A Radical Change in Relationships

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. Ephesians 6:5-9 ESV

Paul continues to discuss the practical implications of walking as children of light, in love and in submission to one another. But in doing so, he brings up a relationship that is particularly difficult for 21st-Century believers to understand. He has already addressed the relationship between believing husbands and their wives, and he has covered God’s will concerning children and their parents. But now he takes on the the rather awkward topic of slaves and their masters. But in keeping with the rest of his letter, he is still focusing his attention on believers. So, in this case he is addressing slaves who have come to faith in Christ but still find themselves in the same hopeless position they had been in before their conversion.

Based on this passage, there are those who have accused Paul of being a proponent of the institution of slavery, because he refuses to speak out against it. But Paul, like Jesus Himself, was not out to revolutionize the civil or cultural institutions of his day. Nor was he out to bring about social upheaval. He was interested in redeeming the lives of all those who made up the the variegated fabric of society. So, while it’s true that Paul did not condemn the socially accepted practice of slavery in his day, it doesn’t mean he was in favor of it. In fact, in his letter to Philemon, he makes an appeal to his brother in Christ regarding one of his slaves, a man called Onesimus. Evidently, Onesimus had run away from Philemon and had somehow ended up meeting Paul in Rome. Under the apostle’s influence, Onesimus became a follower of Christ.

He ended up ministering to Paul while he was under house arrest. Eventually, Paul encouraged Onesimus to do the right thing and return to his master. Slavery was legal in Paul’s day and Onesimus was obligated to return to Philemon or face severe punishment. But Paul sent his letter to Philemon explaining the change that had taken place in the life of Onesimus and to ask Philemon to see his former slave as a brother in Christ.

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

This is exactly the kind of context Paul is addressing in his letter to the Ephesians. Slavery was a socially-accepted and legally-sanctioned part of the culture of the day. And yet Paul was calling those slaves and masters who had come to faith in Christ to radically change their perspective regarding their relationship and the institution that determined dictated it. The interesting thing is that slaves, who were viewed as property and sub-human in many ways, were coming to faith in Christ. Not only that, they were becoming members of the local churches. It was not uncommon for a 1st-Century church to have slaves and their masters as part of its congregation. And within the context of the church, there was a unity and equality that was unheard of anywhere else in the culture of that day.

This is why Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28 NLT).

In the context of the body of Christ, everyone was on an equal footing. But while coming to faith in Christ had set Onesimus free from sin, it had not freed him from slavery. In fact, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and told them, “Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:20-22 NLT).

Paul’s primary concern was the behavior of believers. He was focused on their walk – the daily living out of their faith within the context of their existing social relationships. This is reflected in what he wrote to the church in Ephesus.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. – Ephesians 6:5 NLT

We see once again, that their motivation was to be Christ-centered, as if they were serving Christ. Jesus had became a slave on their behalf, even dying in their place so that they might be freed from slavery to sin. Now He was calling them to serve their earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Rather than forced subservience, Paul was calling them to willing submission. Paul gives them some very specific instruction about how their faith should manifest itself in their relationship with their masters.

Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. – Ephesians 6:6-7 NLT

Notice that Paul encourages them to do the will of God with all their heart. What would the will of God be in their particular situation? To walk as children of light. To walk in love. To walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Yes, even within their context as slaves because, in reality, they were slaves of Christ. Their earthly situation was temporary. So, they could work with enthusiasm, performing their earthly responsibilities as if they were doing it for the Lord, knowing that “the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free” (Ephesians 6:8 NLT).

But Paul is not done. He also addresses those individuals in the churches in Ephesus who happened to be masters. He tells them, “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Don’t threaten them; remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites” (Ephesians 6:9 NLT).

Their faith in Christ was to have a relationship-altering impact on their lives. Their slaves were now their brothers. And everything they did was to be done as to the Lord. This was a game-changing, life-altering moment in the lives of these individuals. Can you imagine what kinds of renewing of the mind and shifting of their paradigm was taking place as they wrestled with their new-found faith in Christ and its impact on the social construct in which they found themselves? This particular relationship between slaves and masters would put the daily application of faith in Christ to the test like no other. 

Jesus did not come to revolutionize the structures of society, but He came to dramatically transform the lives of the people who make up that society. He did not come to radically alter institutions, but to redeem individuals. Political change or legal sanctions do nothing to remedy the condition of the heart. Overthrowing the evil social structures of a society through rebellion or civil disobedience may bring about external change, but it will never fix the problem of sin. Believers living as children of light in the midst of darkness, loving unconditionally, submitting to one another willingly, and obeying Christ joyfully are the true change-agents in the world.

As modern-day Christians, we find Paul’s discussion of slavery to be distasteful and outdated. After all, we live in a nation that outlawed slavery a long time ago. But in Paul’s day it was alive and well. And becoming a believer did not set slaves free from slavery. It didn’t change their circumstances, but it did radically alter the way they were to live their lives. Because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, slaves were expected to do their jobs differently. They were expected to relate to their masters differently. They were to obey with “deep respect and fear.” And they were to do it as they would serve Christ. Their subservience was now to become willing submission, performed for the Lord, not for their earthly masters. Their work ethic was to be motivated by their love for the Lord. They were still slaves, but they were slaves who had been changed by Christ and had a new capacity to love – even within the context of their slavery. And those masters who happened to be believers, were to treat their slaves with dignity and respect, knowing that they would one day be held accountable by God for their actions.

Paul makes a significant statement regarding God’s view of slaves and masters. He says, “remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites” (Ephesians 6:9 NLT). God doesn’t see as man sees. While He has ordained there to be order, structure, and degrees of authority in the world, He sees all men as equals. He views husbands and wives as equals. He regards parents and children as equals. And He sees slaves and masters in the same way. The key issue is how His Spirit can radically change each of the individuals in those relationships and give them a new capacity to interact and interrelate so that He is honored.

Spirit-filled, Spirit-controlled believers bring a whole new meaning to their earthly relationships. They view their roles and responsibilities differently. They see their positions as opportunities to serve others and honor God. They do their work as unto the Lord. They serve others as they would serve Christ. They submit to others as they would submit to Him. They love as He would love. They obey as if He were the one giving the command. Living under the influence of the Spirit is a life-changing, relationship-altering experience.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Power to Spare

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Ephesians 1:15-23 ESV

After having summed up all the blessings that come by God’s grace through the gift of His Son and guaranteed by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, Paul expresses his profound joy for the faith of the Ephesian believers. They have been blessed by God and Jesus Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV). They have been chosen by God and predestined for adoption as His children. They have been redeemed, forgiven, and have obtained an eternal inheritance as sons and daughters of God. And they had received the Holy Spirit as a seal and a guarantee of that inheritance, all because they had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed” (Ephesians 1:13 ESV).

