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Chapter 2 The Salutation and Introduction
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, (vv. 1-2)
Thirteen epistles in the New Testament begin with the name Paul. A fourteenth letter, concerning the authorship of which there is considerable dispute, is nevertheless generally accepted as from the same pen, namely, the epistle to the Hebrews. But the opening word of that epistle is God. The thirteen beginning with the word Paul are addressed either to churches among the Gentiles or to individual believers who were on full church ground. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and as such he magnified his office. He was not the apostle to the Hebrews. If, therefore, he was the one chosen to write that wonderful opening up of the old and new covenants, as I firmly believe, it was quite in keeping with his Gentile apostleship that his name should be hidden. Christ alone was the apostle and prophet of the new covenant, as Moses and Aaron had been of the old, and so the opening word of Hebrews is simply God, but God speaking in His Son.
In this Colossian letter, as in the Philippian epistle, Paul associated Timothy with him in the salutation. The bond between these two men of God, so far apart in age though they were, was a very real one. Timothy was converted during Paul’s ministry at Lystra, and on his next visit to the same region the brethren took occasion heartily to commend this young man to him, as one in whom marked spiritual graces were manifest and who gave evidence of considerable gift, and was therefore, in their judgment, suited to go out in the ministry of the Word. Acting on their advice, Paul took Timothy with him in the work after the elder brethren had solemnly laid their hands upon him, commending him to God for this special service. Throughout the years that followed, Timothy had proven himself in every respect reliable and devoted. His unselfish concern for the welfare of the people of God and his loyal attachment to his human leader endeared him very much to the venerable apostle. It would seem that Timothy had even accompanied Paul, or else followed him to Rome, and was either sharing his imprisonment or within easy reach doing what he could to alleviate the suffering of the apostle, as well as ministering among the Roman believers. So he here connects the young preacher with himself when he sends his greetings to the saints at Colosse.
Paul attributed his own apostleship directly to the will of God. It was He who had revealed Christ both to and in him and set him apart for service, commissioning him to proclaim the unsearchable riches of grace among the Gentiles. It would be preposterous to suppose that the laying on of hands of the church at Antioch, as mentioned in Acts 13:0, conferred any authority whatsoever upon either Barnabas or Paul, inasmuch as they had been approved laborers in the gospel for some time. It simply expressed, as in Timothy’s case, the fellowship of the local assembly. It was the Holy Spirit who sent them forth and ordained them. Writing to the Galatians also, Paul uses similar expressions, and declares he is an apostle not of men nor by men. This is a principle of far-reaching importance in connection with the work of the ministry. Whenever men presume to add anything to the divine call or to confer authority on a servant of Christ, they are usurping the place of the Holy Spirit. The most that any “laying on of hands” can do is to express fellowship in the work.
In the second verse the Christians at Colosse are addressed as “the saints and faithful brethren.” The first expression suggests the divine call; the second, the human response. It is God who designates His redeemed ones as saints, yet Romanists and many Protestants are generally astray as to the meaning of the term. With the first class, a saint is a particularly holy person who displays great devotion or possesses miraculous powers, and is credited in the calendar of intermediaries with a superabundance of merit or goodness which may be appropriated by others. With many who profess greater enlightenment, a saint is one who has become victorious in the struggle with sin and has been received triumphantly into heaven. So they speak of the Christian dead as “sainted.” But the scriptural conception is altogether different. The vilest sinner is constituted by God, a saint, the moment he puts his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, “who was delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification.” Thus we are saints by calling and not primarily by practice. However, we should be careful not to divorce the practical side of things from the doctrinal. Being saints, we are now responsible to live in a saintly way. In other words, we are to live out practically what God has already declared to be true of us doctrinally. We do not become saints by the display of saintly virtues; but because we are saints we are to cultivate saintly characters. This, of course, is done in communion with God, in obedience to His Word, as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The second expression, “faithful brethren,” does not, I take it, imply any advance upon the first one, nor do the two terms indicate two classes of believers. “Faithful brethren” are really brethren who believe; even as we read elsewhere, “They that be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” It might be translated either, “They that have faith are blessed with faithful Abraham,” or, “They that believe are blessed with believing Abraham.” There is an intentional connection between the two terms. All real Christians, therefore, are believing or faithful brethren. If any profess to be Christ’s who do not believe His Word, they but show themselves to be unreal and false to their profession. For it is written, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” And again we are told, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.”
The usual apostolic salutation follows. “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is God’s free unmerited favor. It is even more than that. It is favor against merit. When we merit the very opposite God lavishes His loving-kindness upon us. That is grace. He who sits upon a throne of grace bids us come boldly to obtain grace and mercy as daily needs arise. What saint can but echo the words in the hymn,
Since our souls have known His love,
What mercies has He made us prove?
