Filled with Thanksgiving (Colossians 1:1–8)

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

Health and Happiness

Health and happiness begin in the mind, enter the heart, and come through in our habits. Easy, right? Not quite. We will see in this study of Colossians that there is something which precedes and exceeds our use of sheer willpower, namely, the reconciling ministry of Jesus Christ. Unless we are reconciled to God through Christ, there is no hope for health or happiness. But through Christ we have the power of the Holy Spirit impressed upon our mind, will, and actions so that we may experience wholeness.

In today’s passage we learn that healthy people are thankful people. If you want to experience more peace, a greater sense of the presence of God in the world, better relationships with people around you, and overall better health, learn to be thankful—genuinely appreciative of God’s work in the world.

Healthy people are thankful people.

When I read the short letter of Paul to the Colossians, I’m amazed at how upbeat Paul is given his circumstances. It tells me that gratitude—responding with appreciation—can make a bad situation better, happier, and even holier. In this sermon series, we will find that wholeness, health, peace of mind, steadfastness, and confidence comes from fullness, beginning with being filled with thanksgiving.  

Fullness: The Message of Colossians

Throughout this series we will focus on Paul’s theology of being “filled” in the sense of being full or whole, that is, healthy and happy in Christ. This is the big idea of this series: Health and happiness come only in Jesus Christ. Only with that in mind will the big idea of this sermon be understood as anything more than a motivational speech: healthy and happy people are thankful people. Unfortunately, everyone who claims to be in Christ is not healthy or happy, and one big reason is because they are not thankful. Through Paul’s witness we will see that one must be in Christ in order to be healthy and happy, but it takes intentionality, walking in truth, and learning to love more than our own selves.

The year was about 55 A.D, and the Apostle Paul had repeatedly stirred up trouble against himself in the bustling city of Ephesus—population: 200,000 (N.T. Wright, NTIW, 455). Paul had caused quite a stir in the empire’s third largest city (only Rome and Alexandria were larger). According to Luke in Acts 19, three years of Paul’s preaching brought an economic depression in the local idol market. The silversmiths, magicians, and other craftsmen of local superstition were threatened by the mass conversions in Ephesus.

Consequently, Paul and his companions are bound in chains and hauled off to jail. Imprisonment was not an unfamiliar experience to Paul. Luke records at least three instances in which Paul was locked up. Paul himself testifies in 2 Corinthians 11:23 to having been imprisoned numerous times.

There are three known imprisonments of Paul:

  1. Overnight in Philippi (Acts 16:19-34)
  2. Two years in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-26:32)
  3. Two years in Rome (Acts 28:11-31)

During this imprisonment in Ephesus, Paul wrote four letters. The first letter was written to the Philippians. He then wrote three letters to be carried by his friend Tychicus: one to the Colossians, a personal letter to Philemon (a citizen of Colossae), and a final letter called “Ephesians” that was to be circulated to all the churches in the region.

We know Paul is in prison with Timothy, Aristarchus, Mark, Demas, Luke and Epaphras at the time of his writing because he tells us: “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison” (Col. 4:3; cf. 4:10; Philemon 23-24).

Where was Paul when he wrote the letter to the Colossians? Arguments for location:

  • Caesarea: Luke was with Paul during his imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 27:1).
  • Rome: The freedom with which Paul seems to have to interact with many people is fitting for Rome. “Rome” appears on the subscriptions of some early manuscripts.
  • Ephesus: Onesimus and Epaphras are more likely to have visited Paul here and to be sent back to Colossae by Paul.

A few other interesting facts about Colossians:

  • Colossians has no quotations from the Old Testament.
  • The “law” is never mentioned in the letter.
  • There are 32 words used in Colossians that are not found elsewhere in the Bible.
  • A major earthquake shook the area c.62, and afterwards Colossae was eventually abandoned.
  • Colossae has never been excavated.

Paul writes about a lot of things in this short letter: the supremacy of Christ, principles of Christian liberty, Christian ethics, family life, the Church, and preparation for eternity. But the central idea, indeed, the key concept is “fullness” and fulfillment.

The central message of the letter, I believe, is found in Col. 2:10: “You have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”

The idea behind fullness is the sufficiency of Christ: Jesus is enough.

The idea behind fullness is the sufficiency of Christ: Jesus is enough. In fact, Jesus is everything; without him we are dead in trespasses (2:13); without him life is an empty shell (2:16-17). Whatever it was the Colossians were experiencing, Paul found it necessary to remind them that Christ is everything. He puts it this way in Colossians 3:11: “Christ is all.”