With all that in mind, Paul tells the Ephesians how grateful he is for the faith and love they display because it gives evidence of their salvation. Their lives provide ample proof that they have been set apart by God, but Paul declares that he constantly prays that God will give them spiritual wisdom and insight so that they might continue to increase in their knowledge of God. Paul’s persistent prayer for them was for a growing understanding of who God was and all that He was doing in their lives. God had revealed Himself to them through His Son but there was so much more they needed to know. Even their knowledge of Christ was limited and in need of constant development.

Paul knew that their rudimentary knowledge of God and His Son had been sufficient for them to understand the nature of salvation. But there was so much more they needed to know if they were going to fully appreciate and appropriate their access into God’s presence. There was a natural and necessary progression that needed to take place in their relationship with God. And Paul continually prayed for God to do what only He could do: Make Himself known and knowable.

“To know God personally is salvation (John 17:3). To know Him increasingly is sanctification (Philippians 3:10). To know Him perfectly is glorification (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).” – Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary

Paul’s request entailed far more than mere mental assent. He was not interested in head knowledge, an academic understanding of God, and His attributes. No, Paul was praying for an intimate and intensely personal knowledge of God that would result in greater faith and an ever-increasing willingness to obey His will. Those who fail to get to know God well will always have difficulty trusting and relying upon Him. Their perceptions of Him will remain one-dimensional and prone to misunderstanding and susceptible to misrepresentation. Those who hold a shallow understanding of God will tend to have a faith that lacks depth and breadth.

Paul’s prayer included three specific requests. First, he asked that God would help them grasp the significance of the hope to which they had been chosen. God had elected them for a purpose and He had great things in store for them. And while their redemption and forgiveness of sins were remarkable gifts from God, there were far greater blessings awaiting them. This life was not all there was. Their current state would not be their final state. For Paul, the good news concerning Christ always included the initial gift of salvation but also the reality of the believer’s ongoing sanctification, and the hope of future glorification. Those who have been saved are in the constant state of being saved until God completes the process with the final act of their salvation – their glorification.

Secondly, Paul constantly prayed that they would understand their status as God’s inheritance. Not only would they inherit all the blessings God had in store for them, but they would one day be received by God as His inheritance. They belonged to God because He had purchased them with the blood of His Son. And yet, as long as they lived on this earth, they were physically separated from their adoptive Father. But Paul wanted them to know that the day was coming when they would be ushered into the very throne room of God and greeted with open arms by their Heavenly Father. The apostle John describes this marvelous scene in the book of Revelation.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 3:3-4 NLT

Third, Paul prays that they will come to “understand the incredible greatness of God’s power” (Ephesians 1:19 NLT) available to all those who have placed their faith in His Son. Once again, salvation from sins is a marvelous gift from God, but He has so much more He wants to do for His children. He has provided them with access to the full scope of His power and might through the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit. This was the “power from on high” that Jesus promised to give His followers (Luke 24:49).

In a sense, Paul is emphasizing the divine enablement available to all believers through the gift of the Holy Spirit. God has saved us from our past – delivering us from condemnation and death. He has guaranteed us our future – promising us the hope of eternal life. But He has also provided us with the power to preserve us for the present.

“By making us His inheritance, God has shown His love. By promising us a wonderful future, He has encouraged our hope. Paul offered something to challenge our faith: ‘the exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward who believe’ (Ephesians 1:19).” – Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary

The Ephesian believers had already experienced the love of God, as expressed through the gracious gift of His Son. And they had hope for the future because of the unwavering promises of God. But as they lived their lives in the present, Paul knew that they would need to avail themselves of the power of God so that their faith in God would continue to increase. Paul understood that faith, hope, and love were each essential to the Christian faith. That is why he wrote to the believers in Corinth, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).

He prefaced this statement with an entire chapter on the preeminence of love. Spiritual gifts practiced without love were meaningless. Power displayed without love was potentially harmful, and not helpful. Knowledge of the secret things of God may be impressive but it would prove worthless without love. Faith that could move mountains but was unmoved by love for others was of no value. And then he added, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT).

The day will come when the believer’s knowledge of God will be complete and perfected. But in the meantime, Paul desired that every child of God would grow in their knowledge and understanding of God and His ways. Paul wanted them to avail themselves of God’s power so that they might grow in their knowledge of His goodness and greatness. The very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead was present in each of the Ephesian believers in the form of the Holy Spirit. They possessed all the power they needed to live the Christian life. That is exactly what Peter meant when he wrote, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

And Paul reminds the Ephesians that when Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God’s Spirit, He returned to His Father’s side in heaven. And, as a result of His resurrection and ascension, Jesus enjoyed unprecedented authority, “far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come” (Ephesians 1:21 NLT). And the power that Jesus wields is for the benefit of the church, His body.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to understand that the power of God, delegated to His Son, was available to them through the indwelling presence of the Spirit. And the place where that power was to be on constant display was right here on the earth. The resurrection power of the Spirit of God was at their constant disposal. And every time the church avails itself of that power, the resurrection of Christ is visualized and God is glorified.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Trifecta of Blessing

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV

After a brief salutation, Paul begins his letter with a virtual flood of carefully crafted words designed to express his deep admiration and appreciation for the saving work of God the Father as expressed through the sacrificial life of the Son and empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Greek, these 12 verses form one long but eloquently worded run-on sentence. It’s as if Paul were speaking the words, and in his excitement, the thoughts in his mind literally explode from his lips without leaving him time to catch his breath.

He is a man possessed by and obsessed with the incredible nature of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. Unable to contain his enthusiasm for all that God has done, Paul explodes in a flood of praise and worship for each member of the Godhead, outlining the vital role that each played. This punctuation-free praise song to the Trinity is designed to instill in the Ephesian believers a deep and abiding awareness of the divine nature of their salvation. They had been chosen, predestined, and adopted by God the Father. They had been redeemed out of slavery to sin by the precious and priceless blood of Jesus Christ. And they had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God as a sign of their new identity as God’s children and as a proof of the promises to come.

For Paul, it all begins with God the Father, who made the determination to send His Son as the solution to mankind’s sin problem. And, according to Paul, God came up with that plan “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). In other words, long before God made the universe or fashioned Adam out of the dust of the ground, He had come up with the plan to send His Son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of a not-yet-existent humanity.

God had not been caught off guard by Adam and Eve’s rebellion. He had actually made provision for their fall and had a predetermined plan already in place long before they made the fateful determination to disobey His command. And Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that they had been blessed by God in Christ. Jesus was the sole means by which God had chosen to redeem fallen mankind. Together, the Father and His Son made possible the reconciliation of a guilty and justly condemned humanity – and that included the believers in Ephesus. They had been blessed by God in or through Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV).