Peace is here, of course, the peace of God garrisoning His people’s hearts in the day of evil. It is peace amid the most disquieting circumstances, because assured that “all things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We pass on, then, to the introduction:
We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints, for the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth: as ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellowservant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ; who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit, (vv. 3-8)
We are reminded of the introduction to the epistle to the Ephesians as we read these words, which begin with an expression of thanksgiving to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This presents God in a double character as Creator and as Savior. It is through Jesus Christ that our salvation is mediated. Having heard of the conversion of the Colossians, the apostle’s heart was stirred to prayer on their behalf. He writes, “Praying always for you since we heard.” For him to learn of others coming to Christ invariably meant that his burden of prayer was increased. He felt, as few men ever have felt, the great need of intercession for the people of God, for he knew well the fearful opposition of Satan the prince and god of this world toward those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He realized the prevailing power of prayer to defeat the adversary. Therefore he bows in the presence of God in earnest supplication on behalf of those whom grace has saved, and he tells us farther on what it was for which he prayed; so we do not now linger on that.
It is interesting to notice how faith, love, and hope are linked together here as in so many other places in Scripture. The order is different in 1 Corinthians 13:0. There, where he is exalting love, he puts faith first, hope second, and love last, as that which will abide when the other two have passed away. But here it is hope that closes that life which begins with faith, and the two are linked together by love. Faith lays hold of the cross. Hope looks on to the glory. Love is the power that constrains the saint in view of both.
It was a Divine Person to whom they had trusted their souls. People are troubled sometimes for fear their faith should not be of the right quality, or might prove of insufficient quantity to save them. But it is important to observe that it is not the character nor the amount of faith that saves. It is the Person in whom faith rests. The strongest faith in self-effort, or in the church, or in religious observances would leave the soul forever lost. But the feeblest faith in the Christ who died and rose again saves eternally. Some people try to make a Savior of their faith, but Christ alone is the Savior, and faith is but the hand that reaches out to Him.
Then he speaks of the love that they had to all the saints. This is precious indeed, and is the evidence both of the divine nature imparted in new birth and of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is the very nature of the newborn soul to love not only God, but those who are begotten of Him. This love knows no sectarian limitation but embraces all the people of God.
Hope looks on to the future, so he speaks of the hope which is laid up in heaven and of this they had learned in the word of the truth of the gospel. No one fully appreciates the gospel who leaves out the blessed hope of the Lord’s return to receive His people to be with Himself in the Father’s house. This is the glad consummation of the believer’s life of faith and love and hope. Death is never set before the believer as his hope-but always it is the Lord’s return for which he is to wait.
The gospel is God’s good news about His Son, and therefore, when fully preached, necessarily includes the proclamation of His true sinless humanity, His Deity, His virgin birth, His vicarious sacrifice, His glorious resurrection, His present session as Advocate and High Priest at God’s right hand in heaven, and His coming again to reign in power and righteousness when all His redeemed will be associated with Him. All these precious truths are included in the word of the truth of the gospel.
In verse 6 we learn that this gospel, even in Paul’s day, had been carried to the very ends of the earth. The same message that had reached Colosse had been preached in all the world, as verse 23 also declares. And, wherever this great evangel of the cross had gone, it had produced fruit to the praise and glory of God in those who believed it. It is the height of folly to look for fruit before the soul has settled peace, or to expect evidence of salvation in the life before the gospel has been believed. Salvation is altogether of grace. Human effort has no place in it at all. Neither are we saved by the work of the Spirit within us producing that ninefold fruit mentioned in Galatians 5:0. We are saved by the work of Christ for us, a work done altogether outside of ourselves, and in which we had no part excepting to commit the sins that put the Savior on the cross. An old man expressed it correctly when he said, “I did my part and God did His-I did the sinning, and God did the saving. I took to running away from Him as fast as my sins could carry me, and He took after me until He run me down!” Others might express it more elegantly, but no one could tell it more clearly.
The gospel is a message to be believed, not a collection of precepts or a code of laws to be obeyed. It is of faith that it might be by grace-”not of works, lest any man should boast.” But the moment the message is believed it produces new life in the soul, and the Spirit seals the believer by coming to dwell within him. This invariably results in precious fruit for God. And this the Colossian believers had exemplified in their own experiences since they heard and knew the grace of God in truth. Observe that the words in verse 6, of it, are better omitted.
It was not through the apostle Paul that the message had been carried to Colosse, as we have already noticed. So far as we know he had never visited that city as a messenger of the cross. He speaks in this letter of those whose faces he had not seen in the flesh. It was another devoted man of God, Epaphras by name, who had proclaimed the gospel to them. Paul speaks of him affectionately as “our dear fellowservant,” and he declares that he was a faithful minister of Christ. His outstanding characteristic, as gathered from 4:12, was that of fervency in prayer. How blessed when faithful preaching and fervent prayer go together! Alas, that they are so often divorced!
In verse 8, as we have seen, we get the only reference to the Holy Spirit that is found in this epistle. It has already been remarked that when the truth as to Christ, the Head of the church, is being called in question, or when Satan is seeking to interpose anything between the soul and Christ, God will not even occupy the saints with the person or work of the Spirit, lest by occupation with subjective truth they lose sight of the great objective verities. So here the reference to the Spirit is only incidental. He simply mentions the fact that Epaphras had told Paul and his fellow workers of their love in the Spirit. It was a precious testimony to the happy state of these dear young Christians, so recently brought out of paganism with all its abominations.
