Filled with Christian Instinct (Colossians 1:9–14)

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This sermon is part of a series on Colossians titled “Filled: Finding Wholeness in Christ.”

Introduction

Some people are like the bag of potato chips I had this week: they have all the appearance of being filled, but if you were to look inside, there’s a lot of air and not many potato chips. Some believers are that way: their external “packing” sends the message that they are filled with grace and peace, health and happiness, but inside is a lot of emptiness and not much substance. If you find yourself trying to live a Christian life without much substance, this letter is for you because it unveils the privileges that are yours if you will accept and live by them in faith. If, on the other hand, you are living a full and substantial life in Christ, this letter is a reminder to not let your foot up off the gas pedal; keep moving forward in the fullness of Christ and let it overflow for others. 

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians is that these young believers, who are full of zeal and love and hope, will be filled with substance and not fluff. The big idea of this passage is a prayer that believers will think like Christ so they will live like Christ. 

This is why Paul begins his letter with twelve verses of prayer. First, he prays a prayer of thanksgiving. And now, in 1:9-14, he prays for their spiritual fullness.

Let’s pause and pray that God will fill us: Almighty God, you are the God who perfectly satisfies the longing of every living creature. Lord, we ask that as we study your Word today that you will fill us with a hunger and thirst after righteousness so that we may be filled. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

There are days that never leave our mind. You have some of those days in your mind right now: perhaps it is a memory of a beautiful, happy day, or perhaps it is a memory of a sad day. We all have them. At the beginning of this letter, Paul again mentions one of those special days—the day he heard about the Colossians’ faith. In verse 4, Paul wrote, “we pray for you since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus,” and now a second time, Paul writes, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you” (Colossians 1:9). 

The day that Epaphras told Paul about the young and zealous faith of the Colossians was a special day for Paul. And every time that day comes to mind, Paul prays for them. He has already said that his prayer for them includes thanksgiving (1:3) and now prays that they will continue along in the same direction (1:9), and he does so in yet another complex sentence that covers verses 9-14 (Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 92).

There are two ways to make sense of these long, complex sentences. The first is to identify how the connecting words (conjunctions and prepositions) help us break down the sentence. The second is to locate the main verb which usually contains the main thought of the sentence. In this sentence the main verb is found in this clause: “we have not ceased to pray for you.” Paul then repeats the main idea of the verb in a positive way: asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. The word “asking” is a synonym throughout Scripture for prayer. So what is Paul asking for in this prayer? If the point of Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving in 1:3-8 was “Thank God, you guys get it!” the point of Paul’s petition in 9-14 is “Don’t forget it!” In short, Paul is praying that Christians will be filled with Christian instinct. 

Consider mothers. We have to admit that mothers have instincts that are unique, natural, and beneficial to the health and happiness of every mother’s child. A mother’s ability to discern what a baby’s cry means is amazing: the baby is hungry, tired, hurt, or something else. In a similar way, Paul is praying that Christians—not only in Colossae, but we also—would develop a Christian instinct.

In his classic book The Christian Mind (SPCK 1963), Harry Blamires laments that Christians think of themselves only in terms of people who meet together to worship but not to think (Blamires, The Christian Mind, 16). “The Christian mind,” Blamires writes, “is the prerequisite of Christian thinking. And Christian thinking is the prerequisite of Christian action” (Blamires, The Christian Mind, 43). N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The foundation of what [Paul] prays for is that the new Christian instinct may become firmly implanted in them” (N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, 146).

I have been quite surprised at how some Christians have responded to a number of ethical and moral issues in our society. For example, rather than allowing a distinctly Christian way of thinking to inform what one says and how one acts toward immigrants, not a few Christians have instead spoken and acted as good Republicans or Democrats without any reference to Christ. I’ve had many conversations with people across the spectrum—left-wing, right-wing, conservative, liberal, but all self-proclaimed Christian—about very difficult subjects without them ever bringing up what God actually says in his Word. If the Church is going to be the moral difference that God intends us to be, we must foster a distinctly Christian instinct. This is what Paul prays will happen in Colossae and this is what God desires for Christians everywhere.

If the Church is going to be the moral difference that God intends us to be, we must foster a distinctly Christian instinct.

