden, a weight upon you. You feel it. There's a heaviness that just hangs around you every day. Imagine if that debt was suddenly gone, suddenly gone. God cancels the debt.
How does He do it? "This he set aside," Paul says, "nailing it to the cross." Now you remember in the Gospel account when Jesus was crucified, Pilate wrote the crime for which Christ was condemned and nailed it to the cross above His head. It read, "The King of the Jews." Here is our king, crucified as our substitute and representative, dying on our behalf. And Paul is saying it's as though the record of every one of our transgressions was written on that paper nailed to the cross above His head. This is why He died. He died to pay in full the terrible burden of your debt, your sin before a holy God. He died so that God might take the IOU and tear it up and throw it away. Your debt canceled and your sin forgiven.
When I was in seminary in Edinburgh, my Hebrew professor, the late John L. McKey, would make each student in turn come to the front of the class, in front of the class, and write on the whiteboard vocabulary words or to parse Hebrew verbs or adjust the vowel pointing when a prefix or a suffix was added to a root. Now I will confess to you with no embarrassment at all, that I was at best an average Hebrew student. So those trips to the whiteboard were invariably, horribly embarrassing for me. They were enormous fun for Professor McKey, who I think took great delight in the display of my incompetence. They were miserable for me. My only consolation was by the time I got back to my seat he had wiped the whiteboard clean.
When you trust in Jesus Christ, God wipes the whiteboard clean of all record of your shame. He wipes the whiteboard clean. What a relief that is. Do you know anything about it? The relief, the blessed relief of sin forgiven. The whiteboard is clean. The IOU, to use Paul's metaphor, has been torn. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The debt has been paid in full. The load has been lifted, believer in Jesus. All of your sin – past, present, and future – forgiven and wiped away. "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities," Psalm 130 verse 5, "O Lord who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You that You may be feared." There's a Godwardness, you see, to the work of Jesus Christ. His work is not only toward us in our hearts to make us alive; His work is with reference to God. God requires that debt be paid. He requires that our transgressions be accounted for. There's justice to be done before the righteousness of God; there's a Godwardness. And Christ satisfies God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses against us. The debt is settled.
And that's important. That's such good news because if you're like me, you need something to balance the temptation toward subjectivity. If the Gospel was only about what happens in you so that the grounds of your confidence before God rest entirely upon whatever evidence you can find within you to demonstrate that God is at work in your life when you look within and find there a sinkhole of remaining sin, wouldn't you find – as I often find – all assurance beginning to disappear like fog in the midday sun? Praise God that the Gospel is not just about, or even mainly about, what God is doing in you. It also has respect to the righteousness of God and Christ's work is for you, not just in you; for you. So that you look within and you say, "Well, I do trust in Jesus, but how can I still be this massive contradiction overcome so often with fear and doubt and there's still so much remaining corruption festering away in this wicked heart of mine? Maybe I'm not really a child of God after all!" And assurance crumbles and then you remember that "Though my faith may be weak it is real and I am clinging to Jesus and Jesus has satisfied for all my sin, for all of it. The law of God no longer condemns. The IOU has been torn us and discarded. The whiteboard is clean and I stand righteous in the sight of God." And how I feel, how far I assess myself to have come, how far short I recognize I still fall does not affect that objective glorious Gospel reality. Believer in Jesus, though your faith may be small and trembling and weak, if it is real, if you're turning from self-reliance to trust in the Savior, you are right in the sight of God, accepted and beloved, and nothing can ever change that. Praise the Lord!
Power of the Cross Toward Demonic Powers
So the first axis the Gospel travels along – the power of the cross toward us, within us, on our behalf. Then the second axis – the power of the cross toward God. God is reconciled to us; His demands are satisfied. The debt is paid. Then finally, the third axis along which the Gospel travels – the power of the cross with regard to demonic powers; powers of supernatural evil. Look at verse 15. Paul mentions the rules and authorities. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in Him.” Rulers and authorities – that’s a reference to the supernatural demonic powers, the condemning power of the law of God is their great weapon against us. Isn’t it? They want us to ignore it and disobey it and trample underfoot the law of God that we might be exposed to its penalties. They love to accuse us and to point out our sin and our failure, Satan and his servants. But at the cross, the condemning power of the law was taken away forever, disarming you see, once and for all, the rulers and authorities and putting them to open shame. He’s triumphed over them in the cross and in the person of Christ.
Paul uses a word there, the word translated "triumph," it's a word for a victory parade. In the ancient world, the defeated enemy was led in a public parade to show how abject their defeat and how total the victory of the conqueror really is. You see the point? The cross has utterly defeated Satan and his servants. Now we need to cling to that. There's a story told of Martin Luther, you may know it, that I think helps us see just how much this is good news in verse 15. In a dream, Luther found himself being attacked by Satan. The devil unrolled a long scroll containing a list of Luther's sins and held it out for Luther to see. And when he reached the end of the scroll, Luther asked the devil, "Is that all?" "No" came the reply, and a second scroll was brought forth. Then after the second, there came a third and then the devil was done. And Luther said, "Well, you have forgotten something. Quickly write on each of them: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin.'" Satan was accusing, seeking to condemn, and Luther did not say, "I'm not a sinner and I'm not guilty." Luther said, "No, the debt is paid. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. The whiteboard is clean and your accusations simply cannot stick anymore."
What am I trying to do in this sermon? I'm trying to fan the flames of gratitude in our hearts, rehearsing for us the benefits we receive from the cross of Jesus Christ so that when we come to this table we might come rejoicing and giving thanks because here, Jesus promises to continue to apply to us the grace He won for us with His blood. He is going to meet us here to strengthen us and enable us to press on. And so I want us to come to the table looking to Him with grateful hearts, trusting in Him for more, for what we need for today and tomorrow and for the days ahead. So remember, because of the cross, you were made alive together with Christ. You're not dead; you're alive, all because of His grace. "By grace, you have been saved. You were dead in your trespasses, but God who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace, you have been saved." Because of the cross you've been forgiven. "Our God has reconciled, His pardoning voice I hear. He owns me for His child, and I can no longer fear." Our heavenly creditor holds our debt, your debt, settled forever. And because of the cross, Satan cannot now successfully prosecute his lawsuit against you, not because you are not guilty, but because Jesus Christ has paid the penalty in full in your place. The glory of the Gospel. Do you know it? You must trust today in Jesus Christ and if you do, you will be ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. May the Lord bless us as we come with grateful hearts to Christ and to His table.
Let’s pray together.
Lord, we thank You for the cross. It is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. As we take bread and drink the cup now, we pray for grace to cling to the Savior, to receive again from Him the grace we need to live for You in a dark and dangerous world. And we pray for those sitting around us who do not know Christ. We ask You to bring them to the end of themselves to see there is no merit, no work, nothing in them, nothing they can do, and they must simply abandon themselves to Christ. Grant that they may do so today, and as they do, give to them the new life with which Paul speaks, forgiving their sin and triumphing over the enemy of their souls, even Satan. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.