Going for Growth - Colossians 1:1-8
Have you heard people saying things like this?....There's got to be more
to being a Christian than just being forgiven, living to please God and waiting
for heaven... I used to be an ordinary Christian, but then I went to this special
meeting, had this wonderful experience and I've never been the same again.
Why don't you come along with me?.... If you just follow these simple extra
rules and techniques, then your average, dull, humdrum Christian life will
be transformed. If you've heard people saying things like that, then you need
the book of Colossians, which we're going to be studying in our evening services.
And if you haven't heard people talking like that, then you soon will. It's
just a matter of time - so you'll also need this book.
And, if you're not yet a Christian, please don't think this is just some matter of internal politics, a family squabble among Christians, that we're talking about tonight. The devil is out to stop people putting their faith in Christ. But, if he can't stop you coming to Christ in the first place, then he'll try and make sure you don't stay with Christ. What he hates is simple Christianity, Christ alone. If people must have Christ, then he'll try and get them to have Christ Plus....
CS Lewis pictured a senior devil writing to a younger trainee devil about his 'patient', who had recently become a Christian: The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in a state of mind I call 'Christianity And'..... If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. [Screwtape Letters, p126].
In this letter, Paul is urging the Christians in Colosse to remain with Christ and him alone. They've come to him. They've set their feet on solid rock in the midst of a wild and stormy sea. Whatever you do, he says, don't be tempted to reach out for any other support. It will only lead to disaster. The key verse in the letter is chapter 2, verse 6: So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him. We'll return to those verses in more detail in a few weeks, but it's a theme we'll be hearing again and again. Now that you've come to Christ, don't move on from him. We don't know exactly what the new teaching was which these Christians in Colosse were hearing. I read somewhere that there are 44 suggestions as to what it might have been.
That's a pretty sure indication that nobody really knows. And it doesn't really matter. There are thousands of ways of having Christianity And,....
Christ Plus. What is important is how Paul helps us to avoid falling for them.
He begins by reassuring his friends in Colosse that they really are true Christians. They've had a true Christian experience. They've heard the true Christian message. And they've got a true Christian minister. Their Christian life could not be more authentic. In the background is the threat to their standing: the wind is howling, the sea's getting rough, but he wants to reassure them that they have taken their stand on solid rock - on Jesus Christ.
1. They've had a true Christian experience (v3-4) How does Paul know? He's not been to Colosse himself. But he tells them he's heard a good report, which makes him pray for them. It may even be what they prayed for in the prayer meeting in the prison where Paul was. In any case, this is what he says, verse 3-4: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints. That's how he knows they've had a true Christian experience, that they are true Christians: they have faith in Christ and they have love for Christians. That's who the saints are: Christian believers. And it's the same today: true Christians are shown by their faith in Christ and their love for other Christians. Paul's not congratulating them for their faith and love. He's thanking God for it, because he knows that's where it comes from and they couldn't have done it themselves.
A Christian is someone who has faith in Christ, a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. Now, there is all the difference in the world between knowing about someone and knowing them. I know about the Queen. I know what she looks like, where she lives, what family she has, something about what she does for a living. I know quite a bit about her, but I don't know her. The Christian is someone who knows Christ personally. And notice that it's faith in Christ specifically, and not only in God. And knowing Christ means having faith in him. I can't know Christ without trusting him, giving myself to him and living my life for him. Because he's the Saviour and he's the Lord.
But faith in Christ never stands alone. It always goes hand in hand with love for all the saints. In fact, that's how we can see someone's faith in Christ, which is unseen - by the way they love his people. Paul will spell out later what this love for one another looks like, for example in chapter 3, verse 13: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And here is a modern example of that kind of love.
Watergate has gone down in history as a definitive political scandal. At the heart of it was Charles Colson, President Nixon's hatchet man. Amazingly, despite his obvious involvement and guilt in the whole sordid business, Colson was led to faith in Christ by a man named Doug Coe. It wasn't long before Coe arranged a meeting between the new Christian Colson and an older Christian, Harold Hughes. There was just one snag: Colson was an extreme right-wing Republican and Hughes was a convinced Democrat of strongly liberal persuasion. You don't need to know much about American politics to appreciate that this could be a difficult encounter.
In his autobiography, Colson describes how they sat like two boxers in separate corners as they ate dinner with their wives and five others. Then, suddenly, Hughes looked at Colson and said, "Chuck, they tell me you have had an encounter with Jesus Christ. Would you tell us about it?" The words came out haltingly, and at one point he virtually stopped altogether.
But he finished, and he recalls, for a moment there was silence. Harold, whose face had been enigmatic while I talked, suddenly lifted both hands in the air and brought them down hard on his knees. 'That's all I need to know. Chuck, you have accepted Jesus and He has forgiven you. I do the same. I love you now as my brother in Christ. I will stand with you, defend you anywhere, and trust you with anything I have.'"[Born Again, p164].
One of the things that has thrilled me most over the last few years I have been a part of this church is to see the deepening love people here have for each other. We have become much more of a family, where we know each other and look out for each other's interests. Nowhere has that been more obvious to me than in all the work for 'Jesus 2000', where for so many of you nothing was too much trouble in helping each other - whether packing and distributing gospels or arranging lighting, music and drama, or providing stewarding or testimonies etc.