Now as a company set apart to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, they were characterized by that love which the Spirit sheds abroad in the hearts of those who are born of God. This is all-important. To pretend to great zeal for the truth of the one body while failing to manifest the love of the Spirit is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. Doctrinal correctness will never atone for lack of brotherly love. It is far more to God who is Himself love, in His very nature, that His people walk in love one toward another, than that they contend valiantly for set forms of truth, however scriptural. “Truthing in love” (which would correctly convey the thought of Ephesians 4:15) is more than contending for formulas. It is the manifestation of the truth in a life of love to God and to those who are His, as well as for poor lost sinners for whom Christ died.
Chapter 3 Paul's Player, and Thanksgiving
For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins. (vv. 9-14)
This section reminds us of the prayers of the apostle for the Ephesians, as recorded in chapters 1 and 3 of that epistle. There is something very precious and exceedingly instructive in being thus permitted to share the thoughts of, and notice the petitions offered up by, the apostle Paul for the Lord’s people in various circumstances. His deep concern for their growth in grace, their enlightenment in divine things, their apprehension of the purpose of God, and the manifestation of spiritual power in the life-all these come out very strikingly as he bows his knees before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was not content to know people were justified and hence safe for eternity.
He was controlled by the earnest desire that each one should understand the hope of his calling in order that the life and walk might be in harmony with it, and that they might remember they were here to represent Christ, their risen Head. These are what formed the burden of his prayers. It is questionable if any merely human writer has ever been able to give as helpful suggestions for our own prayer life as will come to us in our meditation upon these various petitions.
In verses 9-11 we have set forth certain blessings for which he prays. In verses 12-14 there are others for which he gives thanks. It is very important to distinguish these things, that is, to have clearly in mind the privileges and blessings which are nonforfeitable because confirmed to us by God in Christ from the moment we believe on Him who died to make them good to us. The additional blessings for which we need to pray daily, and concerning which there should be constant soul-exercise lest we fail to enter into and enjoy them. Many believers fail in not distinguishing the two classes of blessings.
In certain circles almost every public prayer will be concluded somewhat as follows: “We pray Thee, forgive us our sins and wash us in the blood of Jesus. Receive us into Thy kingdom, give us Thy Holy Spirit, and save us at last for Christ’s sake, Amen.” Yet every petition in this prayer has already been granted to the believer in Christ! God has forgiven us all trespasses. We are cleansed by the blood of Jesus. He has already translated us out of the kingdom of darkness into that of the Son of His love. He has sealed us with His Holy Spirit, for “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.” And we are saved eternally from the moment we believe the gospel. Therefore we might far rather cry exultantly in faith: “We thank Thee that Thou hast forgiven all our sins, and washed us from every stain in the blood of the Lamb. Thou hast brought us into Thy kingdom, given us Thy Holy Spirit, and saved us for eternity.”
Faith says “Amen” to what God has declared in His Word to be true. To go on praying for blessings that He tells us are already ours is the most subtle kind of unbelief, and robs us of the enjoyment that should be our portion if we but had faith to lay hold of the exceeding great and precious promises which are ours in Christ.
Let us then follow carefully the apostle’s prayer, weighing every phrase and clause. He says, “[I] pray for you,… [that] ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will.” Those who were troubling the Colossian saints boasted of their superior knowledge. They had evolved a complex system of mystical and wholly imaginative teaching in regard to the soul’s approach to God through an interminable number of intermediaries, coupled with ascetic regulations and legal observances. In their eyes the gospel as preached by Paul was simplicity indeed, so much so that they looked upon it as a child’s conception of the philosophy of the universe, which was puerile for men of mature minds. But he who knew this gospel in all its grandeur, as few other men have ever known it, speaks here of being “filled with the knowledge of God’s will.” He uses a superlative in the place of a word which the Gnostics were very fond of. They boasted of Gnosis-“knowledge.” He says, Epignosis, meaning, literally, “super-knowledge.” It is in the divine revelation alone that this is found.
By this term, “the knowledge of his will,” I do not understand him to be referring merely to God’s will for the individual believer’s life from day to day (though, indeed, that would be involved in the fuller thought of the will of God, as the drop of water is included in the ocean), but by His will, I take it, he means the wondrous plan or program of the Father known from eternity and now being carried out in time to have its consummation in the ages to come-“the eternal purpose of God.” Here is super-knowledge indeed! Here is that which the cleverest human intellect could never fathom, apart from divine revelation. And this revelation we have in our Bibles. It runs throughout the Scriptures from Genesis to the Apocalypse, furnishing a theme for devout contemplation, and demanding enthusiastic study and careful examination by men of the most erudite minds and brilliant intellects, and the deepest investigation of the most spiritual believers. But in which also the unlearned and the ignorant Christians will find constant enjoyment if they but allow themselves to be guided by the Spirit in searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so.
So the words that follow stress the important fact that truth is not learned through the intellect alone. He prays that they may comprehend these things “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge aright, and is imparted by the Spirit, and He alone gives true understanding. Therefore, if we would learn the mind of God as revealed in His Word, there must be subjection of heart to the divine Teacher, and that self-judgment and self-distrust which leads one to walk softly before God; not in self-will or egotism, but in humility and lowly dependence on the One who inspired the Holy Scriptures, which alone can make wise the simple.
