Date: October 28, 2018
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 1:1–1:5
The Supremacy and Sufficiency of Christ
Imagine, if you would, two churches. Both churches were founded on the gospel and received the word of God, but outwardly, the two churches could not look more different. One church is growing in visible ways – with new people being added, and new initiatives launching out from the membership. The other church, however, appears flat. There’s not much happening, at least not that you could point to and measure. What’s more, the growing church is in a vibrant city, a place where there is momentum and progress and great expectation for the future. The other church is in a town whose best days are in the past, a town where jobs are scarce and the culture is declining. So, do you have the picture in your mind? Two churches – one that appears to experience the power of God, and a second that seems to be lacking something.
Now, imagine that one day a group of folks arrive at the second church with an exciting but provocative message. These new folks use all the right words – they talk about Jesus, they talk about the cross – but they also stress some new things as well. They talk about ancient practices of spirituality. They advocate a serious, rigorous approach to religion. And they claim to teach fresh ideas that will unlock the deep things of God. “This is what you’re missing,” these new folks say. “This is why the power of God has been so anemic in your church.” And slowly, the members of this second church begin to listen. Maybe they were skeptical at first, but over time, the new folks begin to make a lot of sense. Perhaps we are missing something essential. Perhaps there is another level to God’s power that we need to tap into. Maybe these new folks are right, and we need Jesus plus these fresh ideas. And so, that second, smaller church in that out-of-the-way town embraces what could very well destroy their faith in the gospel.
This situation we’ve imagined could describe any number of churches in our day – churches where Christ is not being outright abandoned, but instead subtly undermined; churches where Jesus’ cross is preached, but other things are added to his work as well. There are many churches in 2018 that could fit this situation, but what we’ve imagined together actually comes from the 1st century A.D. This scenario is precisely what prompted the apostle Paul to write his letter to the church in Colossae.
The Colossians heard the gospel before, prior to receiving Paul’s letter. They heard the gospel from a man named Epaphras, one of Paul’s companions whom we will meet next week. But since that time, things had taken a dangerous turn. Their city had begun to lose its place in the Empire, being overshadowed by bigger cities. And then a group of false teachers rose up in the Colossian church, and their teaching was dangerous because it was so subtle. The false teachers in Colossae did not blatantly reject Christ; instead, they claimed there were other things that must be added to Christ – things like the worship of angels, strict dietary laws, and even some old Jewish practices. To use the technical term, these false teachers advocated syncretism. That’s a fancy way to say they combined a little Judaism, a bit of mysticism, a dash of paganism with a taste of legalism thrown in to produce this mash-up of false teaching. It was dangerous, and it was subtle. This is key for understanding the letter. These false teachers were not outright denying Christ. Instead, they were quietly, subtly minimizing Christ by insisting on other things.
And so, Paul writes this letter to a church he likely never visited. He writes this letter, and his strategy is powerful in its simplicity. Paul takes four chapters to teach the Colossians one essential message – that there is no one and nothing that can rival the Lord Jesus Christ. Colossians is about the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. Those two words – supremacy and sufficiency – are the theme. Jesus Christ is supreme – he is the Son of God and the Sustainer of the Universe. He is the Reconciler of God and Man, and he is the Revelation of God’s Mystery. He is the Head of the Church and the Holder of all things together. He is the Fullness of God, and he is the Foundation of new creation. Jesus Christ is supreme.
And therefore, Jesus Christ is sufficient for the life of his people. Those who are rooted in Christ by faith have everything they need in the Lord Jesus. They do not need to be taken captive by empty philosophies and human traditions. They do not need to listen to rules and regulations that have the appearance of wisdom but no value in restraining the flesh. They must not let anyone disqualify them or subject them once more to the shadows of things now passed. Instead, those who believe in Christ need, quite simply, to live each day in light of who he is: Because of Christ, believers are able to put off the old practices of sin and put on new practices that reflect the character of the Savior. Because of Christ, believers can build counter-cultural homes that reveal the glory of God. Because of Christ, believers are freed to give themselves to their daily work, knowing that in doing so they are serving the Lord Christ. Because of Christ, believers are equipped to live compelling, winsome lives among unbelievers so that they too might be saved.
Jesus Christ is supreme, and therefore, Jesus Christ is sufficient for the life of his people. Supreme and sufficient – that’s the message of Colossians.
