Tonight we begin a new series of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I have preached through Colossians before, but that series began in February of 1990, more than twenty two years ago. Colossians is a particularly interesting letter, as are all the letters of Paul, but perhaps the more interesting for Christians living in the West in the early years of the 21st century. Some months ago one of your elders asked me if it wouldn’t be helpful to consider in a series of sermons the particular temptations that face us because of the times in which we live. Our temptations, in one respect, are the temptations that every Christian has always faced. But in another respect each age in each culture has its own peculiar temptations.
Think of the tremendously influential movements that have profoundly reshaped the philosophical, moral, political, and spiritual landscape of the modern West: feminism, post-modernism with its inevitable moral and religious relativism, and the so-called sexual revolution with all the new “certainties” that these have produced in the minds of those who rule our modern American world and increasingly rule the thinking of the ordinary citizenry: from the moral equivalence of hetero- and homo-sexual behavior, to the widespread acceptance of abortion and euthanasia, to the denial of moral absolutes and the worship of tolerance as tolerance is understood in our times. These so-called “certainties” now shape the worldview of vast multitudes of people in the modern west, so much so that it is increasingly common that both popular culture and the modern Western state have little tolerance for those who do not embrace them. We are moving into very uncertain times for biblically oriented Christians, as the Western culture that has sheltered us for so long has now turned openly against our most cherished convictions, some of which convictions that were not so long ago, indeed in my own lifetime, held as a matter of course by most people in our country, Christian or not.
It was an extraordinarily perceptive observation of Abraham Kuyper that “Heresies arise on Christian territory by a fixed law [like a mirage in the atmosphere]. They are a ‘necessary deflection of the light of Christianity in the spiritual atmosphere of a given age.’” [Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, 9-10] That is, it was inevitable that in our age, in our historical moment, at the close of centuries of rationalism, in a time made ripe for moral relativism by the collapse of the rationalist project, in a time of unprecedented wealth, comfort, and the experience of pleasure, in a time when the life span of Western people has lengthened significantly, and when developments in travel and technology have made the world smaller and all of its temptations more accessible, when the sound-bite has replaced the reasoned argument, I say it was inevitable, even predictable that unbelief and unbelieving behavior should take the particular forms that they have in Europe and North America. Sin is sin, but its particular forms and attractions vary from place to place and time to time.
For the reasons why anorexia and bulimia are not serious temptations to young women today in the Sudan they are in the modern west; just as modern feminism does not have nearly the same pull for millions of men and women in the world who are struggling to make a living sufficient to support their families, it has tremendous pull in the rich and comfortable western world; in the same way pornography, promiscuity, no-fault divorce, abortion, and euthanasia are the inevitable orthodoxies of a comfortable, sated, effete, and arrogant culture such as the modern West they are much less interesting to populations of our world who do not live in a culture shaped by modern entertainment, the sexual revolution, and the cult of personal fulfillment. Deny moral absolutes and one does not get, one has never got stricter, higher, purer morals! What is more, morals always decline in predictable directions.
How long it will be so, no one knows. As a Puritan wrote long ago, “The Devil does not allow the wind of error to blow long in the same direction.” [In Iain Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, xiii] The carnage that such a lifestyle is bringing to the western world is such that the fact that it is a dying civilization is no longer controversial. How and when it will finally expire is, of course, anyone’s guess. But as the historian Arnold Toynbee observed years ago, civilizations do not die by murder, but by suicide. We have chosen the path that leads to death; have chosen it and continue to choose it day after day in defiance of the sight and smell of death that fills our senses every day.
For these reasons Christians need to be thoughtful, observant, and analytical in the consideration of their culture as well as confident in the truth of their own position. Colossians is a book to help us be both. A key theme of the book is the statement Paul makes in 2:4, where he explains his interest in writing these Christians by saying that he wrote “so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” We are nowadays getting a lot of arguments that have the power to deceive the unwary Christian and are, in fact, deceiving large numbers of them. Some of them aren’t even all that fine-sounding, but then we are not any longer a thinking people; we are a sound-bite people and very often any argument, however specious, will do the trick. Colossians will help us to see through such arguments to the truth that abides forever. All of Paul’s letters and Colossians among them were written to meet the challenges posed to young Christian churches by the circumstances of their times and places.
