The Incomparable Christ: Exposition of Colossians: The Incomparable Christ – Exposition of Colossians II

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 9, 1996

Colossians 1:1-8

Colossians 1:3-8
The Incomparable Christ

Please turn with
me in your Bibles to Colossians, chapter 1, we will continue the study we
began last week. You remember we said as we looked at the first two verses
that in this great letter, the Apostle Paul is battling a false teaching. A
heresy amongst the church at Colossae. This false teaching does not reject
Christ outright, it claims to introduce these Christians to something in
addition to what they had heard from Epaphras originally. It claims to
introduce these Christians to a deeper knowledge of God, a deeper experience
of God, a higher life. It claims to do it in a variety of ways, keeping
certain ritual rules, believing certain mystical things. It intends to
supplement the teaching which Epaphras had originally brought to the
congregation. We said it actually mixed elements of Judaism as well as great
paganism and mixed it with the original preaching which the Colossians had
heard. It claimed to give them something more, something deeper, something
that they had not heard of to supplement their incomplete teaching. It didn’t
outrightly deny that teaching, it just said you need more. You need Christ
plus these things.

Now in response we saw last week that the
Apostle Paul had made the antidote to this particular teaching an unfolding of
the implications of Christ’s preeminence. Paul directs us to the sole
sufficiency of Christ in his person and in his saving work. In fact we had
said that the message of Colossians is that believers are complete in Christ
and that faith in him necessarily rules out their dependence on any resource
outside of him. For in him we have our all in all. In that context, we come to
verses 3 through 8 which we are going to concentrate on today. But let’s
read, beginning from verse 1. Hear the word of God.


Father, this is Your word. It is intended for Your people’s edification, for
our encouragement, for our instruction, for our correction. Use it this way in
us. Cause our hearts to be open to this word. If we come this day distracted
or fearful or cold, by Your spirit draw us to Yourself and open us up to hear
Your word. Apply that word to us in our own particular situation by Your
spirit that we might not only be hearers but also become doers of the word
and, we’ll give You all the praise and the glory. For we ask it in Jesus’
name. Amen.”

Now that we have a little context about this
epistle, and let me say as we turn to verses 3 – 8, it is very clear that Paul
is trying to do two things in this passage. The first thing he wants to do is
reassure these loyal, Christian believers at Colossae that they have in fact
heard the gospel. They haven’t heard only a part of the gospel for which they
need to gain some new and improved gospel, they’ve heard the whole gospel. And
secondly, he wants to confirm the message which Epaphras had brought to him.
You remember that we read that Epaphras was a faithful servant, he came to
Christ in Paul’s Ephesian ministry a hundred miles away. He brought the gospel
back to Colossae and now these new teachers, these false teachers, are saying
well, what Epaphras is saying is okay, It is just that we have some new
teaching that you need to hear to add on to what He is saying. And so Paul
wants to make it very clear that he has the highest confidence in the
preaching that Epaphras has done to the Colossians. He is saying, “No, my
friends, he gave you the whole truckload. He gave you the whole gospel and I
want to commend the work that he has done.”

Now this passage outlines fairly easily today.
In fact, very conveniently it falls in to three parts If you look at verse 3
you will see Paul give a thanksgiving in prayer. That is the first section. If
you look at verses 4 and 5 we see the second section. That is Paul’s
description of the triad of faith, hope and love. The triad of Christian
experience. So you have the thanksgiving in verse 3. In verses 5 and 6 you
have the triad of faith, hope and love and then in verses 5 through 8, the end
of verse 5 through verse 8, we have a testimony from Paul. So here we have a
thanksgiving, a triad and a testimony. Let’s look at this passage together

Paul’s thanksgiving in prayer.

Notice verse 3. “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ, praying always for you.” Paul begins by announcing a prayer of
thanksgiving. He thanks God for the Colossians and specifically for what God
is doing in the Colossians. And before we go on I simply want to stop and note
Paul’s generosity. Paul could have come with words of criticism. Why in the
world are you Colossians giving in to this false teaching that is in your
midst. You’re messing it up. He could have legitimately brought and opened
with many words of criticism, no doubt. But Paul’s first words are words of
thanksgiving for what God is doing. I want you to stress that this is sincere
thanksgiving. The Apostle Paul is following a convention of his day. When
people wrote letters back then after the salutation they usually said
something nice about the person that they were writing to. We still do that
today. But you know Paul doesn’t always open with a word of thanksgiving. If
you read his epistle to the Galatians he does not begin with a word of
thanksgiving. If you read his epistle to the second Corinthians, he does not
begin with a word of thanksgiving. And you know why? Those churches were
really, really straying from the truth of Christ and Paul was not going to
give false or flattering compliments.

