Series on Colossians, I The Mystery of Christ, A The Revelation of God, 1 Particulars, Text: 1:1-8, Title: Hope for the World

Introduction

This letter is full of encouragement and instruction, but it is also a polemic against a particular form of false teaching. That false teaching is known as Gnosticism and was prevalent in Paul’s day and later. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge and there were people in the early church who insisted that knowing God involved a secret mystical experience as opposed to simple faith in the facts of the gospel. This was popularized in the first century through mystery religions of pagan origin. This led to two classes of error which, in somewhat changed forms, exist now as then—the error of the ceremonialist, to whom religion was mainly a matter of ritual, and the error of the speculative thinker, to whom the universe was filled with forces which left no room for the working of a personal Will. These ideas are alive and well in the twenty-first century. The vision of the living Christ Who fills all things, is held up before each of these two, as the antidote to his poison. In contrast to the mystery religions and their pagan rituals Paul presents the mystery of Christ which is revealed in the gospel and available to simple faith in the Word of the Lord. It is this Jesus, the Christ, who came to the Colossian believers through His servants Epaphras, Paul and Timothy. So we begin by looking at the evangelist, and then the enthusiasm and finally, the evidence.

I The Evangelist

We start with verses 7 and 8 where the original messenger is identified, You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. Paul identifies Epaphras as a “fellow servant” which means essentially a bond servant or slave of Jesus Christ, just as Paul himself. On other occasions Epaphras is identified as a fellow worker, fellow soldier, fellow prisoner, and faithful brother. In so doing the Apostle puts the full weight of his authority behind this evangelist and church planter who works “on our behalf.” Yet, though he was a capable leader, he did not labor alone. Churches were established all through Asia Minor which is today modern Turkey. Many of them are mentioned in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 including Laodicea which is also mentioned in Colossians 4:16,  After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. These churches were begun from the spread of the message through ordinary believers as well as through evangelists as Paul remarks to the Thessalonians in I Thessalonians 1:8,  The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it. Paul also calls Epaphras faithful, and I Corinthians 4:2 reminds us, Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. We are all stewards of the gospel and it is a sacred trust requiring faithfulness on our part, and not just on the part of pastors and evangelists. The work of the evangelist or church planter also includes reporting, as we read of Epaphras, “Who also told us of your love in the Spirit.” In our Presbytery we have a place in the docket for reports from those engaged in church planting, and it is always exciting to hear a good report of progress. This is exactly what Paul felt as we see in verses 3-6.

II Enthusiasm

Paul’s enthusiasm is expressed in verses 3-6, We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. Enthusiasm fostered the modern missionary enterprise with men like William Carey in India, and Adoniram Judson in Burma, and Hudson Taylor in China, and C. T. Studd and David Livingstone in Africa, and H. G. Underwood and Horace Allen  in Korea, and Captain Allen Gardiner in South America and many others, some of whom died as martyrs. It might seem that Paul is exaggerating when he says, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing.” However, The rapid progress of the gospel in the early days is amazing. Justin Martyr, about the middle of the second century, wrote, “There is no people, Greek or barbarian, or of any other race, by whatever appellation or manners they may be distinguished, however ignorant of arts or agriculture, whether they dwell in tents or wander about in covered wagons, among whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered in the name of the crucified Jesus to the Father and Creator of all things.” Half a century later Tertullian adds, “We are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate, and forum. We have left you only your temples.” R. H. Glover in “The Progress of World-Wide Missions,” states, “On the basis of all the data available it has been estimated that by the close of the Apostolic Period the total number of Christian disciples had reached half a million.” This was obviously due to the enthusiasm of the people and not just the leaders as Paul describes the Colossian believers, “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints” Above all we should note that the enthusiasm is the only proper response to the gospel because it is hope for the world. I remember an anecdote about a preacher who visited Madame Tussaud’s wax works and he was shown the chair in which the French writer and atheist, Voltaire had sat and written his vitriolic attacks against Christianity and the Bible. In spite of the warning signs the Pastor sat in the chair and began to sing Isaac Watts’ hymn,”Jesus shall reign where'er the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom spread from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.” That sums up the enthusiasm of Paul and Epaphras and the Colossian Christians. The gospel brings hope to all that trust in Jesus Christ as Lord. Thus Paul writes of the faith and love “that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.”

III The Evidence

We read in verses 1 and 2, Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father. It is no small thing that Paul refers to them as “holy and faithful brothers.” In contrast to its rich neighbor, Laodicea, Colosse had fallen on hard times. Once, 500 years before the birth of Christ it was identified by the historian Herodotus as a large and prosperous city, the first to achieve city status in Asia Minor but commercial competition and an earthquake in the Lycus valley had decimated the city, and made it a second rate market town. Another historian, Strabo, described it as a small town in the first century. None of this mattered to Paul because he saw that they were rich in Christ unlike Laodicea which was rich in things but spiritually poor. Paul knew they were rich because as he says later they displayed the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for them in heaven. These are things the Apostle looks for in the churches as manifested in I Thessalonians 1:3, We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. The word “holy” in Colossians 1:2 may be translated “saints.” Saints are persons upon whom the Lord has bestowed a great favor and who have been entrusted with a weighty responsibility. They have been set apart or sanctified unto the Lord. All believers are saints. Paul often mentions faith, hope and love together as evidence that people are genuine saints. His letters focus on encouraging them to live up to their calling as believers. The evidence is that, thus far, the Colossians are doing that. But, please note that the root of faith and love is hope both in our text and in I Thessalonians 1:3, the faith and love are inspired by and spring from hope. Hope is the springboard of all other virtues. Our service in the present depends on our future expectations. In Romans 5:2-5 Paul reminds us of the importance of our future hope saying that in Christ, we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. No form or teaching of Christianity which does not place first our heavenly hope in Christ can affect the world or our lives. A few years ago the psychology department of Duke University carried on an interesting experiment.  They wanted to see how long rats could swim.  In one container they placed a rat for whom there was no possibility of escape.  He swam a few moments and then ducked his head to drown.  In the other container they made the hope of escape possible for the rat.  The rat swam for several hours before finally drowning.  The conclusion of the experiment was just the opposite of our common conclusion.  We usually say, "As long as there is life, there is hope."  The Duke experiment proved, "As long as there is hope, there is life." This is the message in our text. Hope brings life. That hope is the promise of eternal life and we get it by believing that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin on the cross, and that through repentance and faith we are made righteous and justified in God’s sight in Christ. Thus we are assured in our hearts of a heavenly hope and that is the mother of all other graces.