"God's Grace in a Greeting"
1: 1 - 2
(Delivered at Bethany Bible Church on Sunday, October 29, 2000. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
During the first century, in the apostle Paul's day, there was an established pattern to follow whenever someone wrote a letter. Letters written in our day follow an established form as well; but our way of writing letters is quite a bit different from the one followed in ancient times.
In our day, we typically begin by identifying the recipient of the letter. Then, there are a few words of greeting. Then, after the body of the letter, there's a salutation. Then -- all the way at the end -- is the statement of who it was that wrote the letter (which, when you think about it, doesn't make much sense). Personally, I think they had a better idea in the first century. They began a letter by telling the reader who it was that was doing the writing.
The New Testament contains 13 letters that were definitely sent by the apostle Paul. Paul was a masterful letter writer; and even though he followed the established and customary style used for writing letters in his day, he wrote under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit. And so, whenever we read one of Paul's letters, it's always important that we pay close attention to the way he introduces himself in it. The Holy Spirit is giving us some important information in the words of the introduction of that letter.
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Sometimes, the whole theme of a letter by Paul is being suggested to us in the introduction. Compare the introductions to some of Paul's other letters and you'll see that this is so. Take the book of Galatians as an example. Paul wrote this letter because many in the Galatian church were departing from the truth of the Gospel message; and they were doing so in such a way as to actually call Paul's apostolic authority into question. He was quite upset when he wrote this letter, and felt that he had to defend his own authority to preach the gospel to them in it. And so, he introduced his letter this way:
Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me ... (Gal. 1:1).
Or consider the book of Romans. Paul had formerly been a devoted follower of Judaism. He felt that Christians were following a sect that was diametrically opposed to the Jewish Scriptures; so, he became a notorious persecutor of those who followed Jesus. But in time, he was confronted by the resurrected Lord Jesus Himself on the road to Damascas. Jesus transformed Paul, and then sent him out to preach the very gospel he had so viciously fought against. In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul was setting forth the key doctrinal truths of the message that Jesus Christ called him to preach. And so, he introduces this 'masterpiece' of a letter with these words: "Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name ... (Rom. 1:1-5).
Or take 1 Corinthians. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, he was deeply concerned for his readers because they were living in a manner that was utterly inconsistent with their profession of faith in Christ. They were developing a tolerant attitude toward certain sins; and they were being led off track by the values and priorities of the culture in which they lived. In other words, their lifestyle practice was not consistent with who they were in Christ. And so, he introduced his letter to them in this way:
"Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenese our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints [or "called to be holy", as it's translated in the NIV], with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both their and ours ... (1 Cor. 1:1-2)."
The very last letter Paul wrote, before he was executed for his faith, was 2 Timothy. He wrote to his beloved co-laborer Timothy, knowing that he was about to be put to death by command of Caesar Nero. But he faced his impending death with courage and confidence in what God had in store for him. And so, he began his final letter with these confident words:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus ... (2 Tim. 1:1).
By the way: you might enjoy doing a personal study sometime of how Paul begins his different letters. It's fascinating to compare how he opens his letters; because the Holy Spirit tells us something important about those letters in the way His servant Paul writes the introductions.
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Last week, we began our study of Paul's letter to the Colossians; and this morning, we look at his introduction -- contained for us in the first two verses of the letter. Its the shortest and simplest of all the introductions of Paul's letters. And yet, as is the case with all of Paul's other letters, the Holy Spirit has something important to say to us in the introduction. In fact, in some ways, the whole theme of his letter to the Colossians is being hinted at for us in the introduction.
Consider for a moment why Paul wrote this letter. He had a specific purpose in writing it. A subtile teaching had apparently crept into the church in Colosse and was beginning to have a negative influence on the believers in it. It was a teaching that suggested that, when it came to being made complete in the eyes of God, Jesus Christ as Savior wasn't enough -- that in order for someone to be truly fulfilled and perfected before God, something else was needed. Paul wrote to these Colossian believers because he was concerned to protect them from becoming victimized by this false teaching.
To deal with this problem, Paul emphasized strongly to the Colossian believers just who Jesus really is -- the eternal Son of God who became a man and bore our sins on His cross. And Paul wanted to show them how sufficient Jesus alone was to make everyone who trusts in Him "complete" in the eyes of God. Paul wrote and told them that in Christ "dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him" (2:9-10); and being complete in Christ, Paul sought to convince them that they needed nothing else to be "complete" before God but what they already had in Christ.
I think the spirit of what Paul wanted for the Colossians was expressed in Philemon 4-6. This was a personal letter that Paul wrote to one of the leading members of this particular church -- a letter that was sent out at the same time as this one was sent to the Colossian church. There, Paul wrote to his beloved friend Philemon;
I Thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgement of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus (Phile. 4-6).
