In recent decades a trend has developed toward restoring environmental areas to their original habitat. One aspect of this involves introducing plants that at one point were native to the area. A plant that is re-introduced not only should grow well, but also gives life to the larger eco-system—by enriching soil, attracting insects and animals, its fragrance, and so on.
You could say the logic of this runs as follows: The flourishing of an environmental habitat requires the organic elements native to it.
In our sermon passage, Colossians 1:3–8, a similar, though deeper, logic is perceivable. The flourishing of a human habitat requires the spiritual elements native to it. Here in our second sermon in our series on Colossians, Paul tells us that something called the Gospel has been introduced to the human eco-system in Colossae, and, in the Apostle’s own words, it is “bearing fruit and growing” (1:6). And as we will eventually take note of in the sermon, this Gospel-fruitfulness is bringing a unique type of flourishing to the human habitat in Colossae, both at the individual and social level.
Our question, therefore, in turning to this passage is twofold. What exactly is the Gospel that’s come to Colossae, and what can we say about its fruitfulness? To address these matters, we’ll make three observations in our passage: (1) The Content of the Gospel; (2) The Root of the Gospel; (3) The Fruit of the Gospel.
Let’s jump right in.
I. The Content of the Gospel
In verses 5 and 6, Paul explains that “the word of truth, the Gospel, has come to you.” What exactly is the Gospel?
Though you may be familiar with the Gospel, it is helpful to set aside our understanding of it for a moment and simply see if Paul gives us clues to its contents here. I can identity three clues that explain what the Gospel is in this passage.
First, Paul begins in verse 4 by extolling their faith in Jesus Christ. As the passage unfolds, it becomes clear that faith in Jesus Christ and faith in the Gospel are synonymous. So, the content of the Gospel is Jesus Christ. But that’s not all.
In verse 5, Paul likens the Gospel to “the word of truth,” writing, “you have heard before in the word of truth, the Gospel.” So the Gospel involves a word of truth.
Finally, in verse 6, Paul offers another synonym for the Gospel, when he writes, “since the day you heard [the Gospel] and understood the grace of God in truth.”
The Gospel, therefore, is a revelation of truth, and experience of Grace, in the person of Jesus.
Now, we could spend a whole sermon series unpacking this alone, but let me simply offer a brief explanation of this for us here.
By equating the Gospel with truth, Paul tells us that only by knowing Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done—can a person know themselves and the world they live in. The story of Jesus—that He is God’s son, He came into the world to die on behalf of our sins, and rose from the dead—is our story, too. When considered deeply, it reveals deep things about you, me, and life. So the Gospel is allowing Jesus Christ to orient you to what is true.
But the Gospel is more than apprehension of truth, it is also experience of grace. By grace, Paul highlights that in the Gospel God acts and is active on our behalf. The grace of God is God’s unconditional mercy toward us to forgive us, and His continual power to uphold and transform us.
This truth and grace arrived in Colossians at the moment they learned about Jesus Christ and put their faith in him. That is the content of the Gospel. Next we notice something about its initial roots as it starts to grow in Colossae.
II: The Root: Hope
Paul highlights in verses 5–6 that when the Colossians learned about the Gospel, they learned and received hope. He explains, “Because of the Hope laid up for you. Of this you have heard before in the word of truth, the Gospel.”
The first way the Gospel begins to affect the community in Colossae, is by bringing hope.
It is hard to understate how important hope is for human beings. We are hoped-shaped creatures. In fact, many who have studied human beings closely have come to the conclusion that without hope, we cannot function.
Perhaps you’re familiar with Viktor Frankl and his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, originally published in 1946. In this book Frankl chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, where he came to see how integral a sense of hope was for survival.
To illustrate his point, Frankl details his theory on the record high death rate in Auschwitz during Christmas 1944 to New Year’s 1945: he found that prisoners died because they had expected to be home before Christmas. When they realized this was not to be they completely lost hope in life beyond the concentration camp. And most subsequently died.
However, Frankl found those who could maintain a sense of hope in the future were more likely to survive. Frankl explains, “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man, his courage and hope, or lack of them and the state of immunity of his body will understand that sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”
Then, in one of his most famous lines, he states regarding Auschwitz: “Whoever was still alive, has reason for hope.”
Hope is integral to a flourishing life. What type of hope does the Gospel bring? We can say two things about it: The hope of the Gospel is concrete and personal.
It is concrete, because it involves the assurance of resurrected and eternal life. Paul states, “the hope laid up for you in heaven.” This means Christian hope is not beholden to how you feel—but rather, it is the absolute security of God holding your future in place before you.
Second, the hope is personal. It is personal, because it is hope not just in heaven, but in Christ. And Christ does not merely wait for us there, but comes to us here in order to bring us there. Christian hope is the hand of Christ upholding you. Paul portrays this vividly in Philippians 3:12, when he writes of his Christian journey:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
In other words, Paul is confident about the future, because Christ Jesus has laid hold of him. Christian hope lies in the fact that Christ has taken hold of you.
So the content of the Gospel is grace and truth in the person of Christ; the hope of the Gospel is Christ securing your future and holding you in the present. There is another aspect to note about the Gospel: its fruit.
III: The Fruit of the Gospel: Love
Twice Paul connects the love of the Colossians with the Gospel in this passage. In verse 4 he writes of their “faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that they have for all the saints.” Then in verse 8, he explains that Epaphras has “made known to us your love in the spirit.”
