I do not know about you, but I love receiving letters, especially those that are hand-written. Fewer things bring me more encouragement than to know someone has taken the time to put pen to paper to share their thoughts with me—encouraging words, thanks, sympathy, etc.. Though this is a dying art in many parts of our world today, in Bible times, it was the primary means of long-distance communication. Before email, text, or phones, people were limited to communicating via letters that were delivered by trusted couriers to their intended recipients. Today we are going to begin reading and studying one of these ancient letters—a letter written by Paul to the church in Colossae. Imagine with me if you would how excited you would be as a small church in a relatively obscure location to receive a letter from the apostle Paul. Imagine how eager you would be to open it and share it with your congregation that next Sunday. Thankfully, while this letter was written to a specific church at a specific time, in a specific context, to address specific issues, we can stand to learn a lot of important principles from what is shared by Paul in this personal correspondence and apply what he says in our world today. Let us begin today by exploring four reasons why Paul is thankful for the faith found in Colossae in the opening verses of this epistle—Colossians 1:1-8.
Before we look at the four reasons given for being thankful, let us examine the opening greeting and background of this letter. First, we learn that this letter is written by Paul, the apostle, and is being sent with both his and Timothy’s salutations—“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother” (1:1). Very few if any reputable scholars have seriously questioned that this letter has Paul as its author (that is, until the nineteenth century and even there the evidence to the contrary is slim). Paul writes this letter as one with apostolic authority—very high credentials that would have made those who received the letter sit up straight and pay careful attention to its contents. This letter, like those to the Philippians Ephesians, and to Philemon, are among the correspondences Paul wrote while imprisoned in Rome “the “Prison Epistles” around 60AD. It is from this captivity that Paul is moved of the Holy Spirit to send word to several churches to provide much-needed encouragement and correction.
This particular epistle is written “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae” (1:2a). This reference to the recipients identifies a specific group by means of two locations (one spiritual and one geographic) (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 189). First, they are “in Christ.” It is important to recognize that Paul is writing to those who are already saved and pursuing Christ together in this specific congregation. Their position in Christ will come up again as Paul will address several theological concerns later. Second, they are in “Colossae” (a small town that saw itself on the decline in Asia Minor). What prompts him to write to this relatively small and obscure church? As the letter unfolds, we will learn that false teachers threatened to undermine what the church planter and others like Epaphras had taught them when the church was founded. The consequences of these false teachers and their message threatened to remove the church from its strong Christian foundation and Paul seeks to prevent that by providing much-needed clarification on some of the foundational doctrines of the faith (particularly Christology) and explain how these doctrines ought to impact a believer’s life.
After the source and recipients are identified, Paul issues his greeting—“grace to you and peace from God our Father” (1:2b). This is a familiar greeting that the apostle often provides which identifies both the basis of a new life in Christ (“grace”) and the result of that new life in Christ (“peace”) which are sourced in “God our Father.” Paul greets this church as a fellow believer who has and continues to benefit from God’s program of salvation—even while sitting in a prison cell.
1. THE RECOGNITION OF THEIR FAITH-1:3-4
Following this greeting, Paul demonstrates his thankfulness for the faith witnessed in the church of Colossae. The apostle often begins his letters in this way, even if he had never personally met the people in the Church (see Romans), or if the church was in a very rough way (see 1 Corinthians), or if it was threatened by heresy (as here in Colossians). Paul writes in verse 3—“We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3a).
Paul’s thankfulness in verses 3-8 comes in the form of a prayer that celebrates several reasons he is grateful—“praying always for you” (1:3b). In fact, the passage contains several synonyms for prayer (“praying,” “giving thanks,” “asking”) that together demonstrate the importance of prayer for Paul. The significance of prayer for Paul was not just witnessed in the many different verbs he chooses to use for prayer, but in the form these verbs take—they are present progressives. The church was regularly in Paul’s mind and prayer life constantly. These prayers were also personal (“for you”) and directed to God. These prayers were also more concerned about people than they were events. such are just some of the hallmarks of Paul’s prayer life that he intends to share with the church (consistency in prayer, personally focused prayer, and prayer preoccupied with people). Here, “The joys and concerns of the Colossian congregation meant enough to Paul that he prayed about them” often (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 194).
