When was the last time you were unsettled about a decision you’d just made?
I remember putting a deposit on our last car, and then making the mistake of reading some online reviews. Because there’s always one that gives no stars, isn’t there? And in this case, it was entitled, ‘Lethal car. Do not buy.’ Which did unsettle me – until I read that this guy hadn’t understood the electric handbrake, and had parked his car only to see it roll back and demolish his garage. So I think the review should actually have been entitled, ‘Incompetent owner. Do not listen.’
But it’s equally possible to be spiritually unsettled.
For example, someone in our church talked to me after being visited by members of a group which sounded Christian, but was in fact a cult. And when she told them she’d recently come to faith in Jesus, they said, ‘Ah, but you need more than that.’ And they said she needed a second baptism and a regime of spiritual disciplines to get fully near to God. And that kind of thing is unsettling, because it makes you wonder, ‘Is what I’ve heard about Jesus actually the truth and the whole truth – of do I still need something else?’
Then, a different example: another new Christian talked with me after his first encounter with a highly ‘charismatic’ Christian group. And they put huge emphasis on speaking in tongues, and feeling God’s Spirit in various ways, and getting visions or pictures from God. And that unsettled him, because that makes you wonder, ‘Have I experienced what you’re meant to experience – or have I missed something?’
Well, we’re starting a series in Colossians – which was originally a letter from the apostle Paul, to a church in danger of being similarly unsettled. Because chapter 2 warns against this strange group who said that, to get fully near to God, you needed a regime of spiritual disciplines like theirs, and somewhat weird and wonderful experiences of God like theirs (see 2.8, 2.16-18). Which would have made the Colossians ask those unsettling questions:
- ‘Is what we’ve heard about Jesus actually the truth and the whole truth – or do we still need something else?’
- ‘Have we experienced what you’re meant to experience – or have we missed something?’
And Paul wrote Colossians to say we don’t need anything else; we just need to continue in our relationship with Jesus, and appreciate more everything we have in him.
And he begins thinking of the person who’s asking this…
1. Have I Experienced What Christians are Meant to Experience? (verses 3-5)
So if you have a Bible, now’s the time to open it to Colossians 1.1. And here’s how it begins:
"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers [and sisters] in Christ at Colossae [the town where they lived]: Grace to you and peace from God our Father."
So ‘saints’ in the New Testament just means ‘Christians’ – all Christians, not just some supposedly special ones like Saint Augustine or Saint John Paul. And they’re also ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ – in other words, spiritual family.
And here’s what Paul says to them first. Verse 3:
"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…"
So Paul had never actually visited this church. He’d only heard of it from this guy Epaphras, whom we’ll meet later in verse 7. And Epaphras was from Colossae. He’d heard the gospel from Paul and come to faith in Jesus elsewhere (maybe Ephesus). He’d then gone back to Colossae, where people came to faith through him. And some time later, he re-visited Paul (this time probably in Rome) – with the good news that there was now a church in Colossae, and the bad news that it was in danger of being unsettled by this strange group.
So listen again to Paul’s reaction to that news. Verse 3:
"We always thank God…"
In other words, ‘We thank God that you’ve become Christians.’ Which assumes that when someone becomes a Christian, it’s ultimately the result of God’s work in them. Of course it involves us making a decision to turn to Jesus. But that’s not a decision we’d ever make unless God worked in us first.
Just after I began going out with Tess (now my wife), I was feeling unsure about it all. And I went for a meal with some married friends, Richard and Rachel. And while Rachel was taking empty plates to the kitchen, Richard said, ‘Ian, if you and Tess are going to get anywhere, you’ve got to pursue her – like I did with Rachel.’ And from the kitchen came a smashing sound as Rachel, overhearing this, dropped a plate in disbelief. And she charged back in and said to Richard, ‘You pursued me? Do you know how much I had to pursue you, to get you to the point of pursuing me?!’ Which was true. Rachel and flatmates had spent months having Richard round to see if he’d become interested in her, like she was in him. Which he finally did.
So when Richard asked Rachel out, and subsequently asked her to marry him, was it genuinely his own decision? Yes. But would he ever have made that decision unless Rachel had worked on him first? No.
