The Struggle for Thick Community and Gospel Assurance
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
Last week, Kevin walked us through Paul’s joy in suffering for the sake of ministry, the glory of the gospel mystery, and Paul’s struggle to preach Christ for the sake of the church’s maturity. Notice that progression: Joy, Mystery, Struggle. This week, we’ll see the same themes, but in reverse: Struggle, Mystery, Joy. And in the process, we’ll see a filling out of Paul’s aim in his ministry and the meaning of Christian maturity.
Let’s begin with Paul’s struggle. What does he mean in 2:1 that he struggles for the churches in Asia Minor? Paul sometimes uses the word “struggle” to refer to the Christian life as a whole: “Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). The Christian life is a contest in which we labor and struggle.
More specifically, Paul uses “struggle” in the context of his apostolic calling. In 1:28-29, Paul speaks of his labor and toil in proclaiming Christ for the sake of Christian maturity. He struggles with the strength that God supplies to warn and teach so that the churches grow up into maturity. So his struggle includes all of the effort that he expends in teaching and admonishing Christians.
But is that the main focus of his meaning here? Remember: Paul did not plant these churches; he hasn’t seen many of these people face-to-face, and so he hasn’t proclaimed Christ to them. Now, perhaps by “struggle” he means all of the effort in writing the letter and sending messengers and so forth. But I think there’s actually a more particular meaning. To see what it is, turn to Colossians 4:12.
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
Note the similarities. Epaphras is struggling on their behalf so that they would stand mature and fully assured. Paul is struggling with the energy God supplies so that they would stand mature (1:28) and fully assured (2:2). But with Epaphras, we see that the struggle is explicitly a struggling in prayer, and I think we ought to see a similar emphasis for Paul. Paul’s struggle for the Colossians is a struggling in prayer, a wrestling in prayer, a laboring to seek God on behalf of these churches.
Let me drill in to the significance of this for a minute. For Paul, the best kind of ministry is face-to-face ministry. Presence matters. Listen to a handful of passages:
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom 1:11-12)
There’s a kind of spiritual gift, a mutual encouragement that happens when Christians are together face to face.
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again. (1 Thess. 2:17)
But they can’t see Paul face to face, so he sends Timothy and in 3:6, Paul says that upon his return, Timothy “reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you.” A few verses later, he says:
For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thess. 3:9-10)
Notice again, that personal, physical face-to-face presence, can supply what is lacking in our faith. So Paul’s ideal is that ministry involve face-to-face connection, with personal, physical, embodied presence, and that such ministry and fellowship is a spiritual gift, a way of mutually encouraging one another, and that apart from personal presence, there is something missing from our faith.
Now, having said that, come back to Colossians 2. Paul is struggling (in prayer and in ministry) that these believers would be encouraged in heart, that they would have full assurance of God’s gospel mystery. The aim of the prayer and the aim of the presence is the same: encouragement in the gospel. And then look in v. 4, “For though I am absent in body, I am with you in spirit.” Prayer makes us present in spirit. Prayer is a kind of surrogate presence. In the absence of physical presence, prayer can help to accomplish the same ends. That’s why we must wrestle in prayer. We’re trying to do something at a distance that is ideally accomplished in person. Gospel Presence is best. But if you can’t do Gospel Presence, struggling in prayer makes you present in Spirit.
Now what are we struggling for, specifically? What form does this heart encouragement take? Three elements from the passage, and then I’ll try to bring it home to our lives. First, Paul is struggling in prayer that the Colossians would be “knit together in love.” We’ll call this Thick Community and I’ll return to it in a moment. Second, he wants them “to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” This is one of those Pauline phrases that takes some work to understand and some background might be helpful.
In the first century, there were a number of different religions known as “mystery religions.” They sought to offer a secret kind of knowledge or experience that the typical public religions did not. If you joined a mystery religion, you were initiated into the mysteries, into the secret knowledge, and you wouldn’t share that knowledge with outsiders. Sometimes these religions would have layers of secrets, and you were always pressing in to more and more inner rings. Sometimes Christianity could be mistaken for one of these religions, or corrupted into one of these religions, offering a secret knowledge to those who are truly “in.” I think that may be some of what’s going on with the worship of angels and asceticism later in the passage. Some teachers are saying, “If you really want to be in, if you really want to please God, if you really want to have assurance and knowledge, here are some of the things you’ve got to do.”
Here in 2:3, Paul is blowing up any notion of Christianity as that kind of mystery religion. There is a gospel mystery, but it’s not an esoteric, secret knowledge kind of mystery. Christ is God’s mystery, hidden for ages in the secret counsels of God and now, in the fullness of time, revealed and made known to all nations (Romans 16:25-27). Christ is God’s mystery in the sense that he is the key to unlocking the partially hidden wisdom in the Old Testament. When Jesus comes, it’s not totally out of the blue. It’s surprising, but it’s the kind of surprise that shines new light on everything leading up to it, and everything makes sense in him. In him all things hold together.
That’s why Paul says that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. You don’t need to look elsewhere for more of God’s wisdom. There’s nothing deeper than Jesus. If you want more of God’s wisdom and knowledge, you simply press deeper and deeper into Jesus. There’s no inner ring of special saints beyond the church who know what it’s really all about. Everything is now out in the open. It’s public. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ lived in public. He was crucified for our sins in public. And he was raised from the dead in a very public way, fulfilling all of God’s promises. He poured out the Spirit at Pentecost in public, and he is now gathering together all nations in him. If you want to know the mind of God, if you want to have full assurance that you’ve found the truth, Christ is the truth, and we have a book that reveals him to us.
