Monday, March 21, 2011

Colossians 01: The Preeminence, Sufficiency, Sovereignty, and Glory of Jesus Christ

Scripture Text: Colossians 1:1-8

This week we begin a new series preaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, continuing, after a short break, the practice of preaching through entire books of scripture. Before we begin, I want to give you a brief reminder about why this kind of preaching, called expository preaching, is important. First, it is important because the whole counsel of God is preached. When whole books are preached, both the preacher and the congregation are forced to content with difficult texts. Expository preaching means no verses are left out, which is important because, as we learn in 2 Timothy 3:16, “[16] All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” In some churches, preaching is topically driven – subjects like marriage, divorce, finance, sex, public life, etc. are explored. The chief weakness of this approach is that the topics that are preached almost inevitably consist of those that are most comfortable for the preacher. In other churches, the lectionary is preached. What is the lectionary? The lectionary is simply a reading plan for the bible. One advantage of the lectionary is that churches across multiple denominations preach the same text on the same Sunday. The disadvantage of the lectionary is that difficult or culturally controversial topics are almost always excluded. Also, because of the limitations of the calendar, some important texts are never preached in churches where the lectionary is used exclusively. A critical argument for expository preaching through entire books of the bible is that we live in a era where biblical literacy and regular bible reading is at an all time low, making this kind of preaching a necessity if the church is to abide in the world.

Now, why Colossians? I decided to go with Colossians as our next study for several reasons. First, this is a letter that deeply celebrates the total preeminence, sufficiency, sovereignty, and glory of Jesus Christ, especially in verses 15-23 of chapter 1, which we’ll get to in a few weeks time. Second, this letter, like Galatians, was written to counter false teaching in the life of the church. The church today, under incredible pressure by the secular American idolatrous culture, needs, in my view, a renewed focus on the right teaching of God’s gospel, “the word of truth” (Col 1:5). Third, the letter contains great encouragement and practical advice on Christian living to a small community living in the midst of significant pagan secular influences. Christians in Jackson actually live in similar circumstances, so we can benefit from this same word.


Before we get to the verses, we need to talk a bit about the context of this letter. First, Paul is writing from prison to a community of believers that he likely never visited. We know Paul was in prison because he refers to the fact directly in chapter 4, when he sends final greetings from his fellow prisoners and concludes the letter by asking the Colossians to “remember my chains” (4:18). Paul is writing in response to reports he has received from Ephaphras, a native of Colossae who, as we will see in verses 7-8, was the first person to bring the gospel to the largely Gentile population in Colossae. Paul wasn’t alone in prison, and in fact had his highly regarded and trusted friend Timothy with him.

With this brief background, let’s read the text together. Colossians 1:1-8:
[1:1] Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, [2] To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

[3] We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, [4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, [6] which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, [7] just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf [8] and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
This sermon will attempt to answer the question: What does the gospel produce in the believer? The answer is very straightforward. Ultimately, the gospel produces a rock solid hope for an eternity with God, which overflows into acts of loving service to the saints in the church and those in the world.  I think this question is important, because the contemporary church, when it preaches the gospel of totally free, radical grace in Jesus Christ, can fall victim to a complacency that is found nowhere in the scriptures and typifies the life of many American Christians.

The first two verses of the text are Paul’s salutation to the Colossians. In it, he sends greetings from both himself and Timothy, who was Paul’s trusted comrade in faith and the person who likely acted as secretary for this letter, taking Paul’s words down as he spoke them.

Verses 3-8 are a great thanksgiving to God for the gift of faith in Christ among the believers in Colossae. Paul, an apostle of the church, begins by telling the people that he gives thanks to God for their faith and their love for the saints.

What was the effect on these gentiles who became believers in Jesus Christ? It is the same thing that happens to anyone today who comes to a saving knowledge of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. The gospel, also called in this text “the word of truth,” creates in the heart of the person who accepts Christ an eternal, unshakable, heavenly hope. There are two consequences of this hope in the life of the believer. First, this heavenly hope fosters faith in the believer. Second, this hope, because it is so sure and certain, overflows into abundant acts of love for others.  This is especially important for us to consider given the current state of the church and its witness to Jackson and the world.

