Advancing the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus in a Disorderly World
Introduction to a Series of Expositions on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians
By Dr Annang Asumang
Of the thirteen letters written by Paul, five emanated from his time in prison. One of these letters is Colossians. And in the next fourteen visits with you here at Celebration Church; I shall, God willing, and of course, you being happy to invite me here again, I shall devote each visit to expound on this Letter, its meaning and more importantly, its application to us today.
Now Colossians is a very special book indeed. You may know that in terms of vocabulary, Colossians is very similar to Ephesians. In fact 25%, a quarter of the words in Colossians are also repeated verbatim in Ephesians. So parts of Colossians sounds very much like Ephesians. That is why for many Christians, Colossians exists in the shadow of Ephesians. But, of course, in terms of its message, Colossians cuts its own path, it addresses its own specific situation and it deals with a distinctive aspect of Christian discipleship. We do ourselves a lot of injustice, and rob ourselves of immense blessings if we allow Colossians to remain in the shadow of Ephesians or of any other book for that matter.
The Relevance of Colossians for Today
By way of introduction, let me explain three reasons why our Bible would be deficient without Colossians. Three reasons why Colossians is relevant for us today!
1. It Addresses a Chaotic City
2. It Stresses Christocentric Christianity
3. It Progresses Christ’s Kingdom
1. Colossians Addresses a Chaotic City
The first reason why Colossians is so relevant for us today is that it addresses a situation very much similar to our world today. Let me explain. The city of Colossae was in some ways like Grimsby! First of all, it was rather removed from the key city of the region which was Ephesus. If we imagine that Grimsby is Colossae, Ephesus was Manchester. Secondly, like Grimsby, Colossae had two other nearby cities which were better known at the time. Laodicea, which Paul mentions on four occasions in this letter (Col 2:1; 4:13, 15, 16) was only a few miles from Colossae. So let’s say Laodicea was Hull. Then there was another better known nearby city called Hierapolis, which, let’s call it Lincoln. So, rather like Grimsby, Colossae at the time, was living more or less in the shadows of some better known nearby cities. There is third way in which Colossae was like Grimsby. A century or so before the birth of Christ, Colossae was really great. I mean really great! Like Great Grimsby of bygone years, known all over the world for its fishing industry, Colossae was very famous throughout the then world for its Woollen industry. In fact there was a specific type of wool called the Colossian Wool, rather like the Grimsby Haddock. This thriving industry attracted people of different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities to the place. That was Colossae in the past! Unfortunately, like Great Grimsby again, by the time of Paul this woollen industry had collapsed. By the middle of the first century, Colossae was living in the shadows of its own former glory. By contrast Laodicea and Hierapolis were doing better and growing from strength to strength. I told you Colossae was rather like Grimsby!
Now, here is the rub! When you have a city that is losing its former glory, this shatters the confidence of its citizens. Remember in those days, people were citizens of cities, and not of countries! So they had immense and intense psychological attachments to the fortunes of their cities! If my city loses its glory, I lose my glory and with it, my confidence. With the loss of confidence comes something else. A people with ebbing confidence are often willing to try anything new. If you are unsure of yourself, today you believe this; tomorrow you are willing to try something else. Today there is a new philosophy so you chase after it. Tomorrow there is a new religion so you subscribe to it. All of a sudden nobody believes the same things anymore. Disorder becomes the Order of the day, if you will pardon the pun!
People subscribed to some form of religion alright. But insecure people are always willing to mix several beliefs together, because they are never sure if one belief was enough to save them. Several Jews had previously emigrated from Mesopotamia to the region. And people liked bits and pieces of the Jewish religion, about the Sabbath, the festivals and the food laws. So they adopted aspects of that religion. They also liked the Greek philosophical ideas so they took those too on board. Above all, the Colossians liked their own native Phrygian folk religion, which was steeped in superstitions and spiritism. If you really want an example of an ancient people steeped in superstitions, a people who believed that they were totally under the thumbs of the gods, the gods of day and night, the gods of months and years, the gods of rain and sunshine, the horoscopic gods of sun and moon and stars and planets, the gods of nature and animals, if you want a typical ancient people with that sort of passionate commitment to idolatry, the Colossian Phrygians were those people. So people added that one too to the mix of their beliefs. The result was a mishmash of chaos and disorder! Everything went! Nothing was dominant! Nothing was central enough to define the people! That was Colossae in 60AD for you!
