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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:The Holy Spirit teaches us what union with Christ looks like
Text:Colossians 3:12-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 95:1-3

Psalm 119:55-57 (after the law)

Psalm 47

Hymn 44

Psalm 146

Scripture readings:  Deuteronomy 7:1-11, Matthew 18:21-35

Text:  Colossians 3:12-17

* 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,

If you ever happen to visit the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, you’ll see a plane going nowhere fast.  Right in front of the Museum is a CF-104 Starfighter.  It’s mounted on a pedestal and headed skyward.  A few decades ago, this jet was flying at supersonic speeds over northern Alberta and West Germany, now it’s looking good but going nowhere fast.  It’s what we call a static display.  “Static” means it’s going nowhere.

The Warplane Heritage Museum is unique because it not only includes static displays like the CF-104, but also aircraft that are maintained in flying condition.  The most famous of these is the Avro Lancaster.  It’s not a fast plane:  cruising speed is only 210 mph.  Some time ago, the Lancaster made a trip to the UK.  On the way back, it left on a Tuesday morning and arrived back in Hamilton on Sunday.  Now they didn’t fly that whole time and there were weather delays and such things crossing the North Atlantic.  But the Lancaster has never been known for its speed, 210 mph is slow for a plane.  Yet, compared to the Starfighter out front, it can still get from point A to point B.  It still moves.    

Now which of these do you suppose would be a good illustration of the life of a Christian?  Does God want the life of a Christian to look like the Starfighter, that static display?  Does he want our lives just to look good, but go nowhere?  Or is God’s purpose and plan for us to look like the Lancaster, maybe not the prettiest, maybe not super-fast, but at least it moves?  Does God just want the status quo for us?  Does he want us to reach a plateau and then stall there?  Or is his will that we continue moving forward, even if it is at a glacial pace?

What I’m speaking about here is sanctification.  Remember, we define sanctification as the process of growing to reflect the image of Christ.  It’s the process of growing in holiness according to God’s will.  I hope you picked up on a key word in the definition:  growing.  Growing is not a static thing – it involves movement, progress, development.  Sanctification is God’s will for Christians who have been bought with the blood of Christ.  It’s his plan that we be moving forward.  It’s not an easy process and it’s not a quick process.  It often looks messy.  It’s a whole lot more like the Lancaster than it is like the Starfighter.

Our passage this morning is about this always difficult, often slow, and sometimes messy process of sanctification.  Looking back in Colossions, verses 5 to 11 of chapter 3 are the working out of 3:2, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  Verses 5 to 11 worked that out mostly in negative terms.  Union with Christ means putting to death and putting away earthly things, specifically sins of a sexual nature and sins of a relational nature.  And now these verses we’re looking at this morning work things out in positive terms, in terms of virtues.  Setting your mind on things above, focussing on Christ and his priorities, that means moving in a certain direction.  So I preach to you God’s Word:

The Holy Spirit teaches us what union with Christ looks like in terms of virtues to put on.

We’re taught how to live:

  1. In unity and harmony
  2. In thanksgiving, worship, and with Christ as Lord of all

In verses 9 and 10, Paul uses clothing to illustrate sanctification.  Christians are to take off the old nature like they would take off dirty clothes.  But then they’re also to put on the new nature united to Christ, like they would put on new clean clothes.  You see, taking off the old sinful nature is not meant to leave you naked and cold.  You need to be dressed with something.  Here you need to be dressed with a new nature that’s one with Christ.  You take off all the old sinful habits, desires, and attitudes and replace them with new ones that reflect Christ. 

That explains why verse 12 of our text begins with “Put on then…”  It’s the same image being used.  You’re putting on Christ and his priorities.  You’re being clothed with Christ in terms of your sanctification.  As a consequence, when people look at you, they can see Christ and what’s important to him.

But look closely at how the Colossian believers are being addressed here.  They are addressed as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”  These words are pregnant with meaning.  The background could very well be in what we read from Deuteronomy 7.  The Israelites were the church of God in that age and they were told that they had been chosen by God to be his possession.  They were a people “holy to the LORD,” which means that they had been set apart by him and for him.  They were chosen not because they were holy, but so that they would be holy.  And Yahweh also says that he chose them on the basis of his love:  “but it is because the LORD loves you…”  All the elements from Colossians are found there.  It seems that Paul is drawing a line from the church in the Old Testament to the church in Colossae in the New Testament.  And what he says about that church can also be said about us.  We also have been chosen by God, set apart by him and for him, and it’s all because of God’s love for us.  Because this is who believers are by grace, this is how you live accordingly.  You belong to God through Jesus Christ, and now this is how you respond, this is how your life should look as a result of God’s grace.  That reminds us that God’s grace is first, the gospel is first.  What’s here in chapter 3 is not a substitute or alternative for the gospel.  This is the response to the gospel of grace.  If you’ve been chosen by the God who loves, redeemed by the Saviour who gave himself for you, this is how your life gets changed.