In Colossians in particular the great Apostle lays down the contours of a Christian philosophy or worldview, a fundamental way of understanding reality and relating that reality to the issues of daily life. If such deep understanding is in place the Christian is unlikely to be deceived, no matter how fine-sounding the world’s arguments may be. What was threatening the faith of those believers long ago in Colossae was precisely what threatens our faith in Tacoma, Washington today, what Paul calls in 2:8 “a hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Peter Jones, in sermons preached here and in his books, has demonstrated that the particular teaching that threatened the faith of the Christians in Colossae and throughout the Greco-Roman world in apostolic days has reappeared with a vengeance in our own time. We will have much more to say about that teaching as we move into the book, but suffice it to say at this point that Colossians is a tract for our times as surely as it was for those mid-first century times in which and about which it was first written.
In our day as in Paul’s the teaching that undermined the faith of Christians and the obedience of their lives was not just any teaching that was contrary to the truth as it is in Christ. It was then and is now invariably a form of Christian teaching that in this way or that has accommodated the truth to the opinions and prejudices of the time. Few Christians, even Christians that are not particularly well taught, are likely to hand over their faith to some unbeliever who teaches otherwise than Holy Scripture and alleges facts that are incompatible or alien to the spirit of the times. But when the world’s way of thought is put in Christian terms, when it is presented as a higher and more authentic form of the Christian faith, such teaching can be subtly and powerfully effective in subverting the faith and life of the church. This has happened a thousand times.
It should surprise no thoughtful Christian that our faith and the ethics of Holy Scripture are under attack in the church by Christians in respect to precisely those convictions that have become most important and precious to our modern Western culture. Francis Schaeffer’s famous dictum was only a slight exaggeration: “Tell me what the world is saying today and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in twenty years.”
So our problem in a pluralist age has not been and will not be that we are becoming more and more limited in our vision, that we are drawing the boundaries of salvation more narrowly, or that we are always identifying new kinds of people who do not qualify for salvation. Our problem is rather that in the church there are many who are unsure any longer that one really needs to be a Christian — a believer in and follower of Jesus — in order to be saved. In our sexually revolutionary age, our problem in the church has not been and will not be that we are becoming ever more strict, that we are increasingly repressing the sexual nature of Christian men and women; on the contrary, the historic Christian commitment to chastity in heart, speech, and behavior is being undermined. In a feminist age our problem in the church is hardly that we are overemphasizing the divinely created distinction between men and women but instead that we are being encouraged by teachers in the church to blur those distinctions if not to ignore them altogether. The wind that is blowing against the church and is causing the ark of God to run aground and in many places to sink (think of the once great mainline denominations of American Protestantism), I say that wind does not originate in the church; it blows from the direction of our modern world. Our temptations are precisely Christian forms of the fashions of modern Western culture.
The church of Jesus Christ has never been immune to the intellectual and spiritual fashions of the time, but usually succumbs to them only when they are taught to it by Christians; when the faith itself is adjusted to those fashions and Christians are beguiled into thinking that one can be a faithful Christian and accept these popular opinions and behaviors at the same time. The church’s greatest danger has always been its tendency to be influenced by the surrounding culture more than it recognizes.
Of course, those Christians who have imbibed to far too great a degree “the spirit of the age” virtually never agree that they have done so. No Christian is going to admit that he or she has capitulated to the world. The proof that they have in fact done so comes usually only far too late, when the damage to Christian faith and life has already been done. But we know that this danger is real, not only because it is so easy to trace its obvious and deadly effects on the church throughout her history, but because the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ exposed it and countered it in their own writings, as Paul did in his letter to the Colossians. It was the world that was leaking into the church in Colossae with the help of Christian teachers, just as the world is leaking into the church today.
Early in the second century a pagan writer by the name of Celsus wrote a major work in criticism of the burgeoning Christian movement. Think of it as a tract like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. In fact, the arguments are pretty much the same now as they were then. Celsus’ work has been lost, but we know a great deal of what it contained — indeed we may well have virtually the whole of its argument if not all its detail — because the incomparable Origen, the 3rd century church father, wrote a major refutation of the work, his Contra Celsum, “Against Celsus.” Think of the very fine books that have been written over the past several years in answer to the new atheists. Christopher Hitchens’ brother, Peter Hitchens, wrote The Rage Against God and so on. Well, it is something like that we find in Colossians. We have no writing by any teacher whose opinions were influencing the Christians in Colossae in a bad way and Paul gives us no list of the particular errors of thought and life that were creeping into the culture of the Colossian church. The letter provides no detailed accounts of interactions between believers in the Colossian church and these teachers. The letter provides no detailed account of the doctrinal or ethical errors or the false attitude or atmosphere or mood that were affecting the church. Rather, he responds to those errors in his positive exposition of the faith. To identify the errors we have to read between the lines as it were.
