The Gospel and Community
Nick Esch: Sunday, September 17, 2017
We live in day full of connection. Through mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and the like, we are more connected to one another than we’ve ever been. We can keep up with our friends and family who are miles away from us; which is amazing. But there are some problems when it comes to social media. For instance, social media and things like it can give us the sense of being known and loved, the sense of being connected, without actually being connected. Ultimately all that people on social media know about us is what we want them to know about us. Typically they know who we want to be, or who we want to be perceived to be, not who we really are. But, when we are connected with people in real life, people who see us in the flesh, who are around us throughout the day on any given day, it’s a lot harder to hide our faults, it’s a lot harder to keep acting like we have it all together. And that typically scares us; that’s why we tend to go to things like the internet to find relationships and community; it seems safer there.
But what if I told you, that regardless of whether being in community is safe or not, it’s something you’re called to? What if I told you community was something you were created for? And what if I told you that the risky nature of true community is actually what makes it so beautiful and so worth it? Well, these are some of the things I want us to think about this morning. So with that in mind let’s look at Colossians 3:1-17 together.
Now, I’m not going to get too deep into the first part of our passage, but I do want us to notice a few things. Verse one says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Here we see hints of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, and we see that this is tied to us; we have been raised with Christ. And this gets a bit confusing, because in verse 3 we’re told, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” So we have been raised, we have died, and we’re in Christ…
What’s being referenced here is the gospel and it’s effects. Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a sermon series on the gospel and life. And one thing we have seen in this series is that the gospel message is something that starts in the very beginning of the Bible. There we see that before the beginning of creation there was and always has been God. And we see that God decided to create. He created the universe and everything in it and declared that it was good. And when He created man, He made and formed man in His own image. And we said that meant, at least, that we were created to glorify God. But as we have seen, and as we know all too well, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
God is holy and infinitely glorious, and we were created to live in such a way that our lives magnify His glory; but we all rebelled against that. And our rebellion separated us from God’s loving presence, and destined us for God’s wrath. But we Christians have been saved from all of that, because we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ. And that’s because Jesus did not leave us without hope and without God, but instead He came to earth, took on flesh, and then took out sin by living the life we were created to live—for God’s glory, and then taking the punishment that we deserve for our sin upon Himself. The hands that formed man were nailed to a cross to save man. Jesus lived our life, and then died our death, taking the wrath due us upon Himself in our place, and then He died, and was buried. But on the third day He rose from the grave in power, and then later He ascended into heaven, where He is now ruling and reigning, and ever interceding for His people. And in doing all of that He made it so that any who will turn from their sin, trust in Him, and follow Him will be saved—will be raised with Him, because through repenting of our sin and believing in Jesus, we have died with Jesus, and are now raised with Jesus; we are dead to sin and raised to newness of life in Christ. And that new life is a life that is lived for our original created purpose—to glorify God. So in one sense, the gospel is getting us back to Genesis.
And the gospel is what Paul is speaking of in verses 1-4; the person and work of Christ. Who Jesus is, what He has done, is doing, and will do to save His people. And then starting in verse 5 Paul begins to unpack for the Colossians what this means for their life—and really for the life of all Christians. Since the gospel is true and since we have been saved by it, Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…” Because we have died to sin and been raised to newness of life in Christ, we are now to put sin to death, to wage war against the flesh. But notice who he says is to do this. He says you. Now, we can’t see this in the English as easily, but in the Greek that is a plural you. Essentially he’s saying, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in y’all…” And that makes sense, considering he wrote this letter to a church; to a body of believers, a faith family, a gospel community. That may seem obvious, but all too often we read the Bible as if God is only talking to us.
When Paul tells the Colossians to put to death therefore what is earthly in them, he’s not giving them individual instructions, but instead is assigning a community project. We need to get that; our battle with sin, though personal, is not private… According to Scripture, the Christian life is a life that is to be lived in community. And this makes sense if we go back to the gospel story.
We said that mankind was created in the image of God, which means—among other things—that we are to glorify God, but we rebelled, and went astray; but then Jesus came to save us and restore us back to our created design—to glorify God. Now, think back for a moment to exactly what God said when He created man. In Genesis 1:26-27 God said, “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
There is a lot of plural language in that paragraph. First we see the community within the Trinity. “Let us make man in our image…” That us, that our, is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—three persons, one God… Dr. Philip Ryken, the President of Wheaton College comments on this, saying, “From all eternity, the three Persons have enjoyed perfect love within the Godhead…” And this has massive effects on us, because it tells us more of what it means to be made in God’s image, to live to glorify God. He goes on, “When it pleased God to make mankind in his own image, he created us as social beings. We were created for relationship with God and to reflect his likeness not merely as individuals but in relationship with one another. This may be why the author of Genesis dared to use plural pronouns to describe God at that point in the creation account where he tells of God’s creating mankind in his own likeness …. God made man a social being because the prototype for man – God himself – is a being in communion” (Philip Ryken).
So do you see what I’m getting at? We can’t glorify God rightly by ourselves. Sure, all of us were made in the image of God, but we can’t rightly reflect that image in isolation. It says, He created them in His image. And His image is an image of loving community. Eternal, perfect loving relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; that’s the image that we were created in. And that’s what the gospel gets us back to. As God said of Adam, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Friends, we were not created to be alone; we were created, and we were saved to live in community; and within the life of that community—the community of the people of God, we glorify God.
So, to a community of God’s people, Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” He reminds them in verse 4 that Christ is their life, and then in verse 5 calls them to put to death the very things for which Christ had to give up His life for. Christ died to save us from our sin, so if Christ is our life we must die to sin. “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” (Colossians 3:5-8). Sin is why wrath is coming, and sin is why wrath has already fell upon Christ. At one time you lived in these things, but now Christ is your life, so put these things away.
He’s calling the Colossian Church to fight sin and pursue holiness because that’s who they are in Christ. And notice what he says in verse 9, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” All of this is in the context of one another. When he says, “you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth…” These are things we all struggle with from time to time; and are these not things that flare up when we are dealing with people? That’s why he follows it up with, do not lie to one another…
Being around people can at times bring out the worst in us; but the problem is still in us… The Christian life is to happen within community. And notice what happens when we live this life in community. Starting again, in verse 9, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9-10). We were created in the image of God to image God; to reflect Him, to magnify His glory… But our sin messed that up; but Jesus saves us from our sin. So, we are to turn from our sin, trust in Jesus, and follow Jesus; and as we follow Him we are to put off the old self—whose life was sin—and to put on the new self—whose life is Christ—and as we do, together, we will be renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator. We will become more like Jesus, and we will be enabled all the more to live for the glory of God, to fulfill our purpose as image bearers. And again, because God is Triune, because God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in perfect community within the Godhead, for us to truly image our God, for us to truly glorify God rightly, we must live our lives in community. And we might be tempted to think that community is the problem; that being around people is what leads us into sin, but it’s actually community that will lead us out of sin.
The lifestyle of sin is typically a lifestyle of isolation. We withdraw within ourselves, because we are only seeking to please ourselves; that’s why the Bible so often refers to our sinful flesh, our sinful desires, the deeds of the flesh, and the fleeting pleasures of sin. Sin is typically all about us. And when we are caught up in sin, we find ourselves withdrawing from community more and more. We withdraw and turn in on ourselves; like Adam and Eve in the garden, our sin leads us to hide in shame—we seek to cover it up. And this is something we’re all guilty of; that’s why Paul says in verse 7 that we all used to walk in these things—we were living in them… Whether we realized it or not sin was our life, but now Christ is our life. So Paul tells us to put off the old self with its practices; like taking off old disgusting clothing, and putting on beautiful clean clothes. But notice what he says at the beginning of verse 9, “Do not lie to one another.” Don’t lie… Don’t cover things up… Be open about your struggles… Get your sin out in the light, because as Paul says elsewhere, “when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13-14). What does light do to darkness? It pushes back the darkness; darkness cannot stand in the presence of light. So we espouse our sin, and just as light pushes back the darkness, so too does confession and accountability push back our sin.
I wonder how we’re doing as a church when it comes to this. As you look around this room, is there anyone in here who knows your struggles? Is there anyone in here that you’ve exposed your temptations and your failings to? How many people, outside of your immediate family, know your struggles and hold you accountable? I wonder, are you really known by anyone in this church at all? God’s Word is telling us this morning, that if we would put off the old and put on the new, if we would be renewed into the image of our Creator, if we would be more like Jesus, then we must not lie, we must be open, we must be in community, because sanctification is a community project. There are things that happen in community that simply aren’t possible without it.
Look at verse 11. Paul says, “Here (that is, in the church) there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” In other words, because the gospel has saved us, because the gospel has so gripped us and changed our lives, the church is not a group of people with individual identities and pursuits anymore; we’re not living for worldly things, we’re living for Christ who is all and in all. He is our common ground, He is our joy, He is our goal, He is our life.
The church is a community that only makes sense because of Christ; I mean why else would Jew and Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, slaves and free come together? The gospel brings them together. And notice what Paul says about them. He says Christ is all, and in all, after telling them in verses 9 and 10, to put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator. Christ is in all, and the new self is being renewed into the image of God. In other words, this is a community of people who Christ is in, and who are all about Christ; so much so that they are making Jesus known, because they are imaging Him through their life together. And this is partially the point; we can know Jesus, we can know God more deeply in community; we can know God in community in a way that simply isn’t possible without it.
On the flipside, this means that we cannot know and love Jesus as we ought without living in community with other believers… I remember thinking when Rachel and I had Jonah, our first child, that I could never love another kid as much as I loved him. I didn’t think I had room in my heart for anymore love. But then we had Allie, our second, and Isaiah, our third; and I found that I not only had room in my heart to love my other two children, but that each one made me love the other more. When Allie came along she brought out things in Jonah’s personality that I had never seen before. When Isaiah came along all three of them brought out things in one another, that no doubt, Rachel and I would have never seen on our own. Each one of my children helps me know and love the rest of my children all the more.
All three of my children have likewise helped me come to know and love my wife all the more. Some might say that I now have less of my wife than I had before we had three children; after all, now I’m sharing her with three people. But it’s actually just the opposite; seeing my wife smile, hearing her laugh, experiencing the joy and compassion that flow from her as she interacts with our children… I would’ve never seen any of that on my own. In each member of my family there is something that only another member can fully bring out. So what am I saying by all of that? I’m saying, that in a very real sense, it takes a community to really know an individual. And, if that’s true, how much more is this true of Jesus? The church is a community of people who Christ is in, and who are all about Christ; together we are making Jesus known, we are imaging Him through our life together in a way we never could apart. We know Jesus, we know God, and we make Him known more deeply in community. We help each other know and love Jesus more; we help each other become more like Jesus. Beloved, sanctification is a community project.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking about how painful community can be; perhaps you’re worried people might judge you or mistreat you if they really know your struggles. And I get that; there is certainly fear in vulnerability. But, if we could get this right, the church would be a safe place for sinners, though it certainly wouldn’t be safe for our sin. If we could get this right, instead of using each other’s weaknesses and failings against one another, we would draw near to one another and help each other draw near to God. And the way we get to this point, where it’s safe to be open, is through the gospel.
Paul lays out a list of all sorts of different people from different walks of life; no doubt with all sorts of different struggles and sins. But they are united in Christ and for Christ. The gospel has taken people who had no business being together in community, and has made them into a faith family, into a gospel community. And as those who have been saved from the depths of sin by the grace of God in Christ, they are compelled to be gracious to others. The gospel makes them into a community of grace.
This is where Paul takes us in the rest of our passage. Starting in verse 12 he says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 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. 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” (Col. 3:12-17).
Here Paul tells us that God loves His people whom He has graciously chosen. He calls us to take off our old self-centered, self-righteous, sinful-self, and to put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience; he calls us to be forgiving, to be thankful, and in all these things to be loving… Why? Because God in Christ loves us, forgives us, is patient with us, and is kind and gracious to us. In other words, because of all that God is for us in the gospel we should be in loving, gracious, gospel community with one another. Because the Lord is graciously committed to us we are to be graciously committed to one another.
I mean, has God not been compassionate toward us? Has He not been kind to us and patient with us? Has He not been incredibly longsuffering, bearing with us even when we were at our worse? Yes, He has… God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ; it’s by sovereign amazing grace that we have been saved. And if we could remember all of that, then we’d have no problem being gracious to one another.
But we don’t typically remember these things; at least not rightly. Let me illustrate what I mean. Think for a second about someone you know who is a wretched sinner; perhaps they’ve sinned against you or your loved ones. Try to think of someone who really needs the grace of God, who has much that needs to be forgiven… Do you have that person in your mind? Well, let me ask you, was the person you thought of yourself? It should have been.
Think about what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Does that sound like an exaggeration to you? I mean is Paul really the foremost of sinners, the worst of sinners? Just looking at history we’d have to say there have been many who did things that were way more horrible than anything Paul ever did. But that wasn’t Paul’s point. In Paul’s eyes, he was the foremost of sinners because he was more aware of his own sin than anyone else’s. When Paul thought of a person who was in desperate need of grace, the first person that came to his mind was himself. And it should be the same with us. And if it is, and if we would always bear in mind how much we’ve been forgiven of, and how much we still have to be sorry for, then being gracious and forgiving others as the Lord has forgiven us would be no problem.
As we begin to grasp the grace that we have received we will become more and more gracious. Community can be scary, but the church is a gospel community, a community of grace. And what’s so beautiful about all of this, is that as we live in risky gospel community, we make God known all the more—to the world and to one another. We help each other know God and make God known. Do you want to know Jesus more? Do you want to love Him more and be more like Him? Then get into community with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Together we live for the purpose we were created for: to image God. No doubt, we will all fall short of God’s call on our life, but as we let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly, and we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, we will find the grace to forgive, and the grace to be gracious to one another; and we will get more of God.
And do realize, the teaching and admonishing that our passage speaks of, isn’t just what happens on Sunday morning. As Dietrich Bonheoffer once said, “The Christian needs another Christian to speak God’s Word to him.” And this again implies that our lives will be interwoven through the week, not just on Sunday. As one pastor put it, “Life is the context of discipleship and the Word of God is its content” (Steve Timmis). To truly be a gospel community we must live life together, not just go to church together; we must be the church together. In a major way this is what discipleship looks like: the exchange of gospel truth in the context of authentic relationships.
But, make no mistake, we are to gather together for corporate worship, for teaching and preaching, for prayer and singing. We are to gather together for our edification and the worship of God, lifting our voices together to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. When we come together and pray God’s Word, read God’s Word, sing God’s Word, and sit under the preaching of God’s Word, we magnify the glory of God together, and help each other grow in grace. We know God more deeply as we make God known all the more to one another. We build one another up, and stir each other’s hearts to love and serve Jesus all the more. So corporate worship is an extremely important part of what it means to be a church, but, we must remember, it’s just one part. To be the church, to do everything that God’s Word commands us to do in Colossians 3:1-17 we must live life together throughout the week in gospel community. It must be a both and…
- S. Lewis once pointed out that, “God can show Himself as He really is only to real men (that is Christian men and women). And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body. Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together.”
Our passage closes with Paul saying that in whatever we do, in word or deed, we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. That’s an instruction for the whole community of faith, for the gospel community, for the church. We are to be united in Christ, and Christ is to be all and in all; indeed, He is our life, so everything we do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus. He takes us out of our sin, He gives us a new self in Him, and a new family in Him, a gospel community to live life with, to fight sin and pursue holiness with.
Because we are all sinners being in community isn’t always safe; but it’s something we’re called to, it’s something we were created for, and it’s totally worth the risk because in community we know God more and make Him known more. Indeed, the risky nature of gospel community is actually what makes it so beautiful and so worth it. God’s glory and the power of the gospel shine out as we link arms and live life with people, who outside of Christ would have little to nothing in common. Our bond in Christ is greater than any of our differences in Christ.
The church is brought together by the gospel into real relationships; not superficial connections where people only know what we want them to know; but genuine relationships where our community knows all of our greatest struggles and temptations. The church is to be a community of intentionally intrusive yet gloriously gracious relationships, where we willingly inconvenience ourselves, and open ourselves up, linking arms together, helping one another, allowing others to help us, seeking to make much of Jesus together in all things; because it is Jesus who is our all and in all; it is Jesus who is our life. We may risk much to draw near to Him, but He is worth it; because He is better… Jesus is better than an easy, comfortable, safe life. He is better than everything, so let’s be willing to risk everything to know Him more and to make Him known all the more…