Verse 3-5a make this plain:
[3] We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, [4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,
He states clearly in verse 5 that the Colossians have a “hope laid up” for them. This hope is sure and certain because it is laid up for believers in heaven. What is this hope? Paul says that this hope is the hope that they “have heard before in the word of truth, the gospel” (v 5). And what is the gospel? The basics of the gospel are these:  If you believe by faith that Jesus Christ died for all of your sins upon the cross, you receive forgiveness and are freed from condemnation by a Holy, just, and righteous God who hates sin. God freely gives this gift of forgiveness; it is a gift of grace, so that no one might boast that they earned their way into salvation. If you receive this free gift of grace by faith in Jesus, the result is that you will have hope, a hope that endures beyond your death (“laid up in heaven” for you).  This is the hope of eternal life with God in heaven and in the resurrection from the dead. This is a hope of immense, unimaginable rewards and of everlasting peace and joy in God’s presence. We know this hope is a sure hope because we know Jesus was raised from the death.  Without this hope, we have hope only in this world, and as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “[19] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Why? Because life as a Christian isn’t easy. For many, many people outside of the United States, the discovery that someone is a Christian can result in receiving a sentence of death. Why would anyone become a Christian if there was only hope in this life? The answer is this: They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t ever consider it unless they had a hope rooted in the heavens that is so real and truth that the pursuit of it gives joy that outweigh and pain, suffering, or opposition in this life. The gospel sets the believer free from failure, because Christ succeeded for us. The gospel sets the believer free from loss, because Christ is all in all. The gospel sets the believer free from fear of rejection by others, because in Christ we have been totally accepted by God. The gospel sets the believer free from guilt because in Christ the cause of guilt, sin, has been washed away by his blood. The forgiveness granted the believer who is in Christ is so complete that God Himself promises to actually forget the sin itself. It is this assurance of our total, complete forgiveness and acceptance by Christ that we have tremendous hope. Do you have hope like this in your life? It can be yours if you accept Christ.

At this point, many people make an accusation against the church.  They say, isn’t this kind of hope prone to lead people to inaction? Don’t people, who become heavenly minded in this kind of hope, become lax when it comes to others? Doesn’t such a faith and hope lead to escapism, that there’s nothing good for us to do, we need only wait around for the second coming?

This text makes it clear that the answer to these questions is a resounding NO. The gospel produces a hope that isn’t escapist, its active. And that activity is seen most evidently in the loving acts for others.  That is why Paul says,
[3] We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, [4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,
The hope of which Paul writes, this heavenly-minded hope, is so overwhelming that is expresses itself in loving acts for others. So, contrary to the accusation, saving faith in the gospel produces a profound, certain hope that overflows into acts of love for others.  Worldly hopes, by contrast, lead to occupation with selfish, worldly concerns.  A gospel-birthed hope does not overflow into acts of sitting on the couch watching television and eating potato chips, or playing bridge, or sitting around idly drinking coffee, or browsing aimlessly through page after page on the internet, or gossiping about the latest goings on, or playing shuffleboard, or maximizing personal popularity at school. No. A gospel-birthed hope overflows into acts of love for others, of feeding the poor, or going on international missions, or giving money to those in need, or giving of time and talents to ministries without regard for worldly rewards, precisely because the heavenly reward is so much greater and certain. It is worldly-mindedness that leads people to, among other things, selfish pursuits, like striving for the biggest incomes for the best life now, with free time spent repairing everything that’s been acquired, all while making sure we don’t look bad by adding a little church to the weekend, a little of God’s word, so that our consciences might be clear for a little while. It is worldliness that causes us to move God’s word and prayer and worship into last place at the first possible opportunity for fishing, golf, football, and hunting. Don’t get me wrong. I like a few of those activities myself. I preach this as one convicted of my own worldly tendencies and laziness. But when these things flow from mind preoccupied by worldly concerns, rather than heavenly concerns, they ultimately are declarations of our selfishness.

The gospel of life leads to hope and loving deeds for others. The reason it does this is because of the work Christ has already accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. What does a love flowing from a heavenly hope look like? We know from Galatians 5 that love is a fruit of the Spirit (it’s the first fruit listed). 

Such love is a fruit that eventually becomes public. People see this manifestation of love in others, and because it is rooted in the hope of the gospel, it glorifies God.  Paul writes that he and others with him “heard of your [the Colossians] faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that have for all of the saints.” The love they have been showing to the saints has been witnessed publicly by Paul and by others in Colossae, and word has spread. The result of witnessing this love is not envy or jealously on the part of Paul and the others. Instead, it causes them to give thanksgiving and glory to God. “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (vvs 3-4a).

This loves flows from the Cross. Remember the old hymn “The Wondrous Cross?” It speaks of the love of God shown in the crucifixion of Jesus this way:
See from His head, His hands, His feet, /Sorrow and love flow mingled down! / Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Love flows from the gospel and bubbles up to overflowing out from the fountain of heavenly hop in the heart of the believer. And then it flows out to others to the glory of God. If you want to know this kind of love and hope, its found first in the Cross. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
February 20, 2011
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

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