Taking Time to Give Thanks

Colossians 1:1-8

October 7, 2001 | Brian Bill

Several weeks ago, when we were organizing our file cabinet, I came across some love letters from Beth that I’ve kept ever since we were dating.  When I found this folder, I immediately stopped working, sat down in the middle of the floor, and started browsing through them.  

My favorite letter is dated June 30, 1983 and was sent to me when I was teaching at the Evangelical Bible College in Zimbabwe, Africa on a summer mission trip.  Beth and I had met and become good friends the previous semester when we were at Moody Bible Institute together, and even though I wanted to date her, she had not yet seen the light!  Things didn’t look very good because she was going out with some “dweeb” from another college.  On top of that, she was planning to transfer to Nursing School in the fall and there was a chance I would never see her again.  

Anyway, during the spring I found out that she had broken up with her boyfriend (actually, I pestered her roommate almost every day until she spilled the beans!).  I had been praying for this relationship to tube out and was thrilled when it dissolved.  But instead of immediately calling her for a date, I decided to wait until she told me this news herself.  I thought that if she told me about the breakup, it would be a signal that she might be interested in me.  I found out in March.  April came and went.  May went by quickly and then I left for Africa in June.  

We both said we would write during the summer but I seriously doubted if I would ever hear from her again.  She wrote several times and then I received a four-page epistle that changed everything.  Let me read her closing lines: “Brian, one thing I may not have told you during spring semester but Rod and I haven’t been dating since about March.  I mean nothing in telling you this other than just updating you because you are my brother and friend.  In Jesus, Beth.”

I’ll never forget what I did when I read this.  I was sitting on my bed in a dormitory in the middle of Zimbabwe.  A number of my students were hanging out with me.  I immediately started jumping around the room, shouting, “Yes!  Yes!  Yes!”  My African brothers started hugging me without even knowing why I was so excited.  I then looked up and Beth was walking toward me with her arms outstretched…Oh, I’m sorry that’s a scene from a movie.

A Love Letter

For the next 11 weeks, we’re going to focus on one of God’s love letters to us.  For some of us, it will be like going back to look at something we’ve read before and maybe forgotten.  For others of us, it will be like reading it for the first time.  Please turn in your copy of the Scriptures to the New Testament book of Colossians.

The apostle Paul wrote this letter in A.D. 60.  He had a long-distance relationship with his recipients because he was 1,000 miles away in a Roman prison.  Colosse was located in Asia Minor, which is present-day Turkey.  One of the unusual facts of this book is that Paul is writing to a group of people he had never met before.  In fact, commentators believe that a man named Epaphras, who was converted under Paul’s ministry, started the church.  The church was flourishing until some false teachers came and disrupted the growth and confused their theology.  Paul’s purpose in writing was to encourage the believers and to combat errors in the church.

This false teaching was partly pagan and partly legalistic Judaism.  This amalgamation of philosophies, beliefs, and errors is called “syncretism.”  The Jewish element asserted that believers had to observe certain days, deny themselves some types of food, and follow various rituals.  The pagan segment emphasized self-denial, the worship of angels, and a mystical wisdom that was available only for those who had special knowledge.  

Paul recognized that the most dangerous part of this heresy was the deprecation of Christ, so he focused much of his attention on the supremacy of Jesus.  In fact, Colossians is the most Christ-centered book in the entire Bible.  That’s one of the reasons we’re studying it right now.  In the midst of our cultural confusion about Christ, we must come back to His absolute superiority and preeminence.  There’s a lot of mixing of views today, isn’t there?  People borrow a little from this and a little from that.  I call it “pop theology.”  It comes from movies, MTV, books and philosophies that have their root in the same beliefs that surfaced in Colossae.  

Colossians is one of Paul’s shortest letters but also one of the most exciting.  We’re encouraged to explore the treasures of the gospel and to order our lives accordingly under the lordship of Christ.  We’ll see that wrong doctrine always leads to wrong living.  While we’re going to go through it section by section, it’s important to keep in mind that this is primarily a letter, meant to be read as a whole.  Colossians 4:16 encourages us to read it out loud, which we will do throughout the series.  In order to fully comprehend it, you might want to consider reading the entire book a couple times each week for the next three months.


Let’s begin by looking at the first two verses: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.”  

Following the standard form of letter writing in the first century, Paul starts by introducing himself and greeting his readers.  The name “Paul” means “little.”  He was nothing in himself but was called to be an “apostle of Christ Jesus.”  The word “apostle” derives from a verb that means, “to send on a mission.”  Paul was not one of the 12 original apostles, but he had a special commission by the “will of God.”  He did not choose the career of an apostle but was selected by Jesus Himself in Acts 9:15 where we read, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”

Paul was not writing this alone but with “Timothy our brother.”  Paul understood the importance of partnership in ministry.  Timothy was not an apostle but was extremely close to Paul.  They didn’t have that much in common – Paul was older, more cultured, had more money, and was better educated.  And yet, Timothy was his brother, and their brother.  The church understood itself from the very beginning as family.  Jesus loves to break down natural barriers between people.  When we share Jesus in common, we have everything in common!  Isn’t it great to become good friends with another believer who is totally different than you are?  As a result of faith in Jesus, we become members of the family of God and brothers and sisters with one another.

Having introduced himself, Paul next greets the congregation as “the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse.”  The word “holy” means to be “set apart” by God.  Some of your translations use the word “saints” here.  We are not holy by our own efforts to please God but are transformed into a holy people by a holy God.  We are saints by virtue of our position in Christ.  “Faithful brothers” refers to the fact that even in the midst of false doctrine, many of them were dependable and faithful to the truth.

I want you to notice that these believers were “in” Christ and “at” Colosse.  In the Greek, this is the same preposition.  They were in Christ and in Colosse.  The same is true for us.  You are in Christ and in Pontiac, or wherever you live.  We’re called to live out our position in Christ in the context of where we live and work.  Faithful believers are also public witnesses.  Our position in Christ and our proclamation within our culture are inextricably linked.  Because we belong to Jesus, we must call others to believe.  

Paul continues his greeting by saying, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father.”  The word “grace” comes from gentile culture and “peace” has its roots in the Jewish understanding of “shalom.”  Paul didn’t use the customary Greek salutation “hail or greetings,” which can mean something like “hey” or “what’s up?”  Instead, he chose the word that means “grace,” or unmerited favor.  Only God the Father can offer grace and peace.  Grace always precedes peace.  Grace is the provision for the Christian life.  Peace is the enjoyment of those provisions.  If someone does not have peace in their life, it may be because they’ve not yet experienced grace.  When we receive grace, we will have peace with God, we’ll experience the peace of God and we’ll have the means to be at peace with others.

Now, as we look at verses 3-8, it’s important to keep in mind that this passage is one long sentence in the Greek and is built around the subject of thanksgiving.  Paul is overwhelmed with thankfulness about three things – he’s thankful for the Colossians in verses 3-5a, he’s thankful for the gospel in verses 5b-6, and he’s thankful for Epaphras in verses 7-8.

Thankful for Colossians

Take a look at verses 3-5a: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints — the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven…”

Thanksgiving must be part of every prayer that we pray

Even though Paul needs to address some problems at Colosse, he begins by expressing his thankfulness to God for the church.  He uses the pronoun “we” to emphasize the corporate nature of his ministry.  Thanksgiving must be part of every prayer that we pray.  Notice that Paul says that he “always” gives thanks.  This was his practice and habit.  The word “thanks” here comes from the Greek word that is translated, “Eucharist,” which refers to the Lord’s Supper.  Communion is to be a time of thankfulness for what Jesus has done on the Cross

As we learned last week, when David was overwhelmed by the generosity of His people, he gave thanks to God.  Likewise, even though Paul had heard some good things about the Colossians, he directed his thanks to the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul’s frequent use of “Father” alludes to an important Old Testament metaphor for God’s covenantal relationship with His people

In the first three verses, Paul is already laying the groundwork for the major teaching of Colossians: The Supremacy of Christ.  In verse 2, he uses the phrase, “in Christ.”  Here in verse 3, he refers to “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This triple name expresses the divinity, humanity, and messianic office of the Savior.  The title “Lord” refers to His deity.  He is God and Lord of all.  The name “Jesus” speaks of his incarnation.  He was born into the human race and walked on this earth.  “Christ” reminds us that He came as the sacrifice for our sins as the promised Messiah.

Paul then focuses on a triad of thanksgiving.  Even though he had never visited the Christians at Colosse, he heard of their faith, their love, and their hope.  This is very similar to what he wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1:3: “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  While these three virtues are linked together in other passages, the phrase is not a mere formula, thrown in for effect, but a genuine statement in which each word is profoundly significant.

Faith is mentioned first because it is the starting place for everything else in the Christian life.  They weren’t commended because they had a commodity of faith but because they had put their trust and confidence “in Christ Jesus.”  It’s amazing to me that the testimony of their faith reached all the way to Paul in a Roman prison.  I wonder if people in my own neighborhood would commend me for my faith?

The vertical dimension of faith then leads to the horizontal element of love.  Because of what Jesus had done in their lives, they were able to love “all” the saints.  Paul uses the article “the” in front of love to make it more concrete.  Love is not an abstract principle or even a gushy feeling.  This love is agape, which has sacrifice as its key character and is displayed in actions.  Love is a transforming act because it is really faith in motion as Galatians 5:6 says, “…the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

This church is full of love.  This past week our family received some gift certificates from the church.  When we went to the store to buy some things, the cashier told me that she’s heard that PBC is a very loving place.  She then leaned forward a bit and said, “Your church is more loving than mine.”  That’s not a bad reputation to have, is it?  

Truth faith always produces love.  You can tell when someone exhibits genuine faith in Christ when they demonstrate unconditional love for imperfect Christ followers.  It will be easy to love believers in heaven because they won’t have a capacity for sin.  It’s much more difficult to love fellow Christians now because they still sin, just like we do.  Love is the greatest characteristic and the greatest commandment of the Christian faith.  Are you exhibiting it in your life today?  

Our shared faith and mutual love result in our common “hope that is stored up for you in heaven.”  Faith and love spring from hope because hope is the root, faith is the plant and love is the fruit.  Because God has “laid up” hope for us in heaven, we can have full confidence in our faith and express our love without holding back.  We don’t have to vaguely wish for something better to come when we have complete confidence in the reality of heaven.  

Why have faith in Christ if there is no hope for a glorious future?  Why love others if it doesn’t matter in the end?  Hope makes all the difference because we have a confident expectation that everything God says in His Word is true today, or will come true in the future.  Hope is stored up for us like a treasure.  God guarantees our salvation in eternity.  We can blow it down here but we will never lose our salvation because we didn’t do anything to get it in the first place.

I see people all the time who have no hope.  Without it, we end up without any anchor for our life.  There’s nothing worse than seeing someone grieve because they have no hope.  

Thankful for the Gospel

Paul is thankful for the faith, love, and hope of the Colossians.  In verses 5b-6 we see that he is grateful for the gospel itself: “…and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.  All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.”

These verses reveal four key elements about the gospel.

1. The Gospel is the truth of God.  

The last part of verse 5 helps us see that our hope is based solidly upon the “word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.”  The word of truth and the gospel are the same thing.  “Gospel” simply means “good news.”  The verb form means to “preach or proclaim good news.”  The gospel is to be shared with others because it is the word of truth.  There is no other truth worth proclaiming.  

2. The Gospel is for the whole world. 

Paul is rejoicing because this gospel is going “all over the world.”  The gospel that has come to the city of Colosse is the same gospel going around the globe.  God has one message of good news, one word of truth for everyone.  That’s why we support 18 different missionaries and organizations that are committed to proclaim the good news of the gospel.  We’re not just focused on our community but are called to impact the continents as well.  That’s what we’re called to do as a church.

3. The Gospel produces life and growth. 

Look at verse 6: “…this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it…”  The grammar here indicates that there is an innate energy in the message of the gospel.  The gospel is alive, growing, spreading, bearing fruit, and spreading some more.  When the gospel is heard and believed, lives change radically.  I can personally attest to this in my own life.  According to Romans 1:16, the gospel is the power of God.  This word “power” comes from the word “dunamis,” or dynamite.  The gospel message is the dynamite of God, to break through hard hearts and sinful habits so that the Fruit of the Spirit can grow and ripen to maturity.

I like the word “growing” in this verse.  It reminds me that we’re all in process.  I have literally seen the fruit of the gospel all over the world, from Zimbabwe to Mexico.  I also see it in our own living room on Sunday nights when members of our Growth Group share how Jesus is changing lives.  I don’t know of anything more powerful than the gospel!  If you’re not experiencing fruit and you’re not growing, I can guarantee you that there’s nothing wrong with the power source.  Spiritual growth should be normal and ordinary for every Christian, not something that seems extraordinary.