Similarly, the great burden of Paul's heart for the Colossian believers was that they, too, would become effective in their Christian lives by coming to terms with 'every good thing which is in them in Christ Jesus'. The great need of the Colossian believers, then, was not to seek out and find "something more". Rather they needed, as Paul later says to them, simply to "continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast", and "not moved away from the hope of the Gospel" which had already been preached to them (1:23). They didn't need to be made into "saints" through external things, because they were already sanctified as a result of their relationship with Jesus Christ. They were already accepted by God completely through the grace which is in Jesus Christ; and all they really needed to do was to continue to cling to Him in faith.
These believers had never met Paul. The gospel message had been brought to them through the ministry of another (1:7). But Paul loved these Colossian saints very much and wanted protect them from a false teaching that was suggesting to them that they weren't already acceptable to God. And so, he begins his letter with these words:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1-2).
Look closely at what Paul says in this introduction. Paul stressed first the authority of his message to them by identifying who he was -- "an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God" and Timothy as "our brother". Then, he stressed the reality of who they already were as an act of God's grace by calling them "saints and faithful brethren in Christ". Finally, he stressed the state that they were already in by his greeting, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father". There's lots of good news in this introduction!
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Notice that we learn from this introduction, first of all, that ...
1. THIS LETTER COMES WITH ALL THE AUTHORITY OF THE GOD OF GRACE.
Look at how Paul introduces himself to these Christians that he'd never met. He calls himself "an apostle of Jesus Christ."
The Greek word that Paul used is apostolos; and it means "someone who is sent forth with orders". Three things are implicit in the meaning of this word: (1) the messenger or ambassador who was being sent on a commission to operate as an agent under the authority of another, (2) the commission itself on which he was being sent, and (3) the one who did the sending. All three elements of that word are found in Paul's case: he was an an apostle -- a 'sent' one -- with the commission of preaching the gospel, sent directly and personally to this task by the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
For as long as he lived, Paul never got over the sense of honor he felt at being called personally by Jesus Christ to the role of His "apostle" -- especially when Paul considered how he used to fight viciously against the very gospel he was now sent to preach. He knew that he didn't deserve to be what he was; but he gave his all to faithfully fulfill his calling. He wrote to Timothy and said,
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life (1 Tim. 1:12-16).
Similarly, he wrote to the Ephesian believes and said, "To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8).
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But even though Paul was humbled by the fact that God had given this "grace" to someone so unworthy as himself, he was nevertheless very bold to point to the full authority of the message he was given to deliver. He wasn't an "apostle" because he chose on his own volition to be one. Rather, he was confident that he was an apostle by divine commission; and that the message he proclaimed was of divine origin. Therefore he spoke with great authority as "an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God."
There are many today who argue and teach that Paul was the originator of his own message. They say that he took the simple, amiable moral teachings of Jesus, and turned them into a whole systematic theology of his own creation. Even in his own day, there were some that were suggesting that his message was of a matter of his own invention. But when he wrote to the Galatian believers, he said,
But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11-12).
If Paul had been proclaiming a message of his own invention, he'd have no right to insist on its authority. But he was an apostle "by the will of God". He had an authoritative message; and he insisted that it be heard and respected as such.
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It's important to notice that Paul introduced himself in cooperation with another -- "Timothy our brother". Paul deeply loved his assistant Timothy; but we should notice that he didn't refer to Timothy as "a fellow apostle", because Timothy didn't have that calling. An apostle, such as Paul was, was one who had seen the Lord (1 Cor. 9:1), had been named as apostles by the Lord Himself (Luke 6:13), and who had been identified by the "signs of an apostle" -- that is "signs and wonders and mighty deeds" (2 Cor. 12:12). These things were true of Paul and for the twelve, but they weren't the case for Timothy; and it would have been wrong for Timothy to be identified by the title "apostle".
But even though Paul affirmed the divine authority of his calling, and he boldly asserted the authority of his message; he never elevated himself above others. In fact, he once wrote that he was only what he was by the grace of God; because, as he said, "I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Cor. 15:9). Paul saw himself simply as a fellow family-member in the household of God -- who also happened to have been called by Christ to the role of an apostle. And so, he introduced himself not as "Paul, the great apostle, the mighty solo-act", but as "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother". He even identifies himself with his readers in this same "family" way; because he refers to them as "faithful brethren" as well.
In other words, Paul's message had great authority -- but that authority wasn't found in himself. It was found in the One who called him, and who gave him an authoritative message to deliver to the world.
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Now; let's consider together the facts that we've already drawn from this introduction. This message to the Colossian believers is one that comes from a man who is an apostle -- a man with a divinely authoritative commission, with a divinely authoritative message to proclaim. And yet, his message doesn't have authority because of him, but because of the One who sent him.
