Giving Thanks for the Gospel and its Fruit: Introduction to Colossians (Colossians 1:1–8)

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This sermon is part of a series: “Colossians: Christ Preeminent.” It is written for a congregation of mostly new believers with the intention of helping the church to see the exclusive power, authority, and beauty of Jesus, and to experience spiritual transformation, stability, and maturity in him.

Pursuing the Truth in a Pluralistic Culture

Talk to the neighbors on your street, and you’re likely to find a multiplicity of views about God and spirituality. Some are devoutly religious; others are superstitious; others claim to believe in nothing at all. Because of our religious freedom in the West, we live in a pluralistic culture.

Pluralism is when many ideas coexist. Perhaps you’ve seen the COEXIST bumper stickers; for a while, there was even a COEXIST flag on the corner of Market Street and 4th Street in the town nearest our church. It uses an Islamic crescent moon for the “C,” a peace sign for the “O,” the Hindu Om symbol for the “E,” a Jewish Star of David for the “X,” a pentagram for the dot of the “I,” a yin-yang symbol for the “S,” and a Christian cross for the “T.”

Pluralism in our culture is good because it provides room for us to pursue the truth, but we must actually pursue what is true, and not simply sit back and buy the lie that all religious ideas are basically the same. In his satirical poem “Creed,” Steve Turner mocks an unhinged pluralistic culture:

We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin.
We believe everything is ok
as long as you don’t hurt anyone,
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your definition of knowledge.

We believe in sex before, during
and after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that taboos are taboo.

[…]

We believe there’s something in horoscopes,
UFO’s and bent spoons;
Jesus was a good man, just like Buddha,
Mohammed and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher although we think
some of His good morals were really bad.

We believe that all religions are basically the same,
at least the ones that we read were.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

We believe that after death comes The Nothing
because when you ask the dead what happens
they say Nothing.
If death is not the end and the dead have lied,
then it’s compulsory heaven for all
excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan.

Since religions fundamentally disagree on essential matters like creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation, they cannot all be true. “COEXIST” is often intended or interpreted as “pretend that all religions are basically equal and it doesn’t matter what you believe.” But just as a person cannot be both dead and alive or tall and short at the same time and in the same sense (the law of non-contradiction), Jesus cannot be both God (as Christians say) and not God (as Muslims and Jews say). And if Jesus really is God, then it’s a big deal—not something about which we can simply “agree to disagree.” With countless religious ideas swirling around in our culture, how can we know the truth?

The Quest for the Real Jesus

For most people, the smorgasbord of religious options narrows once they realize that only three major religions believe in one Creator God: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. These are the three great monotheistic faiths, and they each trace their roots back to Abraham. The core disagreement between these religions hinges on one question: Who is Jesus?

Jesus claimed, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). He claimed to be the one true Creator God in human flesh. Do you believe that Jesus is who he said that he was, or do you believe with the Jews that Jesus was a liar and a false messiah? Do you believe that there is no way to heaven except through Christ, or do you believe with the Muslims that Jesus was simply a prophet—a good religious teacher, though not nearly as great as Muhammed? There are not many other options, unless you think Jesus was merely a legend (which ignores a mountain of historical evidence) or a lunatic who walked around claiming to be God. When Jesus rose from the dead, he proved that his words were true.

Christian pastor David Platt tells the story of sitting at the foot of a mountain with a Muslim and a Buddhist leader. The Muslim and the Buddhist implied that their religions are just different paths to the same God—as though God is at the top of the mountain and we all take different trails to the top. Pastor David asked, “What would you think if I told you that the God at the top of the mountain actually came down to where we are? What would you think if I told you that God doesn’t wait for people to find their way to him, but instead he comes to us?” They thought for a moment and then responded, “That would be great.” David replied, “Let me introduce you to Jesus.”

Colossians: Christ Preeminent

This morning, we are beginning a series on a book of the Bible that helps us in the quest for the real Jesus: the Book of Colossians. In a pluralistic culture, it calls us to “the word of the truth, the gospel” (Col. 1:5), the good news about Jesus Christ. Colossians is written so that we can “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Col. 1:27). John Calvin thought it could be summarized in one word: it “distinguishes the true Christ from a fictitious one” (emphasis added, cited by Pao, Colossians & Philemon).

