Remember Your Gospel Journey (sermon resource for 7/10/22)

Note: though this week's Epistle reading spans Col. 1:1-14, this post exegetes Col. 1:1-8, drawing on multiple sources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary) and Peter T. O’Brien (New Bible Commentary).

The Exhortaton to the Apostles (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

INTRODUCTION

We begin in Col. 1:1-2:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
In Paul’s day, the city of Colosse, situated in the Roman province of Asia (now part of Western Turkey), was a melting pot of religious philosophies and practices—not unlike our world today. This pluralism was producing within the Colossian church a religious syncretism, which Paul has learned is infecting the church in Colosse. He writes to encourage the church in Colosse to hold fast to the true gospel of God’s grace.

REMEMBER YOUR GOSPEL JOURNEY

The beginning of Paul's letter continues in Col 1:3-8 with an invitation to the Colossian believers to remember their gospel journey:
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints-- 5 the faith and love that 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 6 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. 7 You learned it 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.
Here Paul alludes to four stages in the Colossians’ gospel journey with Jesus. In this sermon we'll look at each stage—in doing so, we’ll learn about our own journey and be reminded of the content of the gospel itself.

1. THEY HEARD THE GOSPEL ABOUT JESUS (1:5-7)

 5b ,,,you have already heard…the word of truth, the gospel 6 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. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf,

The Colossians’ gospel journey began with a Spirit-provided hearing of the truth of the gospel. Paul hastens to add that this truth did not originate with any philosopher (unlike the heresies they were embracing). No, the gospel is God’s own “word of truth” (5b) and it is being heard “all over the world” (6a)—not just by an elite few in Colossae. This gospel is the “word” of God and it had come to them first through Epaphras, a fellow-citizen of Colosse, who had heard the gospel from Paul while visiting Ephesus. Epaphras responded to this truth by committing his life to following Jesus, and headed home where he shared the gospel with relatives and friends in Colosse, leading to the planting of the church in that city.
The gospel that Paul taught to Epaphras is summarized powerfully in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (written at about the same time as Colossians). The gospel Paul shares in the book of Ephesians is the astounding truth that, in love, God predestined all humanity from the beginning to be “adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). Then nearly 2,000 years ago, God accomplished that adoption in and through Jesus—through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension. As a result, all humanity has “redemption” (the forgiveness of sins) in and through Jesus (Eph 1:7; 2:6). In every respect, this redemption—this salvation in Christ—is God’s gift of grace—which is to say that it is given apart from any effort or merit of anyone but Jesus. In fact, it was given to us, in Jesus, “when we were dead in [our] transgressions” (Eph 1:5).
Thus, as Paul says here in Colossians, the gospel is “God’s grace in all its truth” (Col. 1:6b, emphasis added). Indeed this gospel, this truth, is about God’s astounding grace in and through Jesus. And thus it is entirely good news.
Tragically, some (including the false teachers who had invaded the church at Colosse), turn the gospel into the bad news of God’s anger and condemnation out of which we humans must work our way by achieving some sort of spiritual perfection or elitism (and the false teachers in Colosse were offering their own special, very seductive, “brand”).
In this introductory section of his letter to the Colossians, Paul reviews the essential and defining characteristics of the truly hope-filled message of the true gospel.
It centers on a person—Jesus Christ
The theme of this epistle is the preeminence of Jesus Christ, who is “front and center” in the true gospel (indeed, Jesus is the gospel!). The false teachers who invaded the fellowship at Colosse were trying to remove Jesus from this place of preeminence; turning the gospel from good news to into a bad news philosophical/religious system. But the truth of the gospel proclaims in no uncertain terms that it is Christ (and Christ alone) in whom and by whom we are saved. The gospel thus does not center in a philosophy, a doctrine, or a religious system. It centers fully and only on Jesus Christ, the Son of God become flesh for us.
It’s the word of truth (5b)
...the word of truth, the gospel…
The gospel came from God (not men) and thus can be fully trusted as God’s own truth. “Your word is truth” proclaimed Jesus (John 17:17). There are many messages and ideas that can be called true, but only God’s word can truly be called truth. Satan is a liar and the father of lies; to believe his lies is to be led astray into death (John 8:44). But Jesus, God’s ultimate and final Word, is the one and full Truth (John 14:6). In him we have life, and when we trust in him, we experience that life more and more.
Of course, everyone trusts in (has faith in) something. But faith is only as good as the object in which the person puts their trust. Some people worship gods of stone; some more “sophisticated” ones worship money, possessions or status. Either way, faith (trust) in an unreliable object and is empty; futile. But the Christian believer trusts Jesus who is God’s Word and God’s Truth. Any other kind of faith is ultimately nothing more than human superstition. Only Jesus saves.
It’s the message of God’s grace (v. 6b)

