The Glorious Gospel: A Study in Colossians

Or see only the outline.

Colossians Overview

Col. 1:1 – 3:4Christ → In Christ → Christ in you — Doctrinal
Col. 3:5 – 4:18Life Application of Christianity — Practical

Key to Understanding

What is the normal Christian life?…it is something very different from the life of the average Christian.  Indeed a consideration of the written Word of God – of the Sermon on the Mount for example – should lead us to ask whether such a life has ever in fact been lived upon the earth, save only by the Son of God himself.  But in that last saving clause lies immediately the answer to our question.

The apostle Paul gives us his own definition of the Christian life in Galatians 2:20.  It is “no longer I, but Christ.” Here he is…presenting God’s normal for a Christian, which can be summarized in the words: I live no longer, but Christ lives his life in me.

God makes it quite clear in his Word that he has only one answer to every human need – his Son, Jesus Christ.  In all his dealings with us he works by taking us out of the way and substituting Christ in our place. The Son of God died instead of us for our forgiveness: he lives instead of us for our deliverance.  So we can speak of two substitutions – a Substitute on the Cross who secures our forgiveness and a Substitute within who secures our victory. It will help us greatly, and save us from much confusion, if we keep constantly before us this fact, that God will answer all our questions in one way and one way only, namely, by showing us more of his Son.

Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life

Objective of Colossians

“that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will…that you may walk worthy of the Lord…increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10, NKJV)

  1. Knowledge about God and His will — knowing
  2. Walking according to this knowledge — walking

Colossians 1:1-12 – INTRODUCTION

1:1-8

  • What did Colosse already have?
    • “faith in Christ” (1:4), “love for all the saints” (1:4), “the word of the truth of the gospel” (1:5), “fruit” (1:6), “the grace of God in truth” (1:6), “learned from..a faithful minister of Christ” (1:7), “love in the Spirit” (1:8)
    • i.e. The Gospel of Christ

1:9-12

  • What did Colosse need?        
    • More knowledge of God’s will (1:9); to be fully pleasing to God (1:10); to be more fruitful (1:10); to increase knowledge of God (1:10); to be strengthened by God, specifically in midst of trials (1:11); to be more thankful to God (1:12).
    • i.e. Proper Growth

We will see that Paul’s remedy for proper growth is nothing more or less than simply a presentation of Christ, and the believer’s position in Christ, and Christ in them.  When we see more of Christ, then the growth will happen fairly spontaneously. Hence the presentation of Christ that begins the letter to each of the seven churches of Revelation (see Revelation 2 and 3) – they are always shown a picture of Christ first.

“CHRIST”

What are we taught of Christ in this letter?

  • He is the image of God (1:15) – Everything Christ does, says, and is, is the very expression and image of God.
  • He is firstborn over creation (1:15) – This means that Christ had dominion over all things, and as the firstborn in a family is heir and lord of all according to the Old Testament law, so Christ is “heir of all things”. (see Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Colossians 1:15)
  • All things were created by Him (1:16)
  • All things were created for Him (1:16)
  • He is eternal (1:17)
  • He is the reason all things consist (1:17)
  • He is the head of the church (1:18)
  • He is first one to have new life (1:18)
  • He has all the fullness of the Father (1:19)
  • He is reconciling all things to Himself, by “the blood of His cross” (1:20)
  • He holds all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3)
  • All the fullness of God dwells in Him (2:9)
  • He is head of all principality and power (2:10)
  • He sits in heaven at the right hand of God (3:1)
  • He is the life of Christians (3:4)

“IN CHRIST”

Along with speaking of the majesty, divinity, and power of Christ, Paul also focuses his attention on the position of all who believe in Christ, that they are placed “in Christ”:

  • “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight – if indeed you continue in the faith…” (1:21-23)
  • “In Him you were also circumcised…by the circumcision of Christ,” (2:11)

Who places us in Christ?

  • “But of Him [God] you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:30) – It is all of God that we are placed in Christ.

Where specifically do we find our position in Christ?

  • “in the body of His flesh through death,” “by the circumcision of Christ,” (Col. 1:22; 2:11) – The beginning of our position in Christ finds ourselves placed in his death, but we are also said to be placed in Christ’s resurrection and ascension as well (see Ephesians 1; Col. 2-3).

What is required of us to be placed in Christ?

  • “if indeed you continue in the faith” (Col. 1:23) – The only responsibility required of us to be in Christ is that we have faith in Christ – who He is and what He did.  This is why Jesus could say that the only work of God is, “that you believe in Him whom He [God] sent.” (John 6:29).

What does it mean to be in Christ?

