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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:Always put first things first!
Text:Colossians 1:3-8 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Revelation of the Gospel
 
Preached:2014
Added:2014-07-04
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 21:1-4

Psalm 94:1,5,6

Psalm 33:1,5,6

Hymn 74

Psalm 147:1,5,6

Scripture reading:  Matthew 13:1-23

Text: Colossians 1:3-8

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus,

At the back of the Book of Praise, you’ll find the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  These are the terms by which we’ve agreed to live in covenant with the other churches in our federation.  One of the things that we have agreed upon is found in article 52.  We have agreed that, normally, once every Sunday the doctrine of God’s Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism will be proclaimed.  In other words, we have agreed to catechism preaching once every Sunday. 

We have a certain way of doing that.  We start with Lord’s Day 1 and we work our way through to Lord’s Day 52.  This afternoon, we’ll be at the end once more.  But imagine if some pastor decided on a different way of doing it.  Instead of 1-52 consecutively, the pastor decided to just preach on the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Days 34-44, over and over.  Technically it would still fall within the parameters of what we’ve agreed on in the Church Order.  Every Sunday you would hear a sermon on one of the Ten Commandments from the Catechism.  It would be very practical, of course.  Every Sunday afternoon’s sermon would have lots of dos and don’ts.  But that’s all you would ever hear in the Catechism preaching.  Now, would that be a healthy thing for a congregation?  Would it be beneficial to take the Lord’s Days about the Ten Commandments and remove them from the context of the rest of the Catechism?

No, a wise and faithful consistory would soon rein in such a minister.  The elders would insist that that type of preaching is unbalanced and is neglecting the gospel.  The gospel is not about us and our obedience to the Ten Commandments.  The gospel certainly produces God-pleasing fruit in our lives, and we need to hear about how to live a Christian life, but the type of preaching I just described would be grossly lopsided.  The priorities would be mixed up.

I don’t know if you’ve read ahead in Colossians, but if you have, if you’ve read the whole letter, you might be struck by the fact that a lot of it is made up of practical ethical teaching.  Paul gives all kinds of instructions about how Christians are supposed to live.  We might be tempted to just skip everything else and jump ahead to what we think are the more practical parts.  I can imagine that someone would be thinking, “Why can’t we just get to the parts that tell me what to do and what not to do?”  But that would be the same type of thinking which would lead us to hear sermons every Sunday just on the Lord’s Days dealing with the commandments.  It’s the same type of imbalance that we seek to avoid by going consecutively from 1-52 in the Catechism preaching.

When we do that with the Catechism, we lay a foundation with our need for the gospel and the gospel itself.  First things are put first.  Before we look at how we are to live, we first look at what God has done in the gospel.  The gospel is the foundation.  It’s the same way in Colossians.  Here in our text, Paul writes about fundamental things, things that can’t be taken for granted.  It’s important for us too to focus on these things first.  So I preach to you God’s Word this morning:

Always put first things first!

Paul does this by giving thanks for the Colossians with the gospel in the center.  We’ll consider:

  1. The power of the gospel
  2. The presence of the gospel
  3. The preacher of the gospel

Paul had never been to Colossae.  He didn’t personally know the people to whom he was writing this letter.  But he had heard plenty about them.  If we skip ahead to verses 7 and 8, we find out how.  There was a minister named Epaphras.  He had reported to Paul about the Colossian believers.  What he said gave reason for great joy and thanksgiving.

Of course, this thanksgiving is directed upwards to God.  God is the one who has been working amongst the Colossians and so he deserves the credit.  Paul writes that he gives this thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he prays for these believers.  The reason why he gives thanks has everything to do with the power of the gospel in their lives.  The gospel has changed everything for them. 

In verse 5, the gospel is bound up with that word ‘hope.’  He says that the believers, and that includes us, have a hope laid up for them in heaven.  The word ‘hope’ here is not used in the sense of something that we do.  It’s not a type of wishful thinking, “I hope the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.”  No, this hope that Paul speaks of here is the gospel message, it’s the good news that believers base their confidence upon.  In verse 23, Paul writes of the “the hope of the gospel that you heard.”  Elsewhere in Scripture, this kind of language is used to speak about the hope of eternal life and the hope of the resurrection.  The hope is “laid up for you in heaven.”  Who has laid it up for us?  God.  This is speaking about what God has done for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Through his redemptive work, we have the sure promise of life forever.  Because of what Christ has done, we will live forever with God as our loving Father.  This is guaranteed for us in the gospel.  That’s why we say that the gospel is good news.  It’s really the best news imaginable for sinners.  This hope is the fountain from which all kinds of other good things flow.

For instance, this hope leads to faith.  When the gospel is heard, the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of some to produce faith in the Saviour.  That happened amongst the Colossians and it’s happened amongst us too.  The gospel has mighty power to change hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  Through the gospel, people recognize that they are broken and needy sinners who have nothing to offer to God to pay for their sins.  So, they turn to Jesus Christ and rest and trust in him alone.  They believe that he has paid the price for them on the cross.  They believe that when he lived a perfect life of obedience, he did it in their place.  All of this produces the type of praise and thanksgiving to God that we see in our text.

Hope leads to faith and faith inevitably produces the fruit of love.  In verse 4, Paul writes of the love that the Colossians have for all the saints.   At the end of our text, he writes that he’s heard of their love in the Spirit.  The gospel has been powerful to produce abundant fruit in their lives.  This fruit is characterized first and foremost by love.  In the Bible, love is exemplified by what God did for us with our Saviour.  Think of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Love is revealed in self-sacrificial giving.  In Ephesians 5:25, Paul points us to Christ himself, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”  There again, love is connected to self-sacrificial giving.  Paul says that the Colossians have that kind of love for one another and for other believers.  The word of truth has been effective among them.  The gospel has produced this fruit in their lives and it brings him to exalt God.

We read from Matthew 13 and the Parable of the Sower.  In that parable, the seed is the same each time.  The seed is the gospel.  What’s different each time is the soil.  There’s the path, the rocky ground, the soil surrounded by thorns, and then the good soil.  When the seed is sown on the good soil, it bears fruit.  Varying measures of fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty, but it always bears fruit.  The message of the parable is simply this:  be the good soil!  Be the soil that hears the word, understands it, and believes it.  And when you are that good soil, you will grow and bear fruit.  It will naturally follow.

That’s a good illustration of what happened with the Colossians, what’s happened among us, and what needs to continue happening among us.  Brothers and sisters, we need to put first things first.  Here that means to continue being that good soil for the gospel seed.  The gospel is preached regularly here -- we need to embrace it with open hearts.  Listen to it intently and grab hold of it each time conscientiously.  As we do, our text shows us that the gospel is powerful to produce fruit.  It produces love among us as brothers and sisters.  It also results in praise and thanksgiving to God; his name is lifted up and glorified amongst us and others.  That’s what we want, isn’t it? 

Paul also writes here in our text about the presence of the gospel.  We find that in verse 6.  He says that the gospel message came to the Colossians.  This is really quite an amazing thing.  From a small group of disciples in far off Palestine, the gospel bore fruit and grew.  It spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth, just like Christ said that it would before he ascended into heaven.  Eventually through God’s providential guidance, a preacher of Jesus Christ arrived in Colossae.  However, the gospel didn’t last long in that city.

In 61 or 62 A.D., a powerful earthquake struck Colossae.  The city was destroyed, levelled to the ground.  After 61, there are actually no references at all to the city in either Christian or pagan writings.  The city simply disappears.  Archaeologists know where the site of the city is, but it’s never been excavated.  Today if you were to go to Colossae, all you’d see is a big hill where the city is buried under centuries of dirt and rubble.  It’s gone.  But the gospel has endured.  Moreover, the saints in Colossae who believed that gospel message are now enjoying the hope laid up for them in heaven.