This is the true Christian experience: faith in Christ and love for other Christians. Please don't be taken in by those who insist that you must have or do something more to be the genuine article: speak in tongues, be slain in the Spirit, receive the Toronto blessing, see your teeth filled with gold etc etc etc.
2. They've heard the true Christian message (v5-6) It wasn't Paul himself who first took the gospel to Colosse. So there was an opening here for someone to say, "You haven't heard it all, you know. If Paul himself had been here for the mission, he'd have added this and this and this..." Paul scotches that possibility straight away. He reassures them that they have heard the true gospel. Verses 5-6: the faith and love that (they have) spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth.
The gospel is an announcement, not a technique. It's the word of truth, not an opinion. And it's worldwide, not just local. And there are two particular features of this message which he reminds them of, two particular things which they heard about: hope and grace. He speaks of the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about. the true gospel is a gospel of hope. It's about the future, what God has laid up for us in heaven.
I was intrigued by the title of an article in a recent Christian journal. It was one of those titles which meant I had to read the article straight away. It was called, What do miserable Christians sing? The describes how three times he'd asked this question in Christian groups, and each time he'd been met with uproarious laughter. Miserable Christians? Come off it! He points out that we've so surrounded ourselves with expectations of health and wealth and happiness in this world, that we've stopped living and waiting for anything beyond this world. We live in a world which is obsessed with health and wealth and happiness and all we've done is to produce our own Christian version. No, says Paul, the gospel is a gospel of hope. That hope is in Christ. And he's in heaven. Our hope is the hope of glory. It will one day be ours, when Christ returns. But not until then. Chapter 3, verse 4: When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
And the true gospel is a gospel of grace. ... you heard it (the gospel) and understood God's grace in all its truth. Grace means that we have no claim on God. We deserve nothing from him. In fact, it's more than that. We deserve his anger and judgement and hell. And instead he gives us his love and forgiveness and heaven. It's the most difficult lesson to learn in becoming a Christian - That the Christian message isn't Be Good, but God's Been Good. I'm not good enough for God, I never could be good enough for God, but he has been incredibly good to me in sending his Son to hell on the cross, so that I need never go there. And if unbelievers find it hard to accept grace, believers find it hard to keep believing it.
That's the true Christian message: a gospel of hope and a gospel of grace. The glory God promises us lies in the world to come and not in this world. And it depends on his promise and gift and not on our worthiness or achievements. Please don't be taken in by anyone who offers you any other gospel than this.
3. They've got a true Christian minister (v7-8) Paul goes out of his way to commend Epaphras. It was Epaphras who had taken the gospel to Colosse. A Colossian himself, he'd probably heard the gospel and come to faith in Christ while Paul was teaching in Ephesus in Acts 19, where we hear that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. Presumably he had then taken it back to Colosse with him. And Paul is anxious to give him every possible support, to show him to be an authentic minister of the gospel. verses 7-8: You learned it (the gospel) from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
It's perhaps hard for us to see how important this apostolic stamp of approval is. We've lived for centuries without meeting an apostle. But for these first century Christians, it was a live issue. Would it have been any different if Paul himself had brought the gospel to Colosse. Paul says "No". In fact, he's at pains to point out that Epaphras was a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf. What does a true Christian minister look like? And how is he authenticated? Does ordination do it, when the bishop's hands are laid on your head? I hope you know enough about some of the heretics who've been ordained, even in the Church of England, to know that ordination doesn't do it. What about learning? It's all a matter of having the right degrees and doctorates. Again, you only have to see what a bastion of unbelief the average university theology department is to see the folly of that notion. Others would say that performing signs and wonders is the authenticating mark of the Christian minister. Paul would have none of it. What makes Epaphras a true Christian minister? He passes on the true Christian message, the gospel of hope and grace. If you want to sit under a true Christian ministry, then find a minister like that to listen to. If you want to be a true Christian minister, then be like that.
The rector of my previous church tells a story of when he was a child. As I remember it, he went with his mother to Buckingham Palace to see the new Prime Minister visit the Queen. They waited with the crowds as they hoped to catch a glimpse of him leaving. Eventually, their patience was rewarded as they saw the black car pull away and drive out of the gates. The crowd began to disperse, and their family group was getting ready to leave when they heard a voice say, Don't go. They looked around, but couldn't see who was speaking to them. Again they prepared to leave, but they heard the voice again, Don't go. This time they realised that the voice belonged to a policeman standing near them. So they asked him, Why shouldn't we go? All he could say in reply was, Can't say. Don't go. So they waited, while almost everyone else drifted away. Eventually, to their great delight, other cars began to leave the Palace. One of them carried the Queen herself.
That's what Paul is saying to these Colossian Christians, "Don't go". You've come to Christ. Don't move on from Christ. Stay with him. He alone is all you need. You've had a true Christian experience. You've heard the true Christian message. You've got a true Christian minister. Don't go. And God is saying the same to us. Don't go. Come to Christ. And then stay with Christ.
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