Text: Colossians 1:1-14
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is an absolute treasure. For warm, practical, joyful, Christ-centred, Christ-honouring teaching there is nothing quite like it.
The small city of Colossae was situated in the Lycus valley in modern-day Turkey. Paul had never been to Colossae. However, he had evangelised other cities in the valley, such as Ephesus. Among his converts had been a man named Epaphras, and it was he who had taken the gospel back to his home town of Colossae and founded the church there.
Paul now finds himself in prison – probably in Rome – on account of his Christian ministry. Is he depressed? Is he downhearted? No – Epaphras has brought him good news from the church in Colossae. They have made a really encouraging start as followers of Jesus Christ. But there were some worrying aspects. These concerns bubble to the surface particularly in chapter 2.
It seems that there were people in Colossae who were teaching that faith in Christ is all very well and good, but to be a really spiritual person you needed to add a whole pile of other stuff – Jewish practices such as circumcision, food laws and religious festivals; belief in angels as mediators between God and man; and initiation into a kind of special knowledge that later became known as Gnosticism.
This idea that you need Christ plus something else is an ever-present danger to the church, and have led to many difficulties and divisions over the years.
The late Bishop Stephen Neill commented that in the missionary field Roman Catholics have often come in and set themselves to ‘complete’ the imperfect Christianity of the Protestant converts.
Or Pentecostal groups have come in and assured converts that unless they speak with tongues, they can have no assurance that they have received the Holy Spirit.
Or Anglicans have come in and conveyed ‘the blessings of episcopacy to those who thought that they were getting on very nicely without them.’
Paul’s answer to this is to stress the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we could take 2:6f as a theme sentence for the whole letter:
Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
In order to make progress in the Christian life, you don’t need to add something else to the Christ you have already received. You need to continue just as you have begun. You don’t lay the foundations of a building in one place, and put up the superstructure somewhere else. You don’t plant a tree at one end of the garden and look for it to start sprouting at other end.
And so it is that Paul picks up this theme right here in these introductory 14 verses. He begins by giving thanks for the good start that they have made in Christ, and then prays that they might continue in just the same way.
1. Paul gives thanks that they have begun well, vv3-7
What does it mean to begin well as a Christian?
Well, according to this passage it means that there will be evidence of that famous trio of graces – faith, love and hope.
(a) Faith in Christ, v4 – Now, it is very easy these days to speak of faith. Just a few days ago, when hundreds of bishops marched in London for action on world poverty, the Prime Minister called it ‘the greatest public demonstration of faith’ Britain has ever seen. But talk of faith in the abstract is almost meaningless. Faith requires an object, and the faith that Paul is talking about is faith in Christ. Paul had heard of the Colossians’ faith in Christ, and for that he gave thanks to God.
(b) Love for all the saints, v4. ‘Saints’, of course, is just another word for Christian believers. But the particular word I would emphasise here is that little word ‘all’. It’s remarkable how often it occurs in this short epistle (x24). The point is that the Colossians have realised from the outset that in Christ there are no different classes of Christians, 1st class and 2nd class, ordinary class and the elite class. No: there is just one class – ordinary Christians demonstrating love for one another because of their common faith in an extraordinary Christ.
(c) Then in v5 the apostle speaks ‘the hope that is stored up for you in heaven’. You will see that he gives a special prominence to hope as the spring from which their faith and love flow. This emphasis on ‘hope’ reminds us that the salvation we enjoy in the here and now does have a future aspect.
The athlete trains in the hope of some future prize
The worker labours in the hope of some future reward
The explorer endures in the hope of some future discovery
As Christians we exercise faith and love in the light of the prospect that our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed..
And, Paul affirms, the Christian hope is not merely wishful thinking. It is sure and certain. It is already ‘stored up for us in heaven’.
Paul thanks God for the faith, love and hope that he has heard about amongst Christians he has never met. Let us think for a moment about another group of Christians that Paul has never met – ourselves. What three words would he use to characterise us? Are we known for our faith in Christ, our love for all the saints, and our heavenly hope? Well if so, we will certainly have begun well, as the Colossian Christians had.
Paul gives thanks, then, that these Colossian Christians had begun well. Epaphras had laid a solid foundation. But how would they build on this? So now, vv9-12, the apostle offers prayer that having begun well, they might continue well.
2. Paul prays that they might continue well
Paul prays for two things that will enable them to continue well.
(a) The first thing he prays for is knowledge
In Col 1:9 Paul says, ‘we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding..’
The false teachers offered knowledge. But in chapter 2 Paul calls it ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy.’ So what kind of knowledge is Paul praying for?
Col 1:10 [It is the kind of knowledge that will enable them to] live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.
The knowledge for which Paul prays is not merely intellectual knowledge. Still less is it initiation into some closely-guarded secret. For Paul, the goal is not some mystical apprehension of divine mysteries reserved for an elite. It is rather an intelligent grasp of what the will of God requires in our daily lives.
We sometimes get uptight about knowing God’s will, don’t we? Which of these Universities should I go to? Which of these jobs should I apply for? Which of these people should I marry? These are important practical questions, and of course we should bring them to God in prayer. But it’s remarkable that the Bible shows very little interest in that kind of guidance. Instead, Scripture prompts us to ask, ‘How can I lead a live that is pleasing to God? For that is my guidance.’ And that’s the kind of knowledge Paul prays for here. It is knowing how to live a life worthy of the Lord and learning what will please him.
(b) The second thing Paul prays for is power
Col 1:11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may [What? Move mountains? Call down fire from heaven? No:] have great endurance and patience.
It is one thing to know God’s will. But Paul now prays that they might have power to do it. And to do it with great endurance and patience.
Endurance – has to do with doing God’s will in the face of difficult circumstances. It is about keeping going when the road is rough and steep.
Patience – has to do with doing God’s will in the face of difficult people. It is about doing what is right when enemies beat us up and friends let us down.
And, the apostle adds, ‘joyfully giving thanks to the Father’.
So the Christian prayer might well be: “Make me, O Lord, victorious over every circumstance; make me patient with every person; and with it all give me the joy which no circumstance and no person can ever take from me.”‘ (DSB)
Finally, in vv 12-14 we find ourselves back where we started.
The question, you will remember, was, Is what God has done for us in Christ sufficient, or do we need something more? Paul’s answer could not be more emphatic. God in Christ has given us everything we need both to begin and to continue as followers of Jesus Christ.
(a) v12 – He has qualified us – It is clear from chapter 2:18 that the new teachers were making the converts feel like second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. ‘Don’t let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.’ But Paul assures his readers that they are fully qualified now for their future inheritance. To believe so is not presumptuous, nor is it ‘too good to be true’, but is simply taking God at his word.
(b) v 13 – He has rescued us – God has brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. In olden times, when a king conquered a nation, he would often transport its inhabitants to his own kingdom. That’s the picture here: we have been transported from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Christ.
The emphasis all the way through is on the thoroughness, the completeness, of God’s provision for his people. And all of this, says v14, is ‘in Christ’.
His is the kingdom into which we have been transferred and he will defend that kingdom, and protect and empower its subjects.
He is the Son of God’s love, and the Father’s great love for Christ is the pledge of the Father’s great love for all who are in Christ.
In him we have redemption: he paid in his broken body and shed blood the price that we could never afford.
In him we have forgiveness of sins: the slate has been wiped clean, and we have been released from the power and penalty and pollution of sin, eagerly anticipating that day when we will be free from its very presence.
Nothing less will suffice. Nothing more is required. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.