It must have always seemed a little bit strange to Paul when he spelled out the first few words of his letters: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
And I imagine that it was strange to him when he thought about those words, but strange in a happy kind of way. It would have been strange to him in the same kind of way it’s strange for a newly married wife to write her full name those first few times — it’s different from how she has written it for so long, but it’s a happy kind of different. It’s a happy strangeness. And I imagine that Paul felt something like this because he knew when we wrote “apostle of Jesus Christ” that he now lived to spread a message that he once lived to destroy. It must have been strange for him identify himself by the very thing he once thought was a threat to his identity. Even if we don’t quite see it, Paul had to have felt the irony of how he begins his letters. It was a little bit strange, but in a happy kind of way.
And it wasn’t just strange because of what he says about himself, but also because he says about those he’s writing to, like the Colossians here. Paul is the unlikely apostle of Jesus writing to the Colossians, who are unlikely believers in Jesus. These people had been animistic pagans who had bought into some type of syncretized Jewish religion, and Paul writes to them here and calls them saints, holy ones, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
Which means, a lot has happened to bring about a letter like this, with Paul saying the kinds of things he’s saying. That’s the case for all of Paul’s letters, and that’s the case for Colossians. Paul starts this letter like he starts most of his letters, but there’s never a throwaway word. There’s a lot going on in these first eight verses, and this morning I want us to take a closer look.
First, let’s check out verse 3 for a minute. Paul starts by giving thanks for the Colossians, like he gives thanks in other letters, but his reason for giving thanks in Colossians is because he’s heard something about them. And this idea of hearing is important in these verses. It actually shows up five times in verses 3–8 and really frames Paul’s entire introduction to the letter. So there is a theme when it comes to hearing, and that’s the angle we’re going to take to look at this passage. So there are three points, each about hearing, and each one is connected to the other.
First, Paul Heard Something [because]
Second, The Colossians Heard Something [because]
Third, Epaphras Said Something
These are the three things we’re going to check out. First . . .
1. Paul Heard Something (verses 3–5a)
“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, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.”
Here in verse 3 we see what Paul heard. [Look at verse 3]. Paul is thanking God for the Colossians because, verse 4, he heard, first, about their faith in Christ Jesus and next, about their love for all the saints — both of which flow from the hope laid up for them in heaven.
So he’s heard of their faith, love, and hope — faith, love, and hope. Or is it faith, hope, and love (and the greatest of these is love)? We’ve seen these words before in the Bible. These are explosive words. They’re used a lot, both in the Bible, and they’re extremely common words in our own language. These are the kind of words that we put on t-shirts and hang on the walls and use in presidential campaign slogans and all of that. They’re buzz words. And Paul’s got all three of them lined up here in Colossians 1:3. So what’s their connection? What do they have to do with Paul hearing about the Colossians and then giving thanks to God?
So let’s start with faith and love. Paul says that he has heard about the Colossians’ faith in Jesus and their love for all the saints. Both of these have to do with relationship. There is the vertical relationship of faith in Jesus, and then there is the horizontal relationship of love for others. And we have seen this type of vertical-horizontal pair before in the Bible. Jesus taught us this in the Great Commandment. In Matthew 22 some Pharisees come up to Jesus and they asked him about the greatest commandment in the law. And Jesus told them:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37–38)
This is vertical. We are made to love God. To worship God. But then Jesus says, Hey, the second commandment is like it. And the second commandment, Jesus says, is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:39–40).
So love God and love others. That is the vertical and the horizontal, and Jesus says that this pretty much sums up all of God’s law. He wants us to love him and other people. And in Colossians 1, Paul tells the Colossians that he has heard about this happening in their lives. They trust in Jesus. Their relationship with God has been restored. They’ve put their faith in him. They worship him (that’s the vertical). And then also, they love the saints. They love other people besides themselves (that’s the horizontal). They love God and people.
And at this point, I think most people from any religion would say that this sounds about right: “Love a supreme being, something bigger than yourself, and also love your fellow humans.” Most religions would say something like this. Now look, I don’t think that all religions can back this up — for example, no jihadist has any intention of loving people — but for the most part, in most religions where there’s human decency and political correctness, most would say that we all just wanna love [God] and love people, that we’re all the same and all that.
