If you have been around Cities Church for any amount of time, hopefully you have noticed that we talk about the gospel, or the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, a lot. Even our worship service – through the Call to Worship, Confession, Consecration, Communion, and Commission – is set up to point us to Jesus through the gospel.
One of the reasons we revisit the gospel often is because the Bible comes back again and again to the gospel. We are Bible-people and if the Bible continually holds out a theme, as it does with the gospel, than we know we are on solid ground to dwell on that theme. In today’s section of Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, we find Paul pointing again to the gospel, so we are going to spend just a few minutes exploring why he revisits this subject with these Christians and what that might mean for us.
Remember, as we set up these verses, that Paul wrote this letter to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.” (1:2) So, this is not an evangelical letter primarily. As Jonathan covered a few weeks ago, Paul is prompted to write the letter after he hears that the Colossians have heard the gospel and now have faith in Christ. He begins the letter in excitement as he talks about his thankfulness to God that the Colossians have believed. And in the middle of this thanksgiving, Paul begins to restate the gospel message in verses 13 and 14 and those verses spring him into a type of song about Jesus, which Pastor David covered so well for us last week, and then he comes back to the Colossians and he reminds them of three things about themselves. He reminds them of who they were, who they are, and who they will be, all in the light of who Jesus is. And that’s where we pick up today, though we will be relying a lot on what Pastor David preached last week as groundwork, so if you missed last week, as I did, I would encourage you to listen to the sermon online.
Verse 21 starts with “And.” That “and” connects the verse to the previous section and I think it is so important for the context of where we are going that I am going to read the previous section before we start in on verse 21.
You’ll remember, Paul talking about Christ, beginning at verse 15:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Verse 21 now: “And you”…Can you already hear the contrast there? Can you already feel the difference between Christ and the Colossians, and I would argue us as well? But just to be clear, Paul continues: And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds. Contrast that with who Christ is above. You were alienated, separated from God and fellow man. He is the reconciler in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. You were hostile in mind, primarily toward God, but also toward others, while he is the one who makes peace by the blood of his cross. You were doing evil deeds, while by him all things were created, created through him and for him. Thanks be to God that verse 22 follows and for the Christian it can’t get here fast enough.
Verse 22: “he has now reconciled (you) in his body of flesh by his death…” This is where we should be able to begin to understand why the gospel is good news. After Paul has reminded us of who Christ is and reminded us of who we once were, hopefully we are left in a place where, with the Spirit’s help, we feel our need and our lack. We know we do not measure against Christ and we know we need help and here is the good news that the one who is preeminent, the one who is the image of the invisible God, the one who makes peace by his blood has now reconciled us to God.
Paul has reminded the Colossians (and us) of who Jesus is and who we were before. He has reminded them of who they are in Christ and now he reminds them of who they will be. If you are anything like me, this may be the part that you struggle with the most. Jesus did not just reconcile us to God so that we were no longer enemies, but he takes it further to a greater purpose. “…in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him…” That is hard to imagine.
When I try to think about that day standing before Christ, I’m always just happy to park the cars. I don’t need to go inside, I don’t need to sit at any table with Jesus, I’m just happy to be a doorman in the house of God. I don’t feel that way out of some noble humility, either. I feel that way because I feel un-holy, I feel blameworthy, I feel reproach, or shame. But Paul and the Scriptures would tell me that I’m wrong in that feeling, that I’m still missing part of the gospel when I think like that. I’m letting the “who I was” part seep all the way over into the “who I will be” part and that’s not how it works. Christ’s perfect life of obedience, his atoning death on the cross, and his death-conquering resurrection all work together so that the Christian is presented before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ to such a degree that the Christian is counted holy, blameless, and above reproach, to Christ’s praise and his glory.
In the light of who Jesus is, Paul has now reminded us of who we were, who we are, and who we will be. Then he adds in verse 23, “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.” What does he mean by that? Is Paul implying here that the Christians at Colossae might lose their salvation? That is certainly what we may be tempted to believe in times of doubt or despair. Too often we allow those times to lead us into sloppy Bible reading and we see something like this and we are quick to think, “See! I might not be saved anymore!” But does such an interpretation hold up?
Well, such an interpretation does not seem to fit with other passages of Scripture like Philippians 1:6 which says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
And in the flow of the letter, it seems odd to say the Father has qualified you to share in the inheritance (v. 12), he has delivered you from the domain of darkness (v. 13), and through Jesus he reconciles to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (v. 20), but now it’s all up to you to keep this going. So, go get ‘em, Tiger!
