Date: November 4, 2018
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 1:6–1:8
I’ve been thinking about the Great Commission quite a bit in preparing for this series. The Great Commission, as many of you know, was the Lord Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples before he ascended again to the Father’s right hand. You probably remember what Jesus said – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That’s the Great Commission. Some have called Jesus’ words the marching orders of the church, and I think that’s a fitting description. In Christ’s declaration, we find our orders, our charge, our calling as the Lord’s church. We are to take the gospel to the nations, so that disciples are made, churches are planted, and the gospel grows among people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
But have you ever thought about how staggering it is that Jesus left a global mission to such a small band of followers? We know the Great Commission so well that we often overlook this, but remember, friends, there were 11 disciples on that mountain top and a handful of other followers. 11 disciples, and it’s a global mission. It’s doubtful any of those disciples were well-travelled, and here they are, receiving orders to go to all the nations. And yes, I know the Commission was given to the entire church, down through the ages, but still, just think about it at that initial moment. A global mission is given to a handful of followers. If you were reading through the Gospel of Matthew for the first time, your immediate question would be, “How is this going to work? How is this gospel message going to grow throughout the entire world?”
And then you come to the book of Acts, which picks up where Matthew 28 leaves off. And what we find in Acts is just as staggering as the global mission Jesus gave to his church. These handful of followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, begin to take the gospel throughout the world. First Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, until finally the book ends with Paul preaching Christ in Rome – the very center of the known world! If the Great Commission itself was staggering, then the progress of that mission is even more so. The gospel message is spreading, the church is growing.
Once again, the question confronts us, “How is this happening? What explains this wonderful gospel growth?” Now, we might be inclined to say the apostles are the answer – men like Peter and Paul who were incredible pioneers, men of unusual boldness and missionary zeal. And on one level, that’s true. Peter, Paul, and other apostles were unique, and they were bold, zealous men whose lives are worthy of our imitation. But do you know what’s striking? When you read the book of Acts, it’s not the apostles who are presented as the reason for this wonderful gospel growth. It’s not. No, the answer Acts gives is the Word of God, or we could say the gospel message itself. Acts 6.7 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” Or Acts 12.24 – “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” Or Acts 13.49 – “And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” Or Acts 19.20 – “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” Do you hear that, friends? The growth of the gospel was truly staggering, but it wasn’t because of the apostles’ per se. It was because of the gospel message itself. Each new stage of Great Commission advance occured as the Word of God increased and multiplied.
Now, what does this have to do with Colossians 1? Well, not to put it too bluntly, friends, everything. This has everything to do with Colossians 1, and therefore, it has much to say to us as well. What we find in our passage today is that the way the gospel advanced in Acts is the same way the gospel advanced in Colossae. The church in Colossae was birthed not by an apostle’s presence – Paul did not plant this church. Instead, the church in Colossae was birthed by an everyday Christian who followed the apostle’s model of faithfully preaching the powerful gospel message. It was through the faithful proclamation of Epaphras that the gospel took root in Colossae and then bore fruit in the salvation of sinners to the glory of God.
And that brings this passage home to us, brothers and sisters. Our text today is an encouraging and compelling presentation of gospel growth. There is all kinds of stuff out there today about how Christians and churches can grow, isn’t there? Some of it is good, and some is less than good. But in God’s kindness, our text today brings both clarity and direction, and it does so through the example of Epaphras and the Colossian church. Specifically, vv6-8 highlight for us two integral components of gospel growth – #1, the power of the gospel message, and #2, the priority, therefore, of faithful messengers. Let’s consider each of those components, as well as what they mean for the church today.
The Power of the Gospel Message
First of all, we need to note in v6 the Power of the Gospel Message. You’ll recall from last week that Paul begins this letter in his typical way – by giving thanks to God. That was the focus of vv3-5, and that focus continues in v6, as Paul’s thanksgiving carries on. But even as Paul continues with thanksgiving, he now begins to elaborate more on the Colossians experience of the gospel. And in doing so, Paul makes a rather stunning point – that the Colossians received the same gospel that is presently turning the known world upside down. In fact, as you look at v6, what stands out is the incredible power of the gospel itself.
