Paul has been writing and exhorting the believers with many instructions to do & not do (see Colossians 1:1-13). But all get brought together by one exhortation – to love!
“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:14 in NIV)
This makes me think of a piece of power cord transmitting power from some power generation plant thousands of kilometres away to my laptop via a wall plug and this power cord – allowing me to write to you.
That short power cord is made of multiple thin strands of copper wire that on their own would be of no use to me. Because on their own, none of them would be sufficient to transmit the electrical power current needed to run this laptop. More than that, if they were on their own trying to transmit electrical power, they would be more unsafe than helpful putting my household at risk of electrocution and or fire.
But when bound tightly together and ensheathed in a protective outer layer of insulating plastic, they are not only able to transmit the power needed but also are enabled to do so safely!
Similarly, Paul seems to be saying that in all these diverse exhortations he is making for godly living (Colossians 3:1-14), there is one exhortation (to be loving towards one another) that binds them all together.
And that one exhortation (to be loving towards one another) makes all the other exhortations work together, enabling them to transmit something greater and to do so safely!
‘Single issue Christians’ are like exposed copper wires in a power cord without the necessary insulating covering. Have you ever met one of these people? They are fixated on one issue or command or instruction in Scripture and seem almost always to be lacking the protective binding of love for other people!
Take, for example, the very clear command in this passage for believers in Jesus to ‘put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality’ (Colossians 3:5). This is like one copper strand of the power cord of this whole passage.
Now a single issue Christian would be 100% right that God’s will is abundantly clear all through Scripture that sexual sin is serious and that it is ungodly and unbefitting for God’s children to engage in ANY sexually immoral behaviour. That strand on its own can transmit the full force and power of that command.
What the Bible teaches in terms of sexuality is not hard to understand – i.e. no sex before or beyond sex with the man or woman you are married to as a believer. Despite the fact that modern sensibilities have changed, God’s commands have not changed one iota and God’s commands need no updating and never will!
Therefore someone who makes much of this one strand of teaching is 100% right, but as Dallas Willard famously said; “It is possible to be right and to be unlike Christ” This single strand of teaching on its own can hurt and damage people if not encased in God’s love!
In this fallen world, living amongst people who are messed up and have messed up and are still messing up, this Scriptural exhortation ought not to be watered down even 0.5%. It is still relevant and still needs to be applied to peoples lives, however, it ought to be done so with the insulating protective cover of God’s love.
So the command of God to remain sexually pure, exclusively faithful to and having sex only with your spouse, and waiting until they are your spouse before you do so – is still to be taught and obeyed.
But it is done best when this teaching is intertwined with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness and then encased in God’s incredible love. When that command is in that biblical power cord, the full power of the command can be at work without fear of fire or electrocution – harm being caused to anyone.
Don’t for a minute think I’m advocating some lax sexual ethic! After all, it is not loving to affirm someone in their lifestyle or behaviour when you know that their actions are in direct defiance of our Holy God and Father.
Many times in life, the most loving action is to stand up to someone, to risk offence and to tell them the truth but to so with all the imperatives in Colossians 3:12-17 tightly bound together and all of them encased, bound together in the insulating protective cover of love.
Brothers and sisters let us love one another not with the weak soppy ungodly modern idea that love = affirmation but with the transforming power of God’s word & God’s love.
- Who do you know you might need to challenge about one of the lifestyle sins described in this passage (or elsewhere in Scripture)?
- Pray now and ask God to tightly wrap all the head/heart/attitude directing imperatives around the strand of rebuke you know is needed from Scripture
- Then pray that God would encase everything in God’s love before you speak or act.
In his book Future Grace, John Piper shows how God’s grace to us in the past is the foundation for faith in both the present and future.
When when we consider what God has already done for us in the Gospel when we are secure in what has happened to us purely by God’s grace – that rock-solid assurance motivates and mobilises us to live a certain way in the present.
God’s grace motivates us! It doesn’t leave us unchanged and unmotivated to change; rather, it puts a fire inside of us that spurs us on to even greater life change.