Are the concerns and people in your church consistently in your mind and in your prayer life? Are you moved by the concerns and joys of God’s people today enough to pray for them consistently and in a variety of ways? Though this is not a major thrust of this passage, Paul’s example of prayer for God’s people in Colossae is especially compelling. Spend a few moments right now in prayer for your church and the people therein. Pray specifically, that they might be kept from false teaching and be encouraged by the grace of God and the peace that comes with salvation. Pray a prayer of thanksgiving, much as Paul does here, for the church and the people therein.
After framing his thanksgiving in the context of prayer, Paul finally reveals the first thing for which he is thankful in verse 4—“since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints” (1:4). Here, the apostle is thankful for the presence of faith and love which evidenced the Christian character of the Colossians church (as the two go hand-in-hand). News of the Colossians’ “faith in Christ Jesus” had revealed to Paul that this was a believing church—believing in the person and work of Christ. However, this was not just a believing church, this was a behaving church (as one necessarily leads to the other). Not only did they evidence true belief in their theological convictions, they demonstrated true belief in “the love which [they had] for all the saints” (1:4). This particular use of “love” (“agape”) with the definite article and the phrase “for all the saints” reveals at least two truths about this church. First, they employed a sacrificial love each other that modeled Christ’s own sacrifice. Second, this love was indiscriminate—“for all the saints.” In other words, the love this church demonstrated among its membership modeled the love of Christ both in nature and in scope (sacrificial and wide-ranging—John 3:16). Elsewhere, Jesus indicates that love for the brethren is the distinguishing mark of true faith in him.
John 13:35-“"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."”
Such love fulfills two objectives: it represents Jesus to the world and it builds up the body of Christ (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 196). The church of Colossae was fulfilling these objectives as evidenced by true faith, resulting love for all the saints in the congregation.
This was truly something for which Paul could be thankful. He is writing a church that “gets it” about Jesus. This was evidenced in proper orthodoxy AND orthopraxy. Could the same be said of those in our church? If Paul wrote to Crystal Spring Baptist, would he be able to give thanks for the faith witnessed here, evidenced in our beliefs and love for one another?
2. THE BASIS OF FAITH-1:5
After celebrating the faith witnessed in the lives of those in the church of Colossae, Paul gives thanks for the basis for faith as found in the gospel. First, he applauds the result of the gospel—“because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (1:5a). A gospel-focused life is one that looks up and ahead for inspiration and persevering strength. Consider what Paul saw when he looked around him—the walls of a prison cell, threats from all angles, churches dealing with a host of issues. If that is all that Paul took time to consider, you can imagine that he would get really discouraged very quickly. However, his focus was directed to “the hope laid up…in heaven” and it is to that hope that he directs this church here in the beginning of verse 5. In fact, so sure is this hope that the present tense of the verb suggests this hope is being stored up and will continue to remain on reserve for God’s people.
What are you spending your time thinking about, looking at, considering. If the spirit of thanksgiving that we witness in this text is missing from your life, perhaps you are not looking up and ahead as often as you should to consider what is waiting for believers in heaven.
This hope in what is to come for God’s people is rooted in the gospel message. Paul continues in his remarks by remembering the reception of the gospel in the lives of those in the church of Colossae—“of which you previously hear in the word of truth, the gospel” (1:5b). The gospel (good news of Jesus Christ—the good news that is from, about, and is Jesus Christ), is the basis of faith that inspires hope and for this Paul is exceedingly thankful. The way that Paul describes the gospel here is especially telling given the occasion of the letter. It is called the “word of truth” and ought to be distinguished from false gospels that are full of lies. The definite article used in “the word of truth” might be considered an article of exclusivity—i.e. “the only word of truth.” Do not be confused, there is only one message that saves and brings ultimate hope to people—it is the message of Jesus Christ.