No doubt it was much easier for a member of the Colossian church who heard the letter read for the first time to recognize precisely how Paul was addressing what was happening in their church and the way certain people were beginning to think and to behave. It was much easier for them than it is for us these two thousand years later. But still, some things, as we will see, are clear enough and the general principles are very clear. That we don’t know in great detail where the church was tempted to head theologically and spiritually perhaps makes the book even more relevant to us today. We are not as likely to think that Paul’s teaching was only for them and for their time and not just as much for us. There is a generality about Paul’s argument in Colossians that has served countless generations of Christians very well as they have applied his teaching to the fine sounding arguments they were hearing in their times.
In our time there are certainly plenty of ways in which the church has begun to think according to what Paul calls in Colossians the basic principles of the world — the ABC’s of unbelieving thought — behind which, of course, lurk evil powers hostile to God and man; to think that way instead of according to Christ. [2:8] In the Devil’s world there will always be rampant falsehood — he is, after all, the Father of lies and he proceeds by deception — but there will also always be falsehood that is made to appear in the splendor of truth, for that too is the Devil’s work, to appear as an angel of light. And as an enemy of the kingdom of God, it will always be the Devil’s great interest to insinuate his lies into the thinking of the church. The Devil being real and being who and what he is, we Christians ought always to be on the lookout for such attractive subversions of the truth of God.
We’ll have more to say about the particular viewpoints that were being peddled to the Christians in Colossae. Suffice it to say at this point that their arguments — so like those we hear today — amounted to the claim that their teachings were more enlightened than the old-fashioned doctrines that these Christians had embraced when first they began to follow Jesus, that theirs was a deeper knowledge, more sophisticated, more worldly in the best sense of the word, and that following them represented a great advance over the ordinary thinking and living of most Christians. They were offering a more “modern” Christianity. It is the way people always think and speak when advancing a worldly version or remaking of Christian doctrine and ethics. They are often very clever, these Christians who have found a way to make the Christian life seem more sophisticated and at the same time less painfully at odds with the worldview of the surrounding culture. But the question for us is and must always be: is this teaching I am being asked to embrace true to the plain-speaking of Holy Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints?
But, before we launch away into this great letter, I want us to concentrate for a few minutes on its first word: “Paul.” In my reading this summer I have been wonderfully reminded of the tremendous fact, one we take far too much for granted and don’t ponder as we ought to, that in the goodness and wisdom and love of God he has seen fit to advance his kingdom in the world through men: great men, noble men, men of parts as they used to say. Paul was such a man. Surely it is striking that thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written by a man who did not become a follower of Jesus until some years after his resurrection and ascension. The NT, as it were, waited for Paul! What a man Paul was and what a life he lived! We have every reason to consider very carefully what we are taught in Colossians precisely because it was written by the great apostle to the Gentiles.
When Paul wrote Colossians he was in prison, a fact that reminds us of what a life of high adventure, courage, and sacrifice was lived by this man after he was summoned on the road to Damascus to serve the Lord Christ and to suffer for him. There are men and then there are men and Paul was a man among men and speaks still today across the ages with all the authority of his sublime and his magnificent personality and life. Of course our doctrine of Holy Scripture is such that were Paul a much more ordinary man we would still have absolute confidence in the truth of what he wrote under the direction of the Holy Spirit. But the writers of the NT were not ordinary men, and their lives were not ordinary lives, and Paul chief among them. And the Lord used their gifts, their experiences, their personal traits to his own purposes and to the lasting good of his church and the world. These men and Paul especially add their own intellectual prowess, their own goodness, and the authority of their remarkable lives to that authority that is theirs as apostles. And among all of them — great men every one, made greater by their association with Jesus and their experience of his life — the greatest of them was Paul. He had less firsthand experience of the Lord Jesus, only the extraordinary encounter at the time of his calling — though it was the exalted Christ that he saw and heard and most of the other apostles never had that experience of Jesus in his glory — but the Lord made up for Paul’s missing the three years of his public ministry by granting him extraordinary powers in the service of the gospel. He too worked miracles; as a preacher he too commanded the hearts of multitudes of people who heard his voice as the very voice of God; as a builder of institutions he too founded the Christian Church wherever he went; as a man of action he lived an adventurer’s life of travel, shipwreck, prison, and confrontation with the high and mighty of the world; as a Christian man he earned the love and admiration of thousands upon thousands and the hatred of others who feared his great influence; as a philosopher he confounded the opposition to Christ in the great centers of Greco-Roman thought, and as an intellectual and writer he left behind him as his inheritance some of the world’s most influential and inspirational writings.