However, what is critical is that the motive for that action & intentionality in us is not anymore to try to earn God’s favour or forgiveness but rather because those are ours already because of Jesus.
So we don’t have to get all knotted over whether we should take the imperatives of Scripture seriously or not, wondering whether they apply to us or not. Of course, they do! The issues worth considering are;
- Motive: Why do you do what you’re doing?
- Purpose: What you think what you’re doing is achieving?
All through a passage like Colossians 3:1-17, I see the Apostle Paul interweaving assurance & action like a tightly-knit garment that only makes sense when all the weaves remain together.
Read the passage, and look for all the assurances woven into its fabric. I count at least nine assurances in the past-tense, two assurances in the present & future tense.
These nine assurances inform us of the correct motive for our action, which this passage commands us to take in its thirteen odd imperatives.
Do you see what Scripture is teaching us? Present-day action and obedience are founded on past grace. We obey God’s word in the present because of what we know; God has already graciously done for us in the Gospel. Because we are so secure in grace and God’s love for us, we respond actively working to see our lives transformed more and more into the image of God’s Son, Jesus(vs10).
Because we are saved by grace we;
- Seek things that are eternal (vs1)
- Set our minds on things that are eternal(vs2)
- Put to death old earthly ungodly sinful practices(vs5-7)
- Put away ungodly attitudes and speech(vs8)
- Do not do certain things anymore (vs9)
- We put off the old sin-soaked life (vs9)
- We put on the new in-Christ-life (vs10)
- We put on God-like character traits since we are God’s chosen children (vs12)
- We forgive just as God forgave us (vs13)
- We put on love which sums up our new life (vs14)
- We let the peace of Jesus rule our hearts (vs15)
- We let the WORD of God saturate our daily lives (vs16)
- We give thanks in whatever we do! (vs17)
The Scriptures are jam-packed with imperatives, commands for us to obey, instruction that ought to be observed and followed. This passage alone is an example of that.
But notice that it’s the assurance of what is already ours, and what will be ours who’ve believed in Jesus that is the thing that motivates our action in response to God’s grace.
God’s grace teaches us (Titus 2:11), motivates us to work harder than anyone else at our growth in godliness (1 Corinthians 15:10), motivates us to really consider our lives carefully and the thirteen imperatives in this little passage that challenge us!
May your life and mine be an endless tapestry of threads of assurance that look back and stretch forward woven daily into action that’s inspired by the myriad of imperatives in Scripture and the voice of the Holy Spirit in the present.
I love watching movies, reading novels, and I like a wide range of genre. I think the common thread is that I love stories. It’s always sad when they end because I want to carry on living in that world for a little longer.
I often find that God shows me things about life and people in movies. I find it helpful to read the Bible, trying to imagine the story or passage I am in as if it was a movie. It makes it so much more real and alive.
The story of our salvation and rescue is the greatest of all time. It’s a love story of the most profound love ever seen. While reading today’s passage, I allowed my imagination to run a little, imagining these verses on a movie set.
I’m sure you can picture a movie you’ve seen where someone is in serious trouble. Maybe the character has done something terrible, and are about to be caught, or perhaps have wronged someone and are about to be found out. Maybe they are in a hostage situation or have been captured, and there seems to be no way out. All you can feel for them is despair and hopelessness. That is our situation before Jesus. No hope, just despair.
Let’s go back to our story. It wouldn’t be a great movie if all it painted were hopelessness and despair. You have to have a hero, a way out, an answer. As the story progresses, solutions get discovered, a hero steps in, or a glimmer of hope shines into the bleakness of the situation.
Jesus is our hero! At this point, my analogy falls flat because he is so much greater and more amazing than any hero we could picture or imagine. He swoops in, cancels all our debt, forgives all our sins, rescues us out of a prison where we thought there was no way out. We were just like that poor person in the movie who had no answers and was about to be found out. All the charges against us have been dropped and cancelled. We were guilty, we deserved no mercy, no way out, BUT God in His mercy loved us too much to leave us in that state.