Though Colossae disappeared and so did its church, the presence of the gospel in this world was maintained and preserved by our faithful God.  Paul refers to what was happening elsewhere.  He says in verse 6 that the gospel was not only bearing fruit and growing in Colossae, but also in the whole world.  Of course, by that he means the whole known world of his day, throughout the Roman Empire.  Preachers were going out far and wide to bring the good news.  People were being discipled everywhere and as that happened, the gospel travelled.  If we look in Acts, the gospel wasn’t just being spread by the apostles and preachers, but also by ordinary believers witnessing for Christ.  The church had an outward looking perspective and that perspective was held by everybody in the church.  That was the reason why the gospel had a presence in so many places, amongst so many people, in so many different cultures, in so short a period of time.  With his Spirit, the Lord worked it so that the gospel not only came to Colossae, but also to the neighbouring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis.  And further afield too.  The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome.  The book of Romans ends with Paul writing about bringing the gospel to Spain.  That process has been continuing until the present day.  Somehow God brought the gospel to us too and it’s present with us now, the same way it was present with the Colossians.

We have the gospel and that’s something we should never take for granted.  The gospel hope laid up in heaven for us is proclaimed and embraced here among us, isn’t it?  Isn’t it bearing fruit and growing among us, just as it is among others around the world?  We can hear about it happening in Brazil, and in the Philippines and many other places.  For this, like Paul, we can give thanks.  The first and most important thing is present in our lives and that’s something to praise God for.  Where the gospel is present and treasured, there we have reason to thank our gracious God.       

Paul is also thankful for the preacher of the gospel, the one who brought the good news to the Colossians.  He calls Epaphras his beloved fellow servant.  Together they are servants of Christ, bringing the gospel to whomever they can, working together for the same cause. 

What do we know about Epaphras?  He was apparently a convert of Paul and he was responsible for bringing the gospel to Colossae and its neighbouring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis.  He’s mentioned also in Philemon, in verse 23 of that short book.  There Paul speaks of him as his “fellow prisoner in Christ.”  So Epaphras apparently ended up in prison with Paul at some point.  He and Paul were close.

But the focus here in our text is not on Paul’s relationship to Epaphras, but on what Epaphras did for the Colossians in his service to Christ.  According to verse 6, he proclaimed “the grace of God in truth.”  That parallels “the word of the truth, the gospel” in verse 5.  This is so rich and says so much.  There are two things I want you to notice.

First of all, notice how Paul twice connects the gospel with truth.  The gospel is absolutely and certainly true, according to what the Holy Spirit says through Paul here.  That’s a message that for us today constantly needs to be affirmed, because it is so widely attacked.  It’s even attacked by so-called theologians.  Even some theologians and popular Christian writers tell us that the Bible does not have a monopoly on saving truth.  For example, John Hick writes that it’s like rainbows.  A rainbow is produced by the sun, by one light source.  But from that one light source come all these refractions producing all these different colours.  Who’s to say that one band of colour in the rainbow is better than another?  Similarly, John Hick says, all the religions of the world have one source with God and they’re all just different shades of truth.  No one can say that one is better than the other.  Others combine this relativistic perspective with a “whatever works” pragmatic attitude.  If your Christian faith works for you, then fine, it’s true for you.  And whatever works for me, is true for me.  But all of that goes directly against God’s Word.  Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Either Jesus is right or John Hick is right.  They can’t both be right.  Either Jesus is right or the whatever-works-for-you people are right.  They can’t both be right.  Of course, we know that Jesus is right.  Salvation is only through Jesus Christ.  Period.  Paul follows Jesus here in our text by speaking about the truth of the gospel.  There is absolute truth in this world, and it’s found in God’s Word.  It includes the gospel truth that Jesus Christ lived and died in the place of sinners, and then rose again, ascending into heaven and he will come again for our salvation.  This is absolute truth.  Paul preached it like that and so did Epaphras, and through Epaphras, the Colossians believed it.  Today it still needs to be preached with that kind of clear conviction and we still need to believe it too.