This brings me to the third element that Paul is aiming at. Thick Community. Full assurance of God’s mystery. And now, life of gratitude and faith that fits it. Look at 2:6-7. Therefore, in light of the encouragement of thick community, in light of the full assurance that everything God wants you to know is found in Christ, in light of that, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
Notice that. The same way that you received Christ, that’s how you should walk. Receiving Jesus isn’t the first step into some other way of living. Receiving Jesus is the way that we live. Our lives, our walk, should be a constant receiving of Jesus. How so? Look at the images:
- Rooted in him. We are trees who are trying to bear fruit, and so our roots need to go deep into Jesus. All the wisdom and knowledge that you need to bear fruit is found in Jesus.
- Built up in him. We are buildings, and he is the foundation, the cornerstone. If you want this building to be established, if you want it to last, you build it firmly and squarely on Jesus.
And what’s the mark that this is happening? How do you know if you’re rooted and established in the faith that you originally received? You abound in thanksgiving. Gratitude bubbles over from your life at every turn. Good times, bad times, happy times, hard times: is your life one big, constant, heartfelt “Thank you” to the God who has rescued you through his gospel mystery?
So what is Paul aiming at in these prayers? Thick community. Full assurance of the Gospel Mystery. A Life of Deep Gratitude and Child-like Faith. That’s what Paul’s after. That’s why he teaches. That’s why he warns with all wisdom. That’s why he prays and proclaims Christ. This is the maturity in Christ that Paul longs to see and labors to produce with all the energy that God works in him.
Let me close with three applications that I hope will be relevant for us. First, let’s think about this notion of thick community and the importance of physical Gospel presence in relation to technology: smart phones, computers, social media. Technology at its best serves our natural and spiritual lives. Because of technology, none of us have to struggle to provide our basic necessities. We have refrigerators so that our food doesn’t spoil. We have ovens and microwaves that cook things fast. Plumbing brings the water to our house, and takes the waste from our house so we don’t have to carry it in buckets. So also when it comes to the importance of personal presence. Technology ought to serve presence. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is an example of technology. It’s a way for Paul to be present and speak to them without actually coming to Colossae. But as we saw earlier, Paul saw this technological arrangement as second best; far better for him to be with them in person. The same is true of books, letters, emails, phone calls, texts, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. All of these ought to serve our natural, physical, embodied and spiritual lives. So ask yourself this question: Does my use of technology serve my physical presence with people, or does it hinder it? Does it strengthen the thickness of community as expressed when we’re physically together, or does it supplant and replace it? Is it a temporary substitute that keeps us connected when we’re apart, or is it a permanent distraction that keeps us apart even when we’re together? Paul says that he is absent in body but present in spirit. Far too often I find myself present in body and absent in spirit. So let’s pray that God would encourage our hearts by knitting us together in love truly. Not the stale, pseudo-knitting of technology as replacement for real presence, but a real “wherever you are, be all there” kind of presence that is served and enhanced by our use of technology.
Second, in this passage Paul says that thick community is a protection against plausible error. Notice the flow of thought. Paul struggles in prayer so that we would be encouraged and knit together in thick community, so that we would have full assurance of God’s gospel mystery in Christ. And then verse 4: I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. Thick community leads to full assurance, and this guards us from being deluded by errors, whether it be false teaching, theological heresy, worldly ways of thinking. I flag that here at this point because I’ve had a number of seasons of intense doubt in my life. I’ve had personal crises of faith. And two of the fundamental realities that kept me from making shipwreck are the prayers and the presence of God’s people. Particular people who sat with me and listened to me and talked with me and admonished me and cried with me and struggled on my behalf in prayer. So when I read here that thick community—being knit together in love—strengthens our confidence and assurance in the gospel, so that we are guarded from lies and falsehood and worldly errors, it resonates deeply with my experience. I’ll say more about my own struggles with doubt in a few weeks when we cover the next passage. For now, I’ll just note that struggling in prayer and thick community are key elements to full assurance and protection from plausible errors.
Finally, in my exhortation, I talked about our present cultural Crisis of Degree in terms of the fragmentation of homes, families, communities, and nations. The only ultimate answer to the fragmentation, alienation, and homelessness of our cultural Crisis of Degree is in the gospel of Jesus which knits us together in love, which roots us and establishes us, so that we can live lives of deep gratitude, even amidst the cultural chaos. What’s more, one of the most, if not the most, potent ways that God draws people to himself is through such thick community. That’s why Paul rejoices to hear of their good order and the firmness of their faith. “Good order” is a good way to describe healthy Degree. Everything is in its place. Everything works properly. The tree has deep roots and can survive the drought. The house is built on a firm foundation and will weather the storm. In Christ all things hold together, and the social expression that takes for us is the good order of a thickly-knit community of love and gratitude: husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands, children obeying their parents, parents being the smile of God to their children, pastors shepherding the flock for the joy in it, a congregation imitating the faith of their leaders, the saints of God gladly and sacrificially loving one another for Jesus’s sake. And that’s why Paul rejoices, because his efforts, his toil, his labor, his sufferings, his prayers, have not been in vain.
This brings us to the Table. This Table brings together everything we’ve seen in this sermon. This is one of the main ways that we are knit together in love. In sharing this meal, we have fellowship with God and fellowship with each other. That’s why we eat together. That’s why we drink together. What’s more, Christ is spiritually present with us here. He’s present in the bread and wine when we receive it in faith. And because he’s here, and because we’re here being knit together into a thick community, this meal is a tremendous encouragement to us that helps us to reach that full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.