And Paul is assuming the same kind of thing in verse 3. So if you’d said to him, ‘Paul, did the Colossians make a genuine decision of their own to turn to Jesus?’, he would have said ‘Yes.’ And then he would have added, ‘But they would never have made that decision unless God had worked in them first.’ That’s why he says, ‘We thank God that you’ve become Christians.’
And if you’re a Christian, you also ultimately have God to thank – because being one is the result of his Spirit’s work in your heart.
And the first thing he creates in our hearts is ‘faith in Christ Jesus’. Verse 3:
"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 faith just means trusting that someone will do something for you. So it’s always a future-looking thing. And it’s not just a religious thing: we exercise faith in all areas of life. So, in hospital, faith in your surgeon means you trust he’ll operate well on you. In marriage, faith in your spouse means you trust they’ll keep loving you. And ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ is trusting that Jesus will do something for us on the day of judgement – namely, bring us safely through it into his heavenly kingdom. And the reason for trusting that is in verse 5:
"because of the hope laid up for you in heaven."
And the word translated ‘laid up’ means ‘reserved and paid for’.
Just before lockdown, Tess and I had a night away in a B&B over in the Lakes. And I’d reserved it and paid in full online. Which meant that as we journeyed to the Lakes, we could trust that the room would definitely be waiting for us and that we would definitely be welcomed in – there would be no ‘Ian who??’ on the doorstep.
And Paul is going to remind us in Colossians that Jesus has reserved and paid for a place in his heavenly kingdom for everyone who trusts in him. And he did that when he died on the cross, to pay for the forgiveness of our whole lifetime’s sins. Which means that as we journey through life towards the end, we can trust that there is a place definitely waiting for us and that we will definitely be welcomed in – sinners though we are. But it also means we can trust that he accepts us today and every day – that we have forgiven relationship with him right now.
So Paul says that’s the most fundamental experience of a real Christian – faith in Christ Jesus: trusting that, through his death, you’re accepted and always will be. So I wonder: is that your experience, yet?
Then the other thing God creates in peoples’ hearts is, verse 4:
"the love that you have for all the saints"
In other words, for all your fellow-Christians.
Now Richard Dawkins lays into what the Bible says about Christians loving one another. He says (words to this effect), ‘Isn’t it dreadful that a religion limits love only to other members of the religion?’ And he says, ‘Real love doesn’t limit itself like that to some ‘in group’. It isn’t narrow and exclusive. It loves all.’
But he’s actually way off target. Because one thing to say in response is that the Bible never says, ‘Love one another – but not others.’ And the other thing to say is that the church is not an ‘in-group’, as if we choose who’s in. Because the church is chosen by God: he decides who he’ll work in, to bring them to faith in Jesus. Which actually makes it the broadest and most crazily diverse body of people on Earth. And yet, says Paul, real Christians find themselves learning ‘love for all the saints’.
So for example, one student at church told me that what first attracted him to Christianity was the quality of relationships in the Newcastle Christian Union. He said, ‘It was the only uni society which really united different people. All the others just seemed to be cliques. But the CU had this bewildering cross-section of people, which on paper should never have worked. And yet it did, and they really accepted one another. And I wanted to know what made that happen.’
And that’s what Paul meant by ‘love for all the saints’. It’s the new sense that they’re your spiritual family, and that therefore you are, quite simply, bound to work at getting on with them and loving them. And again, the reason is in verse 5. Our ‘love for all the saints’ is also,
"because of the hope laid up for you in heaven."
Because if you’re trusting in Jesus and I’m trusting in Jesus, we’re going to spend eternity together. And that makes me realise I can’t run away from working at relating to you now – however different we are, however little we might ‘click’ naturally. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that as I’ve worked at loving brothers and sisters in Christ who I didn’t think I’d necessarily get to like, I’ve not only come to like them enormously, but I’ve been blessed by them with the deepest friendships I have.
So that’s the other experience Paul highlights – love for all the saints. And I wonder: is that your experience, as well?
So, if you’re unsettled by being told, ‘You need this, that, or the other spiritual experience,’ Paul says: ‘You just need faith in Jesus and love for all the saints. Those are the marks of a real Christian. Look no further.’
