Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, (vv. 1-2)
Thirteen epistles in the New Testament begin with the name Paul. A fourteenth letter, concerning the authorship of which there is considerable dispute, is nevertheless generally accepted as from the same pen, namely, the epistle to the Hebrews. But the opening word of that epistle is God. The thirteen beginning with the word Paul are addressed either to churches among the Gentiles or to individual believers who were on full church ground. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and as such he magnified his office. He was not the apostle to the Hebrews. If, therefore, he was the one chosen to write that wonderful opening up of the old and new covenants, as I firmly believe, it was quite in keeping with his Gentile apostleship that his name should be hidden. Christ alone was the apostle and prophet of the new covenant, as Moses and Aaron had been of the old, and so the opening word of Hebrews is simply God, but God speaking in His Son.
In this Colossian letter, as in the Philippian epistle, Paul associated Timothy with him in the salutation. The bond between these two men of God, so far apart in age though they were, was a very real one. Timothy was converted during Paul’s ministry at Lystra, and on his next visit to the same region the brethren took occasion heartily to commend this young man to him, as one in whom marked spiritual graces were manifest and who gave evidence of considerable gift, and was therefore, in their judgment, suited to go out in the ministry of the Word. Acting on their advice, Paul took Timothy with him in the work after the elder brethren had solemnly laid their hands upon him, commending him to God for this special service. Throughout the years that followed, Timothy had proven himself in every respect reliable and devoted. His unselfish concern for the welfare of the people of God and his loyal attachment to his human leader endeared him very much to the venerable apostle. It would seem that Timothy had even accompanied Paul, or else followed him to Rome, and was either sharing his imprisonment or within easy reach doing what he could to alleviate the suffering of the apostle, as well as ministering among the Roman believers. So he here connects the young preacher with himself when he sends his greetings to the saints at Colosse.
Paul attributed his own apostleship directly to the will of God. It was He who had revealed Christ both to and in him and set him apart for service, commissioning him to proclaim the unsearchable riches of grace among the Gentiles. It would be preposterous to suppose that the laying on of hands of the church at Antioch, as mentioned in Acts 13, conferred any authority whatsoever upon either Barnabas or Paul, inasmuch as they had been approved laborers in the gospel for some time. It simply expressed, as in Timothy’s case, the fellowship of the local assembly. It was the Holy Spirit who sent them forth and ordained them. Writing to the Galatians also, Paul uses similar expressions, and declares he is an apostle not of men nor by men. This is a principle of far-reaching importance in connection with the work of the ministry. Whenever men presume to add anything to the divine call or to confer authority on a servant of Christ, they are usurping the place of the Holy Spirit. The most that any “laying on of hands” can do is to express fellowship in the work.
In the second verse the Christians at Colosse are addressed as “the saints and faithful brethren.” The first expression suggests the divine call; the second, the human response. It is God who designates His redeemed ones as saints, yet Romanists and many Protestants are generally astray as to the meaning of the term. With the first class, a saint is a particularly holy person who displays great devotion or possesses miraculous powers, and is credited in the calendar of intermediaries with a superabundance of merit or goodness which may be appropriated by others. With many who profess greater enlightenment, a saint is one who has become victorious in the struggle with sin and has been received triumphantly into heaven. So they speak of the Christian dead as “sainted.” But the scriptural conception is altogether different. The vilest sinner is constituted by God, a saint, the moment he puts his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, “who was delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification.” Thus we are saints by calling and not primarily by practice. However, we should be careful not to divorce the practical side of things from the doctrinal. Being saints, we are now responsible to live in a saintly way. In other words, we are to live out practically what God has already declared to be true of us doctrinally. We do not become saints by the display of saintly virtues; but because we are saints we are to cultivate saintly characters. This, of course, is done in communion with God, in obedience to His Word, as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The second expression, “faithful brethren,” does not, I take it, imply any advance upon the first one, nor do the two terms indicate two classes of believers. “Faithful brethren” are really brethren who believe; even as we read elsewhere, “They that be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” It might be translated either, “They that have faith are blessed with faithful Abraham,” or, “They that believe are blessed with believing Abraham.” There is an intentional connection between the two terms. All real Christians, therefore, are believing or faithful brethren. If any profess to be Christ’s who do not believe His Word, they but show themselves to be unreal and false to their profession. For it is written, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” And again we are told, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.”
The usual apostolic salutation follows. “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is God’s free unmerited favor. It is even more than that. It is favor against merit. When we merit the very opposite God lavishes His loving-kindness upon us. That is grace. He who sits upon a throne of grace bids us come boldly to obtain grace and mercy as daily needs arise. What saint can but echo the words in the hymn,
Since our souls have known His love,
What mercies has He made us prove?
Peace is here, of course, the peace of God garrisoning His people’s hearts in the day of evil. It is peace amid the most disquieting circumstances, because assured that “all things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
We pass on, then, to the introduction:
We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints, for the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth: as ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellowservant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ; who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit, (vv. 3-8)
We are reminded of the introduction to the epistle to the Ephesians as we read these words, which begin with an expression of thanksgiving to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This presents God in a double character as Creator and as Savior. It is through Jesus Christ that our salvation is mediated. Having heard of the conversion of the Colossians, the apostle’s heart was stirred to prayer on their behalf. He writes, “Praying always for you since we heard.” For him to learn of others coming to Christ invariably meant that his burden of prayer was increased. He felt, as few men ever have felt, the great need of intercession for the people of God, for he knew well the fearful opposition of Satan the prince and god of this world toward those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He realized the prevailing power of prayer to defeat the adversary. Therefore he bows in the presence of God in earnest supplication on behalf of those whom grace has saved, and he tells us farther on what it was for which he prayed; so we do not now linger on that.