Can you dispute my assertion if I tell you that if the Apostle Paul were not the most influential Christian ever to live, he was surely one of the two or three most influential? He is not the most accessible Christian writer to be sure. Most Christians find John or one of the Gospel writers an easier read. When a person is considering the claims of Christ, he or she is far more likely to have the Gospel of John recommended as a first read than Paul’s letter to the Romans or the Colossians. Paul’s was a towering intellect. Henry Chadwick, the distinguished historian of the early church, once remarked that in his day Augustine of Hippo was the most intelligent man in the Roman Empire. [In Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 164] The first century also had its intellectual giants, but it would not surprise me to learn that in his day Paul was the most intelligent man in the Roman Empire. It has always been God’s way, while calling into his church so many of the insignificant and unimpressive so far as the world is concerned, to add to her number some of the world greatest men, its strongest minds, and most formidable philosophers. We know Paul was widely read in the literature of the Roman world as well as a highly trained Jewish theologian and we know that he remembered what he read and understood it so well that he could deploy Greco-Roman poetry where appropriate in his sermons and letters, knew the great dramatic works of the Greek tradition and could refer to them obliquely in a setting in which all would know to what he was referring, and fashion his arguments in a philosophical disputation, as he did in Athens, effortlessly to draw upon the intellectual traditions of both Stoicism and Epicureanism, the two principal schools of Greek philosophy at that time.
The first century church needed a man who could stand his ground in the Areopagus before the finest minds of Athens and who could defend the faith once delivered to the saints against highly sophisticated efforts to subvert it. But the price of that intellect is often a certain measure of obscurity; thoughts so deep and high that others find it difficult easily to follow them. Peter’s comment about there being things in Paul’s writings that are difficult to understand, is a reminder that it was not only later that Christians struggled to follow the rapid pace of Paul’s thought or to follow the simple thread passing through arguments so dense that a great preacher like Martyn Lloyd Jones could spend thirteen years preaching through Romans and still be several chapters from the end when ill health forced him to stop. Peter, great man that he was, could never have written Colossians and while we are the better for having Peter’s two letters and the Gospel that Mark wrote for him, we need Colossians, in our age we particularly need it, and the sort of argument we find there.
Our faith, our philosophy of life if you will, is so deep and high and all-embracive that it needed a great intellect to lay its foundation and to give it intellectual mooring. There is simplicity in Paul, of course, but great complexity as well. Even though we may memorize texts more often from other biblical writers, the contours of Christian theology as we understand it are more Pauline than anything else.
It is supremely to Paul that Christian theologians and preachers — men who have taught the faith to the Christian generations — have turned for the structure of Christian belief. Whether the doctrine of original sin or Christ’s atonement; justification by faith or justification’s relationship to sanctification; the sovereignty of grace or the church as the body of Christ; the Christian life as a life of obedience in love or the hope of the resurrection to eternal life at the Second Coming, our faith is a Pauline faith, however much other biblical authors have contributed their own perspective and enriched our understanding in many ways. It is supremely Paul who has commanded the intellectual life of the Christian pulpit and academy and through the church’s preachers and theologians that understanding of the faith has come down to the saints.
But, complex and difficult as Paul’s thinking and writing can be, it has not for that reason failed to leave its distinct impression on the ordinary believer. Think of the tremendous passages of sanctified thought and soaring prose that have fixed themselves not only in the mind of the church but the mind of the whole world: the 1st of Romans on the mental darkness of man in sin; the 13th of 1 Corinthians on love; the 8th of Romans on divine grace and our assurance; the 1st of Philippians on dying in Christ; the 15th of 1 Corinthians on the resurrection; the 7th of Romans on indwelling sin in the life of the believer; the 9th of Romans on election; the 5th of Ephesians on the order of Christian marriage and family; the 6th of Ephesians on the spiritual warfare, and on and on.