Love is the fruit of the Gospel plant Paul extols in this passage. Love is a squishy topic, so we need to carefully consider what Paul here means by love.
Love in our culture can come off as a directionless and mushy sense of kindness—the focus both on loving oneself, and on affirming the other. The modern idea of love is to affirm anything and everything about people. It’s like the diversity T-Shirts baristas in Starbucks are wearing right now, with the Lady Gaga quote on the back that reads: “Don't you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can't be exactly who you are.”
Popular culture’s idea of love is the self feeling free to assert itself, and then blessing others as they do the same. It leads to sense of pride, entitlement, even spoiled brats.
I found myself walking through a large crowd of college students protesting a few years ago. The protest was, in many ways, in the name of love. However, as I watched the protest unfold, all 60 minutes of it, what I saw was individuals making sure to get their protest selfie up on Instagram, to let everyone know how virtuous they were, then students disbanding in time for a warm dinner and party.
Now this is not to say that all protests are bad—not at all. But it is to ask in what way Christian love and its actions may be unique from love produced by a given culture.
There is, in fact, a distinct quality to Christian love, and we can see this when we understand the relationship between the grace and hope in this passage, and the fruit of love.
Gospel love is a product of Gospel grace and Gospel hope. Here is how this works.
Christian love will be marked by the quality of humility, because the Christian has been shaped by grace. Grace eviscerates pride; it literally chops pride off at the knees. In order to receive grace, we must admit that we need it, that we are not sufficient in and of ourselves. In order to receive grace, we must see that we are sinners in need of it. Therefore, grace creates the soft soil of humility, which is the best place for love to grow. And a loving humility is one of the most powerful forces in the world.
There is also a causal link between love and hope. Paul highlights a link between hope and love in verses 4–5, suggesting that the love of the community is grounded in their hope. He writes: “We heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.”
Ironically, many would conclude that a person who is fixated on heaven would be very little earthly good. However, this turns out to be just the opposite. Christians who do the most for the present world are those who have the most confidence and excitement about the next. Hope frees us to love, because it makes us secure enough about our future, to be radically selfless in our present.
There was a man who for various reasons was terribly concerned he would not be able to pay his mortgage or adequately support his family. This caused tremendous stress and anxiety. This stress and anxiety about the future left him with little steam to be happy and caring in the present. He was bogged down, rarely chipper, and had an increasingly bad temper. Then someone quietly explained that a check was headed his way in a week that would more than make up for any financial deficit—he and his family would be just fine. Suddenly his mood completely changed; he was once again fun to be around and able to engage with others, and attend to their needs.
Christian hope is like this: the assurance that we will be okay in the future is meant to free us to love well in the present.
So the fruit of the Gospel Paul here highlights is a love that is humble and strong, because it is fostered by grace and hope.
How does Gospel lead to flourishing?
Having seen the content, root, and fruit of the Gospel that came to Colossae, I want to now ask how it affected the human habitat. How exactly did introducing this plant called the Gospel bring flourishing in Colossae? If we peek to a later portion of the letter, 3:10–11, we can identify both an individual and social form of flourishing the Gospel creates. Paul writes,
…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
The Gospel has created a situation where individuals are being renewed in the image of their creator. This implies a deep and complete transformation. And this is because the grace of the Gospel reconnects individuals with their Maker, and the hope of the Gospel assures them their story ends with life with their maker.
However, there is also an astounding social result of the Gospel. An extremely diverse conglomeration of people, who would be in all other situations separated, have been brought together. Paul writes, here in the Gospel, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
It is striking how ahead of his time Paul was. Perhaps the most significant idea of our present moment is unity amid diversity. It is the drawing together of people who otherwise remain apart; people with great social and ethnic differences.
How is it that the Gospel accomplishes this? Whereas modern culture aims at unity amid diversity based on human rights, the Gospel aims at unity amid diversity based on a human need. The Gospel unites people around their common need for grace. How does this achieve a thicker unity?
When people are united around human rights—not a bad thing—they tend to cling tightly to their own story. As such, you may have a room of one thousand people united, but they each are clinging to their own story (their own rights), and as such, it’s a room of a thousand individual stories, trying not to get in the way of each other.
When people are united by their common need for grace, they come together in a very different posture. Because grace humbles the recipient, each individual has been called by God to let go of their “own story,” and instead become part of a bigger story, the Story of Christ. Here, in the bigger story, the individual is neither author nor hero, but is dignified with a key part to play. Therefore, the room of one thousand people united is not filled with a thousand individual stories, but rather, a thousand brothers and sisters united as one in God’s Great Story. Only grace-based unity can create a thick and enduring bond.
Amazingly, two thousand years before unity amid diversity was popular in America, it was unfolding in Colossae. And its driving force was the Gospel.
I’d like to close with just a word of application for us.
There is a link to this whole story about Colossae in verse 7–8, which if you removed, we may not have this letter. That link’s name is Epaphras, and of him Paul glows: “it came to your ears and you had true knowledge of the grace of God; As it was given to you by Epaphras, our well-loved helper, who is a true servant of Christ for us, And who, himself, made clear to us your love in the Spirit.” (1:7–8).
All this fruitfulness came about because a faithful servant, Epaphras, brought and taught the Gospel in Colossae. Friends, we must share the Gospel, in word and deed. And we must not only state it, but stay in relationships long enough to teach and explain it.
by Sam Ferguson, Sermon given on June 9, 2019