And that’s why we’re going to spend the next several months considering Paul’s short but powerful letter. As I said earlier, there are many churches in our day that would fit our imagined scenario. Two millennia have passed, but the danger facing the Colossian church is the same danger facing the church today. It’s the danger of minimizing Christ – not by rejecting him per se, but instead by adding to him as though he were not enough. All of that to say – we need this letter, brothers and sisters. As a church, we need to be reminded that Christ is, indeed, supreme and therefore, we have all that we need in him for the life God has called us to live.
As we look now to the details of our text, you’ll notice that Paul begins his letter in the typical way. In v1, he identifies himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and in v2, he calls his recipients saints and faithful brothers in Christ. On one level, this is standard stuff. Read any of Paul’s letters, and you’ll find similar greetings. But on another level, Paul is already confronting the influence of the false teachers. Think about it. As a divinely appointed apostle, Paul is an authorized messenger of the Risen Christ. Paul speaks the true word of God because as an apostle, he speaks on Christ’s behalf. If the false teachers want to claim special insight into divine truth, then they face a tough opponent, for Paul is no amateur. He is an apostle – an authorized messenger who speaks with Christ’s own authority.
What’s more, the Christians in Colossae are called saints. We tend to have skewed notions of the word saint, as though it described some higher plane of existence for a select few holy people. But in the NT, every believer is a saint because every believer belongs – fully and completely – to the family of God. Every Christian is a saint because every Christian is a citizen of God’s kingdom, having been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Again, consider how vital this reminder would be for the Colossians. The false teachers are implying that they enjoy something less than the fullness of God, so Paul comes in and with the very first thing he writes, he tells the Colossians, “Don’t listen to them, brothers and sisters. You are saints of God. You already belong to the Father’s family because right now, you are in Christ.” You see, even in these introductory verses, Paul is already demonstrating his heart for these Christians. He’s already laying the foundation of gospel truth upon which he will build the rest of the letter.
And as we enter the body of the letter in v3, we find that Paul continues laying this foundation. In vv3-5, Paul begins to express thanksgiving to God for the Colossian church. In fact, thanksgiving, as you can see in v3, is the main point of this section. When Paul prays for the Colossian church, his first and constant response is thankfulness for all that God has done. Specifically, Paul’s thanksgiving highlights two realities of the gospel that remind the Colossians that they have come to know the One, True, and Living God. Paul highlights the gospel’s fruit and the gospel’s hope. Let’s look at each of those more closely.
The Gospel’s Fruit Reveals the True Work of God
First of all, the gospel’s fruit reveals the true work of God. As we noted in v3, Paul begins by giving thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a unique and purposeful way to speak of God. If God is the Father of the Lord Jesus, then note what that means concerning Jesus’ identity – he is himself the Son of God, fully divine with the Father, sharing the Father’s nature and glory. You see, it’s never far from Paul’s mind in this letter – Jesus Christ is supreme – and even Paul’s thanksgiving to God proclaims that supremacy.
In v4, Paul expresses the reason for his thanksgiving. Notice again what the apostle writes – “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 and of the love that you have for all the saints.” So, as Paul hears about the Colossians, it is the fruit of the gospel in their lives that gets his attention. Faith in Christ Jesus is the saving response to the gospel – a saving response that is brought about by the Spirit through the proclamation of the Word. And from that heart of faith, God’s people respond with love for another. As we come to know God’s love in Christ, we are empowered to love others just as we have been loved by God. This is foundational NT teaching – the gospel’s fruit is two-fold – faith in Christ Jesus, and love for his people.
But you’ll notice here in v3 that Paul gives thanks to God for these gospel realities. He does not commend the Colossians for believing in Christ, and he does not applaud them for their brotherly love. Now, is that because Paul thinks the Colossians are insignificant? No, far from it! Rather, Paul understands that these gospel fruits reveal first and foremost the work of God among his people. The gospel’s fruit is not primarily about us, but about the God who produces that fruit in us. It is God who graciously grants his people faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel, and it is God who enables his people to love one another in response to the gospel. And that’s why Paul begins as he does. He gives thanks to God because the Colossians’ faith and love are God’s work, brought about by God’s grace, through the preaching of God’s gospel.
Now, you might be thinking, “This is a strange way to begin a letter that’s intended to encourage beleaguered Christians! Why not just get right to the practical stuff about resisting the false teachers?” But that’s just it – this is the practical stuff! This is the antidote to the poisonous subtleties of the false teachers! Paul’s thanksgiving reminds the Colossians of this simple but powerful truth – that God is at work among them. Their persevering faith and their selfless love may seem like small things in the world’s eyes. They may not grab headlines or sound flashy. But it’s there – in those daily expressions of faith and love – that the Colossians experience the very power of God. Do you see it? By thanking God for their faith and love, Paul is reminding these dear Christians that they are, in fact, participating in the work of the Triune God. They have already tasted the fullness of God’s power. They trust Christ, they love one another, and that means God is present among them.