But, isn’t that also what is wrong with our world today? Isn’t today’s world as chaotic, as disorderly and as decentred as what I have described? A world in which everybody believes what they believe is right! A world in which everyone’s beliefs, everyone’s lifestyle choices, everyone’s take on ethics, is as valid as everyone else’s! So nothing really dominates or defines it! Isn’t that our world today? Yes, our world is far more civilized. But it is as disorderly and chaotic as Colossae was!
It was into this chaotic city that the Church of the Lord Jesus was planted. Planted not by Paul himself, but by a brother by the name of Epaphras who most likely hailed from Colossae! From what we can gather, Epaphras was converted through Paul’s ministry in Ephesus and studied in Paul’s Bible School there. In effect then the Colossian believers were Paul’s grand-children in the faith.
Imagine this then, my brothers and sisters! Imagine yourself as a Christian living in a chaotic disorderly decentred world! Sooner or later, you also begin to catch that disease. The disease of lack of confidence in what you have received! The disease of not really being secure in yourself as a Christian! So you develop the same shallowness, and superficiality, and lack of firm rootedness, just as the world around you! As a result, you are always seeking for something new and sensational to thrill you. Mishmash becomes the order of the day! That is the situation addressed by Colossians. And it is in that sense that Colossians is as fresh today as it was then.
2. Colossians Stresses Christocentric Christianity
The second reason why we neglect Colossians to our own spiritual impoverishment is its unique take on the doctrine of Christ. No other book of the New Testament is so compactly saturated with the doctrine of Christ as Colossians. I have spent the last few days counting, so let me share some statistics with you. Did you know that in the ESV translation of Colossians, Paul makes direct references to the Lord on eighty-seven occasions? Eighty-seven times! Twenty five times, Paul calls Him Christ. Thirteen times he calls Him Lord. Seven times he calls Him Jesus. Twenty one times he uses the pronoun Him. Thirteen times, He! And eight time, His. That amounts to eighty seven references to Jesus.
Do you know how many words there are in the ESV translation of Colossians? One thousand nine hundred and thirty eight words! And eighty seven of these words, that is, 4.5%, are taken up by direct references to Jesus alone. Of course, this is even more compact in the Greek. Of the ninety-five verses of Colossians, fifty five of them, that is almost 60% make explicit references to Jesus. Sometimes three references to Jesus occur in one verse alone. That is just counting words, and not the ideas! No other book in the New Testament is as compactly saturated with direct references to Jesus, as Colossians. Christ is intimately linked with everything that Paul says in Colossians!
Christ is not just linked to everything in Colossians. He is Centre of the stage. In Colossians, Christ is not just God in the flesh. More than that, in Colossians, all the fullness of God dwells in Christ! In other words, you cannot find God outside Christ! In Colossians, Christ is not just the Creator of the world; He is also the Sustainer of the Universe. He is the centre of gravity of the universe. In Him, Paul says in Col 1:17, the whole universe is held together. Cosmologists think of the sun as the centre of the universe around which all the planets revolve and spin. Well, in Colossians, it is the Lord Jesus Christ; He is the Centre, preventing the universe and the galaxies and the stars and planets from falling apart! What a glorious Lord He is! In Colossians, not only does Jesus save, defeat the devil and is crowned Lord. We know all that before we come to Colossians! But in Colossians, He is more than that. Paul says He utterly triumphed in His victory on the cross. He shattered and crushed the enemies in His victory. Paul says, on the cross, Christ disarmed and utterly shamed the principalities and the powers of darkness. The world thought it was subjecting the Lord Jesus to shame. And indeed, to some extent they did, because He bore our shame as He hanged on that tree. But Oh No! Colossians turns it on its head. On the cross, Paul says in Col 2:15, Jesus “put [these principalities and powers] to open shame, by triumphing [crushing] over them in Him”. It is they who were shamed! What a marvellous expression of the achievements of the Cross!