But look how Paul takes this opportunity to
give a word of sincere thanksgiving to the Colossians. I thank God for you and
I simply want to stop and say, Is that our attitude? Is that our outlook?
Are we always looking to give thanks to God for what He is doing in our midst,
in our friends, in our families? Are we looking at the other members of this
congregation and the pews on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights or when we
see one another in the week and thanking God in our hearts for what he is
doing in them? Do we have an outlook of thanksgiving, of generosity? There
are always going to be things we can be depressed about. There are always
things that discourage us and yet Paul works in a spirit of thanksgiving. You
think of this man. If anybody could have been depressive and downcast, It is
Paul. The man is in prison. The man’s ministries are under attack both from
opponents from the Jewish faith and also from other people within the church
who hate him and who are opposed to him, some of the churches that he has
planted have begun to disintegrate. This man could be depressive and yet he is
a man characterized by sincere thanksgiving. You’ll find it in all of his
letters. It is an amazing thing, my friends, this thanksgiving. Paul thanks
God constantly and that thanksgiving becomes a blessing for him. It is an
irony, isn’t it? When you thank God, the blessing comes back on you.

One of the old Puritans once said the thankful
heart has a continual feast. You see Paul could have been a man in the midst
of a famine. He knew trouble and yet he looked for things to be thankful for
to God.

Is that our attitude? Is that our outlook? Are
we looking to our brothers and sisters and lifting up thanksgiving to God for
them? Now Paul thanks God very interestingly for the faith of the Colossians.
He sees the faith of the Colossian and he says “Oh, Lord, thank you for their
faith.” Now that may seem strange to us, but it is not strange for Paul. If
you read the Apostle Paul, he never, ever once in his writings congratulates
his readers for his faith. He always thanks God for it. And that reminds us
that faith itself is the gift of God. Faith itself is authored by God. Yes, we
believe. Yes, we believe in Christ but it is God who works faith in us. Faith
is not something which comes natural, faith is a gift of God. It is wrought in
us by the work of the Holy Spirit. And so the Apostle Paul congratulates and
thanks God for the faith which he sees in the Colossians.

Now let me say in passing that Paul’s
thanksgiving also has the effect of undercutting the teaching of the
Colossians. You see the false teachers are saying to the Colossians what you
have is good, but you need more. You need the secret teaching that we can
bring to you which will improve your Christianity. It will give you a deeper
experience of God. And here is the Apostle Paul saying to the Colossians, I
thank God that you have the real thing. I thank God that you have experienced
God in his fullness. I thank God that I see evidences, signs, marks of God at
work in you. I thank God that you do not need to be looking for a new and
improved teaching because you have got the truth. You see he undercuts the
false teaching by his very thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a powerful thing my friends.
Christians must recognize the importance of thanksgiving. We ourselves must
follow in this pattern. Do we imitate his thankful spirit? And let me ask you
this. Are we spiritually minded in our thanksgiving? It is very easy in all
the blessings which surround us to be thankful for the temporal things that
God gives us-relative, wealth and prosperity, clothing, food, friends,
families, all manner of blessings and vocation. All of those are temporal
blessings. All of those are real blessings. We would be wrong not to be
thankful for them but so often we are so caught up in those things that we
forget the spiritual blessings that are being heaped on us. Are we thankful
like Paul for the spiritual blessings? No doubt Paul’s congregation was
mixed. There would have been some who would have been well off, some who were
not? There would have been some from the higher social classes, some from the
lower social classes. Some with certain blessings, others with other
blessings. Paul doesn’t concentrate on those blessings.

