Over the past two days, we’ve seen how Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written to guard against the temptation to incorporate the philosophies of the culture around them into their own philosophy – their own way of life in following Jesus. Instead, they are to “live a life worthy of the Lord” (1:10) and “continue to live their lives in him” (2:6).
And he does this by using, ironically enough, some of the strategies used by the moral philosophers of his day. Philosophers would often write to persuade their readers about the benefits of their own school of philosophy over those of rival schools; so here, Paul is simply arguing for the superiority of the Christian way of life in the usual manner. He asks his audience to remember four things:*
- what their conversion to this new way of life has already achieved;
- the teachings they have learned since;
- the way of life modelled by their teacher;
- their own experience and progress in that way of life;
so that they might remain persuaded that Christ is far superior to all of the other human philosophies on offer, whether in the first or twenty-first century. As we read the opening greeting and thanksgiving, see if you can spot these four strategies.
Colossians 1:1-14 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because 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 and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world —just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. 9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
1. What conversion to this new way of life has already achieved.
One of the most fundamental motivations to godly living and allegiance to Jesus is the remembrance of what Jesus has already done for us. (That’s why we regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper together!) In verses 12-14 especially, Paul reminds us of what we’ve been rescued from: where darkness and evil ruled, and where sin kept us in its grip. And he reminds us of what we’ve been rescued into: the kingdom of God – the place of his loving rule, where we get to share in his inheritance as the heir of the kingdom, made possible by the forgiveness of sins.
One helpful practice is to begin your prayers with a thankful acknowledgement of this basic truth. It frames the rest of our prayers. It reminds us that, whatever else happens, our most fundamental problem has been dealt with once and for all by Jesus. And it implicitly encourages us to live a life motivated by gratitude (rather than guilt or obligation).
2. The key teachings already learned.
As well as the key teachings we’ve just looked at, about what Jesus has already done for us, Paul reminds them of some others, too, which they have “already learned” (v.5):
- our godly behaviour comes from the certain hope we have for the future (v.5), rather than any religious or self-help behaviours (foreshadowing chapter 2);
- the Spirit is the source of love (v.8), rather than any external behaviour modifiers;
- the Spirit is the source of wisdom and understanding (v.9), not “human commands and teachings” which “have an appearance of wisdom” (2:22-23);
- that the Spirit is the source of a life pleasing to God (v.10), not the religious rules by which people might judge you (2:16), or human effort and self-denial (2:23)
- that following Jesus requires “great endurance and patience,” which will be granted by God himself (v.11).
I hope that you have “already learned” these teachings, too. But the fact that Paul reminds his audience of them suggests they might be easy to forget, or at least to neglect. As fallen humans, we’ve become wired to D.I.Y. when it comes to our failings. Our culture tells us it’s up to us, and requires certain strategies and a certain amount of effort. Only the Gospel tells us that right living comes not from our own effort, or what we do, but on what God has done and continues to do in us and for us. We need to ask the question of ourselves regularly: am I trying to do, by my own effort, something God has already done for me, and has promised to continue to do within me?
We’ll look at the third and fourth strategies tomorrow.
* Charles Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians, pp.175-76.