Then we learn in verse 10 that if God opens up His truth to us it is not merely that we may delight in the wondrous things He has revealed, but it is His desire that we walk in the power of that which He makes known to us. So the prayer goes on, “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing.” We can only walk worthy of the Lord as we know His mind. The study of His Word and a godly walk should ever go together.
It is noteworthy that in Ephesians 4:1 we are exhorted to “walk worthy of [our] vocation,” or calling, as members of the body of Christ, while in Philippians 1:27 we are told to walk worthy of the gospel, which we are left in the world to proclaim. Then in 1 Thessalonians 2:12 we are bidden to “walk worthy of God,” Himself, who has called us to His kingdom and glory. Our walk is ever to be in accordance with the truth revealed to our souls. So here we are to walk worthy of the Lord, He who is the Head of the new creation to which we now belong.
Dr. Griffith Thomas points out that the word here rendered “pleasing” is not found in any other passage in the New Testament, but is used in Greek elsewhere to mean “a preference of the will of others before our own.” Bishop Handley Moule translated the phrase, “Unto every anticipation of His will.”
This is blessed indeed, when the will of God is sweeter far than our own will, and we delight in doing as He would have us, not in order to propitiate Him but to give joy to His heart. Yet most of us learn so slowly that the only true happiness in life is to be found in doing the will of God. In vain we seek for satisfaction by trying to have our own way, until at last like a bird, wearied out with flying against the bars of its cage, we fall back upon the will of God and learn that in it the mind and heart find perfect rest.
Oh, the peace my Saviour gives;
Peace I never knew before;
And the way has brighter grown
Since I’ve learned to trust Him more.
It is the subject believer who becomes fruitful, so he adds, “being fruitful in every good work.” Or it might be better rendered, “bearing fruit in every good work.” When we speak of every good work, we are not to think simply of preaching the gospel, teaching the Holy Scriptures, or engaging in what is sometimes called Christian activity or church work. We are very prone to do this and to distinguish between secular employment and sacred. But we need to be reminded over and over again that everything in a believer’s life is sacred. The church of Rome distinguishes seven sacraments. But every act of a Christian should have a sacramental character using the word as generally understood. Whatsoever is right and proper for me to do in any circumstance, I should do with an eye single to the glory of God, and by so doing I shall be bearing fruit unto Him. The testimony of the little maid who said, “I know I am converted, and my mistress knows I am converted too, because I sweep under the mats now,” has gone around the world, and wherever this gospel is preached it is told for a memorial of her. She was right, for even in the most commonplace duties she was bearing fruit for God, and she sought to glorify Him by the faithful performance of her responsibilities, done not with eye-service as a man-pleaser, but as pleasing “God which trieth the heart.”
Then we have, “Increasing in the knowledge of God.” This is more than the knowledge of the Word of God, though undoubtedly the one leads to the other, for God has made Himself known through His Word. But we increase in the knowledge of God as we walk with Him from day to day, learning more of His love and grace, His tender compassion, His care for those who trust Him; and proving, too, how solemn a thing it is to deviate from the path of obedience and thus be exposed to the rod of correction. We know God as we walk with Him. We walk with Him as we obey His Word.
We know Him as we could not know
Through heaven’s golden years;
We there shall see His glorious face,
On earth they saw His tears;
The touch that heals the broken heart
Is never felt above;
His angels know His blessedness,
His way-worn saints His love.
We shall thank Him for all eternity for every trial along our pilgrim path that gave Him a new opportunity to display His grace and to manifest His heart to us, His needy people, so dependent upon His power and grace.
As we thus go on with Him, we will be strengthened with all might according to His glorious power, and this “unto all patience and long-suffering with joyful-ness.” How much have we here upon which our souls may well meditate? It is He who supplies strength, giving all needed power in order that we may overcome in every adverse circumstance, according to the might of His glory. What room is there for discouragement as temptations and trials surround me and seem about to overwhelm me, if I realize that the very same spiritual dynamic, that wondrous energy which raised Christ from the dead, operates in me by the Spirit that I may be even more than victorious through Him who loves me!
But we might have supposed that all this manifestation of divine energy would result in producing some great outward display that would astonish and amaze an unbelieving world. But no it is “unto all patience.” I need this dynamic force so to keep the flesh in subjection that I can patiently endure whatsoever God in His wisdom sees fit to let me go through while in this wilderness world. Neither will I simply endure with stoic resignation, such as even a pagan philosopher might exhibit, but God would have me patiently wait upon Him and rest in His love even amid circumstances that press hard upon my soul, with long-suffering, that is, uncomplaining endurance. But there is even more than this. In the hour of trial a song of gladness will well up in the heart where the will of God is supreme. And so he adds, “With joyfulness.”
Here is something that the natural man knows nothing of-joy in the time of trial; gladness in the time of hardship; songs in the night, though the darkness be overwhelming; praises to the God of my salvation when nature shrinks and trembles. It was thus the martyrs could rejoice in the arena when thrown to the lions, or exult in the Lord when the flames leaped up around them as they suffered at the stake. And myriads of sufferers all through the Christian era have been able to testify to the sustaining grace of God, when the spirit seemed about to be overwhelmed. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The three verses that follow are in marked contrast to those we have just been considering. We have now thanksgiving instead of prayer. Here all is positive and eternally settled. The blessings enumerated are ours from the moment we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are absolutely nonforfeitable. To pray for these is to dishonor God by casting doubt upon His Word. Notice the three haths and the one have of the King James Version; words that speak of present possession. Faith lays hold of such testimonies and rejoices in the assurance that these wondrous blessings are to be enjoyed even now.