With that said, though, it is still very much a real condition. As Pastor Sam Storms says, “No continuation, no presentation.” So why does Paul include this warning? What’s the purpose? I think he means to encourage us and I think we get our first clue right in the condition. He says, “if indeed you continue in the faith” and then he basically restates the same phrase in the negative, “not shifting from the hope of the gospel.” Do you hear that? Continue. Don’t shift. In the faith. The hope of the gospel.
I think Paul is trying to tell us that we continue in the faith in the same way in which we entered the faith, through the gospel. The saints at Colossae became Christians because they heard the word of truth from Epaphras, the hope of the gospel, and they believed! You became a Christian because you heard the gospel and you believed by the power of the Holy Spirit. You will wake up a Christian tomorrow because the word of truth still stands. You can wake up and read verse 15 and following and know that because of who Jesus is, you are no longer who you once were, you have been reconciled, in order to be presented holy and blameless before him. Hearing the gospel is what saved you and hearing the gospel will also keep you till that day!
So why this emphasis on the gospel here in chapter 1? Why the warning to continue and not shift from the gospel? What does he have in mind here? Well, I think he at least has the rest of his letter in mind. Paul knows his heart, he knows the human heart. He knows we have a tendency to forget, a tendency to lower God and exalt ourselves, a tendency to be legalistic and a tendency to excuse our sinful behavior. So he has endeavored to remind the Colossians of who Jesus is and who they are in light of who Jesus is; he sets up a proper gospel matrix for categorizing and understanding the rest of the letter.
When he speaks of plausible arguments and philosophies in chapter 2, it will be important for the Colossians to remember that Christ is enough, as Pastor David Mathis covered last week.
When he begins to address behaviors that the Colossians should avoid and things that they should be doing in chapters 3 and 4, Paul needs them to recall this framework of who they were before Christ and who they are now in Christ. Put to death the things that are part of that old identity. Do that which conforms to your new identity, not in an effort to earn your salvation because again, Christ is enough, but do these things in keeping with the gospel, continuing in the faith.
And though he doesn’t have an extensive treatment of it in this letter, I think Paul has suffering in mind. He mentions it in the very next verse and he even closes the letter by saying, “Remember my chains.” Colossae is a young church, things are very exciting, not unlike Cities. Things are still new and fresh, but Paul knows that suffering is coming and that suffering can have a special derailing effect upon our faith if we are not prepared. I think that plays into his very strong warning to stay in the faith. When things are hard, we need to go to the gospel and see the hope of where this is all going. We need to cling to Jesus in the gospel and know that no matter how bleak the situation, we continue in order that we might be presented before him holy and blameless, not because of how great we are, but because of how great he is, relying fully on the same power that saved us to carry us through to that day.
As we close, I just want to highlight two phrases in these verses that I think can be encouraging for us. The first is in verse 23, “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast…” The older I get, the more I value the words stable and steadfast. Among other things, I want to be a stable and steadfast husband. I want my wife to have all the confidence in the world when she thinks about our marriage. That confidence is cultivated in stable and steadfast. I want to be a stable and steadfast dad. I don’t want my kids to worry about what mood dad is in or whether or not dad will be there when they need him. And this is also a prayer for our church. When pastors meet other pastors at conferences and such, you always have the guys who want to tell you all about the exciting things God is doing in their church. I want to be the guy who’s really excited because Cities, by God’s grace, is stable and steadfast.
Why is stable and steadfast encouraging in the context of Colossians 1? Stable and steadfast in continuing in the faith means that we understand hard times are coming, we know trials will come, so we do the legwork of trusting Jesus in the gospel and fighting for joy ahead of time, all the time, so that when we are in the middle of the storm we lean in, knowing that the stable and steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end.
The second phrase that brings a lot of encouragement is in verse 22. “he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.” Flesh. That’s the word I find encouraging. It is the reminder that the truth of the gospel is not simply theoretical, but the truth has flesh! Or as Pastor Jonathan is so fond of saying, Jesus is real!
Satan will use suffering to lie and tell you that you are all alone or that God’s not there or that God is not just or good. And we may believe those lies. We may forget all the saints in this church who know suffering and we might really start to believe that the Christians in the first century didn’t know anything about suffering, as if they really were made of flannel and existed on a felt board. But we run into trouble with the flesh of verse 22. It shocks us and reminds us that our suffering has never been as great as Jesus’. We have never seen injustice on the scale of what he endured. But most encouragingly, we can no longer believe the lie that we are alone in our suffering. The word flesh won’t let us. Jesus is real, he understands suffering, so call upon him.
Praise God that Jesus, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, made peace by the blood of his cross. And we, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present us holy and blameless and above reproach before him in the flesh. By God’s grace may we continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel.