Teaching series from Colossians

The Power of the Gospel to Spread

Colossians 1:1-8

Teaching t21059


This morning we begin a study of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae (read 1:1,2).  It was written around 60 AD, while Paul was a prisoner in Rome, and it was written to a group of Christians in SW Turkey that he had never met (MAP). 

Paul begins by thanking God for how this church got started (read 1:3-8).  He says they are one example of Christian communities exploding into being all over the Roman Empire.  What was the cause of this explosion?  Not Paul or any Christian leader.  The cause is what he calls “the gospel.”  Paul likens the gospel to a seed that has inherent power to germinate and grow and reproduce (RED BUD TREES).  Paul implies that it spread from himself to Epaphras—who came from Colossae (4:12).  Then it spread from Epaphras to them.   And it had been spreading from them to others in their area.  And, I might add, it continues to spread today here in Columbus and all over the world!  What is this ”gospel?”  What accounts for its power to spread?  These are the two questions I want to address this morning.

What is “the gospel?”

This is what Colossians expounds—this morning we will just start to get our arms around the answer to this question.  In our culture, “gospel” refers to something “Christian”—a style of music, a certain kind of sermon, a religious place (gospel tabernacle), etc.  But in the 1st century, it had a very different meaning.  The word is euaggellion (from which “evangelism” comes) and it means literally “good message.”  It was used to refer to the announcement of an objective event that had changed the course of human history, and a summons to align one’s life to this event.  In Paul’s world, the “gospel” referred mainly to news pertaining to Caesar (e.g., a military victory).  When Caesar Augustus was born (63 BC), heralds were sent throughout the Empire to proclaim this “gospel.”  During his reign (9 BC), Asia Minor heralds proclaimed the “gospel” of his peaceful reign and summoned all subjects to reckon time from a new calendar based on his birthday.  

But while the “gospel” of Caesar Augustus ended war within the Empire, he fell far short of “setting all things in order, let alone bringing “life to the peak of perfection.”  The Empire was still riddled with racial, socio-economic and gender divisions.  And people lamented that true peace of mind and heart were as out of reach as ever (as much as they do today).

It is in this context that Paul announced a greater gospel—the coming of a much greater Ruler, and issue of a much greater summons.  This gospel was radically counter-cultural, even subversive.  Paul announced the coming of the true Lord—not Caesar, but Jesus—a Jew from the backwater of the Empire!  And he announced that Jesus won a great victory when he was stripped naked and crucified!  This is the absolute antithesis of what would be viewed as a “gospel” (1Cor.1:23).  But his death is indeed the gospel because it was predicted by the Old Testament prophets, and because his death paid for our sins (1Cor.15:1-3).  Paul summoned everyone to align themselves with this event by personally entrusting themselves to the risen Jesus (Rom.1:16; “your faith in Christ Jesus”) to receive this salvation.

We learn two more things about this gospel in this passage:

It radically exclusive.  The Roman Empire (like contemporary Western culture) encouraged “smorgasbord” spirituality (religious syncretism) as longed as you worshipped Caesar as Lord.  But Paul insists that the gospel is “the word of truth” (1:5)—that salvation comes only through Jesus because he alone is Lord, and because he alone lived a perfect life and laid his life down as a sacrifice for our sins.  Paul will such much more about this later.

It is also radically inclusive.  Salvation is available to everyone because it is based on “the grace of God” (1:6).  All other religions (then and now) made salvation (however defined) something that we must achieve/earn (RITUAL OBSERVANCE; MORAL EFFORT; SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES).  But the gospel announces that salvation is pure charity (charis)—a free gift to the undeserving.  This is why the gospel is good news for the “poor in spirit,” but offensive to the proud and self-sufficient.

This gospel, Paul declares, is the power-source of the explosive spread of Christians and Christian communities.  But what accounts for the gospel’s power to spread?  After all, Jesus wasn’t physically present, and his kingdom displayed no military power.  Why would so many people risk their lives (potentially) for this?  Take a closer look at 1:4,5...

What accounts for the gospel’s power to spread?

The gospel spreads through the people who are being transformed by it.  It produces what C. S. Lewis called “the good infection” that spreads health rather than sickness.  Paul describes the dynamics of that transformation with the words “faith,” “hope,” and “love” (1:4,5).  When you put your faith in the gospel—when you entrust yourself to Jesus and his death for your sins against God—God’s Spirit imparts hope into your heart.  This hope is a deep optimism that comes from knowing experientially that God is now with you and for you.  You are safe for all eternity (“stored up for you in heaven”) and he will guide you and care for you until then.  Nothing can separate you from God’s love (Rom.8:35-39).  When you experience this hope, you have a fullness which makes you want to love.  You want to love God because of how good he is to you.  And you want to give his love to other people—both those who know Jesus (1:4) and those who don’t even believe in him (like you once were).  It’s like Scrooge on Christmas morning—he was filled with hope because he had received mercy, and this hope filled him with the desire to love.  It is this hope and love that both motivates you to share the gospel with others (e.g., sharing a favorite song), and also commends the gospel to those with whom you share it.