What is a Christian instinct? Paul helps us out here by introducing three words: knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. These three “intellectual virtues” are often used as synonyms in Scripture as in Isaiah 11:2. By “knowledge” Paul simply means “Christian instinct”; that we will think, react, and develop a Christian-kind of common sense. Knowledge, Christian instinct, and Christian common sense—they’re all the same idea here in Colossians 1:9. 

Someone has said that common sense is not so common anymore. The good thing about Christian common sense is that it’s all right there in the Word. If we start losing a sense of common sense—and we have in our age—the Christian has the revealed will of God right here in the Word. This Word is what Christians have in common. 

So, what do wisdom and understanding have to do with knowledge or Christian instinct? Understanding is the ability to discern the truth; wisdom is making good decisions based on that truth (Moo, Colossians, 94). The goal of knowledge is wisdom and understanding. Here is the catch: Paul adds the adjective “spiritual” because it is God who imparts to us a Christian mind and a Christian instinct (Beale, Colossians and Philemon, 56). A growing Christian is one whose mind is increasingly thinking like Christ. Our mental condition profoundly impacts our moral condition. 

Why is having a Christian mind and instinct so important? Paul tells us it is “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” (Colossians 1:10) Remember the main verb of the sentence is Paul’s praying. The first part of the prayer is that God would fill them with a Christian mind–that is, a mind that knows the will of God and what to do with it. Now Paul tells us why he prays that way: not that we would merely think like a Christian, but that we would, consequently, act like a Christian.

A growing Christian is one whose mind is increasingly thinking like Christ. Our mental condition profoundly impacts our moral condition. 

Walking” is a common Hebrew idiom for “living.” The idea is that life is a journey, a procession; we’re coming from somewhere and we’re going somewhere. Let’s walk worthy of the destination, fully pleasing to him. 

In Galatians 1:10, Paul writes that he does not live so as to try to please people, but to please God. Now, Paul is praying that every Christian would live that way. Why does this even have to be said? Easy, because we often live in fear of what other people will think about us. Now before you abandon all fear, keep something in mind: the idea of pleasing God rather than never means that we walk in isolation or in disregard of what other people think. In fact, we can hardly discern what pleases God unless we are in good conversation with other people. So fully pleasing God does not mean disregarding what others believe and think or acting like a spiritual lone ranger. 

Paul goes on to describe in four ways what it means to walk worthy and pleasing to God. Or, we may put it this way: there are four practical results to being filled with Christian instinct. The first result is bearing fruit in every good work and the second is increasing in the knowledge of God; Paul intends to draw our minds back to Creation again as he did in 1:6. We often think of Matthew 28:18-20 as the Great Commission, but in reality, the Great   Commission was first given in Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it].” 

Adam failed and was banned from the Garden; Israel failed and was vomited out of the Land (as the prophets put it); now the Great Commission is given to the Church who, under the influence of the Spirit, will fulfill it.

Here is Paul’s point: a Christian mind and good works go hand in hand. There is not one without the other. If you are bearing the fruit of good works, you are also increasing in the knowledge of God, and vice versa. This isn’t circular reasoning; it’s spiral reasoning (Beale, Colossians and Philemon, 60). Of course, there is a logical order here: you have to know God first in order to bear good fruit.

The third result of a Christian instinct is that we are “being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might” (Colossians 1:11). [Note: The ESV has updated their translation by placing a semicolon at the end of verse 10 instead of a period. The old version reads, “May you be strengthened,” while the new version reflects the participle better, “being strengthened….”] 

There is no doubt that we need strength for the journey, and Paul makes it clear that our strength comes from God. This does not make us puppets in the sovereign hand of God, but willing participants whose ability to walk worthy is generated by God alone and works in us insofar as we have our “receptor” switch turned on. Our Christian instinct is shown by our reception of the power of God in our lives that results in endurance and joy. The reason we need supernatural strength is for all endurance and patience, and notice this little addition, with joy.

N.T. Wright says of this passage, “There are two lies which the world often tells about God’s intention for human behaviour [sic.]. First, people say that God doesn’t want us to have a good time; second, they say that even if we try to live as he wants all we’ll ever get is a grudging approval….This verse shows how wrong both of these are. God’s intention is for human life to flourish and bear fruit” (Wright, The Prison Letters, 147).

