Date: December 23, 2018
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 1:21–1:23
If we took a poll of the least favorite subjects in school, I would guess that grammar would rank pretty high on the list. I know that was somewhat true for me. My middle school English teacher wore an insane number of bracelets on her wrists – I mean, more than you would think one person could possibly wear. And when we did grammar each day, her bracelets would clank together as she went back and forth to the board. It was intolerable – what’s a noun, bracelets clanging; where’s the adjective, bracelets banging. Look, for a twelve-year old, diagramming sentences is bad enough, but the cacophony of bracelets pushed it over the top. I don’t always have fond memories of learning grammar, and I’m sure that’s true for many of you too.
And that’s unfortunate, because sometimes in reading the Bible, the grammar reveals the glory. Every once in awhile, something as mundane as a pronoun nearly tells you the whole story. And our passage today is one such example. Since v15, Paul has been piling up pronouns in reference to Christ – he is, through him, for him, in him, he is. Verse after verse, it’s been all about the person and work of Christ – he, him, his. And rightfully so, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks. Christ is the center, the Supreme Son of God, the Ruler of Creation, the One who holds all things together. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul has been so taken up with Christ – he, him, his – Christ is supreme over all.
But when we hit v21, Paul shifts, and instead of saying “he is” or “through him,” Paul says, “And you.” The grammar reveals the glory. All that is true of Christ now comes to bear for the salvation of his people. It’s a stunning transition, really. Paul takes these profound truths about the person of Christ, and he applies them directly to the believers in Colossae. The Son of God who has reconciled all things in himself has also reconciled you, Paul says. The Son who made all things and sustains all things has also made you right with God, Paul declares. All of those wonderful he’s and him’s – they are all applied to you, Paul writes. You see, the grammar, in some sense, reveals the glory, for it reminds us that the Son of God truly did lay aside his glory for us and for our salvation.
It is absolutely appropriate that we’ve come to this passage on the last Sunday of Advent, just a couple of days before Christmas morning. This text so clearly refocuses our hearts on the gospel – both our need for a Savior and Christ’s role in accomplishing that salvation. Vv21-23 are a gospel summary in three points. And that’s what makes this passage so appropriate for Advent’s final Sunday. To truly understand the glory of Christ’s birth, you’ve got to keep Christmas morning and Easter morning together. Why was the Christ child born in that lowly manger? So that he could take up the cross, lay down his life, and rise again for the salvation of his people. I hope we remember this over the next few days. It is good to celebrate joy and peace at Christmas, but there’s only joy and peace because Bethlehem’s Child went on to bear Calvary’s Cross, a cross that you and I deserved. You see, that’s why Paul shifts and says “you” here in v21 – because we’re the ones who needed the Savior, because we’re the ones who were lost in sin’s darkness.
As I said just a moment ago, this passage is a gospel summary in three points. You’ll notice there are three verses, and if you take it verse-by-verse, there is this wonderful gospel progression. V21 – by nature, we were enemies of God. V22 – by grace, we have been reconciled to God. And v23 – by faith, we are kept for God. For this final Advent Sunday, let’s focus in on Paul’s gospel summary, and remember why the Son of God came down to us.
By nature, we were enemies of God
We start in v21 with the bad news – by nature, we were enemies of God. Paul’s first move is to remind the Colossians of their position prior to receiving the gospel. Notice again what the apostle writes, v21 – “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.” Now, Paul highlights two truths here, not just about the Colossians but about all human beings. And honestly, neither one is easy to hear, but both are absolutely necessary for understanding the gospel.
For starters, Paul says human beings, by nature, are separated from God. This is the idea behind the word alienated. We’re estranged from God, cut off from his presence. The relationship is fractured, and there is this massive gulf between God and us. That gulf, in fact, is so large, we cannot bridge it. Why not? Because of sin, the Bible says. Sin has separated humanity from God, so that we come into this world alienated, estranged from his presence.
You may remember back in Genesis that God said sin’s consequence would be death, but have you ever wondered why death was the result? Why did sin bring death? Part of the reason is because that’s what sin deserves – the judgment of God for breaking his commandments. But on another level, sin brings death because it separates us from the One who is life in himself. Remember, human beings are dependent creatures. We can’t sustain ourselves. We need breathe, nourishment, and shelter in order to live – we all know that. But do you know what we need most in order to live? We need God, the Giver and Sustainer of life. You see, this is part of the reason why sin brings death – because it separates us from God.
Now, as dire at that sounds, Paul is not finished. Not only is humanity separated from God, Paul also says we are, by nature, opposed to God. This is what Paul means when he says the Colossians were hostile in mind, doing evil deeds. They opposed God in their thinking, and that opposition was then evidenced in their actions. This is important to grasp. By nature, human beings are both unable and unwilling to come to God. We’re like the little toddler who stands on the other side of the room, refusing to come when his mother calls. If you have kids, then you’ve experienced this moment. Mommy says, “Come here, son,” but the little boy just stands there, arms folded, eyes closed in defiance. Why won’t he come? Is it because his legs don’t work? No, it’s because his heart is hard, and he’s unwilling to obey. That’s what human beings are like by nature – yes, we’re unable to come to God, but the bigger problem is that we’re unwilling. We don’t know God, and tragically, we don’t want to.
This is why the Bible so often describes salvation as being born again. Ezekiel 36, God says – “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Or, Jesus in John 3 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You see, we don’t merely need God to reach across that gulf we cannot bridge. We also need him to reach into our hearts and change who we are at the core.
Again, this is essential for getting the gospel right. The gospel is not the good news that God provides that little extra we couldn’t provide for ourselves. No, the gospel is the good news that God does in us and for us what we would never do for ourselves. This is Paul’s teaching in v21, and it is essential for gospel faithfulness. By nature, human beings are separated from God and hostile to God.
Now, even as I say this, perhaps someone is thinking, “This sounds harsh and pessimistic. Why should I believe this? I prefer to be optimistic about people, so why should I believe such a bleak outlook?” I think that is an excellent question, and I have two answers for you. The first is – you should believe this because it’s what the Bible teaches. Listen, I’ll say this up front – Christianity requires that we submit to Scripture, not the other way around. We first believe what God’s Word says, and then through his Word, God grants us greater understanding. We should believe this about human nature because it’s clearly taught in God’s Word, as we see here in v21.
The second reason we should believe this is because human history confirms it. We are the evidence against ourselves. Sin entered the world in Genesis 3, and do you remember what happened in the very next chapter? One brother killed another, in absolute defiance of God – Cain and Abel, Genesis 4. You don’t get more than one chapter removed from sin’s arrival, and already, humanity is refusing to submit to God, even to the point of killing one another. And what have we been doing ever since? Carrying on Cain’s legacy – blaming God and resorting so often to violence. The Bible teaches this, and human history confirms it. By nature, we come into this world enemies of God.
By grace, we have been reconciled to God
But thankfully, the teaching of Scripture does not end with v21. It’s been said before that the most amazing feature of the Bible is that it does not end with Genesis 3. It does not end with humanity’s rebellion against God. And that’s true here in Colossians 1 as well. As dire as v21 is, it’s not the end of the story. V22 – by grace, we have been reconciled to God. Listen again to how the good news answers the bad – “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled.” You may remember last week from v20 that Christ reconciled all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross. Incredibly now in v22, Paul says that Christ’s reconciliation also applies to his people. Christ does what we, by nature, were unable and unwilling to do. He bridges that separation, and he puts an end to our hostility. That’s what reconciliation means here in v22. Christ ends our alienation, and he conquers our opposition.
Notice that this reconciliation changes our status before God. It changes the relationship. In v21, Paul says you once were alienated – he speaks in the past tense. But here in v22, he says now you are reconciled through Christ – he switches to the present. You see, everything has changed. What defined us before Christ now no longer defines us. Believers are not separated from God; we now belong to God. Believers are not God’s enemies; we are now his, even his sons and daughters through Christ. Everything has changed. The old has gone, the new has come.
And understand, brothers and sisters, this change in position cannot be undone. If you belong to Christ by faith, you will never go back to being God’s enemy. You will never go back to being separated from the One who is life. Why not? Why won’t you go back to that old you? Because Christ died once and for all, never to die again. What’s more, even now, the Lord Jesus reigns at the Father’s right hand, interceding on behalf of his people.
It was not until a few years ago that I began to appreciate the heavenly ministry of Christ. Specifically, I mean the truth that Christ retains his flesh and blood body, even as he is seated at the Father’s right hand. I think most Christians know this, but I’m not sure we’ve thought about it deeply enough. When Christ rose from the dead, he rose with a glorified but physical body. Why did he continue in flesh and blood? Why has the humility of the Incarnation continued for the Son of God? To assure God’s people that the reconciliation Christ accomplished cannot be undone. For all eternity, God and humanity are together in Christ Jesus. That’s the assurance of Christ’s heavenly session – by grace, believers are once and for all reconciled in Christ. And this means Christians can rest assured that we will never go back to being God’s enemy. Why? Because grace cannot be undone. Christ will never laid aside his humanity. He will never cease to be our flesh-and-blood Mediator before the Father. The Lord Jesus is our reconciliation, even as Paul says here in v22.