This is what happened to Epaphras, though we don’t know the details.  Maybe he left Colossae and came to the “big city” (Ephesus) to fulfill his dreams, but became bitterly disappointed.  Then he met some Christians who had real hope and love—and responded to their invitation to hear Paul explain the gospel.  When he put his faith in the gospel, he too was filled with new hope and a love for his friends and family back in Colossae.  So he shared the gospel with them, and his hope and love attracted them to put their faith in the gospel—which touched off this hope and love in their hearts, which motivated them to tell others, and so on...

Matthew Parris is a journalist for the London Times, and a confirmed atheist.  Yet last year he wrote an article entitled “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”—and the God to which he refers is the God of evangelical Christianity.  Having grown up in Africa, he applauds the tremendous practical good that Christian missionaries did for Africa (education; agricultural and technological training).  But he says something deeper happens when Africans embrace faith in Jesus Christ: “Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good... Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”  What does this transformation look like?  He remembered from his childhood that “Africans who had converted... were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life.”  His recent interactions with African Christians confirmed his memory: “It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith... (But) what they were was... influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught... (Evangelical) Christianity... with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God... smashes straight through the (crushing tribal groupthink)... That is why and how it liberates.”   Parris is unwittingly confirming what Paul says in 1:5,6—true Christianity spreads because it germinates hope and love in those who embrace it in faith!  This is what happened in my life, and this is what can happen in your life(EXPLAIN HOW).

This dynamic is common among new Christians—but tragically, older Christians often lose it.  That’s why many older Christians say “New Christians make the most effective witnesses.”  I totally disagree with this statement!  I know many older Christians who are just as effective in spreading the gospel as new Christians.  This has nothing to do with how long you have been a Christian—the key is continuing to grow in your understanding and appreciation of the gospel!  New Christians have this focus—so the hope and love that results from this emanates from them like the aroma of fresh bread.  But as an older Christians, you can have this same aroma—if you keep growing in your understanding and appreciation of the gospel.

This is what Paul hints at in 1:6.  The gospel spread through the Colossian Christians to others because they “understood God’s grace in all its truth.”  But the implication is that it will continue to spread through them only as they continue to be changed by it—and they will continue to be changed by it as they continue to understand it “in all its truth.”  This is why Paul urges the Colossians ten times in his letter to stay focused on and growing in their understanding and appreciation of the gospel.

This is why Jack Miller said: “(Christians often say) that ‘evangelism is one poor beggar telling another poor beggar where to find bread.’  This is a wonderful definition, (but I want to) add something to this insight.  Evangelism is... one hungry beggar eagerly eating the bread and being changed by it, and then (asking) other poor beggars to eat of the same bread.”

The problem with many older Christians is that we drift away from this growing understanding and appreciation of the gospel.  We may even think that the gospel’s main purpose was to help us become Christians (TIMELINE #1)—but that after that we need to focus on something else as the practical key to our lives (TIMELINE #2).  That “something else” may be something good and biblical (e.g., marriage and parenting; ministry; spiritual disciplines), or it may be something aberrant (e.g., doctrinal tangents; material comfort; social prestige; political self-righteousness).  But whatever it is, your soul will become malnourished, hope and love will wither—and you will become stale and unattractive bread.  Only as you keep growing in your understanding and appreciation of the gospel does it keep imparting hope and love in you so that you stay healthy and effective in spreading this “good infection” to others (TIMELINE #3). 

This is why studying Colossians can spark a spiritual revolution in your life.  Paul knew that the Colossians were beginning to make this mistake—so he wrote this letter to nip it in the bud.  He expounds the gospel “in all its truth” and explains how to apply it in-depth to our lives.  Join us in mining its treasures, and pray (with me) that God will open the eyes of our hearts as we do so!

See Acts 19:9,10.  Epaphras was evidently trained in the gospel during this time by Paul in Ephesus—and he evidently then returned to his hometown of Colossae and explained the gospel, which resulted in the planting of this church.

“In the Roman imperial world, the ‘gospel’ was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world.” (Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire).  For example, this announcement from a provincial assembly of Asia Minor: “Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it (Providence) filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas, having become visible . . . ; and whereas, finally that the birthday of the god (viz., Caesar Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him, (therefore, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth).” 

EPICTETUS: "While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy.  He cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns more than even for outward peace."  (Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, p.112)

Matthew Parris, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God,” The London Times, December 27, 2008.

Col.1:6,9,23,28; 2:2,6,7; 3:1,2,16

C. John Miller, A Faith Worth Sharing (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1999), p.98.