Date: January 27, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 1:28–1:29
If you are a Christian this morning, I’d like to ask you a question. Do you think of yourself as a minister of the gospel? That is, do you consider your calling as a Christian to be making disciples of Christ through the clear teachings of Scripture? Do you think of yourself as a minister of the gospel? For many folks, their first answer would probably be, “No.” We’ve unfortunately equated the ministry of the gospel with things like the pastoral office or missionary service. And since the vast majority of Christians are neither pastors nor missionaries, most simply tune out when they hear the phrase “ministry of the gospel.” They tune out because they assume the conversation has nothing to do with them.
And yet, when you read the NT closely, you find a much different approach to what we call gospel ministry. According to the NT, each and every Christian has been entrusted with the gospel, and therefore, each and every Christian should be considered a minister of the gospel. Now, that’s not to deny the calling to pastoral ministry or missionary service that does definitely exist within the church. But that is to say that the ministry of the gospel must not be limited to these things. The NT is very clear on this, friends. God certainly calls men to serve as pastors and teachers in the church, but do you know what their pastoral job actually is? It’s to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Who’s carrying out gospel ministry? Not a supposed class of ministry professionals, but the saints as a whole – each and every member of the body of Christ. If you belong to Christ today, then you are, in a real sense, entrusted with the gospel for the work of ministry.
Our passage this morning has much to say on this calling to be a minister of the gospel. You may recall from last week that Paul has been describing his own ministry as an apostle – how he shared in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of the church, and how he devoted himself to making the Word of God fully known. This was Paul’s entire aim in life – to declare the riches of the glory of God’s mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It was that union with Christ, through the gospel, that kept Paul going through all the suffering. For the last few verses, Paul has been describing for the Colossians his own work as an apostle.
In v28, however, Paul makes a small but significant shift. He includes the Colossians in this work. Did you hear it when we read? Look again at v28, and notice Paul’s language – “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” That’s a clear description of gospel ministry, and did you catch who’s doing it? We, Paul says. Paul and the Colossians.
Now, some commentators hold that when Paul says we, he has only himself and his other co-workers in view. In other words, the we of v28 should be limited to Paul’s apostolic band of missionaries. I certainly think Paul has his co-workers in view, but I contend he’s not limiting it to his co-workers. And here’s why. Later in chapter 3, Paul will give instructions for how the Colossians should minister to one another, and he uses the same language we find here in v28 – admonishing and teaching one another with all wisdom. It’s very striking – ch3v16 and ch1v28 are linked with a common language. From that connection, then, I take it that when Paul says we, he’s describing not only his ministry but also the ministry that the church as a whole should pursue together. In fact, I would say that’s part of the real value of this passage. Contending for the gospel, ministering the gospel, building up the church in the gospel – who’s responsible to do that? Not only Paul, not only pastors and teachers, but we – the body of Christ together.
Perhaps this was part of the problem in the church of Colossae. We know the Colossians were struggling against false teaching, and perhaps it was because they had lost sight of their calling to carry out this gospel ministry. Perhaps that’s how the false teachers gained a foothold. Whatever the case, Paul resets the expectation for ministry here in vv28-29. As he describes his own ministry, Paul includes this short description of the work that we – all together – are called to do as ministers of the gospel. Specifically, Paul presents three features of what we could call Christ-exalting ministry – the Message We Proclaim, the Goal We Pursue, and the Reality We Embrace. Let’s consider each feature together, beginning with the Message We Proclaim.
The message we proclaim
Right away in v28, we see the essential role that the church plays in God’s plan. The first phrase of v28 is very clear – what is the church’s mission? To proclaim Christ. “Him we proclaim,” Paul says. There’s no denying, then, that the church is a speaking people. You may have heard the saying before, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” And while that sounds pithy, it’s actually foreign to the Bible and not a little ridiculous. A message cannot proclaim itself. It must be spoken by someone, and in the plan of God, that someone is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, at the core of our identity, we are a people called to speak. Whether it’s in the gathering of the church or in the course of daily life, we are called to speak. Whether it’s a word of encouragement to a fellow believer or an explanation to an unbeliever, we are called to speak. Whether we are in our neighborhood or half way around the world, we are called to speak. Paul’s teaching here in v28 is clear. We’re called to proclaim, reminding us that we are a speaking people.