As v22 continues, Paul goes on to explain how Christ has reconciled his people to God. Notice the emphasis on Christ’s death – “he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.” This is the means of our reconciliation. Believers are no longer enemies of God because the Son of God became Man in order to bear our punishment at the cross. You see, it’s not the Incarnation alone that saves God’s people. No, it’s the Incarnation that leads ultimately to the cross. In fact, you can say it even more strongly than that. There is no gospel without the death of Jesus Christ. There is no forgiveness without the shedding of Christ’s blood. There is no eternal life unless Christ first laid down his life for us. There is no hope, no mercy, no joy, no peace, no salvation without the shame and horror and pain and agony of Christ on the cross. It is there – on Calvary’s hill – that our reconciliation took place. And it is only because of the cross that sinners like us are saved.
Brothers and sisters, I hope we hear how Paul is pleading with us to make the Crucified Christ the center of life and ministry in this world. Remember, the Christians in Colossae were being tempted to add something to the work of Christ. The false teachers were fine with Jesus, but they refused to give him the place of supremacy. They were fine with Jesus, as long as there was room for something else as well. In a way, then, the false teachers in Colossae would fit in just fine in the world of 2018. Nearly every person you meet is fine with Jesus. His life and teaching are generally admired, and his care for the downtrodden is almost universally commended. But put Jesus the good teacher on the cross, bearing the wrath of God, and what do you get? Revulsion. Put Jesus the compassionate activist on Calvary shedding and his blood, and listen for how quickly the world rejects him. You see, not much has changed from Paul’s day to ours, at least not in this respect. Every impulse in every age is to minimize the centrality of Christ by minimizing his cross. And therefore, the church in every age must be about this one thing – Christ and him crucified.
It’s a good question to ask ourselves, brothers and sister. Most people we know probably also know that we are Christians, but do they know that the Crucified Christ stands at the center of our faith? Do they know that we believe salvation is found only in the Son of God slain and risen again on the third day? I’ve been convicted recently how easily I can talk about Christianity in general, but then how tentative I become when speaking about Christ crucified. Maybe you’re the same way. Maybe today is a good time for each of us to consider how we might give Christ his rightful place of supremacy, both in how we live and in what we say.
We’ve seen so much grace already in v22, but there is actually a little more to go. That’s the gospel, isn’t it? It keeps taking us deeper into the grace and goodness of God, and that’s how it is in v22. Paul has explained how Christ reconciled his people, but at the end of the verse, he also explains why Christ reconciled his people. Notice again what he says, end of v22 – “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” Now, I take the him at the end of the verse to be a reference to God the Father. Why did Christ suffer and die on the cross? So that sinners like us might enter the Father’s presence without fear of judgment. You see, this is the grand purpose of reconciliation. Not only does Christ take on our punishment, so that we are not condemned, but Christ also gives us his righteousness, so that we are accepted in God’s eyes.
Listen, forgiveness alone is an amazing reality – to know that all our guilt has been cancelled and cast away to be remembered no more. Forgiveness is amazing. But the good news of the gospel does not stop at forgiveness. Through Christ, the Father forgives our sin, and then he goes further and bestows on us what rightfully belongs to Christ. He makes us sons of God.
If you are a Christian this morning, consider the present reality of the gospel in your life. Right now, you have received the full measure of the Father’s love and grace. Right now, through Christ, you are fully acceptable to God. Do you believe that, brother or sister in Christ? The Father is not holding out on you. He is not withholding grace, while waiting to see if you are worth it. No, the gospel says God has given you his own beloved Son, who is the assurance of the Father’s love. What’s more, because Christ’s work is finished and complete, the Father also promises to finish his work of grace in your life and in mine. He will make his people more and more like Jesus. He will continue to give grace until that work is done. And that means you and I will grow, brothers and sisters. We will grow as Christians because this is part of why Christ died – to present us holy and blameless in God’s sight.
This is the grace of the gospel and how kind of the Father to remind us again, especially at Advent, how amazing this grace truly is. Christ died to reconcile his people to God, and therefore, we have the assurance that God will not withdraw his grace. The Father will finish his work because Christ himself is our reconciliation.