Notice that Paul says the gospel has the power to produce life. V6 describes the gospel as bearing fruit and increasing. The idea here is of continuous productivity. It’s not that the gospel bears fruit once or grows for a moment. No, the gospel bears fruit and continues to do so. As sinners hear the gospel message with faith, their hearts are reborn, from death to life. They are no longer prisoners of the kingdom of darkness but citizens of Christ’s kingdom, and their lives now bear fruit in good works that bring glory to God. That’s the fruit of the gospel, friends.
What’s more, as the gospel message is proclaimed, it never runs out of this power. There is an increasing or growing harvest of souls that are saved from sin’s domination and brought to live under the lordship of Christ. That’s the growth Paul has in view here in v6. The gospel’s power never loses steam, you could say. It is bearing fruit and increasing.
And this has been true of the Colossians experience as a church. That’s part of Paul’s point in v6. The gospel has come to them, he says, and in doing so, the gospel has produced life among them. Their own hearts have gone from death to life, from unbelief to faith, from darkness to light. In short, they know the gospel’s power.
But Paul presses on with a deeper point, one that again goes right after the false teachers. Not only does the gospel have the power to produce life, but this power is not limited by people or place. Note the global scope of v6 – the gospel is bearing fruit and increasing among the Colossians just as does it throughout the whole world! Friends, that is an astonishing statement, and one that should greatly encourage the Colossian believers. Remember, the false teachers are suggesting there is something lacking about their gospel experience. There is some level of life, some kind of power the Colossians have failed to achieve. But how could that be the case, Paul asks, if the same fruit you experience is being experienced also throughout the entire world?
You see, the false teachers were actually the ones preaching a truncated gospel. They were actually the ones missing out on the power. By focusing on local pagan practices and old Jewish rituals, the false teachers were preaching a very small gospel, and one that certainly could not give life to the whole world. And so, Paul asks, “How could the gospel of Christ be deficient if sinners are being saved in Colossae and in Ephesus, in Jerusalem and in Rome, in Antioch and to the ends of the earth? How could the gospel of Christ be powerless if all across the Empire churches are being planted, and no matter how hard the authorities resist, the gospel just keeps pressing ahead?” That’s not the testimony of an insufficient gospel that needs something else. No, that’s the testimony of a powerful gospel that produces life and is never limited by people or place.
Still, the apostle Paul is not finished. He closes v6 with the reminder that this gospel power is experienced by faith alone. Listen again to the closing line of v6 – “as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” So, Paul makes his point unmistakably clear – this globally fruitful gospel is the same message the Colossians embraced. But how did they embrace it? How did they experience this powerful, fruit-producing gospel? Not through their own works, as if the gospel was dependent on them, but by faith alone. When Paul says they heard the gospel, he means they believed it. They listened to gospel preaching, and through that preaching, the Spirit granted them new life and faith in Christ.
But they didn’t merely hear the gospel, as though receiving the phonetic sounds of words has some magical effect. No, they understood it, Paul says. They understood what the gospel declared about God – that he is the Creator and Judge of all living things. They understood what the gospel declared about Christ – that he is Supreme and the only Savior who purchased forgiveness through his blood at the cross. And they understood what the gospel declared about their own hearts – that they were sinners, separated from God, and that their only hope of salvation was to cast themselves on Christ in faith, believing that his death was in their place and that his resurrection guaranteed their life. Friends, that is what it means to be saved by faith alone. It means you hear the gospel message, and by faith, you understand what it means for you as a sinner.
That has been the Colossians’ experience, Paul says, and it has been their experience from the very first day. Please don’t miss that, brothers and sisters. There is not some secret level of gospel power that comes later after you’ve figured out what everyone else is missing. There is not something extra that we must do to unlock the deep things of the gospel. No, from the first day the gospel is believed, its power is experienced in the lives of God’s people. That was true of the Colossians, and it remains true down to this day.
Overall, then, you can see what the apostle Paul is doing here, can’t you? He’s using the testimony of the gospel’s power in the world to encourage the Colossians to hold fast to that very same gospel message. What the gospel is doing out there, it’s also doing among you – that’s Paul’s point. And therefore, you don’t need to add anything to the gospel. Instead, you need to persevere in the same faith that has saved you from the beginning.