First we read, “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” This is true of every Christian, and there are no degrees in this divine fitness. We are made meet to be partakers of our glorious inheritance the instant we are cleansed from our sins and receive the new nature, which is imparted by a divine operation when we are born of God. How different are the thoughts of even some of the best of men! How often we hear it said of some devoted and aged believer, “He is fit for heaven at last.” But he was just as truly fit for heaven the moment he received Christ as he is at the end of a long life of devoted service. Fitness does not depend upon experience. But in this connection it is well to remember that there is something more than the Father’s house, the inheritance of the saints in light, before us.
It is important that we should also have in mind the coming glorious kingdom. In 2 Peter 1:10-11 we are told, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” The expression, “these things,” refers to the various Christian virtues enumerated in verses 5-7. It is through these things we are fitted for a place in the coming kingdom, but it is the justifying, regenerating grace of God that alone makes us meet for our heavenly inheritance. In other words, it is important that we distinguish between salvation by grace and reward for service.
We next read, “Who hath delivered us from the power [or, authority] of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of [the Son of his love].” This is a different kingdom to that of which we have been reading in 2 Peter. It is the present sphere where Christ’s authority is owned, the kingdom which we see and enter by new birth. This kingdom consists not of “meat and drink, but [of] righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” As born of God we have lost our old standing as sons of fallen Adam in the satanic kingdom of darkness. We have been brought out of the darkness into the marvelous light of children of God, and it is here, of course, that responsibility comes in to walk as children of light. J. N. Darby was once asked, “But suppose a Christian turned his back on the light. What then?” He replied, “Then the light will shine upon his back!” Most blessed it is to see this. We are in the light in all the value of the precious atoning blood of our Lord Jesus Christ sprinkled upon the mercy seat, the very throne of God from which the light shines.
Lastly we read, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” There is some question as to the manuscript’s authority of the expression, “through His blood.” The best editors generally omit it. It seems to have been inserted from Ephesians 1:7. But that does not for a moment touch the truth of which we have been speaking. It would only suggest the fuller character of redemption which is both by blood and by power. The blood having been shed, the omnipotent power of God makes redemption real to the believer, whose sins have all been forgiven and who has been lifted completely out of those circumstances in which he was once exposed to the judgment of God. As the soul meditates on the wonderful truths so succinctly presented in these three verses the heart will surely go out to God in worship and the life be yielded for devoted service!
Let me recapitulate, as I close:
· He hath made us meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.
· He hath delivered us from the authority of darkness.
· He hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.
· We have redemption through His blood.
Blessed certainties these that tell in unmistakable terms of our eternal security if once in Christ!
Chapter 4 Christ the Firstborn: Twofold Headship of Christ and Twofold Reconciliation
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell, (vv. 15-19)
We have had our Lord Jesus before us as the Son of God’s love in whom we have redemption. Our attention is now directed to Him as the One who has made God known to us. Coming into the world as man He is the image of the invisible God-that God who to the Gnostic could never be known or understood. We are told in John 1:18, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Five times in the New Testament He is called the Only Begotten, and this endearing term always refers to what He is from eternity, with no thought of generation connected with it. It implies unity in life and nature. Isaac is called in Hebrews 11:17 Abrahams only begotten son-yet Ishmael was also his son. But the link between Abraham and Isaac was of a unique character. And so, as the Only Begotten, our Lord is the unique Son, eternally that, for if He be not the eternal Son, then we lose the eternal Father too.
God existed from all eternity as three Persons-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-but never became visible to created eyes whether of angels or men until the Holy Babe was born in Bethlehem. The Son was as truly the invisible God as the Father or the Spirit until the incarnation. Then He was seen of angels, and later on by men. As thus begotten of God of a virgin mother without any human father, He is Son of God in a new sense. And it is as such He is owned of the Father as the firstborn of every creature, or perhaps the expression would be better rendered, the firstborn of all creation. It is not that He is Himself created, but He is the Head of all that has been created.
It will be seen from what has been said above that the title Firstborn is not to be taken solely as a divine title, though He is divine who bears this name. But it is as Man He is owned of God the Father as the Firstborn. And how right it is that such a title should be conferred upon Him, for “by him were all things created.” Coming into the world as Man, He takes that place in virtue of the dignity of His person. His is the glory of the Firstborn because He is the Creator. The firstborn is the heir and preeminent one. It is important to remember that in Scripture the firstborn is not necessarily the one born first. Many instances might be cited where the one born first was set to one side and the right of the firstborn given to another. One only needs to mention the cases of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, to which many more might be added. The first man is set aside and the second man is acknowledged as the firstborn. And so Adam and all his race are set to one side as unfit to retain authority over the world in order that Christ, the Second Man, the Lord from heaven, may be acknowledged as the Firstborn.