  • At the risk of being overly simplistic, I will say that being in Christ means to be clothed by, through, and with Christ.  
    • God’s response to mankind’s first sin: “Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:21).  Here, they were covered by the life of another. God could not accept their makeshift covering of fig leaves (which wither away after a season).  God Himself needed to cover them in the life of another, who was presumably slain. It is here that we first see the divine need to be covered by God to atone for our sins.
  • “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him…” (2:9-10) – To be covered by Christ means to be covered by the very fullness of God.  It means that who Christ is and what Christ did will be the very thing covering us, and the very thing that God sees when He looks at us. This is why Paul can say that we are “complete in Him”.  And in another place he says: “you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption –“ (1 Cor. 1:30). We could really add any other attributes of Christ into this sentence and be justified, since now we are in Christ, and therefore we are clothed by everything that is Christ’s.

How does our position in Christ affect our position with God the Father?

  • When Adam and Eve sinned, they instinctively knew they had to be covered by something to be in the presence of God – “the sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” (Gen. 3:7).  However, the coverings they made for themselves were not adequate to bring them back into fellowship with God. This is why Adam and Eve still felt the need to hide from God after they clothed themselves, and God is seen asking, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:8-9).  The clear message is that they are no longer in God’s presence, even though they clothed themselves by their own resources. It was only in God’s clothing them with the life of another that they could have restored fellowship – but this was merely a foreshadowing of the restored fellowship brought by Christ who was slain, therefore neither the sacrifice nor the fellowship was perfect in God’s eyes, rather it was only pointing to the sacrifice and fellowship that would be perfect when Christ died.
    • In similar fashion, we see the entire Old Testament system of atonement predicated upon slaying the life of another who is perfect – e.g. “a lamb without blemish and without spot” – to atone for one’s own imperfections.  This all points to “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” (1 Pet. 1:19)
  • Through Christ’s death and our faith in Christ, we are said to be “holy, and blameless, and above reproach” in God’s sight (Col. 1:22).  This can only be seen if our sinful life is clothed by a sinless life. This is why in another place Paul can say that we have the imputed righteousness of Christ (see Rom. 4:22-25).  In Christ is the only acceptable position in which anyone can stand in the presence of God.

“CHRIST IN YOU”

The mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints…this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:26-27)

Not only are we said to be “in Christ” by faith, we are also said to have Christ in us.  In fact, this is the very mystery which has been hidden for millennia. This is the mystery that was not fully seen in all the time of the Old Testament, but only came to be revealed at the time of Jesus, was later expounded by Paul and the other apostles, and continues to be revealed to all who seek His face today.

Jesus gave these promises to his disciples before He died:

  • He [The Father] will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth…He dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)
  • A little while longer and the world will see Me no more…At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. (John 14:19-20)
  • If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (John 14:23)

All of these promises are really different aspects of the same promise, which is Christ dwelling in his disciples.  Here are His promises:

  1. The Spirit will be in you. (14:18)
  2. I will be in you. (14:20)
  3. The Father and the Son will live in you. (14:23)

We see, then, that by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us we have the very life of the Father and Son in us; we have divine life dwelling in us.  In light of the attributes of Christ listed throughout the letter to the Colossians, this fact of Christ’s very life living in us cannot be taken lightly at all.

Christ’s life living in us also explains the confidence Christ had in giving such strict standards of normal Christian living, such as those seen in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).  Throughout this sermon, Christ makes demands as tough (or even tougher) than the Old Testament law. Then Paul comes later saying repeatedly that it is impossible for man to fulfill the requirements of the law (see Romans, Galatians, etc.).  How can we reconcile the demands of Jesus in Matt. 5-7 with the inability of humans to achieve these things? It is only reconciled when we consider that Christ, the One who can perfectly fulfill all of God’s demands for us, is living in us through his Holy Spirit.  It is therefore not in our striving to fulfill God’s demands, but in our resting in a power living inside of us, that is greater than us. Just as Paul could say that his Christian life is lived by God’s “working which works in me mightily.” (Col. 1:29).

A life that perceives the revelation of “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27), is the only true beginning to living a life pleasing to God.  Paul sums up this sentiment in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

“No longer I…but Christ lives in me.”  Not I, but Christ lives is the key to living the Christian life.

CHRIST…US IN CHRIST…CHRIST IN US

When we have thus viewed Christ, our position in Christ, and Christ’s life in us, we are prepared to continue on with the letter to the Colossians.

Now Col. 2 is a continuation of the truths of Col. 1, shown in the light of all other systems that fall short of this standard, including those that are supposedly “Christian”.

