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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Colossians & Philemon
By John MacArthur
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1992 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
The Gospel Truth
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel, which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit. (1:1-8)
Scripture describes the gospel with several phrases. Acts 20:24 calls it "the gospel of the grace of God." Romans 1:9 designates it "the gospel of His Son," and 1 Corinthians 9:12 "the gospel of Christ." Romans 15:16 refers to it as "the gospel of God," 2 Corinthians 4:4 characterizes it as "the gospel of the glory of Christ," Ephesians 6:15 as "the gospel of peace," and Revelation 14:6 as the "eternal gospel."
The gospel is also described as the "word of truth" (Col. 1:5), or the "message of truth" (Eph. 1:13). Those descriptions have given rise to our common expression "the gospel truth." People use that phrase when they want to stress their sincerity, so that what they say will be believed.
Although people often use that expression flippantly, there is a real gospel truth. Gospel (v. 5) is the Greek word euangelion, from which we derive the English word evangelize. It literally means, "good news." It was used often in classical Greek to speak of the report of victory brought back from a battle. The gospel is the good news of Jesus' victory over Satan, sin, and death. It is also the good news that we, too, can triumph eternally over those enemies through Him.
First Corinthians 15:1-4 succinctly summarizes the historical content of the gospel: "Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ died to provide complete forgiveness of sins and rose again that those who believe might live forever.
Such glorious, thrilling truth compels Christians to respond in several basic ways, all of which are noted by descriptive phrases using gospel. First, we should proclaim the good news, following the example of Jesus (Matt. 4:23), the apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and believers of all ages.
Second, we are to defend its veracity. Paul described himself as one "appointed for the defense of the gospel" (Phil. 1:16). Peter told his readers to "make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15).
Third, we are to work hard for the advance of the gospel. Paul admonishes the Philippians to "[strive] together for the faith of the gospel" (Phil. 1:27). The gospel demands of us discipline and strenuous effort.
Fourth, we are to pursue the fellowship we share with others who have believed the gospel. Devotion to the fellowship of the gospel characterized the early church (Acts 2:42). Paul often expressed his gratitude for those who had received the gospel (cf. Phil. 1:3-5).
Fifth, we must be ready to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Paul exhorted Timothy, "Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me His prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:8).
Sixth, we are to make sure that our lives do not hinder the gospel. Paul told the Corinthians that he would waive his right to be paid for his ministry rather than cheapen the message of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:12).
Seventh, we must never be ashamed of the gospel. Paul said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16).
Finally, we are to realize the gospel carries with it divine empowerment. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:5). The power of the gospel does not come from our cleverness or persuasiveness, but from the Holy Spirit.
This wonderful gospel is the reason for Paul's thanksgiving expressed in Colossians 1:3-8. Rejoicing at the report of their faith brought to him by Epaphras, the founder of the church at Colossae, he characteristically expresses thanks that the Colossians heard the gospel, and that it bore fruit in their lives.
Following the salutation in verses 1 and 2, Paul's words in verses 3-8 suggest seven aspects of the gospel: it is received by faith, results in love, rests in hope, reaches the world, reproduces fruit, is rooted in grace, and is reported by people. Before considering those aspects, let's take a brief look at the familiar terms of Paul's opening greeting that we find in his other epistles.
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. (1:1-2)
Following the practice of correspondence in the ancient world, Paul begins the letter with his name. Paul was the most important and influential person in history since our Lord Jesus Christ. His personality was the remarkable combination of a brilliant mind, an indomitable will, and a tender heart. Of Jewish ancestry, a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5), he was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5). Paul was educated under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the leading rabbis of that time. He was also by birth a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28) and exposed to Greek culture in his home city of Tarsus. Such a background rendered him uniquely qualified to communicate the gospel in the Greco-Roman world. It was largely his efforts that transformed Christianity from a small Palestinian sect to a religion with adherents throughout the Roman Empire. The church would be blessed to have record of even one letter from such a man, let alone the thirteen found in the New Testament.
Lest anyone doubt his authority, Paul describes himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He is not simply a messenger, but an official representative of the One who sent him. What he writes in this letter is not merely his opinion, but God's authoritative Word.
Nor did he become an apostle through his own efforts. Neither was he nominated for the position by any human organization. Paul was an apostle by the will of God. God, having chosen him long before, brought His sovereign choice to realization with that most striking of conversions on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9). It climaxed in his being set apart for missionary service by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2).
Paul, as was his custom, mentions a colaborer who was with him when he wrote: Timothy our brother. (Timothy is also included in the introductions to 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon, being noted as the companion of Paul.) Such a reference does not indicate coauthorship of those epistles. Peter is certainly clear that the epistles bearing Paul's name were written by Paul (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
Paul had a unique and special confidence in and love for Timothy. Timothy had ministered to him for many years, ever since they first met on Paul's second missionary journey (Acts 19:22). Although Paul was now a prisoner, faithful Timothy was still with him. Perhaps no passage expresses Paul's feelings about his young friend more clearly than Philippians 2:19-22: "I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. But you know of his proven worth that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father."
Despite his many strengths, Timothy had a delicate constitution and was frequently sick (1 Tim. 5:23). He even had an experience in Ephesus when he was timid, hesitant, perhaps ashamed and disloyal to his gift and duty, and was in need of encouragement and strength (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5-14). Still, no one served Paul as faithfully in the spread of the gospel (Phil. 2:22). He was Paul's true child in the faith (1 Cor. 4:17). It was to Timothy that Paul wrote his final letter (2 Timothy) and passed the mantle of leadership (2 Tim. 4).