Your life gets changed with the putting on of these virtues mentioned in verse 12.  Let’s look at each of them briefly.  Paul first mentions compassionate hearts.  What that means is best illustrated by looking to Jesus.  In Matthew 20, he encounters these two blind men outside of Jericho.  They’re crying out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”  Jesus approaches them and asks what they want and they ask the Lord for healing.  In Matthew 20:34, we read, “And Jesus in pity touched their eyes and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.”  Jesus had pity on these men – he had a heart of compassion.  Those who are united to Christ want to have the same heart, a heart that breaks for the lost and broken.

The next virtue mentioned is kindness.  This is friendliness and helpfulness, not only in terms of an attitude, but also in terms of action.  Here we could think of what Jesus said in Luke 6:35, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”  Who portrayed that in greater measures than Jesus himself?  He was kind to the ungrateful and evil.  He came into this world to live and die for ungrateful and evil sinners.  That’s kindness.  That’s a friendliness that believers who are one with Christ want to see in their lives too.

Humility is the next virtue Paul mentions in verse 12.  Humility is defined biblically as not thinking of yourself more highly than you should.  It is knowing who you are in relation to God.  Here you can’t help but think of what Paul writes in Philippians about the Son of God emptying himself and taking on our humanity.  The Son of God let go of his heavenly majesty and became one of us, a lowly creature.  In the ancient world of the Colossians, humility was not considered a virtue.  Humility was considered negatively, it was a weakness.  But the Christian faith revealed in Scripture says something different, especially as it points us to Christ.  That’s important for us today too.  In our world too, pride is the virtue and humility is not.  As we look to Christ, we want to live in union with him, and strive to reflect him, also as we live in humility with one another and before God.

Then there is meekness.  That means a gentle attitude and acts of kindness.  The opposite of meekness would be rudeness or harshness.  Closely related to it is the next virtue, patience.  Patience is long-suffering, being able to tolerate a lot.  The opposite of patience would be the urge to lash out and do it with no delay.  Both these virtues too are in ample evidence in the life of our Saviour.  As we look to the picture of him in the gospels, we see gentleness and long-suffering.  Look at how he relates to his disciples.  Look at how slow they are and how weak.  They often stand in his way and slow him down.  Yet he was so patient and gentle with them.  He didn’t throw them to the curb, but lovingly tolerated them and gave them room to grow.  Believers united to his Saviour, their desire is for their lives to look like that too.  We want to reflect Christ in our gentleness and long-suffering with other sinners.

Did you notice something about all these virtues in verse 12?  They all have to do with relationships.  They all have to do with how human beings relate to one another.  That’s the focus here – how believers deal with the people around them.  That carries on into verse 13.  We’re taught to bear with one another, put up with one another and our quirks and little annoyances.  There can be those types of little things that we should just let go of, but then there can also be bigger things:  complaints.  People may sometimes treat us harshly or unjustly.  People may sin against us.  What do we do then?  The Holy Spirit says, “forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  Well, that could be a whole sermon in itself.  Let’s just note a couple of things.

Our forgiveness of one another is to be modeled on God’s gracious forgiveness of us.  Here you need to think of what we read from Matthew 18.   Like the first servant in that parable, we have been forgiven an infinitely large debt.  Through Christ, our huge debt to God’s justice has been discharged.  All our sins, past, present and future are forgiven.  Scripture says in Micah 7:19 that they are cast into the depths of the ocean.  I read somewhere this past week that when God throws our sins into the depths of the ocean, he then puts up a sign, “No fishing allowed.” (Corrie ten Boom).  Those sins are out of the way, never to be brought up again.   That’s the forgiveness we’ve received and it shapes the forgiveness that we should be prepared to offer anyone who sins against us.