Even so, this ministry of proclamation raises the question – What, exactly, is the content of our message? You’ll notice again in v28 that Paul gives a clear answer. “Him we proclaim,” Paul writes. Christ is the content of our message. Christ is the One of whom we speak. Now, what I so love about this passage is that Paul has already filled in for us who this Him is. Paul has already given us the truths about Christ that we are called to proclaim. Think about it, friends. This entire first chapter has been about the person and work of Christ. If we just go back through this one chapter, we find an excellent summary of what we’re called to proclaim about Jesus Christ. Consider these points that clarify the content of our message:
* We are called to proclaim Christ’s divinity. V13, Jesus is God’s own beloved Son, and v19, in Christ, the fullness of deity dwells bodily. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his divinity, that he is fully God.
* At the same time, we are called also to proclaim Christ’s humanity. V22, Jesus came to this earth with a body of flesh, so that he was like us in every way, yet without sin. And v20, that body of flesh enabled Jesus to shed his own blood at the cross. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his humanity, that he is fully man.
* We are called to proclaim Christ’s uniqueness. V15, Christ alone is the image of the invisible God. No one has ever seen God, but when the Son took on flesh, he revealed to humanity what God is like. And this is a work that only Christ could do. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his uniqueness, that he alone reveals the Father.
* With this uniqueness, we are also called to proclaim Christ’s authority. V16, Christ is the creator of all things, in heaven and on earth, which means he rules all things for the glory of his Father. We proclaim that Christ is King and Sovereign, and then we call people to submit their lives to him in faith. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his authority, that he rules over all.
* This unique authority also means we are called to proclaim Christ’s exclusivity. V14, since Christ alone is the image of God, redemption is found only in him. He is the only one who is able to forgive sins, since he alone provides the perfection God demands while also serving as the substitute we need. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his exclusivity, that he alone can save.
* We are called to proclaim Christ’s atonement. V21, Christ makes peace through the shedding of his blood, and v22, the result is that sinners are reconciled to God once and for all. What’s more, Christ’s blood is so powerful, it makes those sinners holy, blameless, and above reproach in God’s sight. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his atoning blood.
* We are then called to proclaim Christ’s resurrection. V18, Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead. His resurrection is the guarantee of resurrection for those who believe. Indeed, our resurrection is in him, so that as he lives, we who believe live now in him, seated with Christ, Paul says, in the heavenly places. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his life-giving resurrection.
* And therefore, we are called to proclaim Christ’s worthiness. V18, in everything, Christ deserves to be pre-eminent. He is exalted and supreme, so that, v23, the right response to Christ is one of faith leading to worship. The worship of Christ by faith is not an afterthought to our message, but essential to our message. When we speak of Christ, we speak of his worthiness, that he deserves all blessing and honor and glory.
“Him we proclaim,” Paul says, and this opening chapter tells us what, exactly, we must say. Christ’s divinity and humanity; his uniqueness, authority, and therefore exclusivity; his atonement and resurrection; and finally his worthiness to be trusted and worshipped as the Lord of all. This is our message, brothers and sisters. Central to our identity as the church is this Christ-centered, biblically-rooted gospel proclamation.
Now, at this point, as we’ve emphasized our Christ-centered message, we’re still probably thinking about preaching sermons or sharing the gospel in evangelistic missionary settings. And that is certainly included in the ministry of proclamation. In God’s providence, he does call men to devote their lives to the preaching of the gospel in the gathering of the church, and God does call brothers and sisters to leave their homes and go to the far-reaches of the globe to proclaim the good news of Christ. Those kinds of ministry are certainly included in the work of proclamation, and our lives should be marked by a willingness to consider that God could very well call us to such a work. Perhaps there some among us today whom God will call to go, and perhaps our church will have that wonderful privilege of sending out brothers and sisters to do this kind of proclamation is places where Christ has not been named. We should be willing to consider that, brothers and sisters, and we should be prayerfully asking that God would indeed raise up workers among us for that ministry.
And yet, at the same time, the rest of v28 makes clear that Paul is not exclusively thinking about preaching sermons or evangelistic mission work. He’s also thinking about the work that happens in the everyday life of the church. Notice the next phrase in v28 – “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” Those two activities – warning and teaching – constitute the ministry of proclamation within the life of the church. To warn someone is to admonish and counsel them to turn from the way they are going. Because of the truth about Christ, we warn one another about the dangers of sin. We plead and exhort and urge one another to live in step with the truth of the gospel.