Brothers and sisters, what I want us to take away from v6 is that the gospel message is itself the power of God. It is through the proclamation of Christ crucified and resurrected that God brings life and growth to his people. Do you remember Jesus’ parable of the seed growing secretly? It’s not one of the better-known parables from Jesus, but it should be. It’s recorded in Mark 4, and Jesus is actually answering the same question we’re faced with in our text – how does the gospel grow? You may remember that in Mark 4, Jesus’ ministry has been virtually exploding with both fruit and controversy. He’s healing people nearly left and right, great crowds are following him, but significant opposition is rising up as well. So, in response, Jesus tells a series of parables, and the parable of the seed growing secretly ties in very well with v6 here in our passage. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” You can hear Jesus’ point. Just as the life of a plant is found in the seed itself, so also the power for growth is found in the gospel message itself.
Friends, I believe one of the great challenges facing the church today is the question of whether or not we believe the gospel is the power of God for life and godliness. It is so easy, like the Colossians, to get distracted by competing messages that promise renewed power and deeper impact. And yet, when you read the NT, over and over you find the apostles calling God’s people to do what? Remember the power of the gospel.
But how do we do that, you ask? How do we remember the gospel’s power? Well, perhaps this will surprise you, but it’s not that complicated. It’s actually simple, though that doesn’t make it easy. We know God’s Word, through reading, study, and meditation. We live a life of repentance and faith, daily confessing our sin and renewing our minds to obey Christ. And we deeply connect with a gospel-preaching church. That’s how you remember the gospel, brothers and sisters. That’s how the gospel’s powerful message bears fruit in your life. Know God’s Word – that’s the gospel’s content. Daily repent and believe – that’s the gospel’s application. And deeply connect to a local church – that’s the gospel’s community.
So, I’ll ask you, brothers and sisters – do you believe the gospel message is powerful enough for you to live and grow in the Christian life? Or, like the Colossians, have you slowly, maybe even unintentionally, begun to think there is something else besides the gospel that you need, some other source of power that will cause you to grow? Know God’s Word, daily repent and believe, and live in consistent community with the church – friends, those things may not seem all that powerful, but that’s how the gospel bears it fruit among us. That was Paul’s reminder in v6. The Colossians were not missing anything. They knew, by faith, the powerful gospel of God. And the same is true today, for every church that holds fast to Christ. If we root our lives in the gospel, we’re not missing anything. In fact, it’s just the opposite – we’re embracing, by faith, the life-producing power of the gospel message.
The Priority of Faithful Messengers
We said at the outset there were two components of gospel growth. We’ve just considered the first – the power of the gospel message. But as you can hear in that first component, our thinking is incomplete without the second. A message, even a powerful one like the gospel, requires a messenger, and that’s the second component we must consider – the priority of faithful messengers. In v7, Paul introduces us to Epaphras, the brother who planted the church in Colossae. Epaphras was a native of Colossae, but at some point, he moved away from the city, perhaps going to one of the larger neighboring cities like Ephesus or Laodicea. It was there, away from Colossae, that Epaphras met the apostle Paul. And from that point forward, Epaphras’ life changed. He heard the gospel from Paul’s preaching, God saved Epaphras, and then in due time, Epaphras returned to his hometown to proclaim the same gospel that had transformed his life. You see, that’s the spiritual family tree of the Colossian church – Paul to Epaphras, and then Epaphras to the Colossian believers.
Now, you’ve got to understand, friends, by this point in time, the city of Colossae was not what it used to be. Colossae used to be a crossroads of commerce and culture in the Roman Empire, but those days were in the past. The Empire relocated one of the main roads that ran through the city, and now, Colossae’s position was overshadowed by larger cities in the region. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Colossae was the least important city to which any of Paul’s letters was addressed. So, to use a modern-day analogy, Epaphras’ vision of church planting didn’t take him to New York City or Los Angeles – you know, a global, strategic city at the crossroad of the world. No, Epaphras went home to what was fast becoming a small, out-of-the-way town.
And yet, it’s at precisely this point that we see the most important feature of Epaphras’ ministry. He was faithful. In fact, that’s what Paul emphasizes here in vv7-8. Unlike the false teachers, who could not be trusted, Epaphras’ faithfulness proves him to be a trustworthy minister of Christ. Notice with me how Paul emphasizes Epaphras’ faithfulness.
To begin with, Epaphras was grounded in the gospel. Look at the first line of v7, where Paul says the Colossians learned the gospel from Epaphras. That word learned is key, friends. It carries the idea of thoroughgoing instruction. So, Epaphras didn’t blow into town, give a quick presentation, ask for a show of hands, and then breeze on out to the next place. No, Epaphras preached. He taught. He answered questions. He passed on the truths Paul had handed down to him. In other words, Epaphras embraced the slow, steady work of making disciples. It wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t easy. But it was faithful, and that was the key. Epaphras was grounded in the gospel.