By faith, we are kept for God
That brings us to v23 and the final step in Paul’s gospel summary – by faith, we are kept for God. Now, in the flow of the letter, v23 sets up Paul’s strategy for the remaining three chapters. Remember, the Colossians are being tempted to turn from Christ, so Paul writes, in large part, to counter that temptation. His aim is to encourage them to hold fast to Christ. That’s really the pastoral heart of Colossians – Christ is supreme; therefore hold fast to him. And you can hear that pastoral concern here in v23. Notice again what Paul writes – “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.” You can hear Paul’s emphasis there, can’t you? Words like continue and steadfast stand out, and the specific warning to not shift is very clear. You see, this is a call for perseverance, and what an important point for Christians to understand. The gospel of Christ calls his people to perseverance.
You may remember toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, in Matthew 24, Jesus is speaking about the end of the age, and he says, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” In fact, Jesus said this on more than one occasion – the one who endures to the end will be saved. The rest of the NT, then, picks up Jesus’ teaching and develops it, just as Paul is doing here in v23. The gospel of God’s grace calls believers to perseverance. If, after professing faith in Christ, you turn around and deny the gospel, then the Bible says the last day will be a day of judgment for you. If, after professing to trust in Christ, you decide to add something to his work, Scripture says the root of genuine faith was not present in your heart. This is important. The failure to persevere does not mean you lose your salvation. It means you never truly trusted in Christ in the first place, for those who are saved by God’s grace persevere to the end. That’s what Paul reminds the Colossians of here in v23. The grace of God that saved them in Christ now calls them to persevere in Christ as well.
Now, of course, the key question is this – how do I do this? Perseverance is clearly essential, so how does it happen? It’s not earth-shattering, but it is vitally important that we get this right. Perseverance happens by faith in the finished work of Christ. Again, please hear me clearly. Perseverance is not a work that we must add to the gospel that somehow rounds out Christ’s work of salvation. No, perseverance is continuing to trust in the work of Christ as the only means of salvation for sinners like us. You see, perseverance is just a fancy way to say, “Keep trusting in Christ.”
Indeed, that’s what Paul makes clear here in v23. Notice where he says “not shifting from the hope of the gospel.” What is the hope of the gospel? It is the hope the gospel creates and sustains in the life of a Christian. It’s somewhat of a gracious mystery how this works out in practice, but let me try to explain. As I trust in Christ, I find in him a sure hope of forgiveness and eternal life. That hope, then, encourages me to continue trusting in Christ, so that this process unfolds. The more I trust in Christ, the more I find there is nowhere else to turn, no one else who could possibly bring a sinner like me into God’s presence. Do you see how it connects together? The hope of the gospel is so powerful that it keeps me in the faith, and over time, what happens? I persevere to the end.
Llet me try to put this on a practical level for the everyday Christian life. If you belong to Christ, every time you hear the gospel and believe it, that is the grace of God working to save you and keep you for the last day. Every time you open the Scriptures and believe what God declares about Christ, that is God’s work to persevere you in gospel hope. Every time you gather with the people of God to confess sin and trust once more in Christ, that is the Father’s grace keeping you stable and steadfast in the Lord Jesus. And therefore, we should not minimize the power of God’s grace at work in the everyday. Instead, we should view these precious, ordinary things as God’s means of keeping us in the faith.
Brothers and sisters, I hope you see the significance here. The daily pursuit of faithfulness to Christ is so much more than merely trying to avoid sin and carry on good Christian behavior. Our daily pursuit of faithfulness is itself the evidence of God’s grace. It is the evidence that God is working in us at this moment, finishing the good work he started. What should we do? We should take up our Bibles, serve the church, spread the gospel, encourage the saints, and work as unto the Lord. Those are not small things. That’s grace at work in you for the salvation of your soul. That’s perseverance in action – not because we must save ourselves, but because we believe, even now, God is saving his people through faith in Christ.
The one who endures to the end will be saved, Jesus said, and praise God, the Father grants what he commands. By faith, Paul tells us, we are kept for God.
Three verses that summarize for us, in three truths, the good news of the gospel. By nature, we were enemies of God. By grace, we have been reconciled to God. And by faith, we are kept for God. And to think, this stirring reminder began with something as mundane as a pronoun. “And you,” Paul writes in v21. The Son of God who has reconciled all things in himself has also reconciled you, Paul says. The Son who made and sustains all things has also made you right with God, Paul reminds us. May we hold fast to Christ, brothers and sisters, and may we rejoice that Jesus, having come once to earth for our salvation, will come again soon to bring us, finally and forever, into the presence of God. Amen.