Colossians 1:24-2:5

Colossians 1:24-2:5

SERIES: Colossians:  Christ is the Answer

Excellence in Ministry

SCRIPTURE: Colossians 1:24-2:5

SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus

Introduction:   Excellence has been one of the buzz words of corporate America over the past decade.  Tom Peters wrote several bestselling books, including In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence, which focused on the need for excellence in business, in industry, in education, and in government.  I would like to speak today to the need for excellence in ministry, and I’m not talking just about professional ministry, though our text for today speaks volumes to all pastors; I’m talking about anyone’s worship or service for God.  There is no place for apathetic worship, sloppy preparation, half-hearted service, or an irresponsible Christian walk.  

In last week’s passage the Apostle Paul stressed the supreme Savior; this week he talks about the supreme ministry.  On the surface it may appear that his words are somewhat self-serving, for he speaks unabashedly of his own total commitment to excellence in ministry, but there is a reason for this other than the desire to elevate himself in the minds of his readers.  The believers are being threatened by false teachers who are trying to draw them away from the truth.  The most effective way for Paul to counteract this influence is to focus on Christ, as he has done and will continue to do.  But there is also value in rehearsing his own personal philosophy and practice of ministry so the believers can see the immense contrast between a true servant of God and the false teachers they are toying with.

Let me use a current situation to illustrate what Paul is trying to do.  Several months ago I alluded to a Prime Time Live report concerning three fraudulent television ministries.  Suppose our Gray Summit Church had a group of people who became ardent followers of Robert Tilton, probably the worst of the TV evangelists.  Suppose further that I was invited by the Elders there to come and speak to these people to warn them about the path they are on.  

I would certainly spend time focusing on our Statement of Faith and the great truths of Scripture it contains.   But I would also tell them how our ministry in the Free Church differs from Tilton’s.  I would tell them that our ministry is based upon integrity, that we practice full disclosure, that the pastors receive no money other than their budgeted salary, that we don’t give false promises of health and wealth, etc.  My purpose would not be to brag but rather to help them see the contrast not only between Tilton’s message and ours, but also between his methods and ours.  

That is what Paul is doing in this section—not bragging but contrasting, with the hope that believers would come to demand excellence and integrity from anyone ministering to them and that they would practice the same themselves in all they do for the Lord.  In this passage, every church, every pastor, and every active layman is given a high standard of excellence by which to compare his own service to God. 

Please stand for the reading of God’s Word from Colossians 1:24-2:5:

         24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

         28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.

2 I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

Paul excelled because of his philosophy of ministry. (1:24-29)

         His attitude:  rejoicing in suffering(24)  “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you.”  Ministry for Paul was not easy street; it wasn’t a way to get rich quick or to bask in the sunlight of popularity.  It meant a great deal of pain and suffering.  Even as he is writing this letter he is in prison, or at least under house arrest in Rome.  But that was nothing compared to what he had suffered earlier in his effort to preach the Gospel and plant churches. 

In 2 Cor. 11, another passage where Paul contrasts his own ministry with that of the Robert Tiltons of his day, he writes, 

         “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently (for his faith, not for criminal behavior), been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.  I have been in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” 

I can’t help but marvel when I compare that litany with the conversation I often hear when pastors get together and start talking about their ministries.  It’s more likely to sound like this: “I’ve had more conversions, baptized more people, collected more money, built more buildings, been invited to more Bible conferences, met more politicians and pro athletes, been appointed to more boards, and turned down more invitations to candidate!”  No, says Paul, suffering for the sake of the church and rejoicing in spite of it (or even because of it) is the attitude that demonstrates excellence.  

But Paul’s suffering was not only on behalf of the believers in Colosse; it was also somehow related to Christ Himself.  He says also in v. 24, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.”  This is one of the most debated verses in all of the Bible, and entire books have been written on its interpretation.  Unfortunately, it’s easier to say what it doesn’t mean than what it does.  It clearly does not mean that Paul made up what was lacking in Christ’s work on the cross, for the entire NT teaches the absolute sufficiency of Christ’s atonement.  Also, the Greek word translated “afflictions” here is never used of the sufferings of Christ on the cross.  

Probably Paul’s words have reference to the common Jewish understanding that the Messianic Age was to be preceded by a definite amount of suffering on the part of God’s people.  Ultimately these sufferings are Christ’s also, because the Church is His body.  So, when Paul suffered he helped fulfill the predicted sufferings of Christ’s body, and thus in some sense he helped hasten the coming of the Messianic Age. 

Please understand, when Paul said he rejoiced in suffering, he was not showing masochistic tendencies—he knew that sufferings are miserable.  But he also knew that every blow that fell on him fell also on his Master, and the resulting sense of union with Christ caused him to rejoice.  