But notice also that Epaphras was devoted to Christ. Unlike the false teachers, who wanted to make a name for themselves, Epaphras was in the ministry for the glory of Christ. Look how Paul, in v7, identifies Epaphras as our beloved fellow servant. A servant claims nothing for himself but instead carries out his work in devotion to and in dependence upon his master. And that was Epaphras’ mindset in ministry. Christ was his master, and it was to Christ that Epaphras displayed his allegiance. And if that allegiance meant returning to a small town and taking up the slow, steady work of discipleship, then Epaphras would do it. Why? Because Epaphras was faithful, and his faithfulness was exhibited in his devotion to Christ.
But notice finally that Epaphras was humble in his motivation. Look at the end of v7, where Paul says Epaphras is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf. Friends, there’s no higher compliment for a Christian than to be called a faithful minister of Christ on behalf of others. That was Epaphras’ testimony. Unlike the false teachers, who pursued ministry for selfish gain, Epaphras served selflessly for the sake of the Colossians. He didn’t want something from them; he wanted something for them – namely, their joy and growth in Christ! You see, Epaphras had learned well from the apostle Paul what discipleship requires. It requires the humility of pouring your life out for the good of others. It requires the patience of a farmer, who knows that the crop won’t come tomorrow or even next week, but who still humbly, faithfully tends the field until the harvest comes. And so, Epaphras went to Colossae in humility, and in the Lord’s grace, a church was planted. Grounded in the gospel, devoted to Christ, humble in motivation – that’s the testimony of a faithful servant.
But here’s the key takeaway for us, friends. Here’s the connection that we must grasp. Why was Epaphras able to pursue such a faithful ministry? Because he believed the power of the gospel message. Do you see it, brothers and sisters? The power of the gospel message convinced Epaphras that the priority was faithfulness. Because the gospel has the power to bring life, Epaphras was able to faithfully devote himself to the slow, steady work of discipleship. The power of the gospel message puts the priority on faithful messengers who will proclaim it. That’s really the one grand application that I’ve been driving at throughout this sermon – God displays the power of the gospel not through the mighty or the eloquent, but through the faithful, through servants like Epaphras.
You know, we often read Paul’s letters and think, “Wow, I could never do what Paul did. I am not that bold. I don’t have his biblical knowledge. I’m not a pioneering person. I guess gospel ministry is just not for me.” But perhaps we’re looking at this all wrong. Rather than focusing on pioneering Paul, what if we instead focused on faithful Epaphras. Here was a man who took the truth he had learned and applied it in the place God had placed him, and he did so in faith, trusting that God would bring growth in his time through his gospel. Brothers and sisters, that’s a model for ministry I can get behind. That’s a model for ministry that each of us can adopt. God supplies the power through the gospel, and he asks us, then, to prioritize faithfulness as his messengers. Friends, that’s gospel growth. That’s how the Great Commission is carried out – God supplies the power in the gospel message, and that, in turn, frees us to be faithful messengers.
Brothers and sisters, what if each of us brought this Epaphras-mindset to our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our homes, and even this church? Rather than viewing ministry as something for “exceptional” Christians, what if we placed our confidence in the gospel’s power and then prioritized faithfulness right where God has us at this moment? We’re a small church, but you know what – Epaphras was just one guy, just one faithful servant. And look what the Lord did through him with the gospel. A church was planted, and all because one brother believed in the power of the gospel and then devoted himself to faithfulness.
Your neighborhood, your workplace, your home, this church – brothers and sisters, God has called us to this ministry, he supplies the power in the gospel message, and what he asks of each of us is simply to be faithful. That’s what Epaphras did. He was grounded in the gospel, he was devoted to Christ, he was humble in his motivation, and then he got to work, right in the place where God had already given him opportunity.
Friends, this is how the gospel grows. What started on that mountain top with Jesus’ 11 disciples has been carried on through men like Paul and Epaphras, and that mission has come all the way down to us. And even though the times and culture have changed, the components of gospel growth have remained the same. The power is found in the gospel message, and therefore, the priority is on faithful messengers. That was Paul’s model in Acts, that was Epaphras’ example in Colossae, and I pray that will be our testimony in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our homes, and in this church. Amen. Let’s pray.