I don’t merely write – I can talk, too. Here is a sermon I gave recently.

What is the centre of our meeting: the offering; the music; the sermon? No. The foundation of the church is the word of God. So that should also be the focus of our meetings. So let’s read that word again. [Read the passage]

Now, let’s look back at what we’ve seen so far:

The date is about 60 AD. The place: Rome. Paul is probably in Rome under arrest and Epaphras who started the church at Colosse and who may have been converted through Paul’s ministry, has come to see him about a potential problem: people had come to the church teaching that faith in Christ was just the beginning: there was more to know about heaven, and to be truly holy, you needed to follow a regimen of disciplines and rituals designed to bring your body under control of your spirit. The danger of this teaching was that Christ would be denied His supremacy as Lord and His sufficiency as Saviour, although it seems from what Paul says that the false teaching hadn’t gotten very far yet.

So Paul wrote this letter – as well as the ones to Philemon and to the church at Ephesus – and sent Tychicus to Colossae to deliver it. He wants to encourage them to continue to stay faithful to the Gospel they heard from Epaphras.

He starts with his usual greeting, and tells the Colossians what he prays for them. The content of his prayers are also the correction to the false teaching and they use the same language: words like wisdom, and knowledge. Then Paul focuses explicitly on Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency, and he continues by telling them a little about himself and his ministry. If the Colossians were beginning to belittle Epaphras’ authority as a teacher or preacher, they would be more respectful of Paul’s authority, given directly to him by God, especially as Paul has several times stated his authority as a God-ordained messenger of the Gospel, so when he talks, they would listen.

This is where we arrive at today’s passage.

In verse 1 Paul says “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you” but he doesn’t say a lot in the letter about what exactly his struggles were. But when Tychicus brought the letter to the Colossians he would have told them about Paul, and how he was a prisoner in Rome because of the Gospel. The fact that Paul cares about them enough to have written a letter to them in the middle of his troubles would have impressed on the church at Colossae how important they were to Paul and create a sense of closeness between them, so they would be more likely to listen to what he says.

In verse two Paul’s writing seems convoluted. He appears to say that encouragement and unity will lead them to know Christ. But how can that be? Surely it’s the other way around: that knowing Christ will lead to the church being united and encouraged?

Firstly, the grammar indicates that they can be encouraged because they are unified. It’s always painful when there is argument and division in a family. Think of a sports team: they’re more likely to win if they are united and determined to reach the same goal, and everyone plays their part. It’s the same attitude in the sayings ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ and ex unitate vires, ‘strength from unity’. When the church is united, it helps to keep us faithful to our goal.

So the basis of encouragement is unity; but what is the basis of unity? Paul says it is love: this probably means the love of God for them shown by Christ; for Paul, the Gospel is the foundation for any action: we react to what God has already done. And because of God’s love for the Christians at Colossae, they love Him as well as one another – this is what brings about their unity.

Now, the word for ‘united’ can also mean ‘instructed’ or ‘taught’. Probably Paul intends both meanings, although unity seems to be what he’s mainly getting at, although the ‘instruction’ aspect of the word appears in the next clause – ‘the full riches of complete understanding’. In John 4:24 Jesus says that true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth. Similarly Paul here seems to say that their unity is based on love and truth – that is, the Gospel of Jesus that they learned from Epaphras.

And the Gospel is what Paul means by ‘full riches of complete understanding’. The word translated ‘complete’ means both complete and certain. They can be sure that what Epaphras has told them is true and trustworthy, and all knowledge that they need to reach the highest heavens is found in the Gospel.

Some knowledge is necessary to unity: no one can be united with anyone else if they disagree on essential beliefs. We all have friends or family who aren’t Christians. We may love them, but we don’t have the same unity with them that we do with each other. People of other religions may love one another and even those outside their faith, but we can’t be united with them if we disagree about who God is and how we are saved. Within the Anglican Communion itself there is problem of disunity – even here in Perth – because not everyone who calls themselves an Anglican holds to the essential beliefs that the Church of England is based on, and these people teach doctrines that the Bible says are wrong, such as that Jesus is not the only way to heaven. There was a recent conference in Africa (GAFCOM in Jerusalem [I think]) where representatives of the worldwide Anglican church called those people to return to the essential beliefs that the Church stands on. GAFCOM is seeking the unity of the Anglican communion, but if others continue to believe and teach doctrine contrary to what Anglicans believe, there may have to be a division. If this happens it will be painful but necessary, like cutting off a part of the body infected with gangrene – if it isn’t cut off, the gangrene will spread, infect the entire body and eventually destroy it.

So similarly this new teaching at Colossae would destroy the unity of the church there: it would create a division between those who held to Christ alone and those who believed that there were higher planes of spirituality that could be reached through rituals and knowledge that weren’t part of the Gospel. This second group would look down on the others who only had faith in Christ. Where there is no equality, it is difficult to be united.

So in verse two Paul seems to be saying that the church can be encouraged because they are united in the Gospel of Christ that Epaphras taught them and that Paul is in prison for.