John 14:6—“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes unto the Father accept through me.”
Therefore, the basis of faith that Paul celebrates here is in a particular word (the true gospel) about a particular person (Jesus Christ) that provides a particular hope (in heaven) for those who believe.
3. THE TESTIMONY OF FAITH-1:6-7
The third and final thing for which Paul gives thanks in this opening prayer is the testimony of faith in verses 6-8. The first element of the gospel testimony that is praiseworthy is its enormous scope—“which has come to you, just as in all the world” (1:6a). Paul marveled at the rapid and global spread of the gospel message. To be sure, in just a short time (a few years), the gospel had made its way out of Jerusalem and spread to the major corners of the Roman Empire, even reaching into Asia minor (where Colossae was). The fact that the gospel has reached new people everywhere was something that Paul celebrated and desired for the church to celebrate along with him.
Not only had the gospel reached many contexts in and around the Roman empire, but Paul says, “also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing” (1:6b). “The actual terms used, when pressed to their original ideas, suggest reproductive capability (‘bearing fruit’) and maturing capability (‘increasing’) (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 198). In other words, the gospel not only creates converts, but breeds disciples. It is the only transformative message that is truly capable of such life change and for this Paul give thanks.
Rom 1:16-“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
Eph 1:13-14-“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
1 Cor 5:17-“ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
The gospel, according to Paul, had not just traveled the greatest distance (“all the world”) it instilled the greatest transformation (“constantly bearing fruit and increasing”).
The church of Colossae knew these things firsthand given their own testimony as recorded in verses 6-7—“ even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bondservant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on your behalf,…” (1:6c-7). This church had been personally reached and affected by the gospel in a profound way. They had their own testimony of life change brought about by the redemption story of Jesus Christ and the proof was witnessed in their love.
4. THE RESULT OF FAITH-1:8-“…and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit,…”
Paul continues with “and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit” (1:8). Love is the residue of repentance. Love is the fruit of saving faith. Love is the calling card of one’s conversion. Love is the proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. This church loved well and in so doing evidenced that they had been personally impacted by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1 John 4:19—“we love because he first loved us”
In this way, Paul’s comments come full circle. At the beginning of this prayer of thanksgiving he connected faith and love--“ since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints,…” (1:4)—and here he ends with that same connection between the apprehension of the gospel in faith and the application of the gospel in love.
No doubt it did Paul’s heart good while sitting in that prison cell to hear about, remember, and reflect on the church of Colossae. We will soon learn that this was not a perfect church, but it was a church committed to the gospel she had received as evidenced by both its great faith in Christ and its great love for each other. It ought to do your heart good to be able to reflect on the same things today. However, some listening may not have received yet the gospel message that the church in Colossae embraced and believers are committed to today. Maybe you do not yet have a testimony of faith in the only source of salvation. Maybe instead you are following another savior, maybe yourself, trying to achieve salvation in your own way and not making any progress. If that is you today, I invite you to seriously consider what Paul calls the word of truth [that we are sinners in a broken world and in desperate need of saving (something that we cannot accomplish on our own behalf or find in anything the world offers). Jesus, God’s only Son was sent into the world to accomplish and provide salvation through his death and resurrection and offers it to everyone who will turn from their former ways and embrace who he is and what he has done in faith (trusting him and surrendering to him as Lord and Savior)]. If you have already embraced the word of truth and are a member of the church body today. If you have faith, does the way you love prove it? Does the way you love prove the faith that you claim? If not, there is a problem there. After all, Christian faith is in the One who loved us so much he died for us. Shouldn’t those faithful to him be the most loving ones of all? If you have faith, does your life reflect the confident hope you have in heaven? If not, there is a problem that needs addressing. After all, Christian faith is in the One who rose from the grave, defeating death and confirming the life that believers can expect in the end. Church, we can say we have faith all we want, but if we are not loving and we are not confident in what is to come, there might be a crisis of faith that we need to invite the Lord Jesus to address in our lives.