Now remember that Colossae was a Gentile city, and that the church had been planted there about ten years prior to this lettter by Epaphras. As a Gentile church, they were in a good position to hear about the mystery of Christ—hidden for long ages past, but now manifested in them.
“And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister . . .” (Col. 1:21-29).
Summary of the Text:
Before the gospel had been brought to them, the Colossians were dead in their sins. Paul says that they used to be alienated and enemies in their minds by their wicked works, but now they have been reconciled (v. 21). This reconciliation had been brought about through the death of Jesus so that they might be made holy in the sight of God (v. 22). This gospel is something they must continue in, Paul says. This is the gospel that was preached to them, and to everyone (v. 23). We are not saved by putting on a life jacket, but rather are saved by putting one on and keeping one on. This is the difference between the truncated “once saved always saved” and the Reformed understanding of the “preservation and perseverance of the saints.”
As a minister, Paul now fills up the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the body of Christ, which is the church (v. 24). He was made a minister of this gospel for the sake of the Colossians, in order to fulfill the word of God (v. 25). He is talking about the mystery which God had hidden for ages, but which He has now made manifest to the saints (v. 26). This mystery is Christ within the Gentiles, the hope of glory (v. 27). This is the Christ that Paul preaches, both warning and teaching, and with the goal of presenting every man complete in Christ (v. 28). That is the end toward which Paul labors, struggling to get out what God is working in (v. 29).
Alienated in their Minds:
A very consistent element in Paul’s anthropology is his awareness of what sin does in us, how it works in us. We tend to think that certain mental “mistakes” lead us down the wrong path, and that we then wind up in sin as a result. Note how Paul reverses this. They were enemies in their minds and they were alienated in their minds because of their wicked works (v. 21). Sin leads to intellectual futility, not the other way around. The heart drives the head.
In other words, our false and heretical opinions are not honestly come by. In addition, whenever the gospel of grace is diluted, altered, or rejected in the church, it is not long before the deep reason—the lusts of the heart—begin to come out into the light of day.
Filling Out the Sufferings:
Paul says that he completes the sufferings of Christ in his body, and we have to spend just a moment here lest anyone think that the sufferings of Christ for redemption were in any way inadequate or in need of being completed. The word of Christ on the cross—it is finished—was a definitive word. So when Paul says this (v. 24), he immediately adds that he was made a minister. Paul was made a minister of the Word, which means that he fulfills the sufferings of Christ’s body that were related to the proclamation of it—and not that which was related to the laying of the foundation for it. Christ died, once for all, and that cannot be supplemented.
But the message of that death can and must be supplemented, and there are countless sufferings connected with those countless preachers. This is the suffering of Christ’s body, but in a different sense. Remember that the Lord Jesus, who had completed His redemptive suffering, asked this same Paul on the Damascus road why he was persecuting Him (Acts 22:7). So from the martyr Stephan, to the arrest of Wang Yi, pastor of the Early Rain Church in China, to the very last martyr who will suffer before the Lord comes again, the body of Christ suffers to proclaim what the Lord’s body suffered to establish.
What Is a Mystery?
We tend to think of a mystery as something that is hidden, period. But in Paul’s vocabulary, a mystery was something that was bound up for ages and generations, but which was eventually revealed and manifested to all. And of course, if we limit ourselves to the New Testament, it will eventually become strange to refer to this as a mystery at all. After all, it is an open reality throughout the New Testament. But if we are steeped in the Old Testament, if we remember that the Jews were our elder brothers in the faith, then the fresh and potent nature of this revealed mystery will remain with us. Paul works through this same glorious truth in the second chapter of Ephesians. If you only read the New Testament, it will just be a matter of time before you don’t understand the New Testament.
The Hope of Glory:
So what is the content of this mystery? The content of this mystery is summed up in the phrase the riches of the glory, and then it is amplified by the phrase Christ in you, the hope of glory. This content, the message that Christ would be revealed and manifested in the Gentiles as the hope of glory, is a message that Paul says was hidden. But where was it hidden? The answer is plain that it was hidden throughout all the Old Testament. Now that Christ has risen from the dead, and has given His Spirit to saints all over the world, it is fairly easy now to trace that unfolding mystery as we read the Scriptures. Sure, now that we see it we cannot stop seeing it. But we also must not stop seeing it.
And don’t forget—missions are central—that we have a lot of Gentiles yet to go.
Working Out What God Works In:
Now Paul says something here which is really similar to the principle he sets out in Philippians. “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13).
And how does he express that same truth here? He says that he labors, in line with God’s working or energy, which works in him with power. A man or a woman who labors in the church, doing plenty of good stuff, is going to burn out unless it is an outworking of God’s prior in-working. Receive what God works in by faith. And by that same faith, work into the world what God worked into you.
And faith works through love (Gal. 5:6). If you give away everything to the poor, but have no love, it is nothing. If you give your body to be burned, and there is no love in it, it is nothing.