In other words, this message to the Colossians -- the message that Jesus Christ is fully sufficient to make us absolutely acceptable and complete in the eyes of God -- is a message that comes to us with all the authority of the God of grace. It's not a message from a man; it's a message from God. We can trust in it without hesitation. We can have complete confidence that the full sufficiency of Jesus Christ makes us complete in the eyes of God.
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We've considered who it was that sent this letter; and now, let's consider to whom this letter was being sent. Paul goes on to say, "To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse ..." And here, we find that ...
2. THIS LETTER IS SENT TO THOSE WHO ARE SAVED BY FAITH IN GOD'S GRACE.
We notice, first, that Paul calls these Colossian Christians "saints". What's remarkable is that, in calling them this, he is affirming that they're already acceptable to God and complete in His sight because of their faith in Christ.
Sadly, the word "saint" is one that we frequently misunderstand. We've been accustomed to thinking of a "saint" as someone who has demonstrated themselves worthy of that title -- as if "sainthood" is something that only a select few have earned, and that the rest of us could never aspire to. Many great men and women of God have been "canonized" as "saints" -- meaning that a church body chose to award the title "saint" to some godly men or women whose faith and character were, in some way, outstanding and exemplary. Based on that criteria, the rest of us could never dare to think of ourselves as "saints".
But when Paul uses the word "saint", he isn't talking about a title that is awarded to someone who had earned it. The word that Paul uses to describe these Colossian believers -- in its simplest and most straightforward sense -- means "holy ones" or "consecrated ones"; and in this case, the word is referring to something that they are simply because of their association with Jesus Christ by the free gift of God's grace -- not as a result of works. Paul, you'll remember, wrote to the church in Corinth because the believers there were not living in the manner that they should. They were failing in many ways to live in a way that saints should live; and yet, Paul still greeted them as "those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2). Paul's favorite way of referring to those who call on the name of Jesus was as "saints"; though that didn't mean that they were always living like what they were. Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers and urged them to avoid certain sins, "as is fitting for saints" (Eph. 5:3).
A believing man or woman may not always live up to the standard of what it means to be a saint; but that doesn't change the fact that they are, indeed, "saints" -- people who have been set apart for God as His "consecrated ones". A man or a woman doesn't become a "saint" by being good. Rather, they're already declared to be "saints" by God's grace; and are commanded to be good, because of what they already are.
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But notice, second, that Paul said these Colossian believers are not only "saints" but also "faithful brethren". The Greek word translated "faithful" can mean either "believing", or it can mean "trustworthy" or "steadfast". Either way, it points to the consistency with which they cling in faith to Jesus Christ (1:23).
Jesus said something that helps us to understand the connection between having faith and being a saint. The Jews once surrounded Him and were debating with Him about His claim to be the Christ. And he told them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not My sheep, as I said to you" (John 10:25-26).
Jesus is using the word "sheep" as a metaphor of being one of His saints. (Obviously, you can't be Jesus' "sheep" and not also be one of His "consecrated ones".) But what's so amazing about this is that Jesus didn't say, "You are not my sheep because you don't believe." That's what we might expect He would say -- as if having faith in Him was what it took to become one of His sheep. But what's so remarkable about this is that Jesus said, "You do not believe, because you are not My sheep." In other words, the reason why they didn't believe was because they are not His sheep. Their 'unbelief' was an effect -- not a cause.
This reminds us that a "saint" is marked out, primarily, by the fact of his or her faith in Jesus Christ. They aren't "saints" because they believe -- as if a man or woman "earns" the right to be a declared a saint by his or her faith; but rather, a man or woman believe because he or she is a saint. Their faith is the visible demonstration of their having been set apart by the grace of God as His "consecrated ones".
Now understand; if you haven't trusted Jesus as your Savior, you can right now. Salvation is open to anyone who will place their faith in Him. As the Bible says, "Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17). No one is excluded.
But have you trusted Jesus already? Do you have a genuine, sincere faith, right now, in His sacrifice on the cross for your sins? Then if so, then know, dear brother or sister, that your saving faith was given to you as a gift of God. As the Bible says, your faith is not of yourself, but it "is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8-9). You believe because you are already a "saint" -- set apart for Him.
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And finally, notice that Paul says these Colossian believers are "in Christ". They are united with Him by their faith. Paul says that they're "saints", and that they're "faithful brethren" and that they're "in Christ"; and these three realities are all connected. They are united with Christ and are "in" Him by faith; and they have been given such "faith" by God because He has set them apart for Himself.
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Paul wrote to these Colossian believers, who were "saints and faithful brethren in Christ", to tell them about the full sufficiency of Jesus to make them complete before God. But this reminds us that the message of this letter is meant specifically for those who have placed their faith in the gospel message that Paul was sent to preach; and have trusted in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for their sins. It's only they who have the right to rest confidently in the full sufficiency of Jesus, and to consider themselves completely acceptable in the sight of God.
