"We Are Complete In Him"
(Delivered at Bethany Bible Church on Sunday, October 22, 2000. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we begin a brand new study. We begin a look at one of the most thrilling books of the New Testament -- Paul's letter to the Colossians.
I'm excited about the prospect of studying this book together for several reasons. First of all, I believe it will benefit us because of its theme. Its theme is among the greatest of all possible themes we could ever consider: the complete sufficiency of Jesus Christ for our every need.
Any amount of time we spend thinking about Jesus is time profitably spent. But I believe we're going to be particularly blessed in our study of Him from book of Colossians. In it, God shows us that when we have Jesus Christ, we have everything we need to be everything God wants us to be. It teaches us that if we are in Christ, and if Christ is in us, we have it all! It's an exciting book to read, because it shows us how complete we are -- as members together of His body -- right now, in Him!
Another reason that I believe we will be blessed in studying Colossians together is because the truths that are in it will help protect us from spiritual error. In this book, God -- working through His servant Paul -- presents us with the marvelous truth of our sufficiency in Christ for a very good and practical reason.
Believing men and women are sometimes knocked off the track through a diabolical lie of the devil. They're made to believe that they're not really "complete" before God in Christ. The devil feeds them the lie that they need something more than what they have already in Him; and so, they become easy prey to phony philosophies, and the rules and regulations that other people lay on them. They become distracted from the simplicity of faith in Christ, and are thus rendered frustrated and ineffective in their Christian walk.
That's why the book of Colossians is such a blessing from God. Being well taught in the truths of this little book is good preventive medicine. Believing what it says about our complete sufficiency in Jesus Christ alone will protect us from ever feeling the need to chase after the phony substitutes of the devil. Being well acquainted with the truths in Colossians will fortify us in the faith, increase our own sense of joy in our salvation, and make us more confident in the Lord's ability to use us for great things -- all because it will establish us in the truth that we are already made "perfected" in Christ.
A third reason that I believe that we'll blessed from studying Paul's letter to the Colossians together is because it's very practical. The first half of this letter deals with doctrine. But don't ever groan when you hear the word "doctrine" in connection with Paul. Doctrine was never dry and dusty when handled by the great apostle Paul. He had such a passionate love for the Savior, that he couldn't have been aloof and "ivory-tower"-ish about the truths of the faith if he had tried!
For Paul, the great truth of our sufficiency in Christ was filled to overflowing with practical, life-changing implications that literally set us free. And so, for the second half of this letter, Paul brings this truth to bear in one practical area of our lives after another -- such areas as the transformation of our personal moral lives, our growth in Christ-likeness, our relationships with one another in church life, our homes, our marriages, our professional relationships, and even in our relationships with people who are not yet "in Jesus Christ".
Colossians isn't a very big book of the Bible; but it's hard to imagine one that gets as much done in so little a space as this one does. Let's begin our look at it by understanding something of it's background.
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Colossae, the city from which this book gets its name, was located about 550 miles northwest of Jerusalem, in the Phrygian region of Asia Minor -- an area that is now known to us as modern Turkey. It was an ancient city, with a history that stretched back as many as five centuries before the time of Paul. It had once been a great and prosperous city; but by Paul's day, its former glory had begun to fade away -- being overshadowed by its neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis.
Colossae was a city in the midst of a cultural and religious mixing-bowl. It was located in a Roman province, and was characterized by the paganistic values and beliefs of its day. And yet, the city itself also had a large Jewish population. Sometimes, as we'll see, these cultures blended together in some strange ways.
The story behind Paul's letter begins with a man named Epaphras -- a man who lived around nineteen and a half centuries ago in the city of Colossae. We know very little of the details about his life; but he was most likely a prominent businessman or a person of some importance whose vocation required him to travel. Whatever it was that he did for a living, he certainly couldn't have imagined that it was God's plan to make him a missionary of the gospel to his own people!
Not far from Epaphras' home city was another great city -- Ephesus. God had led the apostle Paul in his missionary journeys to Ephesus; where he and his ministry team became established. Their ministry in this city was so blessed by the Holy Spirit that Luke wrote, in Acts 19:10, "... This continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." We can speculate that some sort of business had led Epaphras into this region; and as a result, he came into contact with the gospel and believed.