Listen, brothers and sisters, I don’t know of any church worth it’s salt that doesn’t long to see God do more great things among them. I love William Carey’s bold statement – “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” It is right and good to expect God to do mighty things, and then, in faith, to take risks in obedience to his Word. We long to see God move and work in our day, and it’s right do so!
But at the same time, we should be careful that we not define greatness too narrowly. We should guard against the tendency to equate the work of God solely with the spectacular. That’s what Paul cautions against here in v4 – he’s reminding us that God’s work is seen most clearly in the fruit of the gospel. Persevering faith and brotherly love are not spectacular. They are simple, everyday realities of the Christian life, and yet, Paul tells, “This is the work of God.” In fact, wherever you find faith and love present in a church, it’s there that you find the work of the Triune God.
So, catch what this means for us, brothers and sisters. This means that right now, in our current situation, we can join with God in the work he is doing among his people. That’s significant. Working for faith and love in the church is not spectacular, but it is eternally valuable. It is a high and worthy calling, and it’s the calling that every believer has received. Here in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, you have the opportunity to join your life with the great work God is doing through the gospel. You can hold to the faith and encourage others to do the same. You can love one another through prayer, discipleship, encouragement, and service. You can persevere in sound doctrine and strengthen the bonds of our fellowship. And as we do these things together, an incredible reality becomes clear – the reality that God is at work among us.
You know, someone asked me this week, “What’s next for Midtown?” This person had just finished telling me about the new initiatives and projects in his congregation, and so it was a natural question to ask, “What’s next for Midtown?” And for a moment, I was embarrassed that I didn’t have an answer that matched what he shared. I didn’t have a fresh plan or a new vision to lay out. I couldn’t report something spectacular. And it would have been very easy in that moment to think that I was missing out on the work of God.
But then I remembered this passage. I remembered that our faith in Christ is growing, that our love for one another is deepening. And with that reminder, I was able to say to my friend, “Well, at Midtown, we’re thankful to press on in the work of God that is happening through the gospel.” That’s why we need this passage – because it reorients our view of God’s work. Faith in Christ and love for another – that is the work of God. And when we give ourselves to those things, we don’t need to look around for what we are missing. Instead, we can, by faith, continue to give ourselves to the work of God in our midst.
So, will you do that, brothers and sisters? Will you join me in reaffirming that right now, in our current place, we have the opportunity to join with God in the work he is doing among his people? Holding to the faith and loving one another – these are mighty things, brothers and sisters. The gospel’s fruit reveals the true work of God, and in that work, we give God thanks.
The Gospel’s Hope Sustains the True People of God
The second gospel reality in Paul’s thanksgiving comes in v5, and it concerns the gospel’s hope. Specifically, Paul shows us how the gospel’s hope sustains the true people of God. When v5 is added to v4, you notice that Paul has now mentioned the three most well known virtues of the Christian life – faith, love, and hope. Listen again to vv4-5 together – “since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Taken together, those three virtues are the summary of the Christian life. Think of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 – “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” So, on one level, Paul is again reminding the Colossians that they already enjoy the fullness of the Christian life. How so? Because God, through his Spirit, has manifested these three among them – faith, love, and hope.
But on another level, there is something unique about the hope Paul speaks of in v5. He’s not merely putting the triad of Christian virtue together. No, Paul is making a powerful point about the foundation of the Christian life, a foundation that the Colossians themselves have experienced. To see Paul’s powerful point, however, we need to pay attention to three distinct features of the hope he describes in v5. So, notice these features with me, and note especially how they build on one another:
First, the hope of v5 is outside of us. Usually, we think of hope as something we experience inside of us. I’m hopeful things will turn out well, or I’m optimistic about the future. That’s how we typically think of hope – as an inward experience or optimism. But that’s not how Paul views hope here in v5. For Paul, this hope is an outward reality. It’s something outside of us, something that we embrace by faith. You can see this quite clearly when Paul says the hope is laid up for us in heaven. Where is this hope? Not in the believer’s heart, per se, but in heaven. That’s the first feature – the hope Paul has in view is an outward reality. It is outside of us.