There’s a sense of justice when the villain gets caught. God didn’t just save and rescue us. He dealt with our enemy. He disarmed him, stripping him of all power towards us and then publicly shaming him with his victory over him on the cross. What a victorious and fantastic way to end the greatest story of all time!
I’ve studied the Bible for many years using a method I heard from John Piper.
I read the passage a couple of times and then ask myself three questions:
- What does this passage teach me about God,
- What does this passage teach me about myself
- And what should I do?
The incredible thing I saw today was that I learnt a lot about God, I learnt a lot about who I was and what I am now, but I couldn’t write anything under “what should I do?” Why? Well, I can’t do anything. Jesus has done it all. It’s all about him and his heroic actions towards me. That’s the gospel, and what we need to remember and meditate on for the rest of our lives.
It’s incredible how quickly fake news spreads! There have been countless e-mails and what’s app messages going around at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic that causes people to panic, only to discover later it was fake news. The other thing that amazes me is that we so often believe the stuff we read because it was published or on the internet. Not everything we read is going to be helpful or even accurate.
Paul is instructing the Colossians not to believe everything they hear. He urges them not to be captured by the world’s way of thinking.
Colossians 2:8 (NLT) Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.
What is shaping your thinking? Whatever you’re spending time reading and filling your mind with is going to shape the way you see the world, yourself and even God. So much of what we read sounds really good, clever and wise. It also sounds biblical. But how would we know if it really is? There’s only one way. Read the Bible for yourself. That can be a daunting task because we always come across passages that confuse us, but that is the reason we need to be in a Christian community. We grow as we talk to other Christians about what we’ve read and we learn from each other. We also have the Holy Spirit within us, teaching us and revealing himself to us as we open our hearts to him.
Why would we listen, believe and allow our hearts and minds to be shaped by the world when Jesus is offering us the life-giving truth? As Christians, our sinful natures have been buried with Christ, and we are new creations in him. God’s power that raised Jesus from the dead is dwelling in us; now that’s the kind of truth that should be in our thinking.
I would encourage you to be critical of your view and thinking on various topics. Has Jesus shaped it, or are you thinking in a way that has been shaped by the world? Consider how you view God. Are you seeing him as the God who your Bible describes or have you got an image of him that is contrary to what you’ll read in scripture?
The answer is to read your Bible and discover all the wonders and beauties of our amazing Saviour, Jesus Christ. Ask him to reveal himself to you and prepare to be overwhelmed by someone who loves you more than you know.
Paul is urging the Colossians to continue following Jesus. Here is how he suggests they do that. He uses the analogy of plants with roots and buildings on a firm foundation.
Both of those things take time to develop. I recently discovered that I could use the bottom of the celery I buy at the shops to grow another plant. I cut off the leaves and the stalks and then put the end piece in a little water. Over time it grew new leaves out the top and roots out the bottom. I have just planted it in the soil, and now I wait to be able to use it in my kitchen. The point of my story is that it has taken quite some time. The leaves didn’t grow immediately, and the roots took even longer to appear. I have no doubt it will be a few weeks before I can cut off some celery to use in cooking.
Similarly, building something takes time as well. Anybody who has been involved in any building project of any kind knows this to be true. If the process is rushed, essential details will be ignored, and the result will be a building that doesn’t last or one that presents problems over time, like leaking or cracking and unsightly parts to it.
I think Paul chose these analogies on purpose because following Jesus, allowing your roots to grow deep into him and building your life on him takes time. It takes time to read your Bible. There is so much to read and understand, yet as we daily read little bits, the Holy Spirit gently reveals more of himself to us and builds our knowledge and wisdom. It takes time to speak to him. Prayer isn’t always easy, but as we persevere, he rewards us with a sense of his presence and even in his grace answers our prayers.
We are all building our lives daily. The question is on what are we building? Are we trying to gain our sense of security from money, relationships or possessions? God is our rock, our refuge and fortress. He is the only secure thing that will not send our lives crashing down in a heap of rubble if we build on him.