4. The Gospel is the grace of God. 

The last part of verse 6 refers to “God’s grace in all its truth.”  The message of God’s truth is a message of grace.  You and I cannot earn acceptance before God.  Salvation is by grace alone through faith.  You don’t have to jump through certain hoops or follow some man-made regulations.  One of the false teachings in the church of Colosse was legalism and so Paul establishes that the gospel is the good news of grace. We receive what we don’t deserve, not when we’re good enough, but when we recognize that we’re bad enough to be disqualified from it.  Of all the world religions, Christianity alone offers salvation without demands for pious works.  The gospel of grace is truly good news.  It brings faith, love, hope, and a desire to share it with others.

Thankful for Epaphras

In verses 7-8, we see that Paul was thankful for Epaphras because he had been the one to share the life changing message of grace with the Colossian people: “You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.”  Epaphras is faith, love and hope in action.  He illustrates that the good news of the gospel of grace must be proclaimed.

Paul developed people like Epaphras wherever he went and reminded the Colossians that they had first heard the gospel from one of their own.  He was a dear fellow servant and a “faithful minister of Christ.”  He faithfully took the message of grace to them and as a result he could be trusted.  Epaphras both evangelized Colosse and edified the believers through his teaching.  The verb “learned” is the basis of the word “disciple.”  

God’s plan has always been to use human instruments to bring forth the gospel to a dying world.  Epaphras was faithful in spreading the seed.  He wants us to be faithful to Him and to the gospel of grace.  Are you?  Am I?

This section ends with a report by Epaphras about their “love in the Spirit.”  When Epaphras traveled all the way to Rome to tell Paul about these Christ-followers, he told him that they had a Spirit-produced love.  The word “told us” was a legal term indicating evidence.  This means that he gave the apostle solid proof of their conversion, their subsequent spiritual growth, and their love in the Spirit.  

Action Steps

I can think of four action steps based on this passage.  

1. Be thankful when you pray. 

Instead of praying prayers that start with, “Lord, please give me…” let’s begin our prayers like this: “Thanks, God for all that you’ve done.”  Related to this, let’s follow Paul’s example and actually pray for fellow believers.  

2. Identify one person you have a hard time loving. 

I’m convinced that there is at least one person in each of our lives who we simply don’t like.  Ask God to help you love this individual in the Spirit.  You’ll need God’s help here.  Thank Him for the opportunity you have to put your faith into action.  Ask Him to change your heart and He will teach you how to love.

3. Take the next step in your journey of growth. 

If you’ve never responded to the gospel message by putting your faith in Jesus for forgiveness of sins, then you need to do so!  If you don’t, your life will never change and you’ll enter a tragic eternity.  

If there’s something keeping you from fruit bearing and growth, determine with God’s help, to deal with it

If there’s something keeping you from fruit bearing and growth, determine with God’s help, to deal with it.  Is there a recurring sin you need to repent of?  Do you need greater accountability?  You could join the women’s Bible study or meet with a group of men on Tuesday mornings.  Perhaps you’ve simply been too busy with things that keep you from what is truly important.  Maybe you need to do a better job of prioritizing your church attendance.  Ask the Holy Spirit to put His finger on what needs to change and then take the step that He is prodding you to take.

4. Determine this week to share God’s grace with at least one person. 

Take advantage of this window of openness in our country.  About a week ago, when I was working out, several of us were talking about how the world might end. Someone on one of the treadmills asked me if I had ever read the “Left Behind” series.  I said I did.  Just then the guy on the bike next to me started asking questions about what the Bible says about the end times.  The next day I brought him a copy of Left Behind, gave him one of my sermons, and a book about the gospel.  A couple days ago I was able to follow-up with him.  Let’s be like Epaphras and share the gospel of grace with those around us.

I want to close by reading something from another letter.  This was written by Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “When we were united by faith to Christ, we were brought into such complete fellowship with Him, that we were made one with Him, and His interests and ours became mutual and identical.  We have fellowship with Christ in His love.  What He loves we love. He loves the saint, and so do we.  He loves sinners, and so do we.  He loves the poor perishing race of man, and so do we.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?