…you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth.
Again, God’s grace is ultimately Jesus himself: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). Grace is God’s unmerited, undeserved favor (including his forgiveness). Without our involvement; quite apart from our works and , indeed, when were sinners and thus God’s enemies, Jesus saved us by becoming one of us (through his Incarnation), living, dying, rising and ascending with us and for us. The gospel tells this “old, old story”—and it’s a story that is all about Jesus—all about God’s grace.
It’s for the whole world (v. 6a)

…All over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing…
This message of God’s grace to us in Jesus has universal appeal. Why? Because the gospel tells about the universal scope of what Jesus has done to save all humanity. Jesus did not live, die, rise and ascend for only some. He did so for all. And now the message of this salvation of humankind in and through Jesus is, by God’s perfect design, going out to all (see 1:28). The false teachers were preying on believers in one city. True ambassadors for Christ (like Paul) reach out to everyone, for, indeed, the gospel is good news for all.

2. THEY BELIEVED IN JESUS (COL 1:4)

  …we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints--

Through proclamation of the truth of the gospel, the Holy Spirit creates for people a time and place to see clearly who Jesus is and who they are in him. And with that hearing comes the opportunity to respond: to say “yes” to the God who, in Christ, has already said “YES” to all of us. The ability to hear and to respond affirmatively is, in itself, God’s work of grace. Indeed, it’s not our faith that saves us—but Jesus (and his faith—see the KJV translation of Gal 2:20). But our personal trust (belief/faith) in Jesus is important, for through it we come into agreement with what Jesus has done as a human for all humanity and what he has done for all humanity as God—for Jesus is fully human and fully divine in himself.
So this faith, this belief and trust, is in Jesus, and it is a faith that is grounded in the gospel which reveals this Jesus in all his stunning beauty (Col. 1:23). It is the gospel that assures us that we truly have been adopted by God as his dear children (Eph 1:5). And as we grow in this now personal and realized relationship with the Lord, the faith we share with and in Jesus becomes in us steadfast (Col. 2:5) and established (Col. 2:7)—we’ll see more about that in stage 4.
The false teachers in Colosse were trying to undermine the saints’ faith in Christ and in the gospel. This same kind of undermining goes on today. Any religious teaching that dethrones Jesus, or that makes salvation other than an experience of God’s grace through faith in him, is either confused or just plain antichristian.

3. THEY WERE DISCIPLED IN JESUS (COL 1:7)

 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf,

Epaphras did not merely proclaim the gospel to his fellow Colossians and then leave. Rather he remained to teach them God’s word, so as to establish them in the gospel as disciples of Jesus. The word translated “learned” here is related to the word disciple in Greek. It is the same word Jesus used in saying, “Learn from me” (Matt. 11:29) or, in effect, “become my disciple.”
Now these new believers in Colosse were in danger of turning from the truth they had learned from Epaphras and becoming disciples of false teachers. Paul reminded them that it was Epaphras who led them to Jesus, discipled them in the way of Jesus, and taught them the truth of God’s Word, Jesus and the word of truth, the gospel (1:5).
Here we are reminded of the importance of discipling new believers. Just as a newborn baby needs loving care and protection till she can care for herself, so a “baby” Christian needs discipling. The Great Commission does not stop with winning the lost, for in that commission Jesus commanded us to also establish believers (build believers) in the way of Jesus (Mat 28:19–20). This is a big part of what the fellowship of a local church is all about. And Epaphras was faithful in helping the new believers he had evangelized on this journey of growing in Jesus. He not only taught them the gospel and shared with them the Holy Scriptures, he also prayed for them and, no doubt, with them (Col. 4:12–13)—all so that they might grow in the faith.
When danger threatened these young believers, Epaphras went to Rome to get counsel from Paul. He loved these people and wanted to protect them from false doctrines that would destroy the fellowship and hinder their spiritual development.
Note as well, that Epaphras, like all faithful ministers of Jesus, was careful to make disciples of Jesus, not of himself. He pointed people to Jesus. But the false teachers came in and tried to “draw away disciples” (see Paul’s warning about this in Acts 20:28–30). Human nature has the tendency to want to follow men instead of follow God—to want “something new” instead of the basic foundational truths of the gospel.