We all have roots reaching out to gain nourishment for our souls. Are you reaching out to Jesus or are you reaching out to the things of this world that will never satisfy the longings of your heart, as Jesus will?
As you are faithful in reading your Bible and pouring out your heart to him, you will grow closer to Jesus, your faith in him will grow, and you will recognize a thankful heart in yourself. It can be disheartening when day after day it feels like you’re plodding through reading your Bible and trying to grow in prayer, but remember how slowly a building is completed and how many days a plant takes to grow to maturity.
One day, after many months of being faithful in following Jesus, you will look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come. So keep going!
You know, sometimes we don’t need a super-star to look at in Scripture! Don’t get me wrong, super-stars are fabulous, but we tend to create a “special” category for them, and if we are honest we often don’t feel we can relate to someone in that category.
And as a result, their lives can tend not to motivate us.
Listening or reading people like Tim Keller or John Piper I sometimes wonder if I should do something else! Their stellar gifts can seem quite out of reach, leaving me prone to feeling demotivated in comparison.
What about you? Do you know that feeling?
Yet, Scripture is full of some pretty ‘ordinary’ people, people so similar to us, weak people, people who made mistakes, not so famous people – but all transformed by God and used by God in some way or another!
In today’s passage, we are introduced to just such a person Onesimus. We know about him from this letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a church leader called Philemon, who leads a church that meets in his house in Colossae.
What’s the back story?
Paul seems to have lead Philemon to faith in Jesus (vs19). And having believed in Jesus Philemon’s life was transformed. His faith in and love for Jesus was known (vs5), and this love for Jesus led Philemon to love his fellow believers. So much so that he was known as one who refreshed and revived other people’s hearts (vs4-7) and now he and his whole family were living their whole lives for God’s mission with a church even meeting in their house (vs2).
But not everything was rosy! There was someone Philemon found difficult to love. Someone he had little time for. There is always someone isn’t there. That itchy neck person, that person who did THAT thing…!
For Philemon, THAT GUY’s name was; Onesimus.
He had been a slave of Philemon’s, he worked for him, but apparently wasn’t a very good or honourable employee.
Onesimus was so bad that although his name means ‘useful’ (vs11), it seems like he was nicknamed ‘useless’ by Philemon.
He wasn’t just ‘useless’ to his master, on top of this bad work ethic, it seems like Onesimus had also stolen from his master (vs18-19).
So, Onesimus was either dismissed & sent away by Philemon or, more likely; he ran away as such criminal actions against an owner would have been harshly treated in that society. Either way, Onesimus somehow ends up with Paul in Rome, where Paul has been imprisoned for the Gospel.
Maybe Onesimus remembered hearing Paul preach in the church that met in Philemon’s house; maybe he remembered hearing the letters that were read out containing the liberating truth of the Gospel? Maybe he longed for such freedom from guilt and shame for himself…?
Whatever it was, Onesimus finds Paul in Rome in prison, and Paul ends up leading him to faith in Christ, or Paul restores him to faith in Christ in Rome while in prison.
And because of that we now have this very personal letter in our bibles, so what can we learn from it. So what can we learn from this letter, this story?
1. The Gospel gives identity & belonging
Having run away, having stolen, having been called ‘useless’ when your name actually means ‘useful’, Onesimus must have had some real identity issues. Low self-esteem, nothing to be proud of, no hope for a future, a criminal on the run…!
But all that is about to change. You see the Gospel doesn’t just change our eternal address it transforms who we are!
“The Gospel doesn’t just change
our eternal address it transforms who we are!”
We don’t know anything about Onesimus’ nationality or parents, but it is highly likely that he was a foreigner probably brought to the Roman empire through war or slave-traders.
As a slave, Onesimus would not have much in the way of protection from exploitation/abuse would not have had much in the way of rights or any privilege.
But in the Gospel Onesimus becomes a son 3x over!