Some of you may have seen this in a recent video online. BuzzFeed did this interview with a Christian priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim imam. They talked about current issues, and remarkably they agreed on everything [who knew!], and they ended the interview by saying that their traditions are different but that they’re basically all the same. They all want the same thing. Well, I don’t think the apostle Paul is saying that here. For a couple reasons:
First, there’s nothing generic about this vertical part here. Paul isn’t talking about generic veneration of a generic higher being. He says that he has heard of the Colossians’ faith in Jesus Christ. He’s heard about their trust in God the Son, the second person of the holy Trinity —
who became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and was made human, who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, who suffered and was buried, and on the third day was raised from the dead, who ascended to heaven and is seated at the right of the Father, and who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
That is who Paul is talking about. He’s talking about trust in Jesus, and then love for all the saints. So just to be clear, Paul means nothing generic here when talks about the vertical. And we see that especially in how faith and love are connected to hope.
Check out verse 4 again. Paul says,
“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.”
Now the word “because” is translated in other places as “through” or “by,” depending on the case of the noun that follows it. For example, the word “by” in verse 1 is the same word translated “because” in verse 5. The difference is subtle, but there is a difference, and it matters because this word is helping to describe us how faith and love are connected to hope. Is it because of hope or is it through hope? I actually like the way the NIV translates verse 5:
we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven.
In one sense, faith and love are because of our hope, but it’s more than that. Our faith in Jesus and love for one another actually comes by, or springs from our hope, which I think means there’s a closer connection than just saying “because.”
The faith in Jesus and love for others that Paul talks about here is a faith and love that springs from the future hope secured for us in heaven. And we talked about that hope last week.
This is the hope that one day Jesus is going to return here and make a new heavens and new earth. One day he’s going to come back and at last destroy everything that impedes our relationship with him. One day he’s coming back and we’re going to be with him forever. That’s our hope. That’s our hope for the future laid up for us in heaven, and it’s from this future hope of being with Jesus that springs forth our faith and love today. And there’s no rabbi or imam on this planet who would tell you that. This is Christian faith and love and comes from the Christian hope of being with Jesus in a new world.
And Paul says: Hey Colossians, I’ve heard that you have this. I’ve heard that you believe this and that live this way. And I thank God for that.
So that’s what Paul heard. And he heard it because, our second point.
2. The Colossians Heard Something (verses 5–6)
Look at verse 5 again. Paul writes . . .
“Of this [our hope] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,  which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth. . .”
Notice that the word “heard” is used again, twice in these verses — the Colossians heard something, and we see in verse 5 that they heard “the worth of truth, the gospel.”
So the Colossians have heard the gospel, they heard the gospel and understood it. Which means Paul heard about the Colossians’ faith, love, and hope because the Colossians heard the gospel.
And by the “gospel” here, Paul has in mind what he says in 1 Corinthians 15 when he talks about the message of first importance. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus died for sinners, that he rose from the dead, and that he’s now ascended and reigning as the Lord of all, and he’s coming back to make a new world, and that when we turn from sin and believe in him we are, by his Spirit, united to him and restored to fellowship with God. That’s the gospel that the Colossians heard, and believed.
And those two pieces of hearing and believing always go together. If we, right now, believe the gospel, it’s because we’ve heard the gospel. That’s the way it was in the first century and that’s the way it is in the 21st century. “Faith comes from hearing the gospel” — which is exactly what Paul says in Romans 10:17. We can’t believe the gospel until we hear the gospel.
And this always boggles my mind because when we step back and look at a map of the world, and we see where we are in North America in comparison to where this message began — we’re a long ways from Jerusalem. And yet, we believe the gospel because we’ve heard it. And many have heard the gospel all around the world and will hear it because, as Paul says in verse 6, the gospel is bearing fruit and increasing. The message of the gospel is spreading.