Colossians teaches us that Jesus Christ is the Creator of the universe, the Lord of everything, and the Savior of the world. It points us to the real Jesus so that we can arise and experience a transformed life in him. Christians recognize in Jesus the one true and living God who created the heavens and the earth, and that changes everything.

Christians recognize in Jesus the one true and living God who created the heavens and the earth, and that changes everything.

The book reaches an early climax with a beautiful hymn celebrating Christ, “that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:18). The glorious mystery that God has now revealed to all people is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:17), and the goal of ministry is to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). That’s why I’m calling this series “Colossians: Christ Preeminent.” “As one of the most thoroughly Christ-centered books in the Bible, Colossians finds its essential unity in the divine and exalted person of the preeminent Christ” (ESV Study Bible); it “is laser-like in its focus on exalting Christ” (Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment).

Author and Audience (1:1–2, 7–8)

Before diving in, let’s begin with some background on the author and audience of the book. “Colossians” is shorthand for “The Letter of Paul to the Colossians.” It is a letter or epistle written in or before 62 A.D. The letter begins,“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” (1:1–2). Who is Paul? Who is Timothy? Why are they writing to the Christians at the city of Colossae?

PAUL’S CONVERSION

Recall that Jesus came to the Jewish people, claiming to be the Christ or Messiah whom God had promised them centuries ago. Jesus exposed the sin, selfishness, and hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders, so they rejected Jesus and put him to death on the cross. Jesus’s followers were disillusioned—until Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them! They exploded with hope and began spreading the good news everywhere. Thousands of people, including many Jews, soon turned to faith in the risen Lord. They were called Christians: followers of Christ.

Many of the Jews, however, hated the Christians and persecuted them. The greatest of all the persecutors was a zealous Jew named Saul—though we know him by his Greek name, Paul. Paul watched as Stephen, a faithful follower of Jesus, was stoned to death; in fact, Paul held the coats of the murderers. Paul began dragging Christians out of their homes and putting them in prison or simply killing them. Then, everything changed: the risen Jesus appeared to Paul.

You can read the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. Paul’s world was turned upside down. He thought that he was serving the Lord when in fact he had rejected the Lord’s Messiah. Paul began praying and fasting, and God revealed to him that he was chosen to take the gospel or good news about Jesus to the Gentiles (non-Jews). God called Paul to be one of his apostles or sent ones (something like a missionary). Paul became “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Col. 1:1, cf. 23, 25).

EPAPHRAS AND THE CHURCH AT COLOSSAE

Paul immediately began preaching that Jesus is the Christ. He was soon recognized as one of the leaders of early Christianity, and began traveling across the ancient world, preaching and starting churches (communities of Christ-followers). Along the way, Paul met a young man named Timothy and mentored him in the faith; Timothy became Paul’s “son in the faith” and traveling companion.

One of the largest cities that Paul preached in was Ephesus. From what we can piece together, a man named Epaphras heard the gospel while visiting Ephesus, became a Christian, then returned to his own hometown of Colossae and shared the truth about Jesus. Soon, a church was formed.

Of course, the Jews and the Greeks were furious and jealous that the gospel was increasing and bearing fruit in the whole world (Col. 1:6). On several occasions, Paul was arrested for his faith and placed in prison. While in prison, Paul wrote several letters to the churches he had planted, encouraging them to stay faithful to Jesus. (For example, you can look at the Table of Contents in your Bible and find the Book of Ephesians; it is a letter written by Paul to the Christians at Ephesus, the city where Epaphras heard the gospel.)

At some point, Epaphras visited Paul in prison and gave him a report about the young church at Colossae. Look at Colossians 1:7–8: “you learned [the gospel] from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” God had changed the lives of the believers at Colossae, and Epaphras shared this good news with Paul. But Epaphras also shared that the Colossians were facing cultural pressures: false teachers were trying to lead them away from the real Jesus. These young Christians were tasked with being faithful to the true Christ, and Christ alone, in a COEXIST culture.

PURPOSE FOR WRITING

Paul decided to write a letter to the Colossians to encourage them to remain faithful to the true Jesus and experience a fully transformed life in him. He begins his letter celebrating Jesus; then, in Colossians 2:4–5, he explains, “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body [remember, he’s writing from prison], yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” Most of Chapter 2 goes on to warn against false teachers and those who were trying to take the Colossians “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:8).

