Colossians 1:3-14 — Reading Backwards
Have you ever started something, and as you began it made sense, but then you got stuck?
I think of those picture mazes, with countless dead-ends. Sometimes it helps to start at the end and work backwards.
Why bring this up? Because at times I get stuck midway through parts of this letter.
Just as in his greeting, he is weaving in God and Jesus. Jesus and God are in his thinking, his praying, and his writing.
These short 250 words have two parts: thanksgiving and prayer.
His thankfulness overflows. Paul is joyous because of the faith this church in Colossae is demonstrating for Jesus, and the love they show towards one another. Jesus told us that people will know we are His followers because we love one another (Jn. 13:35).
But then he adds this bit, “…because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5).
At first it seemed just to be a tack-on. Shouldn’t the sentence simply stop after the part about their love for all the saints? Maybe it did not bother you, but it sort of bugged me. I kept looking at it.
So, I turned to my old approach and went to the end of the paragraph, first to verse 8. We read this love is “love in the Spirit.” Not a sentimental love, but the kind of love that bears with each other as they seek to live in community.
In verse 7 we learn that Epaphras (he is mentioned also in Philemon) is how Paul learns about their faith. But backing up, we find what for me is the key bit:
“…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…” (verses 5 and 6)
This hope is the Gospel, the Good News.
Maybe you are thinking, “Well, of course David, what is the big deal?” Maybe it was straightforward for you. For me, it would have been easy to read how Paul was thankful, because these nice church people were being nice to each other, faithful even—maybe they went to church every Sunday.
However, that is not the point. The source of joy, the source of hope—is not the works of humans, but the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in them!
Note, it is not that they have become learned or holy.
And not just the people in Colossae, the Gospel is for the world.
It is spreading. It is growing. Like a plant or bush, it is a new type of plant. As it spreads it bears fruit. And bearing fruit is the focus of his thanksgiving.
Where does this fruit come from?
Verse 5 tells us where it comes from – “the word of truth” – or in other words, the Gospel. The Gospel is sown, takes root, spreads and bears fruit.
Yet there is more. We are barely into this letter and the focus shifts—to prayer.
Let’s read this prayer again, slowly, backwards, starting with verse 11:
…being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy;
Following Jesus isn’t a sprint, but a marathon, and requires God’s power. Here’s a question: which way are we running?
(Verse 10) so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, full pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;
We are running in a manner that Jesus will find worthy—in fact, he will find it pleasing. What manner is this? The text says: bearing fruit in works. We probably get that bit. At least I do. I too easily fall into the trap of “doing” and “do more”, and that can be dangerous.
But it is not only doing good works, the text continues that we are to increase in the knowledge of God.
That word, knowledge, requires a bit of digging.
Earlier I wrote that the thanksgiving was not because they have become learned or holy.
So what kind of knowledge is it? There are many ways to gain knowledge. The text tells us.
This word, in Greek, describes this knowledge. It is both focused on a particular purpose/person, and it is gained through first-hand relationship.
The prayer is to know more and more Jesus Christ through relationship—to keep going deeper with God.
The prayer—work hard for Jesus, and keep going deeper with God. Which is why Paul writes:
We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,