Secondly, the hope of v5 is certain. Usually, we think of hope as something akin to wishful thinking. I hope my team wins the big game, or I hope this new job comes through. But again, that’s not how Paul views hope in v5. For Paul, this hope is certain, beyond any doubt. Notice how Paul describes the hope as laid up in heaven. That phrase – laid up – is the key. The idea here is of something that is set aside or secured. Think of a family heirloom that is stored in a safety deposit box or a vault. That heirloom is laid up for you in security. You can have confidence that you’ll receive the heirloom because its position is protected. That’s the idea here in v5. This hope is the heirloom of every Christian, kept safe in heaven’s vault. It cannot be stolen, it cannot be corrupted, and it cannot be lost. That’s the second feature in v5 – this hope is certain.
Now, the final feature that brings it all together. This is the pinnacle of Paul’s point. Thirdly, this hope sustains. Usually, we think of hope as something that flows out of faith. I believe in something, and therefore, I’m hopeful in response. But once again, that’s not how Paul views hope in v5. For Paul, it’s the other way around. It’s not faith that sustains hope; it’s hope that sustains faith. Notice how v5 is linked to v4. Why do the Colossians trust in Christ and love one another? Because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. Do you see it? This hope is outside of us, it is certain, and therefore, this hope is what sustains God’s people throughout the Christian life. The false teachers are selling something the Colossians simply don’t need. Already, through this heavenly hope, the Colossians have received God’s provision for the Christian life. They have a hope that cannot be shaken, a hope so certain, it will sustain them in faith and love.
Now, here’s the key question – what is this certain, sustaining hope? We’ve seen the features, but what is it? Notice the rest of v5 – “Of this, you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel.” Or, look down at v23 toward the end of the chapter, where Paul says, “not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.” Or, even look at v27, where the apostle declares that Christ dwelling in believers is “the hope of glory.” So, this certain and sustaining hope is nothing less than the good news of the gospel that we have believed. It’s the good news that Jesus Christ is the fully divine Son of God; that he humbled himself and took on flesh for the salvation of his people; that he fulfilled the law and went to the cross not because he deserved to die but in order to atone for the sin of his people; that having died, Jesus did not stay dead but rose again and is seated now in the heavenly places; and that there from heaven’s throne, Jesus reigns in the power of his indestructible life. This is the hope laid up for believers in heaven – the hope that life eternal belongs to us because we belong surely and certainly to Christ. There is nothing to add to the gospel, for the gospel is the very word of God, the once-for-all declaration that Christ is supreme and sufficient for the salvation of his people.
Do you hear what Paul is telling these dear Christians in Colossae? He’s not more than five verses in to the letter, and already, he’s given them essentially his entire message – the unspeakable good news that the Christian life does not rest on us and our ability to do something spectacular. No, the Christian life of faith and love rests on the unshakeable hope of Christ’s work on our behalf. In the gospel, God’s people have all that they need – a sure hope that will sustain, day by day, as they trust in Christ and love one another.
And so, what should we do in order to experience the power of God in our midst? What should we prioritize in order to see God work among us? We should devote ourselves to the proclamation and celebration of the gospel. I hope you see here from the very words of the Bible how essential the gospel is for the life of God’s people. The gospel is what brings us into the Christian life, as we repent and believe the good news of Christ crucified. And the gospel is what sustains us throughout the Christian life, as the gospel’s hope becomes the solid ground for our faith and our love.
So, tomorrow, when you pray for that church member and ask God to encourage him or her with the truth of gospel, that’s the work of God in his church. When you continue to cultivate that relationship with your unbelieving neighbor so that you can speak of Christ, that’s the work God in this world. When you work hard at the things God has given you to do – in your home and in your workplace – that’s the work of God in demonstrating the supremacy of Christ over all things. And when you come here next Sunday to sing and pray and listen again to the good news of the gospel, that’s the work of God in your heart and in mine.
But here’s the best news of all, brothers and sisters. When you can’t seem to find the strength to do even those things, the God of the gospel invites you to remember that it’s his work that sustains your faith, not the other way around. It’s the gospel’s hope that keeps you going in this thing called the Christian life. That’s really the final word I want to leave us with today, brothers and sisters. The way to press on in the Christian life is not to pull yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps. It’s not to find the latest spectacular thing that promises some fresh experience of God’s power. No, the way to press on is to remember again that Jesus Christ is supreme – that there is no one and nothing that can rival him – and therefore, Jesus Christ is sufficient. In him, we have all that we need for life and godliness. And so we say, “Thanks be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.