I read a story the other day that seems very much worth sharing at this point. Many years ago, the great New Testament scholar and defender of the evangelical faith, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, was much in the public eye. In the early part of the last century, as a professor in Princeton Seminary, he stood almost alone within the Presbyterian Church in defending the full authority of the Bible, and the truthfulness of the gospel message it proclaimed. He was a great man of God, and had become quite controversial because of his bold stand. As it happened, during the height of the controversy, he was speaking one day at the Chicago Divinity School chapel -- which was crowded to the doors with listeners and reporters. An eyewitness said that he had held the crowd spellbound throughout his message, as he shared the Bible's teaching of the sinfulness of man, the grace of God, and the need for men and woman to be saved through faith in Christ. Near the end of his message, a female reporter spoke up.
She asked, "Dr. Machen, you don't seem to think very much of man. What reason do you have for so belittling him?". And Machen simply replied that he was simply repeating what the Bible said. The woman then shot back with a question that, in one form or another, you and I hear all the time in our own day; "But really Dr. Machen; It doesn't make any difference what anyone believes, does it? Just so long as he believes something?"
Dr. Machen could have passed that question off; but he didn't. It was too important to not be answered. It was said that he leaned over the lectern, looked the reporter directly in the eye -- with news people all around him, and yet as if speaking directly to her -- and boldly quoted the words of John 3:36; "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
Dr. Machen was asserting that it makes all the difference in the world what someone believes about Christ; and apparently, he was asked no further questions.
There is an exclusiveness to the message of this book. Not everyone can make the claim to be a saint in God's eyes, and confidently assert that they are complete before Him. Those who have not confessed that they are sinners, and have not placed a simple and sincere faith in the cross of Jesus Christ to save them from their sins, have no right to be called "saints". They are not "faithful" to the gospel, and are not "in Christ." In fact, far from being in His favor, "the wrath of God abides" on them.
Paul wrote this wonderful message of Christ's sufficiency only to "the saints and faithful brethren who are in Christ". May God help us to examine ourselves carefully and be sure that we are such by faith!
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We've looked at who it was that sent this letter, and have seen how this testifies to the authority of it's message. And then, we've looked at who received this letter, and have seen how this testifies to the need for a saving faith in Christ to be able to have a personal claim in that message. This leads us, finally, to the closing greeting itself; where we find that ...
3. THIS LETTER CELEBRATES THE RICHES OF CHRIST THROUGH GOD'S GRACE.
Paul says simply, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father" (and some versions add, "and the Lord Jesus Christ"). There isn't really anything unusual to this greeting. In fact, this is -- with almost no variation -- the way Paul writes the greeting in every other of his New Testament letters (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Phil. 3). But the fact that it's so common to Paul's letters shouldn't distract us from the marvelous spiritual reality it presents.
Notice that he first wishes his readers "grace". Grace is the free gift of God's favor to undeserving sinners; and it involves the whole idea of God's favor in every respect -- God's forgiveness and pardon of all the sins of the past, God's full acceptance of the sinner now, and the promise of God's full riches in heavenly glory later.
And notice that he, secondly, wishes them "peace". Peace is the end of hostility and enmity between two warring parties; and in this case involves our relationship with God, as well as with one another.
Many people want peace with God. They know that they're not right with Him because of their sins. And very often, they set out to "make" peace with God happen, and to appease Him through their own efforts -- through good deeds, or through religious rituals and ceremonies, or through turning over a new leaf. Sadly, such people don't realize that "peace" is a product of God's "grace." It's a free gift that God is ready and willing to give -- purchased for us through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.
Take a look again at what Paul says. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father." The word order is important. Peace with God comes after God's grace; and both come from God. We can never earn God's favor by first earning a state of peace with Him. Instead, we must first experience His grace; and then -- only then -- we can enjoy peace. As Paul said to the Roman believers;
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).
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And even though this is a common greeting in many of Paul's letters, we wouldn't be at all out of line, I believe, in seeing the particular application of its spiritual truths to the message of this particular letter. Its great theme is, after all, the sufficiency of Jesus Christ to give us everything we need to be complete before God; and how, because of His sufficiency, there's no need for us to look to anything else. What better way to describe that state of completion before Him than by the qualities of "grace" and "peace"? And we have both of these from "God the Father" as a free gift. The announcement of this greeting is that the search is over!
Paul's greeting to his readers -- and indeed, the whole introduction to his letter -- is a reminder to us that we need look no further than to the free gift of God's grace through His Son Jesus Christ to be "complete" in His eyes. This wonderful message of His sufficiency comes to us in the full authority of the God of grace, to those who have trusted in His grace by faith, with the result that they have peace with God as a gift of His grace.
Praise God for this message of His grace in a "greeting"!
(copyright 2000 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)