Epistle Appointed: Colossians 2: 6-19
The last couple of Sundays we’ve been reading Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, and I want to draw your attention to today’s passage, p ? of the service leaflet, but since Bruce has been preaching on the gospel rather than the epistle, I’m going to begin with a brief overview of the whole epistle, so we can put today’s passage in context.
Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in the town of Colossae, because he had heard from their minister, Epaphras, about the challenges they were facing, and Paul wanted to help them meet those challenges. The challenges were two: first, that many of them could not believe that faith in Christ was all that was necessary for them to enjoy communion with God, and second, they couldn’t quite get straight in their minds that communion with God meant living up to certain standards, not all of which were easy or popular.
Colossians is worth reading because so many people today are in the same case; sure that communion with God means doing something we’re not doing, and afraid that it might mean not doing something we are doing. So some serious reading of Paul’s words is worth a try, and I commend it to you. It’s not long, you can read the whole thing in less than ten minutes, and if you read the whole thing, and accept it not as the word of men but as the word of God, to quote Paul in another letter, you’ll be better immunised against both these mistakes. Today I’m going to consider what Paul says about needing something more than faith in Christ; next week, God willing, I’ll look at what he says about living up to God’s standards.
That the idea was circulating in Colossae that what Christ had done was not enough, and that if one wanted to be acceptable to God, faith in Christ was not enough, and that one had to indulge in various spiritual and ritual disciplines as well, seems clear. Paul mentions specifically the worship of angels, new philosophies, special food and drink, special festivals and various other things of that sort. His first object in writing to them was to assure them that all they needed was faith in Christ and Christ alone.
Verse 8 of today’s passage, about four lines down: See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. Verse 16, at the beginning of the next paragraph, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival. Verse 18, three lines further on, Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, ie to Jesus. We don’t need to concern ourselves this morning with what particular philosophies were being promoted, what particular festivals or what forms of self-abasement were being touted, we only need to know that somehow some of them had got the idea that Christ alone, and Him crucified, was not enough. They needed Christ plus some spiritual act or technique.
Paul is slightly incredulous at this. They should know better than to think they need more than Christ from their own experience. Look back to vv 12–15:
when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead, when you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, when you were dead in your sins, God made [you] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Paul had made this point about the sufficiency of Christ back in chapter 1, v 21f, using the image of estrangement and reconciliation: you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the… gospel which you heard.
You who were outsiders, Christ and Him crucified brought in. Nothing else.
Here in chapter 2 the image is dying and being made alive again, when you were dead in your sins, God made you alive together with him: human beings have real communion with God through what Christ did on the cross, provided they turn their back on their sins, ie repent of them, and continue in that faith. Nothing else is needed. In Christ, and Christ alone, God has put us right with Himself, reconciled us, made us alive again. The rest of these 3 verses tell us how He did it, and when we think about what they tell us, we will see the essential part that Christ’s death on the cross played in the process.
Verse 13, He made us alive by forgiving us all our trespasses, all our sins.
This is further explained in v 14, in what might at first seem a difficult phrase: having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands. this He set aside, nailing it to the cross. There are some translation issues here, I’m afraid; the word ‘cancelled’ is not a good translation, ‘erased’ or ‘wiped out’ would be better. The word ‘bond’ is a bit misleading, too. The Greek word here usually means an IOU, a signed statement of indebtedness, but that doesn’t fit the context well; another meaning the word can have is the likelier one here: a record of offenses for which one is to face justice, a list of the charges, the accusations against us. It is those sins which have the ‘legal demands’ of v.14: the law demands punishment for them. The legal demands are justice: punishment for the wrongdoer. And we are wrongdoers; we have offended against God’s holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. But it is that list of sins which has been set aside. The phrase translated ‘set aside’ means that it has been taken from its place in the hands of our accuser, and has been ‘nailed to the cross’.
It is this phrase ‘nailing it to the cross’ that makes the meaning of IOU an unlikely one. When a person was crucified, a placard describing his offence was nailed to his cross. IOUs were never nailed to a cross, for crucifixion was not the appropriate punishment for non-payment of a debt. When Jesus was crucified, you remember that there was an argument over what to put on the placard; the High Priest and his cronies wanted it to read “This man said ‘I am the King of the Jews’”, but Pilate simply had “The King of the Jews”
written on it (John 19:21).
Historically, that was the placard over Jesus at his crucifixion. But spiritually, something else was nailed to that cross, Colossians tells us.
It was the complete list of accusations against all men and women everywhere, at any time. It was the record of our sins, and its legal demands. It was the list of offences for which you and I ought to face God’s judgement. Christ died for what you and I did. Scripture tells us this over and over: I Cor 15.3, Christ died for our sins; Galatians 1.4, Christ gave Himself for our sins; I John 2.2 and 4.10, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins.
But the good news, the gospel, is that the price for sin has been paid for us. All our pride, our selfishness, our deceits, our lusts, our covetousness, all our disobedience to God’s commandments, has been erased, set aside. The legal demands have been set aside. They are no longer on the record. Jesus, God Himself become man, took the punishment for them, and He did it because He loves us and wants to see us keep the life He gave us. He is the author of life, and to sin is to be separated from Him, which must mean death; but in Christ, death is swallowed up in victory, as Paul put it on another occasion. When we admit them, and repudiate them, that forgiveness, and therefore that victory, is ours.