Paul emphasizes spiritual blessings in order to accentuate the eternal nature of the gift the Ephesians had received. God had not sent His son to die so that men and women might have their best life now. The sacrificial death of Jesus was not meant to pave the way to an earthly life marked by health, wealth, and prosperity. His precious blood was spilled so that a spiritual transformation might take place, turning former sinners into sons and daughters of God, holy and blameless in His sight. All “according to the purpose of his will” and “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6 ESV). This radical transformation of sinners into saints had been God’s idea and had only been possible as a result of His grace or unmerited favor. No one deserved to be saved. No one had earned the right to be redeemed.

Paul stresses that God “lavished” His grace on mankind. The Greek word, perisseuō, conveys the idea of a superabundance of grace. God poured out His grace in such a way that it overflowed and exceeded all expectations and requirements. It was, as Jesus told Paul, an all-sufficient grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul knew that the Ephesian believers were grateful for the forgiveness of sins that came with their faith in Christ, but he wanted them to understand that was just the tip of the iceberg. Paul doesn’t underestimate the value of forgiveness but stresses that God was “so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins” (Ephesians 1:7 NLT). But God’s grace didn’t stop there. He also showered His children with “wisdom and understanding” (Ephesians 1:8 NLT), so that they might know “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9 ESV). And by disclosing this previously undisclosed mystery, God revealed His “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10 ESV).

In other words, God’s plan of salvation includes far more than forgiveness of sins. As great as that may be, it pales in comparison to the future God has in store for His children. Forgiveness of sins does not eradicate the presence of sin in the life of a believer. Life on this earth will always be marred by the persistent presence of sin. Believers are no longer slaves to sin but they are not free from its influence. Paul described his own experience with sin in his letter to the Romans.

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. – Romans 7:18-20 NLT

And that’s why Paul places so much emphasis on the inheritance that awaits the believer.

…because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan. – Ephesians 1:11 NLT

It is the promise of this future inheritance that should motivate the believer in this life. It is the assurance of coming glorification that should encourage a life of faithfulness as we wait for God to fulfill the final phase of His grand redemptive plan. That is why Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to focus their attention on the hope to come.

We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:2-5 NLT

In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul reiterates the role of the Holy Spirit as the downpayment or guarantee of their future glorification.

The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. – Ephesians 1:14 NLT

And the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike. The body of Christ was made up of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. It was just as Paul had told the Christians living in Galatia.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:26-29 NLT

While God had set apart the Jews as His chosen people and had ordained that His Son be born of the seed of Abraham, He had always planned for His gracious gift of redemption to be for all mankind. The Jews were a means to an end. They had been blessed by God so that they might be a blessing to the world. And God had accomplished that blessing through the gift of His Son and guaranteed the eternal nature of its consequences through the gift of His Spirit.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Man on a Mission

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:1-2 ESV

Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is the second of four letters he wrote while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before the emperor. The four letters include Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. The first three were written to particular congregations located within those cities. The fourth letter was personal in nature, written by Paul to a man named Philemon, who was a member of the church in Colossae. The purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon was to inform him that his runaway slave, Onesimus, had somehow made it to Rome, where Paul had led him to place his faith in Christ. Paul had convinced Onesimus to return home and make amends with his master. But in his letter, Paul begged Philemon to accept Onesimus with open and loving arms.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

Each of the four letters was written sometime between 60-62 AD, while Paul was confined to his home in the Roman capital. Unable to continue his missionary journeys, Paul used his time to interface to teach, preach, and write. He seems to have had many visitors, including Luke, Onesimus, Timothy, Aristarchus, Epaphras, Jesus Justus, Demas, and John Mark.

Luke accompanied Paul to Rome and records in the book of Acts the details concerning their arrival.

When we arrived in Rome, Paul was permitted to have his own private lodging, though he was guarded by a soldier. – Acts 28:16 NLT

News of Paul’s trip to Rome had preceded him, and he was greeted by a contingent of fellow Christians upon his arrival.

The brothers and sisters in Rome had heard we were coming, and they came to meet us at the Forum on the Appian Way. Others joined us at The Three Taverns. When Paul saw them, he was encouraged and thanked God. – Acts 28:15 NLT

Just three days after his arrival, Paul invited members of the local Jewish community to visit him at his rented home. He was anxious that they know the reason for his arrest and confinement but, more importantly, that they hear the good news concerning Jesus Christ.

“I asked you to come here today so we could get acquainted and so I could explain to you that I am bound with this chain because I believe that the hope of Israel—the Messiah—has already come.” – Acts 28:20 NLT

This initial meeting led to a later gathering that was attended by a much larger number of Jewish exiles to Rome.

…a time was set, and on that day a large number of people came to Paul’s lodging. He explained and testified about the Kingdom of God and tried to persuade them about Jesus from the Scriptures. Using the law of Moses and the books of the prophets, he spoke to them from morning until evening.  Some were persuaded by the things he said, but others did not believe. – Acts 28:23-24 NLT

And while Paul’s evangelistic efforts among the Jews met with limited success, it did not dampen his enthusiasm or diminish his desire to spread the good news concerning Christ.

For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him. – Acts 28:30-31 NLT

This background is essential for understanding the nature of the letters Paul wrote while imprisoned in Rome. The documents themselves reveal a great deal about Paul’s missionary zeal and determination to help the fledgling congregations to whom he wrote reconcile their newfound faith in Christ with the less-than-ideal circumstances in which they lived. Paul could relate to their predicament. He knew what it was like to live in hostile conditions, and yet he never lost sight of his desire to accomplish the mission for which Christ had called him. In his letter to the church in Philippi, he expressed his confidence that his imprisonment in Rome was all part of the sovereign will of God.

And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear.– Philippians 1:12-14 NLT

Paul was a firm believer in the will of God. In fact, he opens his letter to the church in Ephesus by identifying himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1 ESV). This was not a role he had chosen for himself. He had been sovereignly ordained and commissioned by Jesus Christ Himself. At one point in his life, Paul had been a faithful member of the Pharisees, a religious sect of the Jews. And he had been charged by the high priest with the responsibility of persecuting all those who were members of “the Way,” the derogatory name given to those who followed the teachings of the dead Rabbi, Jesus. In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul’s description of his former occupation, before coming to faith in Christ.

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.” – Acts 22:3-5 NLT

But Paul never made it to Damascus. Instead, he found himself confronted by the “dead” Rabbi whose name and memory he had so desperately tried to eradicate. Paul’s encounter with Jesus left him blind and confused, but he was directed to meet with a godly believer named Ananias, who told him, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:14-16 NLT).