The second aspect of his philosophy of ministry to which Paul refers is …

         His responsibility:  preach the Word (25)  “I have become the servant of the church by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness.”  Preaching the Word is the highest calling any minister can have.  People cannot love God more or know Christ better unless they are growing in their knowledge of the Scriptures.  But they must hear the Word of God in its completeness and fullness; they must learn the whole counsel of God. 

Every heresy and every cult are built upon the Bible, but a Bible in which certain truths are overemphasized and others are ignored.  People need to hear the OT as well as the NT, the narrative as well as the doctrinal sections, the prophetic truths as well as the historical.  One of the geniuses of Bible Study Fellowship is that it takes people through the whole Bible in five years, and that’s why it has had such a phenomenal effect upon people’s lives.  That’s also why we preach through the Scriptures chapter by chapter and book by book.

But Paul had one unique responsibility as he presented the word of God in its fullness.  He was to reveal “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations but is now disclosed to the saints.  To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  When we see the word “mystery” we generally think of something weird and esoteric, something that can be figured out only through careful attention and a lot of luck.  But a mystery in Scripture is simply a truth that lies hidden in the pages of the OT and awaits revealing until a later time. 

The mystery Paul was chosen to reveal had to do with the offer of salvation to the Gentiles.  Up until Christ came God had worked almost exclusively with one race of people—the Jews.  God-fearing people of other races were not absolutely excluded from a relationship with God, but they had to become part of the Jewish community first.  When Jesus died at Calvary, the most important thing He accomplished was the forgiveness of sins.  But He also provided full access for Gentiles to all the rights and privileges of the people of God without having to convert to Judaism.  

This idea was so diametrically opposed to all that the Jews had ever heard or believed that a very special person was needed to unveil this new truth.  So God chose Paul for that task, and he became known as “the Apostle to the Gentiles.”  The mystery is described here as “Christ in you” or “the Jewish Messiah in you Colossian Gentiles.”  That was their “hope of glory;” in other words, because of what Jesus did they could also spend eternity with God in heaven.  We, too, are recipients of that privilege.

The responsibility of any ministry deserving the adjective “excellent” is that it preaches the Word, i.e., teaches the whole counsel of God and makes clear that salvation’s benefits are available to people of every race, tribe, tongue, and nation.  

Thirdly, the heart of Paul’s philosophy of ministry was the message itself.

         His message:  “We proclaim Him.”  (28).  The Apostle’s message was simple:  Jesus. Everything Paul said, everything he taught, and everything he wrote was ultimately geared toward proclaiming Jesus Christ.  You know, there are thousands of pastors standing before their congregations this very hour who will fail to mention the name of Jesus even once in their sermon. They will talk of God, they will speak of faith and love and other Christian virtues, they may even mention “the Christ.”  But the name “Jesus” will be absent from their lips, almost as though they are embarrassed to speak it.  And I’m not talking about rabbis or mullahs—I’m talking about ordained Protestant clergymen.  Some of you who formerly attended liberal churches have told me that you never heard your pastor use the name of Jesus except as a swear word.  

George Whitfield once said, “Other men may preach the gospel better than I, but no man can preach a better gospel.”[i]  Why?  Because Whitfield, like Paul, knew that Jesus was the central fact of the whole universe and the only name by which men may be saved, as is clearly stated in Acts 4:12: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Paul mentions a fourth aspect of his philosophy of ministry in verse 28 also:

         His method: “admonishing and teaching.  (28)  “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom.”  Admonishing refers to confrontation and correction, while teaching refers to the orderly explanation and application of truth.  Teaching is more fun than admonishing.  I have discovered that teaching rarely stirs up conflict unless a viewpoint is really far out.  I have also found out that when on occasion (perhaps not often enough) I move from teaching to admonishing, it almost never fails to produce some opposition.

Both, of course, are important.  If, as a parent, we only teach our children and never correct them we’re going to have an intelligent monster on our hands.  On the other hand, if we only correct them and never teach them, we’re going to produce either a broken spirit or a rebellious spirit.  

A fifth part of Paul’s philosophy of ministry is also revealed in verse 28:

         His purpose:  to “present everyone perfect.”  (28)  “So that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”  Paul’s goal is nothing short of seeing every Christian grow to his full potential in Christ.  I heard about an evangelist whose slogan was this: “Lord, I’ll save ’em, you raise ’em!”  Well, there’s something seriously deficient about the thinking of any minister, clergy or laity, who thinks his job is over when the sinner is converted.  No one would bring an infant home from the hospital and then abandon it to fend for itself.  Likewise, Paul would never be satisfied until his converts stood before Christ and heard Him speak those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  This means that discipleship must follow evangelism, and believers must be taught how to study the Word, pray, give, share their faith, and serve.  

The final issue Paul addresses in respect to his philosophy of ministry is found in verse 29.