Paul wrote Colossians to encourage young Christians to remain faithful to the true Jesus and experience a fully transformed life in him.

Some of you are young in the faith. Perhaps you have only been serving Jesus for a few months or years. This book is especially relevant for you. N. T. Wright mentions that “this letter is written to a very young church; they’re just starting out, and Paul is telling them how to begin, how to get going, how to put down roots and become firm in faith, and hope, and love.” And even if you are mature in the faith, this book can help you to press on and grow in Christ. My goal for this series is to help us see the power, authority, and beauty of the real Jesus, and to experience spiritual transformation, stability, and maturity in him.

Thanksgiving for the Colossians’ Faith and Love (1:3–5a)

In the remainder of this sermon, let’s read the first eight verses of the epistle, and take a brief look at Paul’s encouraging words in verses 3–8.

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 increasing—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.

After sharing a customary greeting (“Grace to you and peace from God our Father”), Paul gives thanks to God for the Christians at Colossae. Paul was in prison for the gospel, so he was overflowing with thanksgiving to hear of the faith and love that the gospel had inspired in their lives. Wright notes, “If there’s one thing that marks out Colossians from all other writings in the New Testament, it’s this constant emphasis on giving thanks: Paul wants [the Colossians] to learn how to thank the one true God…to celebrate and give thinks because the Creator God is…revealed in Jesus” (emphasis added).

FAITH IN THE LORD JESUS

Paul begins: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (1:4).

The Christian life begins with faith. Christians are called believers because they believe that Jesus is who said that he was, and they have personally trusted in him as their Savior and Lord. Christian faith is much more than saying, “I believe there’s a God” or “I believe in Jesus.” It means bowing at the feet of the Lord Jesus and trusting in him alone for salvation from sin; it means turning one’s life and destiny completely over to him.

Perhaps you’ve participated in a trust fall. Suppose I asked my wife, “Do you have faith that I’ll catch you?” and she said, “Yes, I have faith.” But then I said, “Okay, fall backwards,” and she refused to do it. Did she really have faith? Likely not. True faith acts.

Paul could thank God for the Colossians’ faith because their lives gave evidence of their faith. They chose to fall backwards into the arms of Jesus, trusting him completely as their only hope for salvation; then, they stood up and lived a transformed life under his lordship. For Paul,

an affirmation of the lordship of Christ carries within itself a demand to consider oneself a slave of Christ (cf. 3:15–4:1). In an age that worships independence and individual freedom, Paul’s message provides a helpful corrective as contemporary believers continue to seek to be faithful to the gospel of the cross. (Pao, Colossians & Philemon)

LOVE FOR FELLOW BELIEVERS

Paul continues to write of “the love that you have for all the saints” (1:4). Recall that Paul identified the Colossians as “the saints…at Colossae.” Scripture says that all Christians are saints. “All the saints” means “all Christians.” A saint is a holy person, and all Christians are holy: set apart from sin to God in Christ. We need to be reminded of our status as holy ones. If we think about ourselves as mere “sinners saved by grace,” we will be likely to live as sinners under grace. But if we think of ourselves as those who were once sinners but have become holy ones (saints) by grace, we will be likely to live as God intends: godly and righteous.

Love is the bond of holy living. The Colossians were marked by love for one another and for Christians everywhere. In verse 7, Paul mentions that Epaphras “has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” Love is the fruit of God’s Spirit at work in our lives: “the fruit of the Spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). God’s Spirit was active in the Colossians, producing the love which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Notice that the words of Jesus and Paul do not refer to love for everyone. Of course, Christians should love everyone; the first and greatest commandment is to love our neighbors (including the atheist across the street). But Paul and Jesus are referring to love for all the saints; love for one another in the church; love for fellow Christians.

Christians are set apart from the world by their sincere love for fellow believers in the church. A non-Christian may attend church and even see others in the church as his close friends. But a believer recognizes the church as his true family—those who share his faith in Jesus Christ. Two believers have more in common with each other than with any unbeliever in the world.

Two believers have more in common with each other than with any unbeliever in the world.