It is interesting to notice how faith, love, and hope are linked together here as in so many other places in Scripture. The order is different in 1 Corinthians 13. There, where he is exalting love, he puts faith first, hope second, and love last, as that which will abide when the other two have passed away. But here it is hope that closes that life which begins with faith, and the two are linked together by love. Faith lays hold of the cross. Hope looks on to the glory. Love is the power that constrains the saint in view of both.
It was a Divine Person to whom they had trusted their souls. People are troubled sometimes for fear their faith should not be of the right quality, or might prove of insufficient quantity to save them. But it is important to observe that it is not the character nor the amount of faith that saves. It is the Person in whom faith rests. The strongest faith in self-effort, or in the church, or in religious observances would leave the soul forever lost. But the feeblest faith in the Christ who died and rose again saves eternally. Some people try to make a Savior of their faith, but Christ alone is the Savior, and faith is but the hand that reaches out to Him.
Then he speaks of the love that they had to all the saints. This is precious indeed, and is the evidence both of the divine nature imparted in new birth and of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is the very nature of the newborn soul to love not only God, but those who are begotten of Him. This love knows no sectarian limitation but embraces all the people of God.
Hope looks on to the future, so he speaks of the hope which is laid up in heaven and of this they had learned in the word of the truth of the gospel. No one fully appreciates the gospel who leaves out the blessed hope of the Lord’s return to receive His people to be with Himself in the Father’s house. This is the glad consummation of the believer’s life of faith and love and hope. Death is never set before the believer as his hope—but always it is the Lord’s return for which he is to wait.
The gospel is God’s good news about His Son, and therefore, when fully preached, necessarily includes the proclamation of His true sinless humanity, His Deity, His virgin birth, His vicarious sacrifice, His glorious resurrection, His present session as Advocate and High Priest at God’s right hand in heaven, and His coming again to reign in power and righteousness when all His redeemed will be associated with Him. All these precious truths are included in the word of the truth of the gospel.
In verse 6 we learn that this gospel, even in Paul’s day, had been carried to the very ends of the earth. The same message that had reached Colosse had been preached in all the world, as verse 23 also declares. And, wherever this great evangel of the cross had gone, it had produced fruit to the praise and glory of God in those who believed it. It is the height of folly to look for fruit before the soul has settled peace, or to expect evidence of salvation in the life before the gospel has been believed. Salvation is altogether of grace. Human effort has no place in it at all. Neither are we saved by the work of the Spirit within us producing that ninefold fruit mentioned in Galatians 5. We are saved by the work of Christ for us, a work done altogether outside of ourselves, and in which we had no part excepting to commit the sins that put the Savior on the cross. An old man expressed it correctly when he said, “I did my part and God did His—I did the sinning, and God did the saving. I took to running away from Him as fast as my sins could carry me, and He took after me until He run me down!” Others might express it more elegantly, but no one could tell it more clearly.
The gospel is a message to be believed, not a collection of precepts or a code of laws to be obeyed. It is of faith that it might be by grace—”not of works, lest any man should boast.” But the moment the message is believed it produces new life in the soul, and the Spirit seals the believer by coming to dwell within him. This invariably results in precious fruit for God. And this the Colossian believers had exemplified in their own experiences since they heard and knew the grace of God in truth. Observe that the words in verse 6, of it, are better omitted.
It was not through the apostle Paul that the message had been carried to Colosse, as we have already noticed. So far as we know he had never visited that city as a messenger of the cross. He speaks in this letter of those whose faces he had not seen in the flesh. It was another devoted man of God, Epaphras by name, who had proclaimed the gospel to them. Paul speaks of him affectionately as “our dear fellowservant,” and he declares that he was a faithful minister of Christ. His outstanding characteristic, as gathered from 4:12, was that of fervency in prayer. How blessed when faithful preaching and fervent prayer go together! Alas, that they are so often divorced!
In verse 8, as we have seen, we get the only reference to the Holy Spirit that is found in this epistle. It has already been remarked that when the truth as to Christ, the Head of the church, is being called in question, or when Satan is seeking to interpose anything between the soul and Christ, God will not even occupy the saints with the person or work of the Spirit, lest by occupation with subjective truth they lose sight of the great objective verities. So here the reference to the Spirit is only incidental. He simply mentions the fact that Epaphras had told Paul and his fellow workers of their love in the Spirit. It was a precious testimony to the happy state of these dear young Christians, so recently brought out of paganism with all its abominations.
Now as a company set apart to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, they were characterized by that love which the Spirit sheds abroad in the hearts of those who are born of God. This is all-important. To pretend to great zeal for the truth of the one body while failing to manifest the love of the Spirit is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. Doctrinal correctness will never atone for lack of brotherly love. It is far more to God who is Himself love, in His very nature, that His people walk in love one toward another, than that they contend valiantly for set forms of truth, however scriptural. “Truthing in love” (which would correctly convey the thought of Ephesians 4:15) is more than contending for formulas. It is the manifestation of the truth in a life of love to God and to those who are His, as well as for poor lost sinners for whom Christ died.