Second, I want you to notice how Paul connects the grace of God with the gospel.  It is “the grace of God in truth.”  Someone once said that you could think of grace with this acronym:  God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.  That’s indeed a helpful way to think about it.  Through Christ and the expense of his obedience and sacrifice, we receive God’s riches.  Through Christ, we receive the opposite of what we deserve.  We deserve eternal condemnation.  We deserve eternal, conscious punishment in hell.  But look at some of the riches we receive through Christ:  justification (we’re declared right by God on account of Christ), adoption (we’re received by God into his family), sanctification (God separates us from sin through his Spirit), glorification (we will someday be like Christ, sinless and perfect).  The gospel promises us all these things and it was this true gospel of grace that Epaphras brought to the Colossians.  They learned it from him and they understood and believed it.     

So there are those two things:  it’s an absolutely true message, and it’s a message of grace.  That was the message proclaimed to the Colossians. 

And because it was proclaimed properly, Paul writes that Epaphras was a faithful minister of Christ on their behalf.  Preaching the gospel of grace in truth is what makes a faithful minister.  This type of minister is one who works for the advantage of his listeners.  He will be a blessing to them. 

Loved ones, this too is a reminder for you to put first things first.  Ministers are human beings. Like Paul says elsewhere, we are jars of clay.  That means we’re creatures, we’re fragile and weak.  We can easily break, just like a cheap piece of pottery.  Ministers are sinners too, just like you.  I struggle with sin, just like you do.  Do you want a faithful minister of the gospel who works to your advantage, who blesses you with the grace of God in truth?  Is that a priority for you?  According to our text, it should be.  And if it is, then you need to pray along those lines too.  Your pastor needs your prayers if he will be a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf.  Will you commit or recommit this morning to praying for him?  If your pastor loses sight of the gospel, you’re likely going to begin losing sight of it too.  And if you lose sight of the gospel, everything that follows from it is in danger of being lost as well.  So much hangs on faithful preaching, brothers and sisters.  Because that’s true, we need to constantly pray about it; pray for the pastor so that he keeps his eye on the prize and then brings only that word of truth that can bless us. 

Taking this one step further, we can also think of the training of future ministers of the gospel, including missionaries.  In our Canadian Reformed Churches that training takes place at our seminary.  So let me ask you:  do you regularly pray for the work of the seminary in Hamilton?  The professors and students need your prayers too.  If our churches will have the grace of God in truth for generations to come, we need faithful training at our seminary.  We need the professors to be steadfast in their commitment to the absolute truth of God’s Word; we need them to be effective in teaching God’s Word as absolute truth.  We need the students to be diligent in learning and have openness to being discipled as our future pastors and missionaries.  We can be thankful that we see so much evidence of faithfulness at our seminary right now.  But loved ones, history teaches us that we cannot take this for granted.  Things can fall apart so easily and quickly.  So much with regard to the health of our church federation hangs on the health of our seminary.  Therefore, it must be a regular matter for prayer.  Putting first things first means having the gospel ministry first and training for the gospel ministry as well.        

Loved ones, the gospel is the foundation for our lives as God’s children.  Like Paul, we can and should be thankful for its power.  It transforms us in remarkable ways.  We can and should be thankful for its abiding presence in this world.  No one can stop the advance of the gospel message.  Christ will continue to gather his church through the spreading of the good news by us and others.  Like Paul, we can and should also be thankful that the gospel has been and is being preached among us.  Brothers and sisters, with that kind of thankfulness in our hearts and prayers, let’s continue to be committed to putting first things first – always having the gospel front and centre.  AMEN.

Prayer:

God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

We thank you for the power of the gospel in our lives.  Thank for the hope you have laid up for us in heaven, the hope of glory and eternal life.  We’re thankful that hope has helped to work faith in our hearts through your Spirit.  We’re thankful that this faith bears fruit in love and we pray that it would do so ever more among us. 

We thank you for the presence of the gospel.  We’re glad that the message of good news spread throughout the world, that it reached us.  We pray that it would continue to reach others and give encouragement and comfort.  We pray for your blessing on our missionaries. 

We thank you too for the preachers of the gospel.  Please give faithfulness to the pastor of this church.  Help him to be a blessing to us.  We pray also for our seminary.  We thank you for the faithful work of the professors and the diligent studies of our seminary students.  Please continue to bless the seminary so that it can continue to be a blessing to our church federation.

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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