- The son of his human dad
- A son of God
- A son of Paul, his spiritual dad! (vs10) “I appeal to you for my child.”
The Gospel transforms identity/belonging, so much so that Paul says that when he sends Onesimus back to Philemon (carrying this letter we are reading), he says that he is, in fact, sending “my very heart”! (vs12)
This useless slave who had messed up monumentally – because of the Gospel becomes a beloved son 3x!
More than this, Paul writes to Philemon, an important man, a church leader a homeowner and Paul writes of how Onesimus has become to both of them (the apostle Paul and this leader) – a fellow brother (vs16) in Christ!
Our faith in Christ, our adoption as children of God, creates a new relationship of love & equality of value between us, a connection that is deep and eternal – brothers and sisters in Christ! Equal in the Lord.
The Gospel gives us a value that transcends social barriers that previously defined and divided us! This is so real for the apostle Paul that he writes to Philemon instructing him to receive Onesimus ‘AS YOU WOULD RECEIVE ME’ (vs16-17).
- I don’t know how you see yourself today.
- I don’t know if you can identify a bit with Onesimus?
- I don’t know if your identity feels like it is intact or in tatters?
- I don’t know if you feel useless, ashamed of things you’ve done or failed at?
- I don’t know if you feel like you don’t belong anywhere because of your family situation or a lack of a father or lack of parents….?
But what I DO KNOW is that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus transforms your identity and your sense of belonging!
- God wants you to belong!
- God wants you to KNOW Him as Father
- God wants to give you spiritual fathers and mothers, spiritual brothers and sisters wants to give you a place of honour in His household – the church.
The Gospel gives us identity & belonging!
2. The Gospel gives us purpose!
Rejection is a terrible thing. Imagine being called ‘useless’! Maybe you’ve been, or you are still at times called ‘useless’ by someone, a boss, a friend or family member…
As a rejected, runaway slave and fugitive – Onesimus seems purposeless. Seems like he is useless – having no useful purpose at all in life.
But having encountered Paul and the Gospel Paul writes; ‘formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.’ (vs11)
Paul wants Onesimus to continue to stay to help him with the mission of Jesus but sends him back to be of help to the church back in Colossae.
When Jesus begins to change us from the inside out, little by little, our character starts changing too. We begin to become trustworthy, faithful, reliable, on-time, helpful…
The Gospel is incredibly down-to-earth, practical!
It doesn’t just change our eternal address but changes everything in our lives – it makes us useful, helpful, reliable to others and in God’s service.
Onesimus was set free from slavery by the Gospel, but what was he set free for? Following Christ set him free from sin but in addition, set him free for good works (Ephesians 2:10) that God had prepared in advance for him to do. And so Onesimus becomes useful to in God’s church/kingdom (vs11). He gets a purpose!
Are you looking for purpose?
The Gospel is what gives you purpose. Onesimus was floundering until he found Christ! And as you follow Christ, as you begin to serve others because you serve Christ – your life too will get purpose, and your character will get transformed.
3. Transformation by Spiritual Fathering Mothering
It’s worth asking; ‘How did this all happen for Onesimus?” This all happened because the Gospel restored him not just to his heavenly Father but also gave him a spiritual dad too! Paul picked up on this guy, who was a bit of a wreck probably by the time he got to him.
Paul didn’t get too hung up with his own life challenges while he himself was in prison. Paul wasn’t too self-absorbed so that he missed the moment, rather he saw the young man in front of him in need of help! What a (personal challenge to us)
And so, Paul involved himself, fathering Onesimus in the Lord, in the Gospel – Paul loved him as a son. Paul spoke life, hope, faith and a future over him calling him ‘useful’ restoring dignity to him. More than this as we shall read in the verses that follow, Paul advocated/mediated for him, was willing to pay for him, trusted him.
Who is God calling you to invest your life into? Could you be used by God to redeem a life, from useless to useful, from rejected to beloved? Who is your Onesimus?
Conclusion & Application
- What’s God saying to you today?