Verse 15 explains it this way: the principalities and powers, a Greek term for the spiritual forces of evil, have been disarmed. Their weapons, their only weapon, actually, has been taken away from them. Because it is our sin that is the weapon that Satan has against us. The very name Satan means ‘accuser’, and that’s what he does, he goes to God and says ‘Wainwright did so and so’ like a tell-tale child. And it’s an effective weapon as long as it’s the truth. Justice is one of God’s characteristics; he cannot allow sin to be ignored, and as long as men and women are in their sins they are dead, they are estranged, God cannot know them. Satan isn’t interested in justice, of course, he just hates us and is out to get us, and every time we sin we give him a weapon. Christ took Satan’s only weapon away on the cross. For those who have faith in Christ, for those who have confessed their need of His salvation, there is now no condemnation. There is no longer any case to answer, any price to pay, as long as we have repented of our sins and turned to Him in faith. Nothing else is needed.
The last part of this verse, making a public example of them, triumphing over them in Him, celebrate this. The public example and the triumph referred to here are a reference to something we no longer experience, but which every citizen of the Roman Empire had seen from time to time: the Triumph was the huge parade of enemy prisoners and captured weapons that followed any victory of Roman arms. The defeat of an enemy was not just talked about, it was publicly demonstrated by parading the helpless enemy troops around in chains. The victory was made visible to everyone. According to Paul, Christ has done that too. The triumph is in Him, and the victory is to be celebrated. Anyone who adds their sins to the list on the cross shares in Christ’s victory. Those who deny their need for Christ, or who deny their own sinfulness, or who think they can earn their salvation through philosophy, or human tradition, or observing festivals, or self-abasement and worship of angels, or having visions, against those people the enemy still has a weapon. Their record still stands. But for those who are in Christ Jesus there is no now no condemnation. God has done what the law could not do, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sacrifice for sin.
Christ’s death is the occasion for the greatest Triumph, the greatest Victory Parade, of all time. And it is part of the work of today’s church to keep the Parade going, to continue to make it plain to anyone who looks that evil has been conquered, that men and women can be freed from the bondage of sin, that they can be restored to communion with God, and that faith in Christ and Him crucified is all that is needed. We who know the joy of the Lord’s salvation show in our own lives what it means to be born again, to be brought from death to life in order to be presented to God holy and blameless.
See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition. Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on this or that spiritual technique. Put your faith in nothing but Christ, and Him crucified, and start celebrating victory.
Epistle Appointed: Colossians 3: 1-11
Last week we took a look at Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and if you were here you’ll remember that there were two points he wanted to make in this letter: first, to reassure them that if they had a true understanding of Who Christ is and what He has done, faith in Him is all that is necessary for them to enjoy communion with God, and second, to help get straight in their minds that communion with God entails living the life for which God’s word says He created us, not all of which is easy or popular. We hear both these themes set out in the first chapter, as in v 9: We… pray for you, asking that you may be filled with… spiritual wisdom and understanding, and that you may lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him. Last week we looked mostly at what Paul says about spiritual wisdom and understanding, this week I want to look at what Paul says about leading a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him.
Not that these are two separate subjects; the first implies the second. Because we believe certain things about Christ, we live a certain way. Paul says this more than once. In the first chapter, vv 21f: you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, Christ has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death—as we talked about last week—in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God]. The purpose of reconciliation with God is a godly life. Chapter 2, v 6: As… you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him. Chapter 2.20: If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? The purpose for which He bore our sins in His body on the cross was not just that we would be forgiven for our sins, but that we would put them all away, as He says in this morning’s reading, p ? of the leaflet.
But before we look at it, let’s not misunderstand God’s purpose. So many people believe that God’s commandments aren’t God’s at all, but human inventions designed to limit human behaviour according to the standards of some humans. But Paul’s words simply summarise what God’s word says throughout, and God’s word also assures us that His standards do not limit the lives of Christians, but the exact opposite— they make possible what Jesus calls life in abundance, and what Paul calls in this letter fulness of life. 2.9 in [Christ] the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fulness of life in him. Life as it was meant to be lived.
Chapters three and four are simply describing what fulness of life, what abundant life looks like, and urging Christians, Christians 2,000 years ago and Christians today, to grow up into that full, abundant life, to accept nothing less for themselves than the absolute best there is.
And today’s passage urges us to live the life that is implied in what we believe about Christ: 3.1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. In
2.20 he asked If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? and he doesn’t think there can be any answer to that. If you live as though you still belong to the world, the full significance of what Christ has done for you can’t have fully penetrated yet—that’s why he spends the first half of the letter reminding us Who Christ is and how His sacrifice on the cross changes our options, and only after that does he go on to encourage us to live as though we really believed not only that our sins are sins, but that they now belong to the past, to a life we no longer live. So Paul turns his earlier question into a positive principle: seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Note the word mind—a reminder that it is essential to understand who Christ is and what He has done, which is why he spent the first half of the letter on it. Verses 3f restate some of what he said in the first half, so let’s go on to v 5: Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. The phrase what is earthly translates the same phrase as was translated in v 2 as things that are on earth, but Paul adds in you, because it reminds us why it takes a conscious decision, a mental act, on our part to put them to death—we are not yet free from temptation as we will be when we are with Him in eternity, but we now hold ourselves to the standards of heaven, not those of earth. We don’t just sit and wait for eternal life, we begin to live it now. Verse 8, put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.