Col. 2:1-8 is a warning against any system that claims “Christianity”, but does not have the true power and position of us being in Christ and Christ being in us.  In other words, it warns against any system that is less than God’s full thought of what Christianity should be. Thus Paul warns against those who deceive with persuasive words and/or with man-made philosophy, tradition, and principles (see 2:4,8).  Or put in another way, he warns against any system that is not “rooted and built up in Him [Christ]” (2:7).

Col. 2:9-10 is the key to effective and victorious Christian living – it is done by the power of Christ, not man’s programs: “In Him dwells all…and you are complete in Him…”  All true power and wisdom and knowledge is found in Christ (Col. 2:3,10), and you have access to all this just by being in Christ and Christ in you. This is your answer to everything you need to live the normal Christian life.  

Col. 2:11-23 teaching specifically against all systems of legalism, including even living by the Old Testament Law.  Paul shows that Christians have had their old life crucified and buried with Christ, and have been given the life of another, Christ’s own life.  This all happened because Christ did everything and we simply trusted in this fact; it had nothing to do with following a system of commands, but had everything to do with Christ.  So, in light of this, he shows that it is ridiculous to think you will get anywhere in Christianity by applying your own strength in fulfilling any system of ordinances, rules, and regulations.

In fact, when a true Christian begins to live their life through these rules and regulations, striving by the power of their flesh, they are actually being “cheated” of their reward of living by Christ’s power and life (see Col. 2:18).  It is true, says Paul, that the Old Testament laws had a place in pointing us to Christ, as a shadow gives us a rough idea of what a person looks and acts like, but it would be foolish to live and depend on such shadows when the very substance has come.  It would rob God of all the work of Christ if we were to begin to build up a system of Christianity that does not find its power in Christ living in us. It is only in “holding fast to the Head [Jesus Christ]” that true increase happens in the life of any Christian or group of Christians (see Col. 2:19).

He ends this section by stating again that the only power to live a sinless life is in Christ.  In Galatians 6:14, Paul states that the world’s attraction has no hold over him, and in Romans 7:4, he speaks of the law losing power over Christians as well.  Both of these are true only in the cross of Christ. When the Roman soldiers (representing the powers of the world) “saw that He [Jesus] was already dead” (Jn. 19:33), by the power of God, all those who believe are just as surely marked as dead men, as they are now “in Christ”.  Since dead men cannot participate in any activities of the world, nor live by any of the ordinances of the law, Paul speaks of the foolishness of all who apply these rules to Christians. The key, to Paul, is seeing that we are already crucified in Christ. The only way to defeat sin is by death, and praise God that this is His very means to defeat sin in us: “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with” (Romans 6:6).  Now with this in mind, we see Paul’s displeasure in seeking any way to defeat sin outside of Christ’s finished work. When we see our place in Christ, and Christ’s life in us, we will realize the futility of any life that is lived outside of Christ.

OUR LIFE LIVED ON EARTH

Col. 3:1-4 – We are only able to live lives on earth pleasing to God if we focus our attention on heavenly things, specifically the things of Christ.

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above…Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.  For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3:1-3)

In this section, we see both that we died and were raised with Christ.  That is, our old sinful self is crucified in Christ, and the new life we have is nothing less than the life of Christ Jesus.  This is another reiteration of Paul’s emphasis on Christ, us in Christ, and Christ in us.

Now, in the context of these words, Paul is able to give us definite do’s and definite don’ts of Christianity.  Understand that these do’s and don’ts would be meaningless if understood on their own, without the background of the first half of Colossians.  They would slip into another system of legalism that would just make people feel condemned because they were incapable of achieving them. This is why he begins with these words: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth…” (Col. 3:5).  He starts with, “Therefore”, because the reader needs to attach these new commands with what has been said previously. You see, it is only by seeing our Lord that we are able to truly accomplish a Christian life by the Bible’s standards. In an instant of seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul’s life was forever changed far beyond what decades of living by the law could ever even fathom.

In Romans 8:13, Paul says: “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  Comparing this with Col. 3:5 makes it unmistakable to realize that all of what he is about to say in the following verses in Colossians will be impossible if not done in light of Christ dwelling in us in his Holy Spirit.  It is only in the power of the Spirit that we can experience true death to sin.