He says, I thank God for the faith and the
love and the hope that he has worked in you. Do we look at one another and
think that way? Are we thanking God continually and praying for God
continually to do works of faith and hope and love in us. Are we spiritually
minded in our thanksgiving? Do we realize that faith is the gift of God? Do we
realize that when we believe that itself is a sign that God has been at work
in us. This is so important my friends because from time to time Christians
struggle with assurance and invariably those of us evangelicals in the 20th
Century begin to ask questions like this. Was my faith perfectly pure when I
first believed in Christ? Was I 100% sincere? Can I be absolutely sure that
my faith was enough to gain my justification? Well, we are asking the wrong
questions. No, your faith wasn’t perfectly pure. No, your heart wasn’t
undivided. No, your faith wasn’t strong enough to save you because your faith
can’t save you. Christ saves you. Faith is that whereby you lay hold of
Christ and the very fact that you had faith at all was an evidence that God
was already at work in you. And the Apostle Paul’s thanksgiving reminds us
that that is something that we need to be thankful for.

All of us are going to undergo, and some of us
are perhaps now undergoing, experiences which take us into the valley. In that
valley it is very easy to forget all the temporal blessings that God is giving
you and It is even easier to forget the spiritual blessings. Even in that
valley we must be thankful for what God has been doing to us. And as we walk
with him we can always be thankful of the faith that he has implanted within
us. We must be encouraged by that. That is a design of God to give us an
intimation of his love for us. I love you, Christian. You see that faith in
you. That is a gift that I’ve given you because I love you. You see that hope
that is in you? That is not natural, I implanted it in you. That is a gift
from me to you. Be encouraged. Walk in faith, go forward because these are
testimonies of my love to you. When all the other testimonies because of the
difficulty of our circumstances tend to be blotted out, we have to call our
hearts back and we have to say, “Lord, I am going to thank you even though I
do not feel like thanking you right now. It is an ironic thing my friends, if
we fail to thank God for his blessings we will begin to doubt that God hears
our prayers. If we fail to remember that he has blessed us in the past, it
will be difficult for us to believe that he will bless us now and in the
future. And so thankfulness not only is a responsibility of us because God has
done great works for us and we must in hearts of gratitude give to him back
the praise and the glory but It is also important for us because as we thank
God for what He is done for us we remember in fact all the things he has done
for us and that encourages us to go back to him in prayer. And so the Apostle
Paul begins with a thanksgiving. And that is the first thing we look at today.

Paul’s triad – faith, love, hope.

Now let’s look at this
great triad. Faith, love, hope. This is the order that he gives it in this
passage. You know we could turn to other passages, too. Paul speaks of this
triad: faith, love and hope elsewhere. First Corinthians 13 is a place where
he mentions it. He also mentions it in I Thessalonians 1:3. There are many
places in Paul’s writings where he points to these three great

Before we look at them though, let me quickly
say this. Paul, when he says faith, love and hope, is not talking about
natural characteristics. He is not talking about things that we have naturally
as personality attributes. Paul is talking about qualities which are worked in
us by the Holy Spirit. These qualities of faith, and love and hope are
hallmarks or evidences of the work of God in the soul of a man or woman. When
you see these things in a person, you are seeing evidence of the work of God.
These are not things which come naturally. They are not temperamental, they
are not personality based.

When we say faith, for instance, we are
not talking about a person who has a propensity to believe or a credulous
person, much less. We are not talking about people who just love to believe.
Sometimes we say, ‘Oh, that person was just born to believe.’ That is not
what we are talking about. Faith is something different. When we say love,
we are not talking about a person who is nice. There are all sorts of people
in the world who are nice but who do not love and who do not have this love.
When we talk about hope, we are not talking about people who are
optimistic and who in the face of the greatest disaster can bubble over with
enthusiasm. No, we are talking about things that the Holy Spirit works in a
person. These things are things that the Spirit works. That having been said
let’s look at these three great things.

Look with me in verse 4. “We give thanks to
God since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus.” We heard of your faith in
Christ Jesus. Paul, as he speaks of this faith, is speaking of that
on Christ, that trust in Christ, that belief in Christ,
that commitment to Christ which these Colossians have made. And I want
you to note that he stresses the fact that Christ is the object of that faith.
In each of these three qualities that he speaks of there is an object. For
faith, Christ is the object. For love, the brethren is the object. For hope,
heaven or the future glory is the object. In each of these great qualities
there is an object and Paul says I thank God when I heard of your belief, your
reliance on, your trust on, your relationship with, your commitment to Christ
who is the sole sufficient object of saving faith. He thanks God for that.