Next, in verse three, Paul says that, with the unity of love and knowledge of the Gospel, the Colossians can know the mystery of God. In this context, a mystery isn’t something beyond human understanding, like the Trinity, but simply knowledge that was kept secret. This is like in The DaVinci Code, where the mystery of the Priory of Sion was the secret knowledge about what the Holy Grail truly was. But on the contrary neither Jesus, Paul nor any of the apostles taught anything in secret, so there was no hidden knowledge that the Colossians needed to gain an extra blessing. Paul says that the mystery of God is the Gospel: that God became human, died in our place and now live lives in and among them by His Spirit. This is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:

‘I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,”
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,’
declares the LORD.
‘For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.’

In the secular world there are lots of ways that claim to have knowledge that will help us live a better life. Astrology for example: if you were born under the star sign of Scorpio and the moon is in Venus during the vernal equinox, your astrologer might tell you to be careful about how you deal with conflict at work. So what’s special about that? The Bible gives us wisdom about relationships and how to treat others that we can use at any time. And why go to the stars and planets for advice when we can go directly to the Creator of those stars? Pagans or Wiccans may cast a spell to bring love or peace or wealth into their lives. Proponents of feng shui seek to do the same thing by arranging objects and in their homes and work spaces. The Bible tells us how to do this – by treasuring people, not things; by treating others as we want to be treated; to focus on God first.

Even if these other forms of knowledge aren’t actually anti-Christian, they may be the knowledge they offer can be found in the Word of God. Paul writes that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. Paul uses the mystery religions’ own words to point out the sufficiency of Jesus. Of course Paul isn’t saying that the Gospel will teach the finer points of geometry or particle physics; he’s saying that when Epaphras told them about Jesus, he told them all they needed to know about life and salvation.

But the new teaching in the church at Colossae was also saying that there was more knowledge that would get the Colossians closer to God, and this knowledge could be found somewhere else than the Cross of Jesus. What this really means is that God’s work wasn’t quite good enough: when Jesus lived a perfect life and died in our place, it didn’t do everything we needed. It’s saying that Christ isn’t supreme; that there are other things we need to do to reach the throne room of God.

This type of teaching is around today in groups like the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Both these organisations teach that the Cross wasn’t sufficient to get us to heaven: it gets us part of the way there, but we also have to be as good as we possibly can.

Said like that, we can spot the heresy easily; but people are taken in by it for several reasons: firstly, they don’t know what the Bible truly teaches about salvation and secondly, because what the Watchtower and Latter-day Saint groups teach sounds Christian, and they have plausible answers for common objections or questions about the Gospel. Some of them are part-truths, with just enough truth to mask the lie. This is why Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is supreme and sufficient for salvation: in verse four he says, ‘I tell you this so no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.’ If anyone tells us that salvation does not completely depend the person and work of Christ Jesus, they are wrong.

So because this new teaching at Colossae taught that there was something more to the spiritual life, these goals could be achieved through rituals – some of these were possibly some of the Jewish holidays or practices like fasting. Now disciplines can be helpful: we’re more likely to be stronger in our faith if we read the Bible, pray and meet with other Christians. These are the means God has given us to know Him better: and that is the goal Paul sets out for the Colossians – to know Christ. We could find a benefit through disciplines like fasting or giving. But when people start to feel superior to other Christians because of their religious activities, they become proud – and pride causes disunity.

The people teaching this new doctrine weren’t stupid or intending to take away from Christ’s glory: they were undoubtedly sincere in trying to know God as fully as they could. Their mistake – just like ours can be – was to try to find a key to the successful Christian life. The only key to the successful Christian life is faith in Christ Himself. That’s what Paul means by ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.’ That’s why Paul can say ‘just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him.’ We begin our Christian life through faith in Christ – and that’s how we continue. There isn’t anything we need to add: through faith we believe in Christ, and through faith we do what He commands. Our knowledge about God and the Bible may increase, but our relationship with God doesn’t depend on that, but on our trust in Him and what He has told us in His word.

There is a line between doing these things as discipline and as works that get us credit with God. This is the problem that the Pharisee and the tax collector had in Luke chapter 18. The Pharisee did all his religious duties and then some, and thought that he was better than the tax collector and deserved God’s blessing but the tax collector simply asked for God’s mercy. And it’s still the same today. We shouldn’t read the Bible or pray or go to church out of fear or to get more blessing from God but because we believe these activities are good for our spiritual health: they will strengthen us in the faith: they will make sure that all our hope is in Christ and no one else.

Paul mentions giving thanks. When we give thanks, we are acknowledging that we only received the gift because of the goodness of someone else, not ourselves. This reduces our pride. In the parable in Luke 18 the Pharisee thanked God that he was a good person because of the good things he did but he didn’t realise that his standing with God was dependent on God’s mercy. And that’s what he should have given thanks for.

So finally, what do we have? A new teaching that says that the Colossians needed more than Jesus to reach heaven. In the face of this, Paul has told them with authority that Christ is sufficient for their salvation because He is supreme over all creation. And He is all they need to know.