The second thing is that forgiveness is a transaction.  It takes place between two parties.  One asks for forgiveness and the other grants forgiveness.  Again, we must think of God.  He doesn’t grant forgiveness of sins to those who don’t ask for it.  He stands ready to forgive, but he doesn’t actually forgive sins unless sinners ask through Jesus Christ.  That’s the pattern for us.  When Paul writes about forgiving as we have been forgiven, he assumes this truth.  When someone asks you for forgiveness, then you should forgive as you have been forgiven.  You should let the offense go, take it out of the way, promise never to bring it up again.  But there must be a transaction, there must be a conversation.  You can’t truly forgive someone who doesn’t ask for it.  Yes, just like our gracious God, you can and must stand ready to forgive.  United to Christ, you need to have a heart that wants to forgive.  But in Scripture, real forgiveness is always a transaction between two parties. 

That brings us to the third thing, which I’ll just mention briefly.  If there is a complaint, if there is some sin that has been committed against you, and it’s so weighty you can’t overlook it, then you have to pursue reconciliation – you must try and work it out.  As believers, we can’t just sit and stew in our anger and bitterness.  We have to go after the other person and try to get them to see their sin so that they’ll ask for forgiveness.  That’s Matthew 18. 

The purpose of all these virtues and so on here in verses 12 and 13 is to bring God’s people together in unity and harmony.  That’s clear from verses 14 and 15.  Unity and harmony is where this is all meant to lead.  Believers are called to put on love, the self-sacrificial love exemplified by Jesus:  the love that puts others first.  Using the image of clothing again, it’s as if all these other virtues have been put on, and then love gets put on over top of them and holds them all together in some way.  It brings them all to perfection -- it makes them all what they’re supposed to be.  None of these virtues can be practiced without love.

And last of all, Paul reminds us that we are called to live together in Christ in peace.  That’s the first part of verse 15.  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” he says.  You have peace through Christ and that’s something that not only has a vertical dimension.  It also has a horizontal dimension.  That peace not only speaks to your relationship with God, but also your relationship with other people, and specifically with other believers in the church.  We were called together in one body, together members of Christ.  There’s supposed to be peace in the body, not warfare.  The body should be united in loving harmony.  This is something we are to strive for and pray for.  It’s God’s will that believers in the church relate to one another as Christ relates to them.  That was true for the Colossians back in the days of Paul and it’s true for us today too, brothers and sisters.

At the end of verse 15, there is a slight shift in the train of thought in our text.  Paul says, “And be thankful.”  When he says this, he’s now shifting the attention upward.  Believers’ relationships with one another are not totally out of the picture.  What follows in verses 16 and 17 are still about living together in the church, but now it’s about living together and relating together to God.  When he says, “be thankful,” obviously that means, “Be thankful to God.”  Live in thankfulness before the God who has graciously saved you. 

Then in verse 16, the Holy Spirit speaks of letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.  “The Word of Christ” here means the Word about Christ – this is a reference to the gospel, to the good news of our salvation.  It’s God’s will that this message have a rich and full presence in our lives.  It’s God’s will that the gospel bless our lives with its encouragement and guidance. 

But how is the Word of Christ to dwell richly in us?  First of all, as we teach and admonish one another with the wisdom of God’s Word.  Teaching refers here to a positive type of instruction.  Admonishing refers to pointing out where changes need to be made.  Both take place with wisdom, and wisdom is found with the Word of God.  What you really need to notice here is that it says, “one another.”  Those two words here are crucial.  In the church, believers need to interact with one another over the Word of God.  That can take place in a few ways.  It can take place informally as we get together for coffee or what have you.  But there are also more structured and formal opportunities to do this – like when we have our group Bible studies together.  Whatever the form it takes, the Holy Spirit is telling us here that this is something we need in our lives.  We need “one another.”  There can’t be Lone Ranger Christians, those who say, “I don’t need others.”  No, God’s plan is for you to grow, and to grow in community, to grow with other believers, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.  That’s the will of God for you. 

But that’s not the only way that the Word of Christ dwells richly in us.  There’s also singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God.  Singing together is also a way to have the Word of Christ have a rich presence in our lives together as believers.  When Paul speaks this way in verse 16, we need to be careful.  The context here is not exclusively a worship service.  Our life together in the body certainly includes public worship, but it’s far more than that.  Paul is writing to the church at Colossae as they live together all the time, not just on Sundays.  There’s nothing to suggest that Paul has in mind only what takes place in public worship.  Our entire life together as Christian brothers and sisters is to be filled with singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God.  God wants us to be a singing people. 