BUT, the gospel isn’t the only message spreading. At the same time of the gospel’s advance, there have always been counterfeit gospels going around. As people hear the gospel, they also hear other things. Other things are always talked up and put out there as the hope of the world. And there are so many of these — so many counterfeit gospels — that we can’t list them all, but I want to try to label a few. [You guys remember sidewalk chalk? Well, I’m kind of using sidewalk chalk here. Meaning, I’m writing big and with not a lot of detail.] I want to name three major movements of counterfeit gospels that have spread simultaneous to the gospel’s advance. And I want to warn you, this is going to be a little historical, which means some of you might find this part boring. I really like history, but we’re all different, so hang in there. But the point is that I want us to know that as the gospel has spread over time, there have always been other things to compete with it. Other hopes are put out there. And the first is what we can call:
1. The Counterfeit Gospel of Dominance
And for this, I am thinking of mainly imperial Rome, the setting of the New Testament. There had been a handful of world superpowers before them, but the Roman empire was the greatest. And that was the theme that resounded throughout the first-century world. When Christians came on the scene spreading a message that Jesus is Lord, others had been saying, and continued to say, that Caesar was lord. And Caesar led conquests, and the empire grew, and this mindset of dominance and conquest lived on even years after the Romans faded away. It existed up through medieval Europe and the feudal system and the class divisions. The message was dominance. The hope was in control, and as that message was going around, the gospel continued to spread.
And came right up to . . .
2. The Counterfeit Gospel of Change
And for this I’m thinking about the 16th century really up to the 20th. The message of dominance was never went away completely, but another message really hits the scene in the 1500s, and it was this revolutionary mindset. There was a lot of good that came with this, such as the Protestant Reformation, but that wasn’t the only type of change that happened in those days. At the same time there was needed reform in the Christian church, there were also social and political upheavals going on. There’s a historian named Carter Lindberg who wrote this book titled, European Reformations [plural], and the point is that there wasn’t one unified movement of change going on, but there were all kinds of little pockets of change, both religious and social. And this leads right up to the American Revolution, and then the French Revolution, and beyond. This was the message of change. The hope was that the masses could make a difference and revolt against the rigid systems of dominance and class division. That wa the hope, and again, as this counterfeit gospel was going around, the gospel of Jesus continued to spread.
And this counterfeit gospel of change never went away completely, but then in late 19th century there came the third movement . . .
3. The Counterfeit Gospel of Self
And with this came the hope of autonomy, that the self is all we need. It was really for the first time, a vision of the world that didn’t need God. It was anti-institutional, anti-establishment. It had its roots in the European reformations, but really marked the rise of the counter-culture, of non-conformity. [Have you guys ever seen Downton Abbey? Yeah, well I got all this from Downton Abbey.]
Well, this counterfeit gospel of self continues to spread today. I think it’s summed up best by the phrase “expressive individualism.” That’s from the philosopher Charles Taylor, and this is how he defines it:
It’s when people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, “do their own thing.” (Taylor, 299)
And according to Taylor, this way of thinking really got popular in Post-war America, in the 1960s and 70s, and that’s when you started seeing it in TV commercials and hearing it in music, and that’s when therapies and life advice started going around that tells people to discover yourself, realize your true self, be authentic, and all that (Taylor, 475). And we still hear this today.
That is the counterfeit gospel of self, and as that message is spreading, at the same time, the gospel of Jesus spreads. Here we are. Hey, we have planted a church in this world, and we live as a church, by God’s grace, to tell people about the good news of Jesus. We want people in these Cities to hear the good news of Jesus, even as they hear all the other counterfeit gospels, because only one gospel is true. Only one gospel can really give you hope, and that is the gospel of Jesus dying for sinners to make us new.
And out of all the things we hear, while we’re constantly being fed empty promises and gimmicky worldviews, only the gospel of Jesus can deliver, and the gospel of Jesus turns all the other counterfeit gospels upside down. The gospel of Jesus tells us that greatness doesn’t come by dominance, but by serving. That the change we really need doesn’t come by cataclysmic revolution, but by being restored to who God made us to be. That the self and its authenticity is not the purpose of the universe, but instead it’s just one part of a larger purpose that’s always connected to community, to the church — and that purpose is to spread the news of God’s love for God’s glory.
And we should be encouraged that through all the movements of history, that this message of Jesus has never been stopped. It’s never been silenced. It’s never been overcome. Counterfeit gospels come and go, but the gospel of Jesus is always there, always advancing, always being heard and believed, just like it was here in Colossae in the first century.
