Little Church, Big Lie – Part 1: Howdy from Rome

the big lie stencil print on the grunge white brick wall

Colossians 1:1-8

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

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, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, 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. i

The little congregation of Colossae, like you and I most of the time, was looking for the right formula to be spiritually successful. Some of them were drawn to teachers with messages about how to have a fulfilling religious life through special diets, or through special knowledge about angels, or through particular kinds of hard physical discipline that would prepare them for promised ecstatic visions of direct revelation from God and angels. By working the program steps, they could gain the higher deeper knowledge of true spiritual fullness.

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It wasn’t that the Colossians didn’t believe in Jesus. That’s the first thing for which Paul commends them. But gurus were selling them all kinds of teachings on how to earn their way into a higher life of spiritual fullness. How can I get God to give me a victorious experience? Well, one guru would say you can learn more about the angelic realm. “I happen to be holding an angels conference this weekend and for the low, low price of a ½ pound of silver, you can find about how to achieve more victory by knowledge of the angelic realm.”

Sure,” another guru would say, “angles are fine; BUT if you really want to ensure a life fullness, you need to attend MY seminar on the Daniel Diet and the Sampson CrossFit Program.” “Well,” said the next guru, “David lived in caves before his got his palace. So I’m selling my new program on successful cave-dwelling called ‘The David Plan: From Cave to Castle; How to Achieve Large Dreams.’”

Paul has been told this little congregation is in danger of being led away from the great central theme of God’s Word which he states in 1:18:

18 And [Christ] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

The Christians of Colossae were very spiritual; they spent their time and money on spiritual things. Good for them. But this little church was being sold a big lie!

Their problem is OUR problem too. “Spiritual” pursuits that do not lead us to Christ as preeminent in EVERYTHING are harmful. Paul wants us to write across the whole of our lives – across our spiritual pursuits, across our “victories”, across our “failures” – that the Lord Jesus Christ is the first thing and is everything. Because Christ is preeminent, there is NOTHING in your life that is not intended by the Lord Jesus to show you more of what you already possess in him.

Paul writes this letter while imprisoned in Rome. His friend Epaphras, who planted the Colossian congregation (possibly under Paul’s direction while Paul was in Ephesus), has traveled at least 1,000 miles to Rome to visit Paul; he has brought news of the churches in the Phrygians valley. On the whole, his report was positive. But Paul took note of the big lie gurus were selling this little church.

Colossi had once been a wealthy and important city in the Phrygian valley; but time, economic changes, and earthquakes had taken their toll over the centuries to the point that Colossae was a fairly insignificant town with a most-likely small congregation, especially compared to the nearby thriving cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. “It is a wonderful thought that to a church located in a town which in Paul’s day was already so insignificant, a church which in all probability was small in membership, the very important Epistle to the Colossians was sent. What may seem small in the eyes of man is frequently great and important in the eyes of God.”ii

Paul writes to this small congregation of the two greatest needs of the whole Church, both then and now. The first need is for all of us to see the incomparable greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ. The greatness that unraveled the prophet Isaiah; that made Peter fall down at his feet and acknowledge the depth of his sin; that made John fall down upon seeing the risen glorified Christ on the isle of Patmos. The second need is that we should truly know how to live as those trusting into Christ, understanding the privileges that are ours in Christ.

LIKE AN EMAIL… (1:1-2)

Paul opens his letter as you and I would address an email. The letter has a “From” line: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother….”iii His letter as a “To” line: “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae….”iv And finally, it has a “Subject” line: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” v

First, Paul notes that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. He wants this little church whom he has never met to know that he is writing to them as Jesus’ servant. This is the man who, as Saul Paulus of Tarsus, had been the Chief Prosecutor of the Jewish Court’s “Jesus Task Force.” A man so consumed with climbing the career ladder of Judaism he gladly hunted down Jesus-followers to have them killed or imprisoned. Christians were nothing to him but bodies to step on as he climbed his way up the ladder of the Temple system. And the only thing that changed Saul Paulus of Tarsus into the Apostle Paul was the will of God as Jesus arrested him and enslaved Paul into a life of trust and true freedom from self-interest.