So that’s one unsettling question: Have I experienced what Christians are meant to experience? But the other is this:
2. Is the Gospel I’ve Heard True and Trustworthy? (verses 5-8)
Let’s read again from verse 3:
"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. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel"
So Paul reminds the Colossians there that God didn’t just ‘zap’ them spiritually to change them. He worked in them as they heard the gospel – the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Now to us, ‘gospel’ is a religious word. But it wasn’t in Paul’s day. It just meant news. So if they’d had the 6 o’clock news from the BBC back then, they’d have called it ‘The 6 o’clock Gospel’. ‘Gospel’ just meant: news of events that had really happened.
And Christian faith is based on events that really happened – Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. So when I talk to people about my faith, I’m not saying, ‘I like to think of God this way’ or ‘This is my personal opinion about God.’ I’m saying, ‘I’m convinced that God has really been here, in the person of Jesus, so that we can know he is really there, and what he’s like, and what he wants from us. And that’s true for everyone – because things that happen in history are true for everyone.’
And it clearly mattered to Paul that the gospel was true – factually, historically true. End of verse 5 again:
"Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel"
Now he comes back to why we can trust it’s factually true in verse 7. But first there’s verse 6, where Paul says to them, ‘you’ve heard the gospel’,
"which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth"
So Paul’s point is: that all over the world people are being changed as they become Christians, through hearing the gospel. So how is that meant to give us confidence that the gospel is true and trustworthy? I mean, if Paul was here today, would he just quote the stats and say, ‘Well, there are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, and 2.3 billion people can’t be wrong’? No he wouldn’t, because of course 2.3 billion people can be wrong. Having the numbers on your side doesn’t mean you have the truth.
No, I think what he’s saying is this: if there is one, true, Creator God of all people, wouldn’t you expect him to be concerned for all people and reach out to all people? So wouldn’t you be suspicious of a religion that was just a tribal religion, or just an ethnic religion or just an eastern religion – or just a western religion? And doesn’t the way the gospel has crossed cultures all over the world, and created this amazingly diverse body of people suggest that the one, true, Creator God does stand behind it?
And that’s just the ‘in the whole world’ bit of verse 6. But Paul also emphasises the ‘bearing fruit and growing’ bit – ie, the way the gospel changes people. Because of course there are religions that spread by being imposed on people from the outside – by fear and cultural force and even violence. But does that kind of thing sound like the one, true Creator God at work? Or doesn’t the way the gospel changes people from the inside out suggest that that’s where you really see the one, true Creator God at work?
So Paul is saying in verse 6: what the gospel is doing in the world points to it being trustworthy and true.
But to finish, he comes back to how we can know it’s factually, historically true. Look at verse 7. He says they’ve heard the gospel,
"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"
So it’s as if Paul says to the Colossians:
Question: who did you get the gospel from?
Question: did he pass it on faithfully?
Question: who did Epaphras get the gospel from?
Answer: me, Paul.
Question: who did I get the gospel from?
Answer: from meeting the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and from hearing the eye-witness testimony of the apostles who were with Jesus during his ministry in a way I wasn’t.
So there’s a chain of communication which means that the gospel they’ve heard is true and trustworthy. From Jesus to the apostles to Epaphras to the Colossians. And all within 30 years of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
For us the chain is from Jesus to the apostles to the apostles and their associates writing it all down in the New Testament. And that was all within 70 years at most of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – maybe within 40 to 50 – and while eye-witnesses were still alive.
Now you may need to think more about whether the gospel is true and trustworthy. And if so, you might like to check out our new website, whyjesus.org.uk, where you’ll find information to help you with that, and a way of getting in touch with us with your questions.
So that’s the first bit of Colossians, where Paul reassures unsettled Christians that their experience is real Christian experience, and that the gospel is true and trustworthy. And having reassured them about how they’ve begun as Christians, we’ll see next time how he prays for them to continue in their relationship with Jesus. So let’s pray now.
As we take in what we’ve just heard, and as we learn more from Colossians in the coming weeks, please settle and strengthen our faith in Jesus, please help us to appreciate more everything we have in him, and please grow us in our relationship with him.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.