Paul appears to have developed a warm and nurturing relationship with Epaphras. He eventually saw the ministry potential in Epaphras; and so, Paul sent him back to his own home town to proclaim the good news of the gospel to his own people in the region of Colossae. We can tell that Epaphras' ministry was blessed by God; because at the very beginning of his letter, Paul wrote to the Colossian believers about the message of the gospel, "as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf" (1:7). Paul had never been to Colossae; but it was through Epaphras that they heard about Jesus and believed.
Epaphras was a remarkable man, and one who was very faithful in the ministry God gave him to his fellow Colossians. He deeply cared for the people in the church he helped formed there. In fact, Paul gave him a rather outstanding commendation near the close of his letter, "Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those who are in Hierapolis" (4:12-13). He not only brought the gospel to the Colossians, but also worked hard to see to it that they were well taught and established in the faith. What an honor Epaphras has been given -- to have received permanent mention in the Scriptures in such glowing terms!
It had been five years or so since Epaphras first brought the good news to Colossae, when, apparently, a problem began to develop. It hadn't gotten to be a big problem yet; but because Epaphras was such a conscientious leader in the church, he felt that he ought to go to Paul and talk it over with him. Paul was in prison at the time, most likely in Rome; and if that's the case, Epaphras travelled a great distance to get the answers he needed to solve this problem.
When he arrived, he found that Paul had several co-workers with him to keep him company -- including Timothy. Epaphras told Paul and company all about how well things were going in Colossae; and they greatly rejoiced over the good news. But then, Epaphras told them about a particularly subtile teaching that had begun to make its way into the church -- a teaching that threatened to lead some of the believers astray, and to cause harm to all the work that had been accomplished among them.
Paul and Timothy prayed about the matter; and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they concluded just what it was that they needed to do. Most likely, Timothy sat down at a table with parchment and writing instrument; and Paul paced back and forth dictating this letter. They completed the letter, carefully reviewed it together, and agreed that Paul should put his signature to it (4:18). Then Paul asked his friend Tychicus -- whom he called "a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord" (4:7) -- to take this letter to the Colossians and minister its instructions to them. And because Paul loved these Colossian Christians whom he'd never met, he also asked Tychicus to give them a report on how he himself was doing (4:7-8).
Thus, this wonderful letter was born -- one in which Paul taught the Colossian believers about their complete sufficiency in Christ, and about how a confident faith in His sufficiency would be all that they needed to protect them from going astray. I'm sure that Epaphras got to read the letter before it was sent, and was delighted at what he read. And I'm also sure that Tychicus felt the great importance of this letter, and was very careful to make sure it got safely into the hands of the Colossian church leaders.
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By the way; you may be interested to know that Paul had Tychicus take care of a couple of other important things at this same time. Shortly before the letter was written, an escaped slave found his way into Paul's sphere of influence -- perhaps ending up in the same Roman prison as the one that held Paul. This slave's name was Onesimus; and Paul had led him to Christ while in prison. Paul wanted to send Onesimus back to his master -- no longer as just as a slave, but now also as a fellow brother in Christ. You see, in the providence of God, this young man's master was a leader in the church of -- can you guess where? -- Colossae!
And so, Paul sent Onesimus back to Colossae with Tychicus, along with a personal letter Paul wrote to Onesimus' master. You can read that letter in your Bible; because it's named after the young man's master -- Philemon. (This is one of those times when it's okay to read someone else's mail.)
And one more thing. Since Tychicus was going to be heading that way, Paul asked him to also deliver another letter at the same time to some other believers near Colossae. You can easily read that letter too if you'd like. It's in your Bible as the Book of Ephesians (Eph. 6:21). Leave it to Paul to get so much good work done while in prison!
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That's the story behind this letter. Now let's look at what Paul was seeking to do in this letter. First, let's consider ...
1. THE PROBLEM PAUL WAS SEEKING TO SOLVE.
Paul eluded to this problem in his letter, when he wrote to the Colossians. He told them that he and his co-workers were dedicated to getting the gospel to people and establishing them in a simple faith in Jesus Christ. He said,
"For I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea, and for as many has have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:1-3)."
Why was it that Paul was so earnest about seeing them come to a full understanding of what it was that they had in Christ? Paul goes on;
"Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words. For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ. As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you [or "take you captive", as it is in the NASB] through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the traditions of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (2:4-10)."
You can see something of the nature of this problem Paul was writing about, by looking at what he asserts in his opposition to it. He told the Colossians that in Christ "dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him". Paul insisted that all that is to be had of God is to be found in the Man Christ Jesus.