It will be seen how tremendously all this would weigh against the Gnostic conception of a created Jesus to whom the Christ, a divine emanation, came upon His enlightenment following His baptism, and who left Him again at the cross. It was the eternal Son who stooped in grace to become the Son of God as born of a virgin. It should never be lost sight of that His Sonship is spoken of in these two distinct ways in Scripture. As the Eternal Son, pre-incarnate, He is called “the Son,” “the Son of the Father,” and also the “Son of God,” but the latter term generally refers to what He became when He took humanity into relation with deity and became God and Man in one Person with two natures, in accordance with the word of the angel, addressed to His virgin mother, “That Holy One, who shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God.” It is necessary to be very accurate in our thinking when considering this great mystery, and not to let our thoughts run beyond Holy Scripture. It was of the virgin-born Savior that Micah prophesied, saying, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” or, as the margin puts it, “from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2).
The five passages in which He is called the Only Begotten, if carefully weighed, will make this clear.
The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, literal rendering)
No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, subsisting in the bosom of the Father, he hath told him out. (John 1:18, literal rendering)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)
The five other passages referred to in which He is called the Firstborn, or First Begotten, are as follows:
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature [or, of all creation]. (Colossians 1:15)
And he is the head of the body, the church; who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. (Colossians 1:18)
And when he bringeth the firstborn into the habitable earth, again he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. (Hebrews 1:6, literal rendering)
Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of [or, from among] the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. (Revelation 1:5)
It was He who brought all things into being. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” All the inhabitants of heaven and of earth owe their lives to Him. Beings visible or invisible are all the creatures of His hand. Angels, no matter how great their dignity, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, all were created by Him and for His glory. The Gnostics placed these varied ranks of exalted beings between Him and God, but He is shown to be superior to them all, for He brought them into being. He is Himself the uncreated Son who became Man to accomplish the work of redemption. Higher than all angels, He was made a little lower than they for the suffering of death.
In verse 17 His priority is insisted on in another way. “He is before all things.” By the term “all things” we understand all that has been created, whether personal or impersonal. He Himself existed as the eternal Word before them all. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Full Deity is ascribed to Him, yet distinct personality. Moreover, it is He who sustains the universe, for “by Him all things consist,” or, “hold together.” It is His hand that holds the stars in their courses, directs the planets in their orbits, and controls the laws of the universe. How great is His dignity, and yet how low did He stoop for our salvation!
But He is firstborn in another sense in verse 18. Man rejected Him saying, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.” So they slew Him, hanging Him on a tree. But it was then that God made His soul an offering for sin, and He accomplished the great work of redemption for which He came. “ [He died], the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” But having been delivered on account of our offenses, He was raised again on account of our justification. As brought again from the dead He became the Firstborn in a new sense, the Head of the new creation. As Man on earth in incarnation there was no union with Him. Union is in resurrection. He was alone as the Incarnate Son here in the world. As He Himself says: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it shall bring forth much fruit.” It is in resurrection that He is hailed as the Firstborn from among the dead. As such He becomes the Head of the body, the church; the Beginning of the creation of God; Firstborn among many brethren; the Resurrection King-Priest; the One who is yet to rule the world in manifested glory; the Melchizedek of the age to come, as Hebrews shows us.
Verse 19 is admittedly difficult to translate euphoniously, and in our English version the words “the Father” have been supplied in order to complete what seems like an incomplete sentence. But it should be carefully noted that there is nothing in the original to answer to the term “the Father.” It is rather “the fulness” that was pleased to dwell in Jesus. And if this verse is connected with verse 9 of chapter 2 we shall understand at once what is in view. “In him all the fulness [of the Godhead] was pleased to dwell.” Deity has been fully manifested in Jesus our adorable Lord. This is the mystery of godliness of 1 Timothy 3:16. The Gnostics used this term, “the fulness,” or pleroma, for the divine essence, dwelling in unapproachable light; and in a lesser sense for the illumination that comes when one reaches the higher plane of knowledge. But all the divine pleroma dwelt in Jesus. All that God is, He is, so that we may now say, “We know God in knowing him.” He has fully manifested Him.
As we ponder the wondrous truths brought before us in these verses the spiritual mind will feel more and more that we have here mysteries of a character beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp. Here is truth for pious meditation, to stir the soul to worship and thanksgiving, not at all for the exercise of the intellect in theological speculations. As we read we would bow our hearts in lowly adoration and thus gaze upon the face of Him who has come forth from the glory that He had with the Father in all the past eternity in order to bring us into the knowledge of God.
In the next section we are told of a twofold reconciliation.
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight, (vv. 20-22)
In the portion we have just considered, Christ has been presented as the Firstborn in two distinct ways. We have had His twofold Headship: first over all creation and then as Head of the body, the church. In the verses now before us we have reconciliation presented in a double aspect. First, we have the future reconciliation of all things and then present individual reconciliation. He in whom all the fullness dwells has made peace through the blood of His cross. Man is never called upon in Scripture to make his own peace with God. He is viewed as alienated and an enemy, manifestly so, through wicked works.
Sin has come in between God and man, requiring expiation before the guilty rebel could be received by God in peace. Not only on earth, but in heaven has sin lifted up its serpenthead. In fact, it was in heaven that sin began, when Lucifer apostatized, leading with him a vast number of the angelic hosts. Therefore the heavens themselves were unclean in the sight of God and had to be purified by a better sacrifice than those offered under the law. On the cross Christ tasted death, and so far-reaching are the results of His work that eventually all things in earth and in heaven will be reconciled to God upon the basis of what He there accomplished. Whether for the universe or for the individual sinner, He made peace through the blood of His cross. Yet rebels remain in spite of the fact that peace has been made.