- Are you like Onesimus in some way? Do you feel like you have lost your way, you’re ashamed, have messed-up, feel lonely, purposeless or lacking hope…? God wants to redeem your life, put you back together again! Pray now and ask God to begin a metamorphic process of Gospel transformation in your life. Reach out to a spiritual father/mother to walk with you today.
- Or have you walked with God for some time already, God has put you back together and so you’ve made some progress (not that we are ever totally right this side of heaven). Who is your Onesimus? Who is God calling you to invest your life into to see some other people’s lives transformed by the Gospel? What are you waiting for? Reach out to them today.
John’s second letter is written to a local congregation (‘the elect lady and her children’ – the bride of Christ). The apostle has been encouraged to have come across some of the congregation who are ‘walking in truth’ as God wants of us (2 John 4).
The Christian life is often depicted as a journey – a path that is to be walked out. Although salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, this does not result in inactivity. Movement, even intentional effort is implied by the word picture John and other writers of Scripture used for the Christian life.
John uses ‘walk’ three times in this short section each time, indicating that progress and intentional effort in a certain direction are expected of believers.
It is a great encouragement to know that all believers in Jesus are on the same road/journey. We might be at different points along the way, but we share the same road!
Roads have borders that define the road’s edge; in this instance, it is the commandments of God define the roadway that God has laid out for us to journey along. We are to be those who ‘walk according to His commandments’ (2 John 6), commandments which have not changed since the beginning but commandments which we ‘should walk in’ (2 John 6).
It is safe to summarise the two borders of the Christian road as love for God (1 John 5:2-3 & Matthew 22:37) and love for people (2 John 5 & 1 John 3:11).
In 2 John 8, the apostle shares wisdom for the journey with these believers and with ourselves;
“Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” (2 John 8)
This one verse is richly dense with meaning! In it, we find assurance and warning and encouragement.
1. Warning! ‘We are to watch ourselves.’
Don’t go off the path; don’t get distracted or diverted by the schemes of the enemy. Obeying God’s commandments & listening to the Holy Spirit will keep you on the road. We have a responsibility to do this ourselves, but we are helped greatly if we have others around us who can spot if we are veering towards the edge of the path. It’s your responsibility to watch yourself, but it is wise to enlist the help of some brothers or sisters who will love you enough to keep watch too.
2. Warning! ‘So that we do not lose what we have worked for.’
There are serious consequences if one does not adhere to the first warning. You can lose something; you can have regret even as a believer. But what can you lose?
The apostle says that we can loose ‘what we have worked for’. And what have we worked for? Well, we know that we haven’t worked for our salvation! Jesus did the heavy lifting, not us; Jesus did what could not do. So what is in focus here is not us losing salvation which was given to us not by works but by grace alone so that no person can boast (Ephesians 2:4-8)!
In what way have we ‘worked’? Well, we have worked out the impact of our salvation (Philippians 2:12-13), we have worked harder than anyone in response to the grace of God in us (2 Corinthians 15:10). We worked in that we have responded to God’s free gift in giving us salvation. We have worked in that we should ‘work for’ our reward…
3. Encouragement: ‘But may win a full reward.’
This is what God’s desire for us, to give us our full reward that He always intended to give us. God is so good; He saves us not on the basis or our work/merit but purely by grace. Then God inspires us, works in us by the Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13) changing us at the level of our desires so that we now want to do His will and obey His commandments. And then God plans to reward us for walking the road He has laid out for us – incredible!
If you have believed in Jesus, your salvation is secure, guaranteed! But whether or not you will ‘walk God’s road’ obeying the Holy Spirit’s promptings and God’s commands is not guaranteed. And so, the possibility exists that some of your reward that God wanted to give you may be lost, that we by our lack of response, our lack of working and walking God’s ways may lose some of what He had always intended to give to us – rewards.
John doesn’t want this for the believers he is writing to, and God doesn’t want it for you either. So take heed of the warning, watch yourselves and ask others to watch you too. Invite people into your life who can speak with a loving honesty and who in turn will be blessed if you do the same for them.