The Bible teaches us that God cannot be known apart from Jesus Christ; and there's nothing more we need to know about God than what is revealed to us in Him. If we have Him, then we have "all the fullness of the Godhead bodily". One of Jesus' disciples, Philip, once said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us" (John 14:8). And Jesus told him, "Have I been with you so long and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (v. 9). Similarly, the writer of Hebrews said that God, Who had spoken to the world through the prophets in many portions and in many ways, has now spoken to us through His Son Jesus; who is "the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person" (Hebrews 1:3). All of God is found in the Person of His Son, Jesus.
The Colossian believers had Jesus; and having Jesus, they had all the fullness of God in Him. And yet, Paul told the Colossians to be on their guard, lest anyone should cheat them out of what they had in Christ by distracting them through phony philosophies and empty lies -- all based on the traditions of men and in accordance with the basic principles of the world.
We don't know the exact details of this problem that Paul wrote about; but we can clearly see its nature. It was a philosophy that threatened to persuade the Colossians that, in order to be complete and perfect before God, they needed something more than what they already had in Christ.
Paul wrote more about this, when he said,
"Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (2:16-17)."
Apparently, some elements of the Jewish community were a part of this error. The Colossian Christians were being made to feel that, even though they had trusted Christ -- they weren't complete before God unless they were also following the dietary laws of the Jews and were careful to observe Jewish religious feasts and holidays. And yet, Paul said these things in the Old Testament were meant to point people to Jesus. They were a mere shadow of what was to come -- and the substance of that "shadow" is Christ. Now that Jesus had come, their purpose had been fulfilled and they were no longer necessary.
These believers were being tempted away from the "substance" of Jewish ceremonial laws in order to follow after the mere "shadows"!
But much more was involved than mere Jewish elements. Because Colossae was in the midst of a cultural mixing-bowl, there were also elements of Greek paganism, self-abuse, and angel worship mingled into this erroneous teaching. Paul wrote;
"Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations -- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using -- according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (2:18-23)."
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Now all of this was very serious; and Epaphras was absolutely right to do something about it. But it apparently hadn't become a big problem yet. We can tell that this is so by the tone of Paul's letter.
It's interesting to compare this letter with Paul's letter to the Galatians. He wrote to them because a false doctrine had also crept in among them that compromised the gospel message. But in the case of the Galatians, it had become a big problem. You can tell, in reading that particular letter, that Paul was angry -- and that he didn't bother being gentle about dealing with the problem! He began his letter to them by saying, "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel ..." (Gal. 1:6). He told them, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?" (3:1). He said, "I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain" (4:11).
But things hadn't gotten quite to that point with the believers in Colossae. Paul's manner of writing to them is gentle and encouraging. He doesn't write to rebuke them, but rather to warn them. He doesn't scold them because of something that has happened, but rather encourages them not to let it happen.
And I'd suggest that this teaches us something of the value of this letter to us. Paul isn't writing to cure a terrible spiritual illness, as much as writing to prevent it from spreading. It's meant to benefit us in a "preventative" way more than in a "remedial" way. You may say, "Why should we study a letter about a problem we don't have?" And hopefully, we don't have this problem. But that's exactly why we should study this letter. If we study the solution that Paul proposes in this book, we will do much to keep ourselves from trouble in the future.
This leads us, then, to look at ...
2. THE SOLUTION PAUL PROPOSED TO THE PROBLEM.
Perhaps you've notice how Paul hinted at the solution as he described the problem itself. He kept making mention of their relationship with Jesus Christ. He told the Colossians not to let anyone take them captive from their simple faith in Christ, because, "you are complete in Him" (2:10). They weren't to let anyone judge them according to Jewish rules and regulations, "because the substance is of Christ" (2:17). They weren't to let anyone cheat them out of their reward through dreams, and visions that men had created out of their own imaginations -- "not not holding fast to the Head" -- that is, to Christ" (2:19).
The solution Paul proposed to the problem, then, was to write and teach the Colossians the truth about Christ, and about their complete sufficiency in Him. They simply needed to cling to him in simple faith; and as long as they did, they had all they needed in Him already. Nothing else was needed -- no matter what anyone else said.
Throughout this letter, Paul repeatedly makes the point that everything that is needed is to be found in Christ alone. Paul wrote of Jesus, and said,
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in 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 all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (1:15-20)."
And so, Paul could write and say that in Him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2:3); or that, "In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power" (2:9-10); or that He is "the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God" (2:19); or, that "Christ is all and in all" (3:11). In fact, you could sum up all of the great apostle Paul's preaching in this simple message: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (1:27). He said that he and his ministry teem so preached and so labored, "that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (1:28).