We may understand it if we remember that two nations which have been at war with one another may through their plenipotentiaries have agreed on terms of peace, and yet guerilla bands may insist on fighting, ignoring the peace that has been made. So men and demons still persist in refusing to own the divine authority, notwithstanding the fact that,
Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies,
Mercy, free boundless mercy, cries.
For angels the terms of peace offer no pardon, but to the sinful sons of Adam clemency is extended, and he who will may trust in Christ and thus be reconciled to God. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
The reconciliation of all things includes two spheres, and two only. The time will come when all in earth and all in heaven will be happily reconciled to God. When it is a question of subjugation, as in Philippians 2:10, there are three spheres. Heavenly, earthly, and infernal beings are at last to own the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there is no hope held out in Scripture that the sad inhabitants of the infernal regions will ever be reconciled to God.
The reconciliation of verse 20 carries us on to the new heaven and the new earth where righteousness will dwell and the tabernacle of God shall be with men, and all the redeemed with the elect angels abide with Him in holy harmony. Sin has ruptured the state of peace and harmony that once existed between God and His creatures. Christ in death has wrought reconciliation, and so made it possible for that lost concord to be reestablished, but in new creation.
This reconciliation is already accomplished for individual sinners who “were sometime alienated and enemies in their mind by wicked works,” but who through infinite grace have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son. It is the soul’s apprehension by faith of the infinite love of the offended Deity manifested in the death of the cross that destroys the enmity and draws out the affections of the renewed man to God revealed in Christ. Well may the apostle exclaim elsewhere,
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
It is not the holy, wondrous life of Christ that has thus reconciled us. It is His sacrificial death. And as a result of that death we shall eventually be presented before God the Father unblameable in holiness and unreproveable in His sight. The sentence is not concluded in verse 22, but the passage that follows introduces a new subject and therefore must be considered in a different connection.
In leaving the verses which we have been considering, let us bear in mind the great outstanding truths that they would teach us. He who is the image of the invisible God has made peace for us by the blood of His cross. Now in resurrection He is our exalted Head, and we are the members of His body. As Head, He is concerned about every redeemed one here on earth, who has thus, through grace, been united to Him. To own Him as Head is our first responsibility. We are to let nothing put Him at a distance or hinder our loyal subjection to Him through whom we have been reconciled to God.
Chapter 5 Paul's Twofold Ministry
If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God. (vv. 23-25)
The if with which verse 23 begins has been the occasion of much perplexity to timid souls who hardly dare to accept the truth of the believer’s eternal security, so conscious are they of their own weakness and insufficiency. But, rightly understood, there is nothing here to disturb any sincere believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are a number of similar ifs in the New Testament, and all with precisely the same object in view-the testing of profession. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 we read, “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” Here the if is inserted in order to exercise the consciences of any who, having professed to believe the gospel, are in danger of forgetting the message, so proving that they have never really received the truth into their hearts. He would have them carefully examine their foundations. Many there are who readily profess to adopt Christianity and unite themselves outwardly with the people of God, who have never truly turned to the Lord in repentance and rested their souls upon His finished work. Such endure for a time but soon forget the claims of the gospel when satanic allurements would draw them away.
In Hebrews 3:6 we have another such if. “But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” The meaning is plain. It is not enough to profess to have the Christian hope. Those who are real will hold fast unto the end, as we also read in 10:38-39 of the same epistle. Endurance is the proof of reality. What God implants in the soul is lasting, and we may be assured that He who hath begun a good work in any one will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ, the time when He shall come for His ransomed people to complete in glory what His grace began on earth.
Paul did not pretend to say who of the Colossians were really born of God. While he had confidence that most of them were, he wrote in such a way as to stir up the consciences of any who were becoming slack. A readiness to adopt new and fanciful systems was a cause for grave concern. Those who are really children of God, grounded and strengthened in the truth, are not of the number who will be moved away from the hope of the gospel. They know too well what it has already done for them to lightly turn away from it to some new and untried theory.
This gospel they had heard, as in the providence of God it had been preached in all the creation under heaven. This is probably a better translation than that of the King James Version. It is hardly thinkable that the apostle meant that every creature in the habitable earth had heard the gospel. But it is a wonderful testimony to the devotion of the early believers that even within one generation after our Lord’s ascension the evangel had been carried throughout the known world. Of this gospel Paul was made “minister.” The indefinite article does not really help. It only lends color to the idea which came in later, that the ministry is a special class to which all believers do not belong. The apostle is not claiming that he is a minister in the sense in which that term has been used in later years. He was one addicted to the work of the ministry. That is, the gospel had been committed to him by God whom he served, as he says elsewhere, with his spirit in the gospel of God’s Son. This gospel ministry has been committed to all believers, and Paul is a sharer with others in making the testimony known. But in a preeminent way it was given to him to reveal it. As preached by Paul, it bears the distinctive character of “the gospel of the glory,”
Another ministry had also been given to him, even that of the assembly, the body of Christ. So he goes on to say that he rejoices in whatsoever he might be called upon to suffer on behalf of the people of God, as in doing this he was filling up what was lacking of the afflictions of Christ in his own flesh. That is true of every real servant of God. To such a one the people of the Lord will ever be precious. And he will realize that in serving them and enduring trial on their behalf he is ministering in place of his absent Lord. Christ suffered once for all on the cross to put away sin. His faithful servants suffer in fellowship with Him for the perfecting of the saints, “for His body’s sake, which is the church.” The more devoted one is to Christ’s interests down here, during His absence in heaven, the more one will enter into this phase of suffering. It is godly shepherd care that he has in mind, enduring affliction for the blessing of Christ’s beautiful flock.