What is even more remarkable about the doctrine of Christ in Colossians is how it is so intimately woven into how we live the Christian life, how we live discipleship. It is often said that the Christian life is like a coin with two sides. One side is all about Christ, the other side is all about discipleship. The two cannot be separated. They go together. But it is often the case that some Christians focus only on one side of this coin. Either everything is about discipleship, or everything is about Christology.
Well, you can’t do that with Colossians. Because in Colossians, the two, Christology and Discipleship, are so intimately woven together that the coin analogy breaks down. In Colossians, Christ saturates every aspect of Christian existence that we are always forced to look at both sides of the coin all at once, and all the time. One big word describes that sort of feature. It is Christocentricity. Colossians forces us to be Christocentric Christians. We therefore allow Colossians to remain in the shadows at our own immense spiritual cost.
3. Colossians Progresses Christ’s Kingdom
The Christocentric stress of Colossians is even more heightened in one particular aspect. That aspect regards the Ruler-ship, or Kingship of the Lord Jesus. That is the third reason why Colossians is relevant for today. This idea is expressed in three main ways in the letter.
a. The Vocabulary of the Sovereignty of Christ
First, it is expressed with the frequent vocabulary of the Sovereignty of Christ. I have already mentioned that Paul uses the title Lord for Jesus on thirteen occasions. In Col 2:6 for example, and we shall come to this verse again, Paul says, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him”. In other words, you became Christian by submitting to the Lordship of Jesus. So now, continue to be a Christian under His Lordship, under His sovereignty. In Col 1:10 Paul says a similar thing: “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him”. If Jesus is really your Lord, you must seek to totally please Him in every aspect of your life. Walk worthy of the Lord! In Col 3:17 he says, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Did you get that? Whatever you do! The title Lord in Colossians expresses the Kingship of Jesus over your personal life.
But Paul uses other vocabularies to express the Kingship of the Lord Jesus. Colossians 1:13 is perhaps the most famous one and we shall come to that on several occasions in this series. Paul says, “He, God the Father that is, has delivered us from the domain of darkness (of chaos) and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son”. That is where you and I belong! Not to a disorderly chaotic world of darkness. But to the stable kingdom of Christ! Live as kingdom people, Celebration Church.
Live as kingdom people!
Colossians 3:15 is one of my favourite expressions of this kingdom vocabulary in Colossians: “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”. Don’t let the chaos of the world, the disorder of your environment, don’t let the insecure, disorder seep into your heart and drain you of your Christian stability. No Way! Instead, Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. The solution, my brothers and sisters, the solution that Colossians offers to Christians living in a disorderly world is this: to advance the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, inwardly and outwardly! In your heart, in your habits, in your home, in your relationships, in the fellowship and in every transaction you become involved in! Let King Jesus take control and rule and dispel the disorder of your life! That is what we need in our disorderly world today.
b. The Phraseology of the Sphere of Christ
The second way in which this idea of the kingship of Jesus is expressed in Colossians is through phrases, not just vocabularies, but phrases depicting the Lord Jesus Christ as Sphere in whom we exist. One of the popular group of phrases we will find in Colossians, are phrases like, “in Christ” which occurs on five occasions, or “in Him” occurs on nine occasions, or “in the Lord” which occurs twice, or “in the name of the Lord” occurs once. “In Christ” is quite a popular phrase of Paul. But here in Colossians, it takes on a poignant meaning. Christ Jesus the Lord is the Sphere, the Atmosphere, the Realm and the Dominion in which we exist as Christians. That is kingdom language for you. When Paul says in Col 2:6, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him”, that is what he means! Walk in His kingdom sphere. Let His dominion rule your going out and your coming in!
c. The Idea of Stability in Christ
The third manner by which the kingship of Christ is expressed in Colossians is with the idea of Christ as the One who gives people stability in a disorderly world. Just as after some wobbly decades we in the United Kingdom are beginning to rediscover how important a stabilizing force the monarchy, and the queen in particular, is to our nation, so it is that rediscovering the Kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ stabilizes us, His people, who live in a chaotic disorderly world.