         His resources: hard work/God’s power.  (29)  “To this end I labor, struggling with all hisenergy, which so powerfully works in me.”  Both hard work and God’s power are essential.  No one can ever hope to have a biblically authentic ministry unless he’s willing to work hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.  Unfortunately, we often equate hard work with busyness, but they are very different.  Busyness to me conveys the idea of having many irons in the fire, going many places, fretting and stewing about many things.  In fact, some people use busyness as an excuse for not getting anything done.  Hard work, on the other hand, speaks of proper priorities, single-mindedness, and personal discipline until a job is finished.  I’ve never known a great pastor or a great layman who didn’t work hard.

Still, no one will ever excel in ministry with personal effort alone.  Oh, one may succeed in impressing people and gaining a great following, but the effort will be a mile wide and an inch deep unless personal effort is teamed up with God’s power.  Did you notice what Paul wrote here in verse 29?  Not, “To this end I labor, struggling with all my energy.”  Rather, “struggling with all Hisenergy.”  We’re talking about a divine-human partnership here.  I have often scoffed at the old saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” but there is a measure of truth to the adage.  Only a better way to put it might be this:  “God provides His amazing power to those who are willing to be diligent stewards of it.”

By the way, how do you know if you’re working with your own energy or God’s?  Let me suggest that if you are laboring with your own energy the result will eventually be physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion.  If you’re working with God’s energy you may feel physical exhaustion, but you will be emotionally and spiritually energized.  

If you are working with your own power, you will tend to feel resentful and depressed when things don’t fall into place.  If you’re working with God’s power you will recognize that He requires only faithfulness, not success, and you will leave the results to Him.  

If you are working in your own energy, your motives will constantly be mixed—partly godly and partly selfish.  If you’re working in God’s energy, your motives will be pure.  

If you’re working with your own power, the results will be temporary; if you’re working with God’s power, the results will be lasting.

So far this morning Paul has explained his philosophy of ministry in terms of his attitude (rejoicing in suffering), his responsibility (preach the Word), his message, (Christ), his method (admonishing and teaching), his purpose (presenting everyone perfect), and his resources (hard work/ God’s power).  What a marvelous approach to ministry!  But up to this point his comments have been rather general and philosophical, and all of us have known people who are great philosophers but poor doers.  I have a pastor friend who is an expert on philosophy of ministry—he even gives seminars around the country, but his own church is a mess. What the Colossians need to know about this prisoner who is writing to exhort them is this, “Does he excel in his practice as well as his philosophy of ministry?”  

The first five verses of chapter 2 give Paul the opportunity to share with the Colossians that he practiced what he preached.  And this is important because, as we mentioned two weeks ago, it is possible that Paul had never even been to Colosse.  The people there need to know that he really has their best good in mind.  So, chapter two begins with the fact that …

Paul excelled because of his practice of ministry.  (2:1-5)

         He was totally committed to God’s people in Colosse.  (1) “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.”  Laodicea was a neighboring town which also had a relatively new church.  Paul’s commitment to these people is revealed in the word “struggle,” which in Greek is the athletic term “agon.”  We get our English word “agony” from it.  He agonized for these believers, perhaps tossing and turning at night as he thought and prayed about their trials and empathized with their ups and downs.  

I think it would be profitable for us to ask when is the last time we agonized for someone else spiritually—maybe a relative dying without Christ, or a friend about to make a terrible decision that will affect life from here on out, or a fellow member of the family of God who has pulled away from the Lord and is now just paying lip service to his faith?  The amazing thing is that Paul agonized for those he may never even have met!  That’s commitment.  

But not only was Paul totally committed to the believers in Colosse; …

         He knew what they needed(2-3) “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Here Paul shares three goals he has for the Colossians—one immediate, one intermediate, and one ultimate.  

1.  Immediate goal:  encouragement and unity.  “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love.”  Everyone needs encouragement.  You show me someone who receives no encouragement from his or her spouse, but only criticism, and I’ll show you someone whose marriage is in deep trouble.  You show me someone who receives no encouragement from his pastor and spiritual leaders but only rebuke, and I’ll show you someone who may endure church, but his heart is not there.

On a PBS documentary, Dr. Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress, brought out a little blue box containing the contents of President Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated.  Among the ordinary items were some newspaper clippings, one of which reported a speech by John Bright which said that Lincoln was one of the greatest men of all times.  In 1865, millions shared a contrary opinion and Lincoln’s critics were fierce and relentless. There is something touching in the picture of this great leader sitting alone under candlelight and seeking reassurance from the comfort of a newspaper clipping.  While his critics were hanging him in effigy, Abraham Lincoln needed and found somebody who believed in him. 

Friend, write that long-overdue letter.  Make that phone call this afternoon that you’ve been procrastinating on for so long.  Encourage one another.  I have been privileged to serve just two churches over the past 17 years, while some of my pastor friends have moved from one church to another every three or four years during that time.  I am forced to conclude that probably the major reason for the difference is that I have been privileged to have some world-class encouragers around me while some of my colleagues have not been so blessed.  