Then he goes on and he says, and I thank God
for your love. Look again at verse 4. The love which you have for all the
saints. Again, this is not simply a human affection that is being spoken of
here. This is self-denying concern which puts the best interest of others as a
priority in our relationships to them. Love says I will look out for the best
interest of my friend, of my family, of my neighbor, of whomever I am loving.
You are looking out deliberately for the best interest of others when you
engage in love. Affections come with it, but we can love even when we do not
feel like it. It is possible, however, to have great affection and never
actively engage in love though. Because love not only works and feels and
thinks, love acts. And so the Apostle Paul thanks God for the love which they
have for all the saints. Notice again this is a love of the Christian
brotherhood which he is emphasizing here This is not just love to family or
love to spouse or love to children. This is a love for the Christian
brotherhood and we know that that is a distinctive gift of the spirit. Jesus
and John both said it is true; they will know you are Christians by your love
for one another. Our Lord said, behold how they love one another. And so this
love for the brotherhood is a distinctive gift for the spirit.

Notice as well that it is stressed that
all the brothers and sisters are loved. Paul says your love for all the
saints. Jeff Wilson has said this. “The remarkable repetition of the word all
in this letter is evidently directed against the exclusiveness and caste
feeling which is fostered by the false teachers’ claim to superior knowledge.”
You get the idea. This group is out here saying that we have found the real
truth and the rest of them haven’t quite caught it yet. What does it do? It
naturally causes a division which makes one part feel as if It is superior to
the other part of the body. And so Paul stresses on, he goes on. This should
teach us that there is no room in the church for any intellectual, spiritual
or social elite which separates itself from fellow believers whom Christ has
accepted. Is your life characterized by a love for all the saints?

Let me say this. We
live in a place, a location and a culture where love of family and love of
friends is very strong. That is good. That can also be a barrier to our going
beyond and loving all the saints because we can be so comfortable in our love
for family and for friends that we have grown up with and gone to school with
that we forget the saints that are out there, some who are perhaps lonely,
some who are perhaps with us this day, who feel outcast, neglected,

Oh, my friends, love for the brethren for all
the saints is a mark of the work of the spirit. It goes beyond family love.
Jesus says even thieves and robbers and gentiles love their families. They
look out for one another. But you are to show your love as coming from a
divine origin by loving one another. In other words, you’re going to love
beyond family boundaries. You’re going to love beyond the boundaries of your
friends and your social class. You’re going to love all the saints. That is
the sign of the spirit. My friends that is something that is a prayer of mine
for our body. That we would become characterized as a congregation who loves
beyond conventional boundary, who love beyond the boundaries of the spheres of
life that we normally work in, whether it be our friends that we work with, or
our friends in our neighborhood, or our friends at school, or the friends that
we grew up with and went to school with or the friends with whom we go to
church or our families. If we will love beyond those fears, always looking to
show our love to all the saints, we will bear a testimony to the love of
Christ in us. Then Paul points to hope.

Notice again, he says because of the hope laid
up for you in heaven. Note here that Paul says that hope is the cause of faith
and love. You might not think it that way. You might think well faith causes
hope. But Paul says It is the other way around. The hope in you enables you to
believe and to love. Hope is the cause of faith and love. Hope is confident
assurance and expectancy of the vaster blessings in store for believers in the
world to come. Hope expects what faith believes. Hope expects what
faith believes and by expecting it, enables you to believe it, even when you
can’t see it. You see faith is called on to trust despite the evidence to the
contrary, but hope expects the realities that God sets forth. It has been said
the future belongs to those who belong to God. That is our hope and as we
expect that reality it breeds faith and love. How can you love in an unjust
world? How can you love when people have been unloving to you, when there are
past tragedies that haunt you, when justice has not been done in your own
experience, because God will set it right and you know it. And so you can set
aside your need to have justice satisfied and you can love even when you
haven’t been loved. How can you believe when the world seems to be going
crazy, when everything seems turned upside down because you hope a Christian
hope. You expect the reality of the promise of God and you know He is coming
again and therefore you are able to believe in the midst of a turbulent storm.