Patience pays off. When we know God, develop Christian instincts, bear the fruit of good works, increase in our knowledge of God’s will, and endure, we experience joy. The problem with human nature is that we want joy easily. We want joy with the least amount of labor; happiness without hassle.

The world is full of fast-food churches.

The world is full of fast-food churches—get your 20-minutes of “worship” on with some good music; a 20-minute motivational speech for a sermon; and some good coffee and donuts on the way in or the way out, and you’re all set. You’ve enjoyed yourself for an hour or so, while the other 167 hours of your week are like hell. Here’s the problem: we want joy in a happy meal, and we want it as quickly as we can drive through a McDonald’s drive-thru. This is exactly why Paul is praying this prayer: human nature is no different now than it was then. The Colossians are no less susceptible to this kind of mechanized living as we are today. So Paul’s point is that joy, grace and peace, health and happiness, do not come easily, but through intentionally, daily walking with Jesus. Then there is the fourth result of a Christian instinct is “giving thanks to the Father” (Colossians 1:12). 

This is the final way Paul tells us that people with a Christian mind act. He spends more time on this one than any of the others, and in doing so, he is returning to the same idea with which he began his prayer in 1:3—thanksgiving. Again, gratitude is directed to God the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. The word “qualified” means “to make worthy” and intends to draw our attention back to v.10, where Paul prays that we would walk worthy of the Lord. Here is the irony: we walk worthy of Christ because God the Father has made us worthy. 

How are we made worthy? By being made heirs of the promises made to the “saints,” that is, the chosen people of God as in Leviticus 11:45, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God: and you shall be holy ones, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Beale, Colossians and Philemon, 64).

Notice again how Paul adds a little prepositional phrase at the end: in light. Just as the phrase with joy at the end of verse 10, this phrase is packed with meaning. It is unpacked a bit more in Colossians 1:13: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” 

Darkness in the prophet Isaiah stands for imprisonment and light for freedom (cf. Isaiah 42:6-7). For the Apostle John, who will write his letters much later than Paul, darkness stands for lies and deceit while light stands for truth and transparency (cf. 1 John 1:5-7). The idea of the “domains” of darkness and light is that one or the other hangs over us. We are either living in darkness or living in light, and if we are children of God, we are called to live worthy of the light God has given us. “Light” is a synonym for knowledge of the truth. 

Paul ends the passage by describing our adoption into the kingdom of light in terms of the Exodus, or Second Exodus as Isaiah calls it. “In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). 

The language of redemption and forgiveness go all the way back to the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt and God’s forgiveness of their terrible sin of idolatry in the wilderness. Paul is pointing out where we have come from—we have come from the domain of darkness and sin (Egypt and the wilderness), but we have entered the Promised Land, the kingdom of Christ, the fellowship of believers, and we are on a journey. But there is a catch: in order to complete the journey successfully, we must by the grace of God develop a Christian instinct. 

Some people have the gift of having a mental compass in their head. I like to think that my mind works that way, but then I grew up in the flatlands of the Midwest where every road is on a grid. When I visit Atlanta or Boston, my mental compass doesn’t work as well because the roads in those cities are circuitous. In the same way, we may think we are getting along just fine on spiritual cruise control, but then the road starts to twist and turn; hardships come, challenging social issues arise, false teachers abound, and we’re not sure what the truth is. Those are the moments that reveal what’s inside.

Conclusion

As believers we need to check our spiritual gauges to see if our instincts are still fully Christian. We, as Christians, are called to develop some instinctive habits. They are: (1)   bearing the fruit of good works; (2) increasing in the knowledge of God’s will; (3) receiving the power of God resulting in endurance and joy; and (4) giving testimonies of thanksgiving for our redemption in Christ. How then should we think and live?

  1. Just like the Colossians, we must take God’s Word seriously by being faithful to read and study it privately and together. If you do not have a study partner, pray and search for one until you find one.
  2. Experience spiritual strength and the daily joy of implementing God’s Word into your life. There is no greater joy and no greater confidence in life than knowing you are living according to God’s revealed will for us.
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).