We find this concept in many places. In Col 1:11, Paul prays, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to [the Lord’s] glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy”. In Col 1:23 he encourages them to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard”. In Col 2:5, Paul says, he wished “to see [their] good order and the firmness of [their] faith in Christ”. In Col 2:7 he urges the Colossians to become “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith”. In Col 2:19 he says, those who fall away from the faith did so because they were “not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God”. They did not hold fast to Christ their Stabilizer. In Col 4:12 he says Epaphras struggles in prayer for the Colossians so that they “may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God”. What Christians living in a disorderly world need is stability. And Paul says the Lord Jesus Christ is your Stabilizer. Plunge and root yourself in Him!
The Theme and Structure of Colossians
It is in the light of this that I have set our theme for Colossians as Advancing the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus in a Disorderly World. If you want a verse which summarizes that theme, Col 1:13 is that verse: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son”. Another key verse, and in fact several recent commentaries prefer this, is Col 2:6. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him”. And they suggest that in that vein Colossians may be structured into two parts. Col 1:1-2:6a explain “received Christ Jesus the Lord”, while Col 2:6b-4:18 describe “so walk in Him”.
With this theme, the letter moves in four steps. And the outline for the series, which has been
distributed, expounds on these four steps.
1. Col 1: The Founding of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
2. Col 2: The Fortification of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
3. Col 3: The Flourishing of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
4. Col 4: The Fellowship of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
An Exhortation: Always Give Thanks Col 1:3
With the few minutes left, I want to reflect on how Paul opens his letter in Col 1:3. As is often his style, the letter begins with his self-introduction, introduction of his co-writer Timothy, identification of the addresses, the Colossians, and a greeting. It reads, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father”. Then as is his normal practice in all but two of his letters, Paul records a Thanksgiving on behalf of the Colossian in 1:3, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”. We always thank God!
Now, Colossians is special for one more thing that I haven’t yet mentioned. And that is the frequency of references to thanksgiving. Six occasions, Paul refers directly to thanksgiving, or being thankful or being grateful (1:3, 12; 2:7; 3:15, 17; 4:12). These references occur at every crucial turn of the letter, making thanksgiving a very important topic in Colossians! Of course, we should not be surprised at all by that. Thanksgiving is always the outward sign of a king’s successful reign. When the King is on the throne, all His people shout for joy in thanksgiving! That is what we find here!
But, my brothers and sisters imagine the situation of the man who wrote these words: We always thank God! Imagine his situation. He writes this letter while he was bound up in prison for proclaiming the Gospel. He writes at an anxious time, not sure whether he was going to be released, or he was going to be executed. He could have chosen to be angry, bitter, self-pitying, and frustrated about his circumstances. But no! Instead, what does he say? We always thank God! Amazing!
Why? Why does he give thanks despite his appalling circumstances? Well, it is because he knows that despite His situation, King Jesus is still on the throne, and His Kingdom is advancing. So he will always give thanks! My situation Paul would say, may be uncertain, but the situation of the kingdom is not. I am under chains here, but I know that the Gospel is not bound and the power of Christ is at work setting people free. I am experiencing the brutality of the dominion of Caesar, but I know that you are experiencing the liberation power of the dominion of Christ. That is why I always give thanks. Kingdom minded people are always thankful people! Are you one of them?
May the Lord Jesus make each one of us Kingdom hearted people! People in whose hearts Christ dispels the chaos and disorder of the world and instead reigns as Lord, and as King! May the Lord also make us kingdom minded people! Not just kingdom hearted, but kingdom minded! People who are consumed with the desire to advance His kingdom in our habits, in our homes, in the Church and in our daily transactions! May the Lord use Colossians, to teach us how to advance His kingdom in our disorderly world here in Grimsby!