And this warning is then followed by teaching, where we instruct one another on a better way to live, where we remind one another of what it means to live with Christ as Lord. Warning and teaching must always go together. If all we do is admonish and never teach, we’re likely to discourage or harden the hearts of those to whom we minister. But when our warning is combined with teaching, the sting of correction is followed by the insight that leads to growth. That’s why Paul includes that phrase with all wisdom. To be a minister of the gospel means we think carefully about who we’re talking to, what circumstances they face, and what specific truth they need to hear at that moment. Do they need to be reminded of Christ’s divinity – that he is fully God, and therefore he is surely able to meet whatever need they face? Do they need to be reminded of Jesus’ authority – that he has the right to command his church, and therefore, we must submit to what he says in his Word? Or do they need to be encouraged again with Christ’s atonement – that Christ bore the wrath for every sin that every believer has ever committed, including the very sin that has your brother so tied up with conviction at this moment? That’s what it means to proclaim with all wisdom. You listen first, then you prayerfully consider what aspect of gospel truth do they need to hear at this moment. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ministry. The non-negotiable is the gospel truth of Christ, but the application of that truth requires wisdom.
What I’m trying to get us to see is that there is a broad and narrow approach to ministry, and those two approaches require the participation of the entire body of Christ. To proclaim Christ certainly includes widespread public declaration, but it also includes the day-in day-out life and ministry of the body. We proclaim Christ to the world, and we proclaim Christ to one another, doing each with faithfulness and with wisdom. This is the Message We Proclaim – the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The goal we pursue
As we come to the end of v28, Paul gives us the second feature of a Christ-exalting ministry – the Goal We Pursue. Notice again what the apostle writes – “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” I would contend this is a very counter-cultural statement from the apostle Paul, and I mean counter-cultural even within the church. The goal of ministry is not numerical growth or cultural prestige. The goal is not relevance or impact. The goal of ministry is maturity in Christ. We speak the gospel so that each member of Christ’s body grows up, so to speak, in the faith.
But, as we consider this maturity in Christ, we need to understand that Paul is not simply thinking about spiritual growth in the present. Paul is also thinking about maturity that prepares us for the Last Day. That’s really the key of this phrase. When Paul says present everyone mature, he means present them before the Living God on that final day. At its most basic level, our ministry is aimed at what we call the perseverance of the saints. It’s helpful to remember that salvation is a past, a present, and a future reality. In his grace, God has saved his people, once and for all, from the consequences of sin. It’s a past work that cannot change. God is saving his people, day by day, from the dominion of sin. It’s a present work that is ongoing. And God will save his people, on the last day, from presence of sin. It’s a future work that will be completed when Christ returns. Past, present, future – God saves his people.
Paul’s point here in v28 is that our ministry is part of God’s work to bring about salvation in that final, future sense. As the word of God is proclaimed within the church, God, in his grace, keeps his people trusting in Christ. Our ministry of the word today is God’s means of grace for the future. That’s the perseverance of the saints. That’s how God’s grace protects us and keeps us for the final day – through the ministry of the word that happens in the midst of our life together.
Brothers and sisters, do you see what a high and important calling each Christian has received as a member of Christ’s body? We have been tasked with ministering to one another in light of the Last Day. We have been called to be God’s instruments of grace among his people. There is no higher ministry than this! Many times, I have had Christians come and say, “I’ll never be able to do significant ministry for the Lord. I don’t preach, I’m not an upfront person. I’ll never do anything important in ministry.” But that mindset is more shaped by the culture than it is by the Bible. Right here in v28, we see that every Christian is engaged in the most important ministry of all – being instruments of grace and truth that God uses to persevere his people for the Last Day. Let’s not mistake visibility for significance. Gathering with the church so that God’s Word is preached; encouraging brothers and sisters with Scripture; sharing Christ with neighbors, co-workers, and family; discipling a new believer in God’s Word – these are all means through which God is working to mature his people, to keep them for that great final day.
I hope this is changing our perspective on what it means to do ministry. I hope this helps us see the important role that each member of the body plays in the work of the gospel. But there’s one more piece to note here about this maturity in Christ, one more piece that will greatly encourage us. Look back at v22, and notice the similar language. Paul is speaking in v22 about the work of Christ, and listen again to what he says – “he has now reconciled [you] in his body of flesh by his death in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” Did you catch the similarity, friends? Why has Christ reconciled his people? In order to present them holy and blameless before God. Why are we called to minister to one another? In order to present everyone mature in Christ. The grace that Christ displayed at the cross is now worked out through the life and ministry of his church. We talked about our union with Christ last week, and we see that truth here again. Because we belong to Jesus, our ministry to one another is not ultimately about our wisdom or our insight or even our skill in proclamation. Our ministry is about Christ’s grace for his people.
