How are you at being thankful? Has it been harder over the past couple of years to give thanks as we’ve gone into one lockdown after another? It was hard to be thankful when holidays had to be cancelled and we weren’t allowed to travel more than 5km from home. It was even harder for those of you who had elderly parents locked away in nursing homes unable to be visited, or worse, who had loved ones die and they couldn’t have a proper funeral to farewell them with all their friends and extended family; or who had grandchildren born interstate or overseas and had to wait for months and in some cases years before they could meet them. If you were one of those who had to quarantine in one of our quarantine hotels you might have been thankful for the first couple of days but I imagine that was wearing off by the end of the second week.
I was coming home from the doctor’s a few weeks ago having been told I had another ailment that needed treatment and I have to say there wasn’t much gratitude in my mind for having been allowed to live to old age; and that’s speaking as an optimist! Imagine how pessimists must be feeling. If you’re one of them then I hope the rest of your life will be better than it probably will be!
More seriously though, when Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians he was in prison in Rome. Sort of like being in hotel quarantine but without the comfortable bed and regular food deliveries! In fact a very unpleasant experience, I imagine: guarded by soldiers who probably wished they were somewhere else; totally dependent on his friends for food and warm clothing; perhaps wondering whether he’d survive the judgment of Caesar. Yet what we find as we open up his letter is an outpouring of thankfulness and encouragement, not to mention commendation of these Christians that he’d never even met.
Colossae was a small town not far from Laodicea and Hierapolis, the two main towns in the region. It’s not mentioned in Acts because Paul never went there. The gospel was brought to them, we read, by Epaphras, probably around the time when Paul was in Ephesus.
To give you an idea of the importance of Colossae, here’s a photo of current day Colossae, compared with Laodicea and Hierapolis. You can see that the archaeologists haven’t been too interested in it so far. Yet Paul has heard about them, no doubt from Epaphras who’s been in Rome looking after him. And so he writes to encourage them.
So what is it that Paul is thankful for?
First he gives thanks for their faith in Jesus Christ. As we read further into the letter we’ll see how important this faith is. He’ll go on to talk about the importance of a faith grounded in the historic Jesus: a man who lived among us yet who bore in his human body a true reflection of his divine being as the Son of God. This isn’t just faith in faith itself. It’s not blind faith. This faith is in a man who died and rose again and who made it possible for us to be raised along with him.
But then he thanks God for the love they show for all the saints. This is easy to pass over, but let that “All” sink in for a moment. You know, human beings are inherently tribal. It’s an inbuilt protective behaviour. We group together with our own kind. We love those who are like us, who speak the same language or have the same background. We’re wary of those who are different in some way. This might show itself in snobbishness or more problematically in racial prejudice. In the first century it meant that free citizens didn’t mix with slaves, Jews didn’t mix with Gentiles, the ruling classes didn’t mix with the hoi polloi. But the work of the Holy Spirit, notice that in v8, has resulted in them loving everyone in the church, irrespective of their social class or nationality or gender. If you jump down to 2:2 you’ll see Paul uses the expression “united in love.” This love they have is something that binds them together despite their differences; that forms them into a community, a family of believers united under their one heavenly father.
Next he mentions their trust in the hope laid up for them in heaven. Hope is an important thing to have when life is tough, isn’t it? If you’re in a situation where there is no hope it can be very hard to carry on. But if you have a level of certainty that things will improve your struggles become much easier to bear. You can imagine, for these new Christians living in a world where it was assumed that you’d believe in all of the wide variety of gods, and pay them the respect that most people thought was their due, that there’d be lots of worry about what their future held as believers in the one true and living God. Their physical and material future may in some cases have held little hope. But Paul wants to point them to what’s a sure and certain hope because it’s a hope that’s laid up for us in heaven. The real hope we have as Christians is a hope built on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ascension into heaven where he now sits at God’s right hand. And notice the connection he makes between this hope and their faith and love: He says their faith and love come about “5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven”.
One of the challenges this church in Colossae is facing is the offer, by a group of spiritual gurus, of enhanced spirituality. These people are suggesting that simple faith in Jesus isn’t sufficient; that you need more than that. You need to be spiritually enlightened. You need to suppress your flesh through spiritual disciplines like fasting; you need to observe the religious feasts; seek visions, look for help from angels and so on. Does that resonate with some of the messages you hear in our world today about connecting with the spiritual?