If God’s Spirit is at work in our hearts and lives, we should expect to love the saints in the way that family loves one another. Love for all the saints includes love for the Christian church down the street and the missionary on the other side of the globe. We should be committed to one another’s best interests, and feel responsible to meet one another’s needs. The love that is in view here is radical, self-sacrificial, and Christlike. Acts 2:44–47 is an example of what a loving community of Christ-followers might look like:

All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.

A SECURE HOPE

Finally, Paul mentions the “hope laid up [stored up] for you in heaven.” It was because of this certain, secure hope that the Colossians were full of faith and love. “Faith and love…spring from the hope stored up for [us] in heaven” (NIV). Paul goes on to write about “the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:23) and “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Christianity is a religion of good-news hope for a hopeless world. This hope centers on Jesus, the focus of our faith, and inspires love for others.

Christ offers a changed life in the present, but not always an easy one (as the Colossians were learning the hard way); after all, Paul was in prison! But Christ also promises a future hope. Later, we will explore the Christian’s eschatological hope as it is revealed in Colossians 3:4: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus is in heaven, and he is coming back again to make all things right; this hope is an anchor for our souls.

The Gospel of God’s Grace in Truth (1:5b–6)

This is the hope that the Colossians learned about when Epaphras preached the gospel to them (1:7–8). Paul writes in verses 5–6, “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it 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.”

Love and faith are the fruit of the gospel of hope, but what is the gospel? Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 9:35), and Colossians shares this emphasis (Col. 1:13). Jesus told his disciples that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Mt. 24:14), which may be what Paul had in mind when he said that the gospel had come to “the whole world” and was “bearing fruit and increasing.”

The word gospel (euangelion in Greek, from which we get the word evangelism or evangelical), literally means good news or glad tidings. It is a message to be proclaimed (that’s what you do with news): the word of the truth of the gospel, as Paul says.

Don Carson asks his students to start by defining the gospel in one word, and then build from there. Let’s do that with Colossians in mind. (Christians are gospel people, so it’s important for us to get this right.)

In one word, the gospel is Jesus. But we need to know more than that; we need to say something about Jesus.

In a few more words, we could say that the gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord. Isaiah 52:7 looks forward to the coming of the Christ: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isa. 52:7). The reign of God is his kingdom; the good news of the kingdom is that Jesus is Lord—Jesus reigns. When the Jews rejected Jesus, they rejected their king. But we need to know more than the fact that Jesus reigns, because that is ultimately bad news for those who reject him: since they are not inside the safe walls of his kingdom, they will be destroyed.

The good news centers on how king Jesus has made a way for people to enter the safe walls of the kingdom. His reign is a saving reign. Jesus is a crucified and risen king: he died for the sins of his people and rose again on the third day to bring them new life. In Colossians, we’ll explore how God, through the cross, “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13).

The gospel of the kingdom is the good news that God’s saving reign has come through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, bringing deliverance for all who put their trust in him.

In one long sentence, we could say that the gospel is the good news that God’s saving reign has come through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, bringing deliverance for all who put their trust in him.

The Colossians responded to the truth of the gospel by faith. They understood the grace of God in truth. The gospel is a message of grace alone: the salvation that God has provided in Christ alone is a free gift to be received by faith alone. God works powerfully through this gospel to produce the fruit of love in those who respond.

Through our study of Colossians, we will learn more about the good news about Jesus, and what it means to live a new life in him and under his kingdom reign. For now, ask yourself these questions: Do I have faith in Jesus? Have I turned my life completely over to him? Is his Spirit at work in my life, producing love for all the saints? If the answer to these questions is “No,” repent of your sins and receive Jesus as he is promised to us in the gospel. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

 


 

RESOURCES FOR THIS SERIES
  1. Beale, G. K. Colossians and Philemon. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
  2. Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
  3. Garland, David E. The NIV Application Commentary: Colossians/Philemon, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
  4. Hamilton Jr., James M. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
  5. Marshall, I. Howard. New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 2004.
  6. Osbourne, Grant. Colossians & Philemon: Verse by Verse. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.
  7. Pao, David W. Colossians & Philemon. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.
  8. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.
  9. Wesley, John. “John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible.” Wesley Center Online.
  10. Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.