Verses 5 and 8, although they’re not a complete list, cover a lot of ground, and there are entire sermons to be preached on every item in those lists. In the rest of chapters three and four, Paul expands a bit on those things that the Colossians need to think about most, and every one of those expansions has something to say to Christians in America in the 21st century. But we are vulnerable to some of those temptations in ways that apparently the Colossians weren’t, so let me just highlight a couple that Paul doesn’t come back to: covetousness, which is idolatry, for instance. People today are actively encouraged to be covetous by the society we live in in ways that we’re not encouraged in foul talk, for example. There’s plenty of foul talk out there, we hear it all the time now in circumstances where we would never have heard it fifty years ago, but so far no one has said to me ‘go on, use the f word’ or some other word or phrase that has no other linguistic purpose than to shock and offend. But we are actively encouraged to covet in every magazine we read, on every television show we watch, and on every web-page we visit. Look, here’s something you didn’t even know you wanted, but you should want it, everyone else wants it and half the world already has one, you must want one too, order it now, just one click will do it! Our entire economy is built on covetousness, it is so widespread that we can be deeply covetous without even noticing. That’s why it is so important to set our minds as well as our desires on the things that are above, where Christ is; if we don’t think carefully, we might never see where we are still enmeshed in a world that God never created, a world that didn’t come into being until mankind turned away from God.
I would mention anger and wrath in that category, too. We live in a society that has made a virtue of anger. It is not enough for us to see an injustice and disapprove it, or even to act against it as best we may; only anger at it is proof that we’re on the right side. ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’, says the bumper sticker. But according to God’s word, anger is not something human beings can afford to indulge in. Jesus says, every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. In the words of the apostle James, Let every man be… slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.
So Paul says, put them all away: anger, wrath, and so on. The Old Testament teaches this too: do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. Many things in our world deserve anger, but anger is a force that will destroy any human being who embraces it. Only God’s anger is righteous.
And nothing proves the sinful nature of human anger more clearly than the fact that as our society has exalted man’s anger, so also it has denigrated God’s anger. We rebuke God for displaying wrath, but treasure it in ourselves. Put it away, says Paul, and if we hear nothing else in this epistle, let us hear that. It’s on account of these sins, v 6 says, that the wrath of God is coming, and because we know that God is a righteous God, with a righteous anger against sin, we can leave anger to Him who can be trusted with it. Let it be true of us that we once walked in it, once lived in it, even, as v 7 says, but now have put it away.
Paul goes on to put lying to each other, and exalting Greek above Jew or freeman above slave among the things we must put away, and in the parts of chapters 3 and 4 that we don’t have time to read today, shows us how Christians relate to one another as husband and wife, employer and employee, parent and child and so on, and I needn’t go through them all. But let me commend to you the image he uses in vv 9 and 10 of putting off the old nature with its practices and putting on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
If you’ve taken seriously any of Paul’s words about putting these things aside, your most likely response is ‘if only I could!’ That is in fact the only honest human response, because we have no power in ourselves to put even the lightest of these things away. Paul explores this in his own spiritual life in some detail in the letter to the Romans, admitting that he, like us, is helpless, unable to live by God’s commandments simply because he knows he should. It’s no good trying to give up the old life, he says, instead we are to drive it out with a new one: put on then, v 12, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience,13 forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other… 14 And above all these put on love.
Put these things on. Cover the wrong things with the right things, set your mind on the things that are above, rather than on the things of earth. It is only in Christ’s power that we can set any of our sins aside, and it is in turning to Him that we find the power to live the lives God intended for us; v 15, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful.
And the most effective way to set our hearts and minds on Christ is to fill them with His word, and talk about it and rejoice in it together. Verse 16, let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Only by meeting Christ in His word can we avoid creating Him in our own image, only by talking about His word with other Christians can we avoid confirming our imagined version of Him, and doing those things together leads inevitably to praising and thanking Him from the bottom of our hearts. It is through His word that we are filled with His Spirit, and it is only by the power of His Spirit that we can live by God’s standards rather than the world’s. We simply do not have the will to do it without the Holy Spirit, let alone the power. But the Spirit comes through hearing the word, and with that Spirit, we can begin to put all these things away. It’s a lifelong process, but we can see progress as we turn back to His word, and to our fellow-Christians, again and again.
So again I commend this letter to you; less than ten minutes to read all the way through; make it part of your spiritual diet. Let me also invite you to join in with Christians throughout the centuries who have treasured this letter, and all of God’s word, and distilled it into the Nicene Creed, p ?
of the leaflet. Let’s stand and say it together.