Paul’s immediate goal is that the believers be encouraged in heart and united in love.  One leads directly to the other.  Show me a church where encouragement is practiced, and I’ll show you one where people are united in love.  

2.  Intermediate goal: “the full riches of complete understanding.”  “… so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding.”  Some of us have the notion that the Bible is so full of difficulties and unfathomable truths that only a seminary graduate or professional student can hope to scratch the surface.  Paul disagreed. His goal was to have these new believers, undoubtedly many of them uneducated, enjoy the full riches of complete understanding.  You see, spiritual understanding has a lot more to do with attitude and discernment than it does with intellectual capacity and academic credentials.  

The fact that this goal comes after the previous one may imply that the truth of God cannot be properly known apart from the encouragement and brotherly love within the Christian community.  In other words, Christian growth is a group task!  The individuals of the church need each other, not just for emotional support but also for understanding biblical truth.  

A few of you came from churches where doctrine was an obsession, and the total focus was on word studies and theological minutia.  Knowledge was pursued in isolation from the needs of people.  Such an emphasis leads to intellectual sophistication and pride, not to “the full riches of complete understanding.”  But even complete understanding is not the ultimate goal Paul has in mind for the believers in Colosse.  His ultimate goal is that they might know Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 

3.  Ultimate goal: “that they may know … Christ.”   Verse 3: “… that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  You have heard many times that Christianity is not primarily a philosophy or a set of regulations or a way of life or even a religion; it’s a person, and that person is Jesus.  The word for “know” here is the word for experiential knowledge, not intellectual comprehension.  What Paul wants for them is not to be able to outline the life of Christ or list all his miracles or trace his travels.  He wants them to enjoy His presence in their lives, to walk with Him daily, to love Him, and to serve Him.

Paul was totally committed to God’s people.  He knew what they needed.  Now thirdly, …

         He knew how to get them to listen: he warned them but he also affirmed them.  Look at verses 4 & 5: “I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.  For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”  Paul’s ministry was so balanced.  He shared doctrine but also practical application.  He exhorted them but also encouraged them.  He gave warning but also affirmation.  

We need to be warned when we’re getting too close to the edge or dabbling in dangerous ideas or keeping company with ungodly characters.  But constant warnings soon fall on deaf ears, like the proverbial child who cried “Wolf!” once too often.  To balance our warnings and our exhortations we need to offer plenty of affirmation.  Here Paul affirms their orderliness and their firmness of faith in Christ.  

Now we have stayed very close to the text this morning, examining and evaluating the excellent philosophy and practice of ministry that Paul demonstrated.  It’s not hard to see that from here on in the book of Colossians the Apostle will be operating from a position of strength as he tries to help the believers there survive the onslaughts of the false teachers and emerge stronger than ever in their faith.  But right now, I want us to think in terms of our ministry, of your ministry.  

What does it take for any ministry to excel?  

Quickly, I want to suggest four essentials:

         The focus must be on Christ.  He is preeminent.  In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  If that is true, how could any church or any ministry that calls itself Christian not have its focus on Him?  

         The effort must be supreme.  Not just human effort, but human effort appropriating and employing the marvelous power of God.  If your S.S. class is not going well, if your small group is floundering, if your prayer life is lifeless, ask yourself, “Am I really putting 100% into this effort?  And am I doing it in God’s power rather than my own ingenuity and energy?”  

         The motives must be pure. We can’t be after ego building or reputation enhancement or financial benefit.  Our motives cannot be selfish or even mixed.  To serve God faithfully must be our heart’s desire.  

         The goal must be clear and on target.  It must be to bring people into the kingdom, to help them know Christ, and to present them mature when Jesus comes. 

Conclusion:  The pursuit of excellence should be the driving force behind every Christian’s work, play, family life, schooling, whatever, but especially his or her ministry.  Everything we do for God should be done first class.  

Every once in a while. the Wall Street Journal has a full-page poetic essay.  One of these was simply entitled, “Workmanship”:

“Your true value to society comes when someone says, “Let me see your work.”  

         Your glib tongue may open a door or two and your artful use of the right fork may win an approving nod.  But the real test of your worth can be measured by the care you give to the job in front of you: a budget to plan; a solo to play; a report to draft; a leaky sink that needs fixing.  

         Next time you write a memo, make sure you get all the facts straight. Pay attention to those details.  Sweat the small stuff.”

If the world is clamoring for excellence, and it is, is it even conceivable that we should offer to God anything less than our best?

DATE: January 26, 1992



Rejoicing in suffering



[i] Quoted in R. Kent Hughes, Colossians and Philemon:  The Supremacy of Christ, 48.