What are believers going to be singing?  Verse 16 speaks of “psalms, hymns, and songs.”  Many interpreters view these terms as referring to three different types of compositions.  I’m not convinced.  In fact, for the longest time, many Reformed commentators held a different position.  If you can read Dutch, you might check the notes of the old Staten Bijbel on this.  The older interpretation noticed that the Greek words for psalms, hymns, and songs appeared in the titles of the Psalms in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.  So, one psalm might have a title which says that it’s a Psalm, for instance Psalm 3.  Another psalm has a title which says that it’s a hymn – for example, Psalm 55 (54 in the Septuagint).  Another psalm, for instance Psalm 91 (90 in the Septuagint) has a title which says that it’s a song.  So, with this understanding, when Paul speaks of “psalms, hymns, and songs,” he’s referring to the Psalter, to God’s covenant song book.   Singing the Psalter is a powerful way to have the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.  But someone might say, but what about the word “spiritual”?  It’s true that our translations connect that word with “songs,” “spiritual songs.”  However, grammatically speaking, that word can be taken as qualifying all three terms, “spiritual psalms, spiritual hymns, spiritual songs.”  That actually makes more sense:  because the Psalter contains songs that have their origins with the Holy Spirit, they are all inspired songs.  They are songs from the Spirit that all point us to Christ – so when we sing them, the Word of Christ dwells in us richly.  Does this mean that we can only sing Psalms?  No, that would be saying more than what the text says.  What the text is saying that we should never ignore the Psalms – singing these songs together is a very rich way for us to let the Word of Christ dwell in us.  We can and should do that in public worship, but also elsewhere – in our homes, at our Bible studies, when we have meetings, whenever and wherever.  We can and should worshipfully praise God and thank him with the Psalms anywhere!

Our text concludes with a blanket call for believers in verse 17.  We are to do everything, whether it’s with our words or our actions, we’re to do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.  In other words, we are to acknowledge Christ as Lord of all we do.  The thought here is essentially the same as what we find in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  If we are united to Christ, then he is the head, we are his members.  We follow his lead in everything.   And everything here means everything:  when it comes to our finances, our health, our entertainment, our education, our recreation, all of it is under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  He is Lord of all of it.  As redeemed believers, the Word calls us to acknowledge that and live accordingly.  We always follow where he brings us with his Word.  And, like Christ did in his life on earth, we live thankfully.  We always have an attitude of gratitude – giving credit where credit is due for every blessing that comes from above.  In our Catechism we connect sanctification with thankfulness and that’s done there because that’s what Scripture does.  Living a Christian life is a matter of gratitude to God for the gifts he’s bestowed on us.

Loved ones, nothing in our text is easy.  None of this comes naturally to me and it doesn’t to you either.  All of this is only possible when we have the Holy Spirit of Christ shaping our hearts and lives.  You see, he not only teaches us these things, but he’s also the one who makes these things reality.  You can strive all you want in your own power, but you’ll never make progress.  You’ll never get anywhere until you depend on his power.  Brothers and sisters, really everything here begins with prayer.  We need to pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to bring us into conformity with Christ our head.  And as we do that, we can be confident that there will be changes in our lives.  They will come slowly, but they will come surely.  We trust in God not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification.  And he who is faithful will do it.  Our Redeemer is faithful and true.  AMEN. 


LORD God in heaven, our Father,

Thank you for choosing us before the creation of the world.  Thank you for calling us, setting us apart and loving us.  It’s so encouraging for us to know that you have been our God before we were even aware of it.  Thank you too, for the redemption we have in Christ.  We thank you for his perfect life, for his compassion, kindness, mercy, long-suffering.  We thank you for his death on the cross, paying for all our failures in these things.  We are called to love, to put on love above all, but how often we fail.  Jesus, thank you for your redemption.  Thank you for your blood shed on the cross – what love we see there.  And thank you for your Holy Spirit living in us.  We pray that he would more and more conform us to your image.  Please let him shape us as we live together in the church.  Please give us greater measures of peace, unity, and harmony in our congregation.  Make us into more kind and loving and compassionate people, more forgiving people, more thankful people.    We need help in this process of sanctification, and we pray that you would give it through your Spirit.  Please help us too to acknowledge you in all our ways, to have you alone as Lord over every aspect of our lives.  We want this, and we earnestly pray for it.                                                                                   

* 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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