Colossians 1:1–8: Fullness in Thanksgiving

This spring we planted a few dozen plant seeds. On sunny days we put them outside our window and let them take in the sun; on cool or rainy days, we bring them inside so they don’t freeze or get too much moisture. They are young plants, only about two or three inches out of the soil. They require frequent attention. That is precisely what Paul is doing in writing this letter to the Colossians. They are a church young in the faith.

It must have been quite a surprise for the Colossians to receive a letter from the famous Apostle. This week I received a letter from the President of the United States. It was a form letter that millions of people probably received. It had his signature, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t sit down and write it out personally. Not so with this letter to Colossae.

Saints and Siblings

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col. 1:1–2).

He closes the letter with Colossians 4:18: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.”

Ancient letters have a feature that we don’t use in modern letter-writing. Ancient letters have the sender’s name at the beginning. Instead of, “Dear Colossians,” the letter begins with “This is the Apostle Paul writing.” Remember that the title “apostle” was given to those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. The Apostles were an exclusive group of people who had the unique status of knowing and receiving instruction from Jesus first-hand.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:20 that “[the Church is] built on the foundation of [the teachings of] the apostles and prophets.”

This is what we mean when we confess that we believe “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”—the Church is apostolic in the sense that we follow in the teachings of Christ as handed down through the apostles.

Paul tells us about his encounter with Christ in Galatians 1:11–2:10. Paul’s point of introducing himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” is not of self-conceit; rather, it is an appeal to the fact that he is speaking as a student of the Messiah himself.

He adds that his own student, Timothy, is with him and is probably assisting in writing the letter because in verse 3 Paul uses the pronoun “we.”

This follows with an address to the recipients who are “saints and faithful brothers.” This is not referring to two groups of people—as in super-spiritual saints and lesser holy believers. All of the believers—from young to old—are called saints and faithful brothers and sisters. These are not incidental titles. “Saints” harkens back to Daniel 7:18—the only place where “saints” appears in the Old Testament—and refers to those who inherit the kingdom of God. It is a heavenly reference. “Brothers” is obviously a familial reference. In other words, since we are saints and siblings together, inheriting the kingdom of God is a family affair.

Paul notes that the believers are “in Colossae”—their earthly community—and also “in Christ”—their heavenly family. Christians have dual citizenship and will someday see heaven and earth become one (cf. Beale, Colossians, 28).

Finally, Paul issues a greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” This is not only a greeting but also the whole point of the letter: to wish grace and peace—or we may say, health and happiness—to this young church plant.

The phrase “and the Lord Jesus Christ,” included in the King James Version, can be found in many good manuscripts but is also absent in equally reliable manuscripts. Greg Beale concludes, “It is harder to explain why a scribe would intentionally or accidentally omit the added phrase rather than why a copyist would add the clause to an original shorter text. In the latter case, it would be irresistible for a scribe to add ‘and [the] Lord Jesus Christ’ in the light of the fact that the introduction of almost every other epistle includes the phrase” (Beale, Colossians, 30).

The Super-Sentence

The beginning of the main body of Paul’s letter contains a typical sentence by Paul: 102 words in the Greek text. In short, this single sentence (in the original text) from verse 4 to verse 8 is an expression of thanks for the Colossians and a commendation of their faith in Christ. But that’s an oversimplification. Paul packs this opening with memories, reports, prayers, and commendations to guide their young faith in the right direction.

As a hint for how to break down such a complex sentence, I recommend that you draw a block around each conjunction and circle each preposition. Then take each clause and ask how it relates to the clause(s) before it. For instance, “when” and “since” show time references, and “because” shows causation or purpose. Conjunctions usually answer questions such as how, when, why, where, and what.

“We [that is, Paul and Timothy] always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you” (Col. 1:3). Here is the main thought of the passage: thanksgiving; particularly, thanksgiving for the continued spread of the Gospel through the young church at Colossae, although Paul himself and Epaphras, the founder of the church at Colossae, are presently in jail.

Sometimes we fail to find something to be grateful for because we are only thinking about ourselves.

Paul, Timothy, and their companions are not having a prison pity party. Quite the opposite: they are rejoicing with their brother, Epaphras, for the success of the Gospel through him. This brings us to a critical point about our thanksgiving habits: sometimes we fail to find something to be grateful for because we are only thinking about ourselves. If we—like these incarcerated Christians—stretched our care capacity we would learn that rejoicing at another believer’s successes is a great way of maintaining a grateful attitude (1 Cor. 12:26).

“Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Col. 1:4). Here we see that the Colossians are loving God and loving their neighbor. Paul’s comment that the Colossians love “all the saints” is not meant to be taken extensively—all Christians everywhere—but intensively—every Christian that comes across their path (Moo, Colossians, 85). Otherwise, Paul’s use of love would be rather abstract. Notice that Paul is essentially speaking about the Christian love that characterizes the Church. Paul is happy that the Colossians have faith in Christ and are loving one another the way God designed the Church to do.

The reason for Paul’s celebration of the Colossians is “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 5a). The Colossians’ love springs up from their hope (Beale, Colossians, 37). The “hope” that is laid up is not an abstract idea here, but a person—Jesus—and his accomplishment—resurrection. What is stored up for us in the control center of the universe (“heaven”) is eternal life in Christ.

Perhaps you are like me when you sit at your computer and wait for something to load. When the little circle appears that shows the progress of a download, I watch it intently and as the dark line moves further along the circle. I imagine what it will be like when it’s complete. In a similar sense, we are awaiting the final “download” of eternal life. It’s happening, but it’s not fully realized.

The Colossians are aware of this as Paul says, “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you” (Col. 5b–6).

The Gospel is the word of truth. Paul puts it this way: the Gospel is the central truth of all truth. That is, in the whole realm of facts and reality, at the core is the Gospel. If we have all knowledge but don’t get the Gospel, it profits nothing.

One of the skills I have had to develop as a husband and parent is the skill of reading between the lines. When a child comes to me and says, “He hit me,” I know there are several possible intentions: (A) Please get my brother in trouble; (B) I want some attention; (C) When my brother comes and tell you what I did, you’ll understand why; or, likely, (D) all of the above. But I have to tell you: sometimes I don’t get it. In these several verses, Paul is making a single point: Thank God, you guys get it! The Colossians get the whole point of the Gospel, the hope that comes from it, and the love that it motivates in us. Not only that, but “as indeed, in the whole world it [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:6).

Clearly the Gospel is spreading quickly. The notion of the Gospel bearing fruit and increasing takes us back to Genesis 1 when God gave this mission to mankind—to multiply and fill the earth. Now, the new Adam, Jesus Christ, is doing just that through the spread of the Gospel by the Church. Adam’s children were supposed to fill the earth with the image and glory of God; since they failed at that task, now those who are in the second Adam are called to complete the task.

Paul concludes the passage with a commendation of Epaphras. “Just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (Col. 1:7).

Epaphras was saved under Paul’s ministry in the Ephesian revival and went back to his hometown of Colossae and planted a church. How’s that for fruitfulness? No wonder Paul and Timothy were thanking God even from a jail cell! Not only that, but now Epaphras has returned to Ephesus to see his spiritual father, Paul, and was thrown in jail with Paul.

“And has made known to us your love in the Spirit” (Col. 1:8). Undoubtedly, Epaphras was able to share lots of information about the believers in Colossae with Paul during their incarceration. Since Paul didn’t know the Colossians personally, the stories Epaphras told led Paul to believe they were very loving people.

Conclusion

In summary, let’s review the significance of this passage for us today. 

1. A healthy person is a thankful person. May God stretch our care capacity so that rejoicing with others becomes a regular part of our Christian experience. Remember, Paul was in jail, yet he found it possible to rejoice because he was genuinely happy about someone else’s success. Although Epaphras was likely saved under Paul’s ministry, and although Paul could have claimed some measure of personal success for the church at Colossae, Paul mentions nothing about himself in regard to the success of the young church. As he wrote to the Corinthians (12:26): “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one is honored, all rejoice together.”

May God stretch our care capacity so that rejoicing with others becomes a regular part of our Christian experience.

2. In this age of information overload, we may find it difficult to filter everything that comes at us. This passage—and the rest of the letter—reminds us that we must run everything through the grid of the Gospel, that is,

  • Is it consistent with faith in Christ?
  • Does it deepen my hope in the resurrection?
  • Does it compel me to love my neighbor? 

We’re going to find that Paul explores each of these throughout the letter as he implores the young Christians to be filled with faith, hope, and love.

3. Finally, the Christian life is a fruitful life. Particularly, a Christian life grounded in the truth and increasing in love is a fruitful life. If you are unconcerned for truth, your care for Christ and others will diminish until your faith is completely sterile and perhaps dead altogether. One cannot continue in fellowship with Christ without growing in truth and love.

Next sermon in this series: “Filled with Christian Instinct (Colossians 1:9–14).”

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).