After having his sight restored, Paul was baptized and returned to Jerusalem, where he had a second encounter with Jesus, who told him, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!” (Acts 22:21 NLT). And Paul had spent the rest of his life obeying that commission, taking the gospel throughout the known world and helping to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people of every tribe, nation, and tongue.

Now, years later, Paul found himself confined to rented quarters in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. But his missionary zeal remained unabated and his dedication to his original commission was undeterred. He was committed to running the race well. He wanted to complete the mission given to him by Christ. And he was not about to let imprisonment deter or distract him from his God-appointed objective. Years later, while imprisoned in Rome a second time, Paul would write to his young protégé, Timothy:

Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you.

As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. – 2 Timothy 4:5-8 NLT

That unwavering commitment to the cause of Christ permeates all of Paul’s letters, including the one he wrote to the believers in Ephesus. In the salutation of his letter, Paul refers to them as “saints” or holy ones. He wanted them to understand their identity as those who had been set apart or consecrated by God. They were no longer citizens of Ephesus, but they were now members of the household of God and could count themselves as citizens of a new kingdom whose ruler was Jesus Christ the Lord.

As Paul begins his letter, he does so with a wish that the Ephesian believers will experience the grace and peace that are rightfully theirs because of God’s loving sacrifice of His Son. For Paul, grace (charis) was the undeserved expression of God’s favor that allowed them to partake in the blessing of salvation provided for them through faith in Jesus Christ. God had shown them grace, His unmerited favor, by opening their eyes to the reality of Jesus’ atoning work on their behalf. And because they had believed in the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, they now enjoyed peace with God the Father. They had been reconciled and restored to a right relationship with God because of their faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.

And Paul will spend the rest of his letter expounding on the incredible nature of their new relationship with God and the influence it should have on their everyday lives.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Addition By Subtraction

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-17ESV

In verse 5, Paul tells the Colossians to put to death (nekroō) give things: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness. Now, in verse 12, he tells them to put on (endyō) five things: compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. The first list was meant to represent the traits that characterized their old natures, prior to their salvation. It was not intended to be an exhaustive list and Paul was not suggesting that each of the Colossian believers had been guilty of all of these vices. He was simply pointing out the kinds of immoral behaviors that characterized their lives before coming to faith in Christ.

The first list seems to focus on sins that are particularly self-centered and focused on satisfying sexual passions or ungodly desires.

Sexual immorality (porneia) is a rather broad term that can refer to illicit sexual intercourse but was also used to cover such things as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, and intercourse with animals

Impurity (akatharsia) refers to uncleanness in any form, but in a moral sense: the impurity of lustful, luxurious, and profligate living.

Passion (pathos) was a word the Greeks used that had both positive and negative characteristics. But its presence on this list suggests that Paul is referring to depraved or vile passions.

Evil desire (epithymian kaken) is a craving for that which is forbidden. It is a legitimate longing that chooses an illegitimate object as its focus.

Greed (pleonexian) is the desire to acquire more by fraudulent means. It is a form of dissatisfaction that constantly craves more, even at the expense of others.

Not only are these traits earthly and immoral, but they are also self-centered and completely devoid of concern for others. They represent a blatant disregard for God and others and fly in the face of the greatest commandment as described by Jesus.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:37-39 ESV

Paul’s first list describes the me-focused state of fallen humanity. All those who have not experienced a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ are incapable of loving God and others because their sinful natures are driven by an uncontrollable and insatiable love of self. But even followers of Christ must recognize that the sinful characteristics that marked their pre-salvation state have not all been eradicated. The old sin nature remains and must be dealt with decisively and repeatedly.

“The Christian must kill self-centeredness; he must regard as dead all private desires and ambitions. There must be in his life a radical transformation of the will, and a radical shift of the centre. Everything which would keep him from fully obeying God and fully surrendering to Christ must be surgically excised.” – William Barclay, The Letter to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians. Daily Study Bible series

But there is more to the process than simply removing past bad habits. In a sense, Paul is telling the Colossians, “out with the old, in with the new.” They must replace the traits that characterized their former lives with healthy and godly alternatives. And Paul provides them with a list of five non-optional qualities that should mark their lives as God’s chosen people.

compassionate hearts (splagchnon oiktirmos) can be literally translated, “bowels of mercy.” In the ancient world, compassion was associated with the bowels but in our modern context, we associate that characteristic with the heart. It expresses a deep concern and care for those who are suffering.

kindness (chrēstotēs) is a form of moral goodness that expresses itself in acts of selfless sacrifice on behalf of others.

humility (tapeinophrosynē) refers to a humbleness of mind. It is to hold a humble opinion of oneself. Paul expressed it this way: “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 ESV).

meekness (praotēs) is another relational word that conveys the idea of gentleness toward others. It is the opposite of arrogance or self-assertiveness.

patience (makrothymia) is “slowness in avenging wrongs.” It refers to one who willingly endures injustice and ill-treatment for the sake of others.

All of these traits are other-focused. They are relational in nature and intended to put the needs of others first. And Paul provided concrete examples of what these godly characteristics should look like in everyday life.

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13 NLT

Notice his emphasis on others. The Christian life is not intended to be a solo sport, but a team activity where brothers and sisters in Christ are expected to operate in a spirit of unity and cooperation so that, together, they reflect His goodness and glory. Paul was writing to a diverse congregation made up of Gentiles and Jews, the rich and the poor, slaves and freemen. But they were all one in Christ. And, as Paul told the congregation in Ephesus, their ability to achieve unity even in the face of diversity was a reflection of God’s work among them.

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. – Ephesians 2:19-21 NLT

And for Paul, the greatest proof of the Colossians’ Spirit-empowered transformation would be their love for one another. Rather than reverting back to their former self-centered and selfish lives, they were to love as they had been loved (1 John 4:19). God had sent His Son as a tangible expression of His love for them, and He ordained that His Son would sacrifice His life on a cross in their place. And that selfless act of love was to be emulated and passed on from one believer to another.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. – Colossians 3:14 NLT

Love would be the glue that bound the body of Christ together. But it would have to be a selfless, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love that expected nothing in return. Jesus had clarified to His disciples the kind of love He expected them to have for one another.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35 ESV

And Paul is passing on that command to his flock on Colossae. Their lives were to be marked by love. But not only that, they were to be a people characterized by peace.

let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. – Colossians 3:15 NLT

The Colossian believers were surrounded by a constant state of turmoil that was producing in them a sense of anxiety. False teachers were causing them to question their faith. Daily battles with old habits were tempting them to question their salvation. Infighting and disunity marked their fellowship. But Paul called them to live in peace – a particular kind of peace – that came from Christ Himself. And Paul must have had in mind the words that Jesus spoke to His disciples not long before His death.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” – John 14:27 ESV

This promise was made in conjunction with His promise to send the Holy Spirit. One of the primary functions of the Spirit of God would be to bring peace to the hearts of Christ’s followers upon His departure. The Spirit’s presence within them would provide a sense of continuity and calm assurance that they had not been abandoned. Christ was still with them in the form of the Holy Spirit.