He even closes this letter by writing in his own hand (4:18), “Remember my chains.” He wants this little church to know that success in God’s upside-down kingdom often looks like a worldly failure rather than the “victorious fullness” the gurus having been shilling. Paul was so given over to the will of God and the glory of Christ, he was willing to live in chains as a prisoner of Rome. Are you shackled to trials this morning? Are you battling illness or struggles in your job or with your family? The fullness of Christ is not a health and wealth promise. It often comes with and through chains to bind you to what is truly and eternally important: grace and peace from God our Father.

Paul is writing with Timothy our brother, a man who was raised straddling the pagan and Jewish cultures with a pagan father and a Jewish mother and grandmother who both worshiped Messiah Jesus. What an example he could be to the Colossians who were being wooed by some strange combination of pagan and Jewish mysticism. Timothy had been exposed to those philosophies where people placated capricious demon gods with constant offerings in order to gain some temporal repayment in the form of crops or health or fertility. But Timothy remained true to Christ alone and given over his life to ministry.

…BUT WITHOUT THE ‘SPAM’ (1:2-3)

If you take the 15 or 20 minutes it would cost you to read through this letter, you would see what Paul says about this little church he had never met in 2:1-3,

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.vi

He’s concerned over the false teaching to which they’re attracted. So he writes (2:4, 8, 16):

in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. … that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. … let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.vii

Paul is deeply concerned about this little group of people he’s never met because his passion as a minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is to see Jesus-followers come to true spiritual maturity.

Look at 1:28, “28 [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.viii That is the calling of every true minister of the gospel, to not rest until he can present everyone in his care to God as mature in Christ. Paul will stress the word fullness in this letter because he wants everyone to see all they already possess by being united to Christ by trust into him alone. He wants them to not be suckered by hucksters appealing to the idolatry of the flesh, the longing for “something more,” the idol of self-fulfillment.

That’s really an impossible task for any minister, apostle or not, but for the work of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament. At the end of his life, Paul wrote, “15 …all who are in Asia turned away from me….” ix They hadn’t necessarily turned away from Jesus, but they had all grown tired of Paul harping on the sufficiency of Christ. We know that was the problem of the Church of Laodicea when Jesus addressed them in Rev. 3:14. They were not refreshingly cold like the snow-melt river running through Colossae, nor healing like the medicinal volcanic hot springs of Hierapolis. They were seeking happiness (at least partly) in their self-fulfillment. Jesus was no longer fully sufficient for them.

Notice how the apostle addresses them: “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae….x The Church has a tradition of calling only believers who are said to have done extraordinary things “saints.” But Paul says these ordinary believers in an ordinary town are all saints even though they’re attracted to terrible man-centered mystical pagan teaching.

If you are trusting into Christ, you are a saint. A saint is somebody who has been reserved by Christ through faith in Christ. So all those who hope into Jesus are saints, set apart by God. Not one of those people who live in Colossae ever wound up with a statue, a feast day, or their image in a stained glass window. But Paul says they are saints because they are brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus calls all of his people saints. Through some, he does extraordinary things. Through most of us he carries out the ordinary good works we do in the vocations he gives us. If you’re raising children, you’re a saint; if you provide for your family you’re a saint; if you’re a student, you’re a saint so long as your hope is in Christ alone.

These saints are in Christ at Colossae. They don’t have to be in the big city to be saints. They don’t have to travel to some radical area to do radical things. Going about their vocations in the town where they are, being the sweet aroma of Christ to the lost and dying around them is their calling. Paul is writing to them about how to live as a saint right there in their ordinary town in their ordinary lives by living out of the extraordinary resources that are theirs (and yours) in the Lord Jesus Christ.

FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH (1:4-8)

Paul notes in vv. 3-8 how the saints at Colossae had come to receive the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ from the labors of one man, Epaphras. Epaphras had trusted into the saving work of Christ, either at Pentecost (there were Phrygians there, Acts 2:10) or even through Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. Epaphras was so moved by the gospel that he took that message back to the Phrygian Valley, to what was likely his home town. He shared it with his friends and his family and everyone who would listen, laying the foundations of the Colossian church. He’s only mentioned twice in this letter and once in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus. Archippus was a member of the Colossian church who hosted the church in his home and was the owner of the runaway slave, Onesimus).

Even though Paul had never met these people, he celebrates the fact of their sainthood. He says they had received the word of truth and it had borne fruit among them and that they understood the grace of God in truth (6).xi Notice that as he celebrates their salvation he’s also making some primary doctrinal statements: the gospel is the truth; the grace of God is truth.

Paul writes that the propositional truth of the gospel believed results in the hope laid up for you in heaven (5).xii The combination of Pagan-Jewish mysticism gurus peddled in the Phrygian Valley emphasized the ability to make spiritual journeys into heaven by performing certain works and appealing to angelic/spiritual beings who guarded ascending levels of Heaven’s pathway. It was a “heaven now” philosophy. But Paul writes their hope is stored for them in heaven; it’s a “lay-away” plan, not a “best life now” plan. What he’s setting up with this statement is the truth that they have all they need in this life by virtue of their union with Christ in all his fullness.

Paul stresses that understanding and believing the truth of the gospel and the hope laid up in heaven has a tangible result. Paul lists this tangible in vs 4, “the love that you have for all the saints….xiii He mentions it again in vs 8, “your love in the Spirit.”xiv This is the fruit, the evidence that someone trusts into the perfect law-keeping life and sacrificial death of the risen Christ: love for all God’s people by means of the Spirit of Christ in them.

Jesus said (Jn. 13:34):

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.xv

The ultimate act of love is sharing the Good News of rightness with the Holy God by means trusting into the good works of Christ on our behalf. Epaphras heard the gospel from someone else and became a link in the great chain of love that binds God to his people and God’s people to one another. Paul heard the gospel from someone else and became a link in that chain.

Paul wants the Colossians to reflect on this great chain of gospel love and be amazed that they came to trust into the perfect good works of the Lord Jesus Christ because Epaphras loved Christ enough and loved them enough to share Christ with them. If you are a Christian this morning you can surely think of the links in the great chain of God’s love that who connected you to Christ. Perhaps it was your parents, or a friend, or some faithful Sunday School teacher in your childhood, or a co-worker in your adulthood.

Someone loved Jesus enough and you enough to not rest until you came to know the love they had come to know in Christ Jesus. That’s why I pray almost every Sunday that God will grant us divine appointments to share the love of Christ – so you can be a link in the great chain of God’s covenant love. So we can still say with Paul of the gospel in our day, “indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing —as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth….”xvi

Whatever the particulars of the gurus’ systems and programs being peddled in the Phrygian Valley one thing is clear: it was a system of steps to earn blessing for the enlightened customer. By following a program, the truly enlightened buyer could achieve a higher life for themselves – FOR THEMSELVES, not for others. The gurus sold religious self-improvement schemes that shattered the links in gospel chain by making religion all about ME and MY PERSONAL HAPPINESS and fulfillment.

Just across the river and up the valley from Colossae was the large, wealthy, happy church of Laodicea. They were happy because they had everything they thought they needed because IT WAS ALL ABOUT THEM. As long as they felt fulfilled, life was good. Not too hot; not too cold; just right – the Goldilocks Church. They saw no need to share the love of Christ with one another or those outside their doors because their system was working for them just fine.

So let’s close this morning by hearing what the Lord Jesus says to the Goldilocks Church:

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” xvii

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:1–8.

ii William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, vol. 6, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 13.

iii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:1.

iv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:2.

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:2.

vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 2:1–3.

vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 2:4, 8, 16.

viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:28–29.

ix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Ti 1:15.

x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:2.

xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:6.

xii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:5.

xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:4.

xiv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:8.

xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jn 13:34–35.

xvi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Col 1:6.

xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 3:15–22.