Notice again Paul acquires the remedy to the
subjective teaching of the false teachers. They say look you people lack an
important part of Christian experience and you need to find it in the
subjective experiences of mystical union with God that we can foster for you
by keeping these rituals or believing these particular occult beliefs. And the
Apostle Paul says you want to see the work of God in you? You want to see
evidence of the work of God in you? Do not go looking for mystical
experiences. Look at Christ, look at the brethren and look at heaven. Believe,
love and hope. Belief, hope and love are evidences of the divine work in you.
You do not need any more than that. If faith has been worked in you, if hope
has been worked in you, if love has been worked in you, then you have the
evidence of the finger of God in your soul. Paul says you do not need these
mystical things. You’ve got the real thing if you have faith, hope and love.
You look to Christ and you love the brethren and you hope for glory. That is
the sign of the work of God in you.

III. Paul’s (fivefold)

And then finally Paul gives a testimony, verses 5 through 8. He
testifies to the truth that these Colossians have already received. He says
five things. First of all, he says this. You have heard the word of truth, the
gospel. He first comes to the Colossians and he says look, you’ve already
heard the truth. Somebody can’t come to you and say okay now we are going to
give you the rest of the truth because you’ve already heard it. Epaphras has
already preached it to you. Do not be tricked. You have already heard the word
of truth.

Secondly, this word of truth not only
came to you (verse 6), it is in all the world. In other words, this is not
some secret that only a few people know about. The whole world knows about the
word of the gospel. It is being spread everywhere. The Apostle Paul is saying
that the gospel is not a secret code for the initiated, it is in all the

And Paul gives thanks that the same message of
salvation which was preached to the Colossians is being preached all over the
world. So somebody can’t come to you and say now we have got a secret that
nobody else knows about. All the world knows about it. Thirdly, he says this
gospel is working. You can imagine the false teachers saying yeah, well what
Epaphras is saying is fine but we have got something that will really work. It
will just revolutionize you’re experience with God and the Apostle Paul says
it is working.

Look at verse 6. In all the world it is
constantly bearing fruit and increasing Exhibit A, you, faith, love and hope
is being rooted in you. You’re being built up in this love. You show love for
the saints. That love is of the spirit, he says in verse 8. It is working, It
is effective.

Then, fourth, he says that Epaphras was faithful in his preaching. Notice what
he says. You heard it, you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow
bondservant, who is a faithful servant of Christ. In other words when these men
come and say,
Epaphras hasn’t told you the whole story.

Paul’s response is that is wrong. He has told
you the whole story. He is a faithful servant and just like he reported to me
about the wonderful things that the spirit of God is doing in your midst, he was
faithful to report to you the whole of the gospel which I’ve been preaching. I
know that he is given you the whole counsel.

And finally Paul says this. Not only have you heard it, not only is the gospel
everywhere, not only is the gospel effective, and not only did Epaphras preach
to you the whole of the gospel, he says you understood it. Do not be tricked, do
not be tricked by someone saying that you need a new and improved teaching. You
do not because you understood the grace of God when he first taught it to you.
And I see the evidences that you understood it because God has worked in you
faith and love and hope.

My friends, let me ask you this. Do you believe Paul’s testimony? Do you
believe that testimony that the gospel that he has given is soul-sufficient,
that the Christ which he preaches is the answer to every spiritual question that
you have? Do you believe that the Christian life ought to be characterized by
faith and love and hope and is, in fact, your Christian life characterized by
faith and hope and love? Not optimism, not niceness, but faith and hope and
love. Has God worked that in your midst? If you do not see those things there,
then I still have the answer. Come to Christ. He will give them to you. You do
not see enough of them there and I think we are all there. Ask of him and He
will fill you exceeding abundantly with faith and love and hope.

Do you live in a spirit of thanksgiving? Are you a genuinely thankful person,
not denying reality around you, not living in a state of psychological denial,
but a person who in spite of the difficulties of life can honestly thank God for
what he is doing in your midst? If not, maybe you need to do some business with
God. Maybe you need to ask him to work in your heart a thankfulness which is
befitting the Christian. Oh, may God make these realities for us. May we truly
become a people characterized by faith and love and hope. May the Lord bless
His word. Let’s look to Him.

Lord and God, this is Your word. Prosper it in our hearts. For we ask it Jesus
name. Amen.

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