And Paul wants the Colossians to know that the Spirit was an ever-present reality in their lives that was intended to be the source of their peace and tranquility, even in the midst of turmoil and distress. And they were to be constantly thankful for the peace-producing presence of the Spirit of God. Not only that, they were to keep their hearts and minds focused on the truth regarding Jesus Christ.

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. – Colossians 3:16 NLT

That message needed no additions or addendums. The good news regarding Jesus required no “new” editions or updates. They were to teach it, sing about it, rest confidently on it, and constantly express their thanks to God thanks for it.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Live Like Who You Are

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.  Colossians 3:5-11 ESV

How were the believers in Colossae supposed to set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth? Was Paul suggesting that they be so heavenly-minded that they were no earthly good? Paul has just challenged them to adopt a Christ-focused perspective that highlights the eternal aspect of their relationship with Him. Christ is seated at the right hand of His Father in heaven, and one day He will return. His presence at His Father’s side demonstrates that He successfully completed His initial earthly mission. The apostle Peter spoke of Jesus’ exaltation when he addressed the crowds at Pentecost.

“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this. Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us…” – Acts 2:32-33 NLT

Jesus’ death was efficacious or effective. It accomplished the will of His heavenly Father and requires no supplemental aids or add-ons to increase its efficacy. And Paul assured the believers in Rome that, because Jesus died and rose again, they would enjoy eternal life with Him.

We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:9-11 NLT

Paul picks up the same them with the believers in Colossae. He wants them to live according to their new status as spiritually transformed and adopted children of God. Jesus didn’t die so that they might have their best life now but so that they might enjoy glorified life forever. But Paul knew that this future-focused mindset was difficult to maintain while living in the present. That’s why he provides them with some practical guidance for navigating life in a fallen world. He is expanding the theme he began back in chapter two.

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith – Colossians 2:6-7 ESV

For Paul, it was always about faith. He firmly believed and persistently taught that faith was the means by which we are saved and sanctified. And Jesus Christ is to be the sole focus of that faith. It is through Christ that we have access to the Father. It is because of Christ that we have the assurance of eternal life. It is thanks to Christ that we have the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. And look closely at what Paul told the Roman believers: “consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NLT).

Their union with Christ equipped them with unprecedented power to live godly lives – even in the ungodly environment of Rome. And the same thing was true for the Colossian Christians. Paul has already told them, “You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world…” (Colossians 2:20 NLT).

Paul was constantly admonishing believers for their tendency to regress in their faith. They seemed to have no problem believing that Jesus could save them but they had difficulty trusting that He could keep them saved. So, they kept reverting to their old lifestyles based on human effort and self-righteousness.

So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? – Galatians 4:9 NLT

Paul was calling for complete separation from and dependence upon the things of this world. If Jesus was to be the believer’s sole source of salvation and sustenance, why were they continually turning to the world for satisfaction, fulfillment, significance, and hope? Their actions were in direct conflict with their calling and expressed commitment to Jesus Christ. Their behavior was not accurately reflecting their belief in a transformed life. That is why Paul demands that they do an about-face, turning their backs on their former way of life and seeking things above.

So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. – Colossians 3:5 NLT

Paul was well aware of the fact that his flock in Colossae was struggling with the ongoing presence of their sinful natures. And Paul was not exempt from this internal battle between godliness and wickedness. In his letter to the Romans, he divulged his own struggle with indwelling sin.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? – Romans 7:21-24 NLT

But Paul answered his own pleading question, joyfully declaring, “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25 NLT). The solution to the problem of indwelling sin is Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to say no to sin and yes to God. His divine presence provides us with all we need to put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within us. That is why Paul told the Galatian church, “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves” (Galatians 5:16 NLT). Then he went on to say, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there” (Galatians 5:24 NLT).

Because of their relationship with Christ, their former sinful habits had been nailed to the cross with Him. But every believer knows how easy it is to breathe life into those old, dead habits and “resurrect” them once again. So, Paul demands that they “put to death” those things. But how? Is he suggesting that this is an ongoing, daily action? Is it the fate of every Christian to live their entire earthly life in a daily struggle to put to death sin? The answer is found in the grammar of Paul’s statement. When he states, “put to death,” he uses the Aorist Active Imperative (AAM) tense. The action described by the verb indicates that it is a past event. It has already taken place. Paul is stating that our old sinful habits have already been put to death – on the cross. So, we must constantly return them to their rightful place – on the cross. Our present action is based on a past reality.

The action Paul is commanding is to be the natural result of belief. If we truly believe that Jesus “canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14 NLT), then we should confidently return those sinful habits right where they belong: to the cross. They are dead to us. They no longer possess power over us. but Paul has to remind the Colossians that their new life in Christ was meant to reflect a new way of living.

You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. – Colossians 3:7-8 NLT

They had been cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ. They had clothed in His righteousness. But, metaphorically,  they were constantly going back to the closet of sin and picking out old, soiled garments to wear. That’s why Paul had to remind them that they had “put off the old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9 ESV) and had “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10 ESV). But that past action required constant repeating in the present. They were guilty of reaching back into the closet and selecting one of their old, comfortably-fitting sins to wear out in public. 

Paul is describing the ongoing nature of sanctification or spiritual growth. The Christian life is not meant to be static or stagnant. Once saved, always saved doesn’t mean that there is no ongoing transformation that takes place in the believer’s life. Peter indicates that believers are to “grow into a full experience of salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 NLT). Paul told the Ephesians that they were to be “growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT).

Growth in Christlikeness is non-optional for the believer. One of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to assist Christians in their knowledge of Christ and their ongoing transformation into His likeness. And this transformation is for all believers, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. Each is to individually experience the Spirit’s transformative power so that, together, we might reflect that nature of Christ and bring glory to God the Father.

…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 2:5 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

The Sufficiency of the Gospel

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Colossians 2:8-15 ESV

Paul now warms to his primary task: Warning the Colossian believers about the dangers of the doctrinal heresy that was threatening their congregation. He has established the preeminence of Christ and emphasized the foundational nature of His divinity and humanity. Now Paul presents a stinging indictment of the false teachers, labeling their rhetoric concerning Jesus as nothing more than captivating a purely human-based philosophy based on tradition and filled with empty deceit. Paul’s use of the term “philosophy” was not meant to refer to an academic or scientific study of thought, but the teaching of “certain Jewish Christian ascetics, which busied itself with refined and speculative inquiries into the nature and classes of angels, into the ritual of the Mosaic law and the regulations of Jewish tradition respecting practical life” (The Online Bible: Outline of Biblical Usage).

Paul was emphasizing that the teaching that had infiltrated the Colossian church was purely speculative in nature and not based on divine revelation. It was not according to or in keeping with the prophetic pronouncement concerning Christ found in the Old Testament. And it was not in line with Christ’s teachings concerning Himself. No, these men were propagating false doctrines based on “the elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:8 ESV). The word translated as “spirits” is στοιχεῖον (stoicheion), which might be better translated as “principles.” Paul seems to be juxtaposing teaching that is Christ-centered focus with that which is worldly and man-centered. According to Paul, the elemental or fundamental theories of a non-Christian, fallen world were insufficient to explain or guide the Christian life. The false teachers were attempting to use human reasoning to explain spiritual truths.

Paul explained to the believers in Corinth that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). He followed up this statement by quoting Isaiah 29:14.

For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Then Paul excoriated the false teachers and religious traditionalists of his day.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 ESV

There were those who found the apostles’ teaching concerning Christ to be illogical and unacceptable. For some of them, the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully man was untenable and indefensible. For others, the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection was little more than wishful thinking or a fairy tale. But Paul refers to his teaching concerning Christ as the power and wisdom of God.

Paul considered the false teachers’ denial of Christ’s divinity as a particularly egregious sin. That’s he unapologetically stated, “in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Colossians 2:9 ESV). This was a foundational truth concerning the doctrine of salvation and, without it, the validity of Christ’s substitutionary death was rendered impotent. The sinlessness of Christ was based on His divinity. He was the unblemished God-man who was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV).

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

To deny Jesus’ deity was to invalidate His entire ministry. He was the sinless and fully righteous Son of God who took on human flesh so that He might do what no man had ever done: Fully obey every one of the commands of God found in the Mosaic Law.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh… – Romans 8:3 ESV

The deity and humanity of Christ were both non-negotiable aspects of His character. Jesus was fully divine and fully human. He was not a phantom or a god masquerading as a man. There were those who taught that Jesus only appeared to be human. And this erroneous teaching led to a distorted understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross. If He wasn’t truly human, then His death was a sham or little more than a show. And that would mean the substitutionary nature of His death was invalid. Not only that, if Jesus didn’t die, then there was no resurrection. And if there was no resurrection, then mankind has no hope.

if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NLT

Paul assures the Colossians believers that the resurrection of Jesus was real and that its implications for their lives were substantial.

…you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. – Colossians 2:12 NLT

He wanted them to understand that they needed nothing more than Christ. Despite the claims of the false teachers, the believers in Colossae were lacking nothing in their spiritual experience. They had been filled with the fulness of Christ. The Spirit of Christ indwelled them, making the nature of Christ available to them. The righteousness of Christ had been imputed to them. And, unlike the Judaizers, who were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be fully saved, Paul emphasized a  circumcision of the heart.

When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. – Colossians 2:11 NLT

This was the same thought Paul had shared with the believers in Rome.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

Paul reminded the Colossians that, prior to encountering Christ, they had been spiritually dead because their “sinful nature was not yet cut away” (Colossians 2:13 NLT). But that problem had been taken care of by God.

God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

And in doing so, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15 ESV). This is most likely a reference to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). Paul describes them as “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). In conquering sin and death on the cross, God has effectively silenced Satan and his minions, voiding the accusations of guilt and shame they level against God’s people. In Revelation 12:10, Satan is described as the accuser of the brethren, “who accuses them day and night before our God.” But, because of the atoning nature of the cross, Satan’s accusations carry no weight. His weapons lack any power against the children of God. But, as Paul warned the believers in Ephesus, the Colossians were to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11 ESV).

The false teachers were attempting to undermine the effectiveness of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection by questioning its validity. These godless men were acting as pawns of the enemy by sowing doubts among the believers in Colossae. But Paul exposed their so-called truths as nothing more than cleverly disguised lies meant to deceive and destroy the faith of God’s people.

For Paul, the gospel was enough. There was no new teaching required. And the power of the cross required no additional enhancement or improvement. As Paul told the believers in Corinth, the message of the gospel required no help from human reasoning and cleverly-crafted rhetoric.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified.

Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 4-5 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

He Has No Equal

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15-20 ESV

As far as Paul was concerned, one of the most non-negotiable aspects of God’s will that the Colossians needed to understand concerned the preeminence of Christ. Evidently, Epaphras had informed Paul that the doctrine of Christ was under direct assault by men claiming to have apostolic authority. These unnamed individuals were teaching false doctrines concerning Christ that had left the Colossian congregation confused and dangerously close to diminishing the fruitfulness for which Paul had so graciously complimented them.

In order to redirect the focus of his letter to Christ, Paul adeptly and somewhat abruptly shifts the emphasis from God the Father to Jesus Christ the son.

For he [God] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

Following this reminder of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross and its eternal implications for their redemption and justification, Paul states, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). In coming to earth and taking on human flesh, Jesus, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity made God both visible and knowable. He became the visible image of the invisible God on earth.

In his gospel account, the apostle John elaborates on this unique aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

And John boldly proclaims that Jesus was more than just another messenger from God. He was God Himself.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known. – John 1:18 BSB

The author of Hebrews expands on the God-reflecting nature of Jesus and further solidifies the doctrine of His divinity.

The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names. – Hebrews 1:3-4 NLT

For Paul and these other authors of the New Testament, the divinity of Jesus was an essential doctrine that must be defended at all costs because it was the hinge upon which the door of salvation swung. If Jesus was not divine, then His death on the cross would prove to be ineffective. His sinlessness was the key to His death’s effectiveness.

…we have an advocate before the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins… – 1 John 2:1-2 BSB

But you know that Christ appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin. – 1 John 3:5 BSB

And what makes this atoning work of Jesus even more significant is the fact that, as God, He was the Creator laying down His life for those whom He created. Paul further enhances Christ’s divine credentials by stressing His eternality and the essential role He played in the creation story.

…by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:16 ESV

And, once again, the apostle John provides ample support for Paul’s claim.

He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made. – John 1:2-3 BSB

Paul would present this same message concerning Christ’s role in the creation account when writing to the believers in Corinth.

…there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we exist. – 1 Corinthians 8:6 BSB

As the Creator-God, Jesus was responsible for all that existed, including the believers in Colossae. He was not just a Messiah who came to save them, but He was the God who had created them. He was responsible for their very existence as well as their salvation. He had formed them and forgiven them. He had breathed in them the breath of life and had become for them the means for experiencing new life.  And by His divine power, Jesus would hold them safe and secure to the end.

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:17 ESV

Paul is going out of his way to stress the unique nature of Christ. He was adamant that the believers in Colossae grasped and appreciated the significance of Jesus’ life-giving and life-transforming role as the Son of God. Jesus had been so much more than a teacher, Rabbi, healer, and miracle worker. He was supreme in all things. He had no equal and there was no one who could replicate His accomplishments or diminish His one-of-a-kind status as the sovereign Savior of the world. That is why Paul stresses the headship of Christ over the church, and promotes His well-deserved position as the preeminent one.

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. – Colossians 1:18 ESV

Paul’s point seems to be that the church would not exist without Christ. Had He not died and risen again, there would be no church because there would be no Christ-followers. He was not a martyred teacher who had managed to cultivate a faithful host of committed followers who continued to propagate His teachings. He was the “firstborn from the dead” who, through His death and resurrection, made possible the spiritual transformation of countless men and women.

There were those who were teaching that the resurrection of Jesus was a fable or myth, and downplaying its importance to the Christian faith. Paul addressed the misguided musings of these dangerous “false teachers”sovereign in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-14 ESV

Christ’s resurrection made possible the redemption of condemned humanity and guarantees the future resurrection and glorification of all those who accept His free gift of salvation. Again, Christ was more than a gifted teacher with a message of life transformation based on behavior modification. He had not just modeled a new way of living, but He had died so that sinful men and women might receive new lives and new natures that emulated His.

Paul emphatically states that Jesus is preeminent and one-of-a-kind. He has no equal. Jesus was the sole means by which God chose to redeem fallen humanity. That’s why Paul claims, “God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:19 NLT), and no one else. And it was only through Christ that “God reconciled everything to himself” (Colossians 1:20 NLT). No one else could take credit for the role that Jesus had played in God’s grand redemptive plan. God used Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. And anyone who diminished Jesus’ role as Savior or presented another means of salvation was to be avoided at all costs.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ. Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:6-8 NLT

You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed. – 2 Corinthians 11:4 NLT

It seems quite obvious that Paul held strong views concerning this topic. He was obsessed with defending the doctrine of Christ at all costs. He would not tolerate anyone who attempted to diminish Christ’s divinity or who tried to devalue His role as the God-man who, through His life, death, and resurrection made it possible for sinful men to be made right with a holy God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Letter of Love

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father. – Colossians 1:1-2 ESV

The ancient city of Colossae achieved its early prominence and prosperity due to its location along a major trade route that ran through the Lycus River Valley in the Roman province of Asia Minor (in what is today modern-day Turkey). But in time, the nearby and newer city of Laodicea replaced Colossae as the economic engine of the region. While the Co­lossians had made a name for themselves through the manufacture of the much-coveted crimson-colored wool cloth known as colossinum, the once-thriving metropolis became little more than a small village. It was in this environment that a small congregation of believers sprung up.

The founding of the Colossian church is unclear. At the time Paul wrote his letter, he had not been to the city of Colossae, but his missionary journeys had taken him to nearby Ephesus where he had spent an extended period of time spreading the gospel message and making converts. According to Acts 19:10, “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” It could be that one of the new converts from Ephesus took the good news of Jesus Christ to Colossae or a visitor from Colossae had been in Ephesus to hear the preaching of Paul. But whatever the case, the gospel made its way to the Colossians and, in time, a small congregation had been formed.

Because of its location along a major trade route, the city of Colossae had a population comprised of Greek colonists and native Phrygians. There would have also been a fairly large number of Jews living in the area because Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.) had relocated hundreds of Jewish families from Mesopotamia to this region. So, this local congregation was likely a diverse mixture of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. This hybrid blend of diverse backgrounds, along with the influence of false teachers, was causing a great deal of confusion among the church’s young congregation.

It appears that Paul had received word of the situation in Colossae from Epaphras, a resident of the city. Whether Epaphras visited Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome is unclear, but the fellow minister of the gospel had somehow gotten word to the apostle about the state of affairs in his home city. According to verses 7-8 of chapter one, Epaphras had been instrumental in the spread of the gospel to his fellow Colossians.

You learned the gospel from Epaphras, our dear fellow slave—a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf—who also told us of your love in the Spirit. – Colossians 1:7-8 NLT

But Epaphras had shared with Paul his concern for the spiritual well-being of the church. Without proper leadership and instruction, the fledgling congregation had found itself struggling to resist the temptation to syncretize their old religious ideologies with their new faith in Christ. And some of the Jewish converts were attempting to add their own blend of Judaistic ritualism and traditionalism. To top it all off, there were those who had infiltrated the church, posing as doctrinal experts and propagating a dangerous brand of false teaching that stood in direct opposition to the teachings of Paul and the other apostles. This is what led Paul to open his letter with a statement that established his apostolic credentials.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God… – Colossians 1:1 ESV

While Paul had not been one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, he had received his apostolic commission directly from the Lord Himself. Early on in his life, Paul had been a member of the Pharisees, a powerful and highly influentials sect of Judaism. At one point, he described himself as the poster boy for religious extremism and dedication.

“I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.” – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT

He was an up-and-coming member of the Pharisees who had been given a commission by the high priest to persecute and arrest members of “the way,” the name given to the cult of followers who worshiped the dead Rabbi, Jesus. As a devout Pharisee, Paul had been a zealous adherent to and defender of the Jewish faith, and he was determined to eradicate the memory of Jesus and eliminate every one of His followers. He would later describe to the Jews how he had been given a commission to hunt down and destroy Christians.

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.” – Acts 22:3-5 NLT

But something remarkable had taken place as Paul made his way to Damascus. He had come face to face with the resurrected Jesus. A blinding light had stopped Paul in his tracks and a voice had spoken to him, saying, “I am Jesus the Nazarene, the one you are persecuting” (Acts 22:8 NLT). Unable to see but fully capable of hearing, Paul heard Jesus give him instructions to visit a man named Ananias, who would give him further instructions. And Ananias opened Paul’s eyes and revealed to him his new mission:

“The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.” – Acts 22:14-16 NLT

This “Damascus Road experience” transformed Paul’s life. He went from persecutor to proclaimer of the gospel. And he was appointed an official apostle or messenger of Jesus Christ, with specific instructions to take the good news of salvation to the Gentiles. And Paul wanted the believers in Colossae to understand that he had divine authority to speak to address the situation taking place within their local congregation. Paul spent a great deal of time defending his rights to speak on behalf of Christ because there were those who attacked his apostolic credentials. But Paul pushed back on these critics, declaring his God-given authority to speak on behalf of Jesus.

“I was not appointed by any group of people or any human authority, but by Jesus Christ himself and by God the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead.” – Galatians 1:1 NLT

So many of the churches that Paul helped establish were being targeted by men who claimed to be speaking on behalf of God but who were teaching false doctrines and leading the people away from the simplicity and integrity of the gospel. Many of these men were eloquent and influential speakers who derided Paul’s ministry and portrayed him as a charlatan. But Paul refused to let these individuals destroy what God had built.

“But I will continue doing what I have always done. This will undercut those who are looking for an opportunity to boast that their work is just like ours. These people are false apostles. They are deceitful workers who disguise themselves as apostles of Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 11:12-13 NLT

So, as Paul wrote the believers in Colossae, he opened his letter with a declaration of his apostleship. He wanted them to know that what he was about to tell them was divinely inspired and not just the thoughts of a man they had never met. He was about to divulge to them the will of God concerning their situation, and it would pay for them to listen. And Paul let them know that he was not alone in his concern for them. His protégé and fellow minister of the gospel, Timothy, stood with him in his message of encouragement and admonition.

Paul refers to his audience as “saints,” using a Greek term (hagios), which means “those set apart to God.” He wanted to remind them that they had been consecrated by God for His use. They belonged to Him and had an obligation to live their lives in keeping with His will and according to His Word. They were not free to establish their own model for righteous living or to create their own system of religious rituals or creeds. They had been set apart by God and were to dedicate their lives to God. And the rest of his letter will address the specifics of their situation and the measures they must take to ensure that they continue to live faithful lives marked by God’s grace and peace.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

And the Lord Did As He Had Promised

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Genesis 21:1-7 ESV

Moses opens this epic chapter with the simple, yet profound words, “the Lord visited Sarah.” After all that has transpired in the preceding chapters, they come across as rather anticlimactic. This is the moment for which Abraham and Sarah have long-awaited and about which they had their fair share of doubts. God had repeatedly promised that Sarah would bear a son, and now the time had come. The long wait was over. The promise was to be fulfilled. And while Moses’ words may lack an air of excitement, they display a strong sense of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. And three separate times in the first two verses, Moses emphasizes the faithfulness of God.

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said

…the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised

And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son…of which God had spoken to him

That simple statement, “and Sarah conceived” is (excuse the pun) pregnant with meaning. God had done the impossible. He had performed a miracle by creating life in Sarah’s lifeless womb. The odds had been against Sarah. When Moses first introduced her in chapter 11, he had declared her unfortunate condition.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. – Genesis 11:30 ESV

Yet, in the very next chapter, God had issued His call to Abraham and announced His promise to produce through him and Sarah a great nation. Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 at the time. And 25 years later, God had reconfirmed His promise to Abraham.

Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?” – Genesis 17:17 NLT

So, now Sarah’s barrenness was complicated by the curse of fruitlessness that accompanies old age.

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. – Genesis 18:11 NLT

And Sarah seemed to believe that her long struggle with infertility had been God’s doing.

So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from having children.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Yet, at just the right moment, according to God’s sovereign plan, Sarah conceived and bore a son. Against all odds and contrary to everything we know about human anatomy and physiology, a 90-year-old barren woman became impregnated by her 100-year-old husband and carried that baby for nine months. And Moses makes it clear that this pregnancy was the work of God. He had done what He had promised to do and He had done it according to His divine timeline. The 25-year delay had been a part of the plan. At no point along the way had God been exasperated by Sarah’s inability to get pregnant. He had not made a mistake in choosing Abraham. Sarah’s barrenness had not been an oversight on God’s part. Even when Sarah and Abraham kept attempting to come up with alternate plans to fulfill God’s promise, He kept reiterating His intentions to use the two of them.

God displayed His power and confirmed His covenant faithfulness through the miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy and her baby’s eventual birth. A year earlier, God had predicted that this moment would come and He had even provided a name for the son who would be born to Abraham and Sarah.

“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

When Sarah had heard this promise from God, she had reacted with disbelief and scorn, saying, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (Genesis 18:12 NLT). And God had calmly and patiently responded, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14 NLT).

Now, God had answered His own question with an irrefutable demonstration of His power that should have clearly ended all speculation regarding His faithfulness. Sarah’s barrenness proved to be no problem for God. Yes, it had caused Sarah great pain and left her questioning the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God. It had frustrated Abraham, causing him to consider and, at times, implement other strategies for becoming the father of a multitude of nations. Both Sarah and Abraham wanted what God had promised, but her barrenness seemed to be an insurmountable barrier to achieving their desire. And a quarter-century of waiting only made matters worse.

But at just the right moment, according to God’s sovereign timeline, the Creator spoke into the darkness of Sarah’s despair and brought about life. And with that life, a light broke into the darkness that permeated Abraham’s world. It would be through this child that God would fulfill His promise to Abraham.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV

God had clearly promised to do something significant through the offspring of Abraham. He had added, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). This boy was destined for great things. And while he would bring great joy and comfort to Abraham and Sarah, he would become the hope of the nations. Through Isaac would come another son, whose birth would also come about through miraculous means. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah would predict the coming of this child.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

And Isaiah would go on to describe the circumstances in which this child would be born.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil. – Isaiah 9:2-3 ESV

The birth of Isaac brought great joy and hope to Abraham and Sarah. And in a similar, yet even more significant way, the birth of this future offspring of Abraham would bring joy to the entire world.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 ESV

At the moment of Isaac’s miraculous birth, the 90-year-old Sarah and her 100-year-old husband found themselves basking in the joy of that momentous and long-awaited occasion. Sarah’s derisive and scornful laughter had been transformed into joyful hilarity at the sight of her miracle baby. As she held her bundle of joy in her arms, she exclaimed, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!” (Genesis 21:6-7 NLT). And the grin on Abraham’s face must have stretched from ear to ear.

What a sense of relief and gratitude this elderly couple must have felt. And you can sense Abraham’s thankfulness in the way he faithfully subjected his newborn son to the God-ordained rite of circumcision.

Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. – Genesis 21:4 ESV

God had done His part, now it was Abraham’s turn. In circumcising Isaac, Abraham was dedicating his son to God. This rite was meant to be a sign of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants.

“This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:10-11 NLT

And God had made it clear that all those who remained uncircumcised would have no part in His future blessings.

“All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” – Genesis 17:13-14 NLT

Abraham wasn’t taking any chances. He wasn’t about to curse his newborn son to a lifetime of alienation from God. He had waited too long for this moment and he knew that Isaac was the key to all that God had promised.

“I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!” – Genesis 17:6 NLT

And though Abraham had no way to comprehend the significance of this promise, the gospel of Matthew provides the future fulfillment to which it pointed.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew 1:1 ESV

Isaac would be a means to an end. He would be the conduit through which God would bring the ultimate blessing to the nations: Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.