As God continues His work of saving and sanctifying sinners for the display of His glory, a theme that eventually presents itself to the minds of faithful Christians is, what is the point or purpose of the church? More specifically, what ought God’s assemblies be known for, what are they to do, what is their mission? The locus classicus for this idea, of course, is Matthew’s version of the Great Commission (28:18-20). But a little-known yet precious complement to this idea is found in today’s text, Colossians 1:28-29. It has been referred to as Paul’s philosophy of ministry. What should a church be known for? Making all its members mature and complete in Christ. This is the goal mentioned in verse 28b. It carries the idea of offering someone to God and in His view that person has reached His intended goal for them. They are thus complete and lack nothing needed. John Kitchen writes that it means they are “initiated into the depths of God through Christ.” This text gives us three keys to that glorious goal.
A. The Right Message (v. 28a)
Colossians is one of Paul’s prison epistles, written during his first Roman imprisonment upon getting a status report from the church at Colossae. A false teacher had infiltrated the community, teaching a combination of proto-Gnosticism and syncretistic Jewish mysticism and asceticism. Most critically, he