Of the church Paul was made minister according to the dispensation of God given to him on our behalf to complete the divine testimony or to fill up the Word of God. The whole counsel of God was not made known until Paul received this revelation of the mystery. This dispensation, or stewardship (for the two words are exactly the same in Greek), he unfolds more fully elsewhere, noticeably in the epistle to the Ephesians, which, as previously intimated, is the correlative to that to the Colossians. It was a special revelation given not to the Twelve, but to him as the apostle of the new dispensation. He goes on with this theme in the verses that follow.
Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily, (vv. 26-29)
It is important to remember that the mysteries of the New Testament are not necessarily things mysterious or abstruse. They are rather sacred secrets made known to the initiated.1
These divine secrets could never have been discovered by human reason, nor even by the child of God unless a special revelation had been given. The Gnostics made much of the mysteries of their systems. The Christian mysteries are in vivid contrast to these dreams of insubject men.
The mystery of the church as the body of Christ was never made known in Old Testament times, nor yet in the days when our Lord was on the earth. We are told distinctly it had been “hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to the saints.” The divine method of making it known was by a special revelation to the apostle Paul, as he tells us in Ephesians 3:0. But this revelation was not for him only. It was a ministry committed to him to pass on to the saints, “To whom God did make known the wealth of the splendor of this sacred secret among the nations, which is Christ among the Gentiles, the hope of glory” (author’s translation). The Old Testament Scripture clearly predicted the calling of the Gentiles, but always in subjection to Israel. During the present dispensation Israel, as we read in Romans 11:0, is set aside because of unbelief, and Christ is working among the nations, attracting weary hearts to Himself altogether apart from any thought of Jewish priority. Believing Jews and Gentiles are united by the Holy Spirit’s baptism into the one body, and thus all fleshly distinctions are done away. The middle wall of partition is broken down. This is the mystery.
Christ Himself, the Head of this body, is the apostle’s theme. Note his words, “whom we preach.” To substitute what for whom we preach is a serious mistake. Christianity is centered in a Person, and no one preaches the gospel who does not preach Christ. When there is faith in Him the Spirit unites the believer to Him.
How earnest was the apostle in seeking to lead Christians into the knowledge of this precious truth, “warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom.” His was the true pastor’s heart, and he combined in a marvelous way the teacher’s gift with this. The subject of his ministry was the perfecting of the saints, as he says elsewhere. He would present every man complete or full grown in Christ Jesus. To this end he earnestly labored according to that divine energy which wrought so powerfully in him for the salvation of souls and the upbuilding of the people of God.
False teachers would turn the eyes of the saints away from Christ, the glorified Head of the body, in order that they might occupy them with specious systems of satanic origin, and thus draw away disciples after themselves, as Paul had warned the Ephesian elders. But all true Spirit-given ministry is Christo-centric. Every faithful minister of the new dispensation would lift up the Lord Jesus before the admiring gaze of His people so that, occupied with Him, they might be transfigured into His likeness. Like John the Baptist he will say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
No man really preaches the whole truth today who does not enter into the twofold ministry of this section of Colossians-the gospel and the church. The former is proclaimed to sinners and is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes. The latter is taught to saints and builds them up in the faith as to their present privileges, and corresponding responsibilities. I am called upon, not only to win sinners to Christ that they may be saved from impending wrath, but I am to seek to make “good churchmen” out of those already saved. This is not to insist on what is called denominational loyalty, nor to endeavor to sectionalize the saints and bring them into bondage to legal principles and practices for which there is no biblical warrant. But it is to show them their position as in the new creation, linked with their risen, glorified Head, and to lead them into the recognition of the unity of the body, in which all believers have a part. Thus they may endeavor to keep the unity formed by the Holy Spirit, as they walk together in the uniting bond of peace.
Sad indeed is it when this very truth becomes a means of dividing those of like precious faith when perverted by men of sectarian spirit and narrow, cramped sympathies who are more concerned about building up local “causes” than edifying the body of Christ!
That saints are not to neglect local responsibilities, out of which grows the relationship of church to church, is perfectly true. But it is not a unity or confederacy of assemblies that is denominated “the unity of the Spirit.” It is rather that abiding unity which the Holy Spirit has formed by baptizing believers into one body. If I set at nought any fellow believer I am to that extent failing to keep this unity. As members one of another, having the same care one for the other, we show in a practical way the truth that we are one in Christ.
1 For fuller discussion of this interesting subject the inquiring or studious reader is referred to the author’s handbook titled “The Mysteries of God.”
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Colossians 1". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11