The Colossians didn't need to embrace some other philosophy. or possess some special "knowledge" to be made complete; because they already had all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Christ. They didn't need to adhere to some dietary laws, or observe special holidays; because they already had the substance of all those things already in Christ. They didn't need to trust in "guardian angels", or have any visions, or engage in torturous acts of self-denial in order to earn God's favor; because they already had Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.
If they were in Jesus Christ, then they were already made perfect in Him. Nothing more could be added to what they already were in Him. Nothing more could be given to them than what they already had in Him. Instead, all they needed was to keep on clinging to Him in simple faith. Paul told them,
" 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 though death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight -- if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I Paul, became a minister (1:21-23)."
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For Paul, the solution to the Colossian problem was simple: believers need to be taught to have complete confidence in the fact that, as far as God is concerned, they're already made "perfect" in His eyes through their relationship with Christ.
We also need to be gripped by the truth of our complete sufficiency in the Savior -- that He is everything we need; and having Him, we need nothing else. Let that truth get ahold of your hearts, dear brothers and sisters, and you'll no more want to chase after other things than someone would want to leave the beautiful Oregon beach to go play in mud-puddles.
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That leaves us, finally, to consider ...
3. THE IMPLICATIONS OF EMBRACING PAUL'S SOLUTION.
Now this sort of talk might make someone feel uncomfortable. They might think, "Well, if people felt as if they were already accepted by God through Jesus; and that if they had Him, they had it all; wouldn't they quit worrying about how they lived? Wouldn't this encourage someone to be lax in their moral life?" But Paul shows us, in this letter, that all of this was meant to have a practical effect on the lives of the Colossian believers. Paul didn't mean for this to simply be of theoretic interest. He meant for it to transform the way people lived.
When Paul began this letter, he told them about how much he rejoiced at the news he received from Epaphras about their faith in Christ and their love for all the other saints. Even though he'd never met them, Paul loved them and was thrilled by their love for Jesus and each other. And so, he told them how he and Timothy had been praying for them. He said,
" For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding ... (1:9)."
Paul and Timothy were committed, obviously, to doing what they could to pass on spiritual truth to the Colossian believers -- particularly concerning their complete sufficiency in Christ. And look at what their goal was in establishing them in this knowledge.
" ... that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light (vv. 10-12)."
Paul and Timothy prayed that the Colossian believers would grasp this truth -- that they'd be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. And it wasn't so that the Colossians would simply have transformed heads. It was so that they'd live transformed lives.
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There's nothing more discouraging and defeating than believing that you are unacceptable before God, and that you must work and labor to make yourself acceptable to Him. Many people think that's what the Christian life is all about -- a bunch of rules and duties that you must follow in order to be acceptable to God. That's why many people reject Christianity.
But that's not the Christian life -- as the Bible presents it -- is all about. The Bible teaches that we can never make ourselves "perfect" in God's eyes. Instead, we are to simply come to Jesus -- just as we are -- and place our trust in the sacrifice He made for us on the cross. When we've come to terms with the fact that our sins were placed on our beloved Savior on the cross, we'd no longer want to cling to those sins out of love for Him. And when we've become griped by the fact that God places Jesus' perfect righteousness upon us, we'll want to live a holy life out of gratitude to Him.
And so, Paul tells the Colossians such things as this:
" As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving (2:6-7)."
" Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (3:5-11)."
"Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do(3:12-13)."
How freeing it is to live in God's grace through Jesus. We don't live a holy life to be perfect before God. We live a holy life because we've already been made perfect before God in Christ!
I hope that you can appreciate, now, why I'm so excited about studying this book together as a church family. I hope that you're excited about it too.
And how should you respond to all this? I think one good way to respond would be to read the book of Colossians. In fact, I'd strongly encourage you to do just that -- to get alone with the Lord sometime soon and spend an hour or so just reading through this book prayerfully. In fact, I'd encourage you to read it several times. If you're like me, you'll find that you have a hard time leaving it.
But more than anything else, I hope that you'll respond to this by praising God for our complete sufficiency in Christ. We have been made perfect in God's eyes through our relationship with Him by faith. May we grow through this study as a church family to cling to Jesus, love Him, rejoice in Him, abound in thanks to Him, and -- having been made perfect in Him -- follow Him obediently in every area of our lives. May we never let anything distract us from the glorious truth that we are made complete in Him.
(copyright 2000 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)