For all the difficult passages, what a terrible loss it would be to be without the sublime expression of truth we find again and again in the letters of Paul. As Luther once put it, “Paul’s words are not dead words; they are living creatures with hands and feet.” No wonder then that over and over again the church has been renewed and revived by the rediscovery of the writings of the Apostle Paul. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, among multitudes of others of the great minds of the church, owed their lives and their epoch-making ministries — insofar as the Lord made use of any man — to the Apostle Paul. It was the Scot Robert Haldane’s lectures on Paul — first delivered to young seminarians in his Geneva apartment and then published as his great commentary on Romans — that sparked the 19th century Reveille, the renewal of evangelical Christianity that spread from Geneva throughout Europe.
And one reason for that, surely, is that Paul wrote with the tremendous authority of being himself the object of God’s saving grace in such a dramatic and wonderful way. A deeply religious man he was nevertheless deeply lost. And in what the Puritans used to call an “election conversion” he was unexpectedly, suddenly, and violently transformed from an enemy of Jesus to Christ to his champion; perhaps the greatest enemy of the new “way” became its foremost advocate. To give you some idea of how significant Paul’s conversion was in the whole scheme of redemptive history, I have only to remind you that we are given four accounts of that conversion in the New Testament and more space, more verses are devoted to narrating it than is devoted to the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Paul’s own experience has taught the world how false religious zeal can blind a human heart, how lost the most confident and moral of people can be, and what real conversion to God is and what it produces in a man or woman’s life.
Far from being the pedestrian thing most people take salvation to be — a modest effort to be good in a modest way — Paul’s experience revealed salvation to be an earthshaking intervention of Almighty God, a transformation of heart and life that changes a person root and branch, and, in particular, the discovery of Jesus Christ by a sinful human being, the recognition of him as the savior of the world and the master of one’s life, love for him becoming the animating principle of life, and to be with him and to serve him forever becoming the goal of one’s life. No one has ever shown us conversion and the experience of salvation in such vivid colors as did the Apostle Paul after Christ appeared to him and turned his life upside down on the road to Damascus.
Indeed, as you may be aware, the personal history of the Apostle Paul is one of the greatest arguments for the truth of the Christian message and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. More than one clever man has attempted to explain Paul without the facts of the Lord’s resurrection and his appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, but none has succeeded and more than one has in making the effort found the same savior who found Paul long ago. In the 18th century Lord Lyttelton (1709-1773], graduate of Eton and Cambridge and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the British government in the days before the American revolution, at 38 years of age set out to examine and debunk the narrative of Paul’s conversion as we have it in Acts. The result was not only Lyttelton’s own conversion but a book Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul, a defense of the Christian faith concerning which Samuel Johnson remarked that “infidelity has never been able to fabricate a [plausible] answer.”
Wed that experience of Christ and God’s grace and power to the mighty intellect that God had long before given to Paul and which he had spent his younger life cultivating for other purposes and we get the titan of the world that was the great apostle to the Gentiles. When the Scripture says that God’s messengers are flames of fire, think of Paul. When we read that God’s very own voice can be heard in the voice of his ministers, think of Paul. The words of God were found and Paul ate them and they became the joy and rejoicing of his heart! Was there ever a man who thought harder or worked harder or suffered harder than did the apostle Paul in the exercise of his ministry?
Alexander Whyte once remarked,
“Paul, I suppose, is the only minister who ever lived who could have read Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor without going half-mad with remorse, and with a fearful looking for…judgment.” [Paul, 70]
I think it something that Christians should ponder more than they do that our God and Savior, rather than worry about others getting the credit for what is his doing alone, was happy to make great men still greater by his grace and to make the history of the church so much an account of the exploits of such men. It was the Lord Christ who made Paul the great man he was and made him so influential in the history of mankind. It is to honor him to honor and celebrate his great work in the man who wrote the letter to the Colossians.
So as we begin our study of this great letter we have before us not only the word of God, which it is absolutely, but the wisdom, the experience, the goodness, the faith, and the sanctified intelligence of one of the greatest minds and greatest hearts that have ever graced our world. It will be, I know, a privilege for us to think the thoughts of such a man after him, to seek to plumb the depths of his account of our holy faith.