And that brings us to the last point.
First, we saw in verses 3–4 that Paul heard about the Colossians’ faith, love, and hope, and he heard that because, as we saw in verse 5, the Colossians heard the gospel, and now, at last, we see that the Colossians heard the gospel because a guy named Epaphras told them.
3. Epaphras Said Something (verses 7–8)
Paul heard something because the Colossians heard something because Epaphras said something.
Check out verse 7. The Colossians heard the gospel and understood it, verse 7 —
“just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf  and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.”
Now the word for “hear” is not used in these verses, but the idea is implied twice. The Colossians learned the gospel from Epaphras, which means that heard it from him, because he told it to him. And then next, in verse 8, we see what Epaphras is the one who told Paul about the Colossians. So Paul heard about the Colossians from Epaphras.
So if we were to step back and look at everything together, Epaphras is the guy behind it all. He’s the one who first preached the gospel to the Colossians, and then, when they heard it and believed, he’s the one who went to Paul and told him all about it. And that’s why Paul wrote this letter. It all comes back to Epaphras.
Does anyone know someone named Epaphras? No, of course you don’t. Want to know why? [Well, there are probably a few reasons why,] but one reason is that Epaphras is a marginal character in the Bible. Most people have never heard of him. He’s just a minor character, one guy, off behind the scenes. He gets a few mentions here and there, but he’s not primetime. He’s an ordinary guy, probably moderately gifted (he was no Apollos). He probably grew up with people making fun of his name. And then one day, he’s in the city of Ephesus (most scholars agree), and he hears this man named Paul preaching the gospel, and when Epaphras hears the gospel he believes it. And then he goes back home to Colossae, and he’s starts telling people about the gospel he’s heard and believed, and then they hear it and believe. And then he gets word back to Paul about what happened, and that’s how we get here. He’s just one guy — this guy named Epaphras is behind all this. And think that’s amazing.
Think back to earlier. We talked about that all of us who have believed the gospel have believed it because he heard it. Remember, if you believe the gospel it’s because you’ve heard it. Well, if you’ve heard the gospel it’s because you’ve met someone like Epaphras. You may not know anyone named Epaphras, but if you believe the gospel, you’ve met someone like him. We believe the gospel because we heard the gospel, and we heard it because someone told it to us, and chances are that person was as normal as Epaphras. It might have been your parents, might have been your college roommate, maybe it was your co-worker, or your neighbor, or your friend, or your slow-pitch softball teammate. Whoever it was, if we believe the gospel, it’s because we have an Epaphras in our life. We all do.
And it seems like the most natural way to close this sermon is for us take a minute and think about who that Epaphras is in your life, and you might have several. I do. It took a lot for me. I have a whole handful of people who were Epaphras to me. And maybe you do too, and I want us to just take a minute and give thanks to God for these people. Just think about that person, those people, right now, and thank God for them.
And now I want to encourage you — because it makes sense — I want to encourage you to be an Epaphras for someone else. I encourage you, us, that just as someone told us about the love of Jesus, that we’d go tell others about the love of Jesus — and that we’d do it not because we have to, not because the whole world depends on you, but because this is really good news. And because when we stop and think about it, when we think about us believing the gospel, and that now we get to tell it to others, we find it all a little bit strange, but strange in a happy kind of way.
And that brings us to the Table.
That we believe the gospel and get to tell it to others is strange because, if we’re thinking right, we know how much we don’t deserve this kind of love. We just don’t. But yet God loves us. Jesus has made us his, and he’s called us to his mission. And that’s what this Table is about. This bread and this cup reminds us about the love of Jesus that has overcome our lives. We didn’t work for this. We could never earn it. But God, by his grace, gives it to us.
And so this meal is for those who have received that grace. It’s for those who have heard the gospel and believed. We eat together as members of Cities Church, or if you’re here and you’ve believe the gospel, we invite you to eat and drink with us. If you’re here and you don’t believe the gospel, I want you to know that I’m really honored that you’d come and sit through all the stuff that I just said. You can just pass the elements to the person beside you, but seriously, thank you so much for being here. Please come back. You’re always welcome.