Col. 3:5-4:6 – The Do’s and Don’ts

  • PUT TO DEATH: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language (3:5,8)
  • DO NOT: lie, be bitter towards your spouse, provoke your children (3:9,19,21)
  • PUT ON: tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, love (3:12,14)
  • DO: bear with one another, forgive, let peace rule your hearts, be thankful, have God’s word in you, teach and admonish with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, sing with grace, submit to your husband, love your wife, obey your parents in all things, obey your masters with your heart and sincerity in all things, do everything for others as if you were doing it for God Himself, give those who work for you what is just and fair, continue earnestly and be vigilant in prayer, give thanksgiving in these prayers, pray for all those ministering Christ to others, pray for doors to be opened for the word of God and that it would be made manifested through the speakers of the word, walk in wisdom toward non-Christians, redeem the time, answer each other with graceful words  (3:13,15-20,22-23; 4:1-6)

Instead of being a list of commands, these ordinances are better viewed in the context of Christ, us in Christ, and Christ in us.  When we focus on the heavenly things of Christ, these works should follow. They then become indicators of whether or not we live by the life of Christ or by our own strength – e.g. if I notice that I have difficulty being earnest in prayers, perhaps I have not given this area of my life over to Christ to have his way, and have not trusted that through his Spirit He will take me into the intercession that He Himself walked in.

Do not misunderstand me in all this.  I am not excusing any responsibility of fulfilling this list of commands, along with the other demands made of us in the New Testament.  Rather, I am confronting the means by which we can fulfill these demands. I have a very real concern that too many Christians are going about their Christian life by the wrong means and the wrong power.  They are making it much more like Judaism, fulfilling obligations by our natural energy and power, instead of Christ’s, and they are being “cheated of their reward” of living their life through Christ’s power (see Col. 2:18).  Christianity was never meant to be done by checklists of do’s and don’ts. It forever is meant to be done through the Person and work of the Lord Jesus, and our receiving of these.

HOW DO WE LIVE SUCH A CHRISTIAN LIFE?

We anticipate the logical question many will ask with this teaching, i.e. What does this mean and look like for us?

First, as was stated before, it is not the end goal that seems askew, but rather the means to achieving this end.  All Christians can agree that sinning is wrong to do, but there are many different opinions on how we stop our sinning.  To demonstrate this difference, we’ve used an illustration contrasting different methods used to cease from sinning:

Let’s imagine a Christian man has a terribly difficult time forgiving a man who he feels wronged him.  He knows that he is commanded to forgive all people, and so he sets out to achieve this.

Method 1- methods outside of knowing Christ, being in Christ, and Christ in us.

First, he talks to a friend about this problem and his friend suggests that he think about something else to distract him from the problem, and then it might just naturally go away.  So the man strives to forget about the situation by pursuing life as normal, and anytime a thought comes into his mind concerning this man, he tries all the harder to find something else to do to occupy himself.  But after a few weeks, he sees the man on the street, and realizes that he feels just as bitter and spiteful as ever. He knew that he had never forgiven the man, and realized this was wrong.

The man decides to try other approaches – such as imagining better qualities about the man, or forcing himself to love the man, convincing himself that he has forgiven the man, etc., etc. – to no avail.  He even tries to pray to God for forgiveness, but without the realization of Christ’s person and work, he only seeks this forgiveness as a thing in itself, and God cannot answer such prayers that do not give total glory to His Son.

Finally, the man just considers the matter useless, and believes that it will never be possible to achieve such a standard of morality in this lifetime.  He perceives the focus of Christianity to consist largely of what happens after he dies, and loses a desire to strive after holiness in this lifetime.

Method 2 – The New Testament method of striving to see Christ, knowing your position in Christ, and depending on the power of Christ’s life in you

First, the man focuses on the life of Christ and person of Christ, realizing that Christ was able to forgive people who wronged Him all the time, even showing forgiveness to His murderers.

Then, the man realizes that in Christ he is totally forgiven of all the detestable things he’s committed and held in his heart.  He sees that Christ has forgiven him of things that are far beyond what he is holding against this other man.

Finally, the man also sees that all of Christ’s forgiveness is possessed by the Holy Spirit, and this same Holy Spirit resides in his very heart.  He trusts that this life, not his own, will bring him to a point of true forgiveness, and prays to God that Christ may be manifested more fully in him, especially where it concerns this matter of forgiving the man.

In both of these scenarios, the man sets out to conquer his inability to forgive someone he feels offended him.  The end goal was the exact same, but we see that the means to accomplish this were vastly different.

The first method is a composite of different things I see happening in the church to fight sin.  I’m sure we could add other methods, but they all amount to the same thing: a victory outside of the Person and Work of Christ.  

The second method is what I believe Paul teaches in Colossians and all his letters in the New Testament.  It is a method that views the Person and work of Christ as the cornerstone and only source by which we can live the Christian life.  It is this method that I think Paul himself alludes to when writing: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and…I live by faith in the Son of God.” (Gal. 2:20).

God, may you reveal to our eyes more of your precious Son.  May we see His light and in Him find our light. Please reveal to us more of the great mystery of us in Christ and Christ in us, that we would not lose heart even in the most difficult of times and situations.  Forgive us for all the methods of man that we have sought in establishing our righteousness. May we trust your method is best. Praise you Lord. Amen.

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