You may have seen on the news that last week the Rosetta spacecraft came to the end of its mission. After a couple of years in orbit, it finally crash-landed into the comet it had been circling. In the last few moments of its life, the spacecraft sent back a flurry of photographs showing the rocky surface of the comet drawing closer and closer.
The Rosetta mission was just one part of scientists’ ongoing search to find signs of life elsewhere in our universe. They use sophisticated instruments to search the heavens for evidence of reproduction or respiration, or liquid water, or gas emission. They are searching for signs that somewhere out there - perhaps on a planet, a comet or a moon - an organism is living and growing.
But what about Christians? What signs of life do we have? What signs are there that our faith is living and growing? What evidence should we expect to see if we are spiritually alive and healthy? Thankfully the apostle Paul helps us in our reading from Colossians this morning.
Signs of spiritual life: Faith, hope and love
Today we start a new five week sermon series, going through the New Testament letter of Colossians. Let me quickly summarise what we know about this letter:
- It was written around 60 AD by the apostle Paul, who was writing from prison (possibly in Rome, though this is debated).
- The letter is addressed to a young church in the town of Colossae, in Asia Minor - the area we would now call south-western Turkey.
- It’s a church that Paul had not founded, nor one that he had ever visited. As we learn in verse 7 this morning, the Colossian church was founded by a man called Epaphras.
- It seems Epaphras had heard Paul preach the Christian Gospel, come to faith himself, and carried the Gospel message to Colossae. Epaphras then took news of this new church to Paul, who wrote them this letter.
In summary, Colossians is a letter that encourages Christians to stick close to Christ despite all the temptations and false teachings that could lead us astray. It teaches us to live in the light of Jesus rather than walk in darkness. It tells us to keep Christ supreme over our belief and our behaviour.
But before teaching anything, Paul begins his letter by giving thanks to God for the Colossian Christians. He gives thanks for the signs of life that they display. Listen again to his words in verses 3 to 6: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints –the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the Gospel.”
In short, Paul is impressed with the Colossian’s faith, love and hope. He considers them three sure signs that they are spiritually alive. Three pieces of evidence that the Colossians have truly “heard and understood” (v.6) the Gospel message.
- Faith is the first sign. Paul gives thanks that they trust Jesus as their God-given Saviour, the one through whom they have “the forgiveness of sins”. To have faith in Christ is to trust in him (and him alone) for our salvation. Faith in nothing else – not even our own efforts – can put us right with God.
- Love is the next sign of life that Paul mentions. Not romantic love, but brotherly love for all our fellow Christians. That’s what Paul means when he speaks of the Colossians love for “all the saints” (v.4). (Perhaps Paul had heard how the Colossians loved to serve one another, meeting up frequently to encourage each other in their faith? Paul had probably also heard how the Colossians were sharing money with each other, generously giving to their Church as need arose. And I expect that Epaphras had reported to Paul that the Colossians prayed diligently for each other and for Christians further afield – just as Paul prayed for them).
- After faith and love, hope is the third and final quality that Paul admires in the Colossian Church. In other words, they have confidence in the world to come. They regarded the everlasting Kingdom of God as a real place beyond the grave, not just ‘pie in the sky when you die’.
Growing in Christ: bearing fruit in every good work
Faith, hope and love are three wonderful things. Three sure signs of the Colossians’ real relationship with Christ. No wonder Paul gives thanks to God for them. But Paul doesn’t stop there. Because he then prays for their faith to grow. He wants the Colossians’ commitment to Christ to thrive, not just survive. So in verse 10 Paul prays that they will “live a worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.”
Those of you who are in one of our house groups will know that fruitfulness is the theme of our studies this term. We’re following a course called “Fruitfulness on the frontline” which has been produced by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Its a DVD-based course that explains what godly living looks like on a daily basis. In fact, it summarises a fruitful life under six headings, all beginning with the letter M!
- The first ‘M’ is Modelling Godly Character. Because a fruitful Christian will want live an attractive, distinctive, Christ-like lifestyle in front of the watching world.
- The second ‘M’ is Making Good Work. A fruitful Christian works hard at his job, making good use of the skills and talents God has given him.
- Third up is Ministering grace and love. A fruitful Christian will show generosity and kindness to people they come into contact with, whether that’s in the supermarket, at the school gate, or in their place of work.
- The next ‘M’ is Moulding culture. A fruitful Christian will try to change their workplace or their neighbourhood for the better. They will seek to be an influence for good in the way their company or community operates.
- The fifth ‘M’ of a fruitful life is being a Mouthpiece for truth and justice. Because a fruitful Christian will speak up for victims of injustice, and challenge any cruelty or criminality they come across.
- And last, but by no means least, the sixth ‘M’ is being a Messenger of the Gospel. A fruitful Christian will want to share her faith with family, friends and colleagues. They will want to tell them all about Jesus.
Those six M’s are a long list! And we will produce none of these fruit on our own. Unless we have a relationship with Jesus, we will be unfruitful. Unless we have his Holy Spirit in our hearts, we will lack the strength and power to be consistently and truly fruitful. To use agricultural metaphors, the Holy Spirit is the farmer and the fertiliser we need to produce a harvest of good works in our life. No wonder Paul concludes his prayer in verse 11 today by asking God to strengthen the Colossians “with all power according to his glorious might” – Paul knows they will never be truly fruitful without his help.
Are we living and growing?
Before I end this morning, may I ask us all a question? Are we like the Colossians Paul wrote to? Have we truly heard and understood the Gospel message? Have we personally received Jesus as our Saviour from sin and as Lord of our lives. In short, are you (am I) spiritually alive – or dead?
To test ourselves, we need to examine whether we have the three qualities that Paul saw in the Colossian Christians. Those qualities of faith, hope and love – however imperfect, weak and formative they may be:
- So do you have faith in Christ alone for forgiveness?
- Do you have a genuine hope of God’s eternal kingdom?
- And do you have a real love for God’s people?
I hope so. But if you are uncertain where you stand, then re-read the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Pray to God to open your eyes to the truth of the Gospel. Or sign up for our next Christianity Explored course. Or speak to me for some book recommendations that explain the Gospel clearly and convincingly. Whatever you do, don’t settle for ambiguity about your faith - don’t be comfortable with uncertainty about your standing before God. Your eternal destiny is at stake.
But if we are sure we are Christians - if we do believe the Gospel message and show signs of faith, hope and love - then we should have an appetite to grow. An appetite to grow in fruitfulness and in our knowledge of God. It’s the growth that Paul prayed for the Colossians, and the growth we should pray for one another today.
Let’s do that now: Heavenly Father, thank you for rescuing us from sin and darkness and bringing us into the kingdom of your son. May your Holy Spirit sustain us in faith, hope and love, and produce a fruitful harvest in our lives. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.