4. THEY BECAME FAITHFUL IN JESUS (COL 1:5-6, 8)

5 the faith and love that 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 6 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…8 …and [Epaphras]…also told us of your love in the Spirit.

The word of God (the gospel) is like seed (Luke 8:11)—it bears life (Heb 4:12). Thus, when planted in a human heart, and then cultivated through discipleship, it produces fruit—it grows.
The primary fruit of the gospel is faith, love and hope springing up in the believer’s life—and this fruit is not of oneself, but a sharing in Jesus’ own faith, love and hope.
Concerning love, note that Col 1:8 is the only verse in this letter that mentions the Holy Spirit, and it is in connection with love. This Spirit-given love is expressed toward “all the saints” (Col 1:4). Indeed, believers should be “united in love” (Col 2:2 and see 3:14).
Concerning hope, the false teachers tried to move the Colossian believers away from the hope held out in the true gospel (Col 1:23). But Paul made it clear that this hope cannot be removed, for it is “stored up” for believers in heaven (Col 1:5). The tense of “stored up” indicates that this hope has once and for all been reserved so that nothing can take it from us. Not only has this hope (our inheritance in glory) been reserved for us, but we are being kept by God’s power so that we can be sure of enjoying it in its fullness one day (1Pet 1:1–5).
What is the relationship between faith, hope, and love? Certainly the more we love someone, the more we will trust them. As we come to know Jesus better, we trust him more and we love him more. Love and faith encourage each other. But hope also has a valuable contribution to make. Wherever there is a relationship of faith and love, there will be a growing hope. For example, when a man and woman fall in love and learn to trust each other in that love, their future looks brighter—their hope is increased.
Paul thus taught that hope is a motivating power for love and for faith: “The faith and love that spring from the hope” (Col 1:5). The hope of seeing Jesus face to face in glory is a powerful motivating force in a believer’s life. When we realize the joy we shall have then, it makes us love Jesus even more. The fact that we know we shall be with him in glory encourages us to trust him more. Even the problems and trials here on earth do not move us away from this sure hope.
It also seems to be true that the hope of future happiness engenders love and faith. Have you ever watched children just before Christmas or a family vacation? In a similar way, the bright promise of glory encourages a believer’s faith and expands their love. Thus faith and love work together to make the present more enjoyable and the future more exciting.
Divisions and dissensions among Christians are tragic. The fact that we are going to be together in glory ought to encourage us to love each other now. This is one reason why Jesus is already sharing this glory with us now: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22).
The hope of seeing Jesus “face to face” in glory is not only a motivation for faith and love now, but it is also a motivation for holy living. “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1John 3:3). We share the glory of Jesus’ purity even now (though not perfectly), and we will share it fully and thus perfectly with him in glory.
The hope of glory is also an encouragement in times of suffering (1Pet 1:4–9). As believers, we have our share of suffering; but in the midst of trials, we “are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1Pet 1:8). When unbelievers suffer, they get discouraged and sometimes want to give up. But when Christians suffer, their faith can become stronger and their love can deepen because their hope shines brighter.
How do we know that we have this hope? The promise is given in “the word of truth, the Gospel” (Col. 1:5). We believers do not have to “work up” hope. God’s unchanging word assures us that our hope is secure in Jesus because our life resides in Jesus—we are sharing his hope. And this hope is an anchor in any storm (Heb 6:19)—it will never let us down.
Conclusion
Paul was deeply thankful for the believers in Colosse because he had witnessed the miracle of their conversion to Christ through the gospel. There is no greater miracle—no greater source of joy. And this miracle must be protected and defended against anything that would undermine it and turn it into a works-based, humanly devised religious or philosophical “system.” Let us hold as precious the grace we have received in Jesus. And let us tell others of this grace revealed in the true gospel—it’s entirely good news about the faith, love and hope we have in Jesus. Amen.