But Paul wants to bring them back to where they started. So he reminds them where their hope came from: “You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6that has come to you.” This word about Jesus is truth because Jesus himself is truth. But it isn’t some dry intellectual truth that’ll put you to sleep as someone explains it. No, it’s truth embodied in a person and it’s a truth, as we’ll see in a moment, that inspires us to live extraordinary lives. It’s truth that leads to empowering faith and motivated love, that bears fruit and brings growth as had been happening at Colossae.
Notice Paul finishes this introductory passage with a commendation of Epaphras. This is something that Paul does regularly in his letters. He acknowledges the good work that others have been doing. He commends them for their faithfulness. It’s something that we don’t do enough of these days, I think. There’s something about the Australian psyche that seems to make it hard for us to praise people while they’re alive. We’re very happy to sing their praises when they’re dead but we’re embarrassed to do it to their face for some reason. But here, Paul publicly commends Epaphras for his faithful ministry.
Well, having finished this short introduction Paul then goes on to encourage them by example, the example of his prayer life.
He says, “Since the day we heard [about your faith and love] we have not ceased praying for you.”
Here is a man who cares about not just those with whom he’s shared the gospel but also those who’ve been reached by his converts.
So what does he pray? Is there something in here that might inform our prayers for one another?
He prays first that they may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.
When you live in a world that’s filled with a huge variety of ideas around what matters, about what will bring fulfilment, about what leads to spiritual growth; when you live in a world where you’re bombarded on every side by messages from so-called influencers; where there are so many voices proclaiming messages of purported truth; how do you decide? How do you discern what true and what’s fake? How do you know who can be trusted and who’s trying to scam you?
We need a high level of intelligence to work that out don’t we? So what Paul prays for is that they/we will have a heightened Spiritual Intelligence: that they/we may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. There are some things you can work out with common sense, if you’re one of the small number who possess such a thing, but he wants us to have uncommon sense: the ability to discern what God might want us to do or think in any given situation; the ability to see through the promises, the distortions, the assumptions, to what’s really behind what someone is saying, to work out what can be trusted. That may take us back to that word of truth that we find in God’s word mightn’t it?
Next he prays that they may lead lives worthy of the Lord as they bear fruit in every good work and as they grow in the knowledge of God.
He wants them to realise that living a spiritual life doesn’t just happen in your head. Following a spiritual discipline of some sort, putting aside food for a period of time, seeking the inner truth of your existence, finding your inner self, whatever the method might be, doesn’t constitute spiritual life for the Christian. Rather, a life worthy of the Lord is one that bears fruit in every good work.
As you grow in the knowledge of God the inevitable result will not be a glow emanating from around your head, it’ll be more and more good works; practical outworking of your discipleship, emulating the good things that Jesus did while here on earth. Steve talked about this last week: caring for the poor and needy, standing up for the powerless and weak, binding up the sick and injured, sending aid to people in the many areas of the world suffering under war, famine, natural disasters of various sorts, etc.
Next he prays that they might be “made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power and may be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
For some reason I was reminded of Serena Williams as I was thinking about this. There she was having announced her retirement but she couldn’t stop playing on, enduring the struggle of playing at the top level because that’s who she is.
Paul’s prayer is that we might not just have that sort of strength but a strength of a different sort: a strength that comes from God’s glorious power; a strength that will enable us to endure whatever comes our way with patience; to endure not just with patience but with joy, giving thanks to the Father.
That takes us back to where we started doesn’t it? If we’re told to endure it must be something difficult that we’re expecting. So will you, will I, be able to endure with thanks in those circumstances? Will we be joyful as we face opposition to our desire to live a moral life, a life that’s worthy of the Lord? Will the fact that we’re looking to “share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” perhaps, help us to endure with joy? John tells us that it’s the expectation that in the resurrection we will be like Jesus that leads us to purify ourselves just as he is pure (1 John 3:3). So again, we see the importance of that hope that we have laid up for us in heaven even if, as I sometimes think, our materialistic world may have weakened that expectation. We need to remind ourselves that even as we seek to do good works in this world our life is actually leading beyond this world.
Finally I wanted to point out something I noticed as I read through the passage.
Paul begins with the greeting “Grace to you and peace from God our Father” then he comments on how they “truly comprehended the grace of God”; and he finishes this section with the following words: “13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
In case you thought he was saying we need to bear fruit in every good work in order to be right with God, this is the corrective. We live because of the grace of God. We live because Jesus has provided redemption, the forgiveness of sins. It’s out of that, that the fruit arises. It’s that which gives us a certain hope, that both keeps us focussed on what God wants for us and that enables us to be thankful, to rejoice, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.