Paul addresses his readers as the saints and faithful brethren ... who are at Colossae. Saints and faithful brethren are not two distinct groups; the terms are equivalent. And[kai] could be translated, "even." Hagios, which translates saints, refers to separation, in this case being separated from sin and set apart to God. Faithful notes the very source of that separation—saving faith. Believing saints are the only true saints. Grace to you and peace was the greeting Paul used to open all thirteen of his letters. Inasmuch as God is the source of both, Paul says those two blessings derive from our great God and Father.
The Gospel Truth Is Received by Faith
We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus (1:3-4a)
Though he admires their true and continuing saving faith, which had separated them from sin to God, Paul certainly does not begin by flattering the Colossians. He gives thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul recognizes that God is the One who is owed thanks, because salvation in all its parts is a gift from Him (Eph. 2:8-9). Always should be considered in relation to the preceding phrase, we give thanks to God, not to praying ... for you. Paul was not always praying for the Colossians. Rather, whenever he was praying for them, he always expressed his thanks to God.
Paul is thankful to God for their faith in Christ Jesus. The Colossians are not like those who distort the gospel (Gal. 1:7), or do not obey it (1 Pet. 4:17). Such people will face the terrifying experience of seeing "the Lord Jesus ... revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:7-9). The Colossians are holy brothers in Christ, who have put faith in the Lord of the gospel.
Pistis(faith) means to be persuaded that something is true and to trust in it. Far more than mere intellectual assent, it involves obedience. Pistis comes from the root word peitho ("obey"). The concept of obedience is equated with belief throughout the New Testament (cf. John 3:36; Acts 6:7; Rom. 15:18; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 5:9; 1 Pet. 4:17). The Bible also speaks of the obedience of faith (Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
Biblical faith is not a "leap in the dark." It is based on fact and grounded in evidence. It is defined in Hebrews 11:1 as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Faith gives assurance and certainty about unseen realities.
I often have occasion to drive on roads I have never driven on before. I do not know what is around the next bend; the road could end at a cliff with a 500-foot drop. Nor do I know personally the people who built the road. However, I know enough about how highways are built to have confidence in the road. Likewise, I sometimes will eat at a restaurant I have never been to before. I trust the food is all right because I have confidence in the inspection and preparation procedures.
We trust that highways and restaurants are safe based on the evidence. And that is precisely the case with our faith in God. It is supported by convincing evidence, both from Scripture and from the testimony of those Christians who have gone before us.
Saving faith is carefully defined in Scripture and needs to be understood because there is a dead, non-saving faith that provides false security (James 2:14-26). True saving faith contains repentance and obedience as its elements.
Repentance is an initial element of saving faith, but it cannot be dismissed as simply another word for believing. The Greek word for "repentance" is metanoia, from meta, "after," and noeo, "to understand." Literally it means "afterthought" or "change of mind," but biblically its meaning does not stop there. As metanoia is used in the New Testament, it always speaks of a change of purpose, and specifically a turning from sin. More specifically, repentance calls for a repudiation of the old life and a turning to God for salvation (1 Thess. 1:9). The repentance in saving faith involves three elements: a turning to God, a turning from evil, and an intent to serve God. No change of mind can be called true repentance without all three. Repentance is not merely being ashamed or sorry over sin, although genuine repentance always involves an element of remorse. It is a redirection of the human will, a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead. And God has to grant it (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). In fact, God grants the whole of saving faith: "By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9, italics added; cf. Phil. 1:29).
Although it is true that "he who believes has eternal life" (John 6:47), Jesus also said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). God effectually calls sinners to Christ and grants them the capability to exercise saving faith (cf. Matt. 16:17).
The faith that God grants is permanent. In all who receive it, faith will endure. Such passages as Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Philippians 1:6, and Hebrews 10:38 teach that genuine saving faith can never vanish.
Like repentance, obedience is also encompassed within the bounds of saving faith. The faith that saves involves more than mere intellectual assent and emotional conviction. It also includes the resolution of the will to obey God's commands and laws.
Obedience is the hallmark of the true believer. "When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God" (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, [Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1966], 3:124). Such obedience will of necessity be incomplete, since the flesh ever rears its ugly head (cf. Rom. 7:14-25). If not the perfection of the believer's life, however, it most certainly will be the direction.
Faith, then, must never be severed from good works. Martin Luther summed up the biblical view of the link between saving faith and good works in these words: "Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works" (cited in Tim Dowley, ed., Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], p. 362).
Any definition of faith is also incomplete without a consideration of its object. In contrast to the contentless faith so prevalent in our culture, saving faith has as its object Christ Jesus. The relationship of faith to Jesus Christ is expressed in the New Testament by various Greek prepositions. Acts 16:31 uses the preposition epi, which suggests resting on a foundation. In Acts 20:21, eis is used, with the meaning of "to find a dwelling place in," "to go into," "to abide in," or "to find a home." Here in translates en and has the connotation of coming to a place of security and anchor. With Christ as its object, our faith is as secure as a house on a solid foundation, or a boat safely at anchor.
Charles Spurgeon illustrated the importance of faith's object by telling of two men in a boat. Caught in severe rapids, they were being swept toward a waterfall. Some men on shore tried to save them by throwing them a rope. One man caught hold of it and was pulled to safety on the shore. The other, in the panic of the moment, grabbed hold of a seemingly more substantial log that was floating by. That man was carried downstream, over the rapids, and was never seen again. Faith, represented by the rope linked to the shore, connects us to Jesus Christ and safety. Good works apart from true faith, represented in the story by the log, leads only to ruin.
Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Colossians & Philemon by John MacArthur. Copyright © 1992 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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