And since Christ’s work cannot fail, we have this encouragement to carry out the ministry God has given us to do. Jesus will surely present his people pure and blameless on the last day. Jesus will surely save his people to the very end. How will he do that? Through the faithful ministry of his church. Be encouraged, brothers and sisters. Right now, in the life and ministry of our church, there is a two-fold outworking of grace happening among us. Right now, we are both participating in and receiving from the grace of Christ. The Lord Jesus loves his church, and he loves her so much, that he blesses her with brothers and sisters who pursue together this maturity in Christ.
The reality we embrace
That brings us to v29 and the final feature of Christ-exalting ministry – the Reality We Embrace. You’ll notice in v29, Paul again speaks of himself. The we of v28 fades out, and Paul again speaks of I, his own personal ministry. Why the change? It’s because Paul wants his example to encourage the Colossians in their ministry as well. He wants them to see that even as an apostle, he faces the same reality in ministry that they will face.
And that reality has two parts – both of which we need to understand, if we are to be faithful in ministry. The first reality is that ministry is hard. Notice v29, where Paul says very honestly, “For this I toil.” That’s kind of a tame translation. Paul’s point is that he works really, really hard. He strives in the work of the ministry. He struggles, he fights, he labors so that Christ’s people will be rooted in the gospel.
If that was true for the apostle Paul, how much more so will it be for us? Being a minister of the gospel is hard work. Whether it’s in the church, your home, your workplace, your neighborhood, or across the globe, ministry is a fight. As Paul says in Ephesians, we’re wrestling against not only the sin that dwells in our own hearts and in the hearts of others. But we’re wrestling also against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. I remember a faithful pastor telling me once that you’ll spend hours of effort in order to see inches of growth. And I think that’s true. Just think of our own lives, brothers and sisters. Spiritual growth in our own hearts tends to be slow. It takes time and is often a struggle. Why would we expect anything different in our ministry to others? Being a minister of the gospel is hard work.
But knowing that ahead of time can protect us from discouragement. When the work gets hard, we can think of Paul’s example and remind ourselves, “Yes, this is how ministry works. It’s not that I’m doing it wrong or just not cut out for this. It’s that ministry is hard work.” Keep at it, friends. Keep having that conversation with your neighbor. Keep praying for that friend. Keep discipling your children. Keep investing in brothers and sisters in the church. Keep speaking the truth in love to that person who seems so hard-hearted. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s a fight, but keep at it. That’s what Paul is saying here. His example is a reminder to us that the ministry we’ve received is hard work.
The second reality completes the first. Ministry is hard, but Christ’s strength is sufficient for the work. Notice the rest of v29 – “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Brothers and sisters, what an incredible provision from the Lord Jesus – that he would provide the strength we need to carry out the work he’s given us to do! And lest we forget, Christ’s strength has no limits. Christ’s strength meets every need. Christ’s strength crushed sin, conquered the grave, and reigns from heaven’s throne. And it’s that strength, Paul says, that is at work in us as we carry out the labor of gospel ministry.
This is one of the astounding mysteries of the church’s mission. We believe that God is sovereign, that God is right now bringing his purposes to pass. We believe that God will not fall short in saving his people, that he will definitely call to himself people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. What’s more, we believe God’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, that God’s omnipotent strength will preserve the church until the final day. We believe God’s love for his people is so strong that nothing could ever separate his people from that love – not tribulation or distress or persecution or danger. All of this is the power of God at work in the gospel of Christ.
And yet, how is that unsurpassed, almighty power displayed in the life of the church? Through the ministry of weak, frail, and dependent people like us. Like the apostle before us, we labor to make Christ known, and as we do, this striking reality becomes clear. It’s not our strength that makes this mission go. It’s God’s strength in us and through us. In a way, the struggle itself is part of the mission! Our toil in ministry is the very means that God uses to bring glory to his Son. This is why Paul, in 2 Corinthians, says such surprising things about boasting in his weakness – because when we know we are weak, it’s then that we become strong in the strength Christ provides.
Listen, brothers and sisters, being a minister of the gospel is more than what we can do on our own. The hard work exceeds what we can supply. But surprisingly, when we embrace that reality, we find that the power of Christ rests upon us. The hard work of ministry brings us to the end of our effort, and it’s there, when we don’t have enough, that we find Christ’s strength is sufficient for the work.
I’ll say it again – keep at it, brothers and sisters. Carry on with the work of building up the church, trusting that the same power that raised the Lord Jesus from the dead is even now at work in you.
Do you think of yourself as a minister of the gospel? After this morning, I pray that we do. I pray that God would use the example of Paul’s ministry to the Colossians to equip us for the ministry that he has given each of us to do. We’ve been entrusted with the gospel, brothers and sisters, so may we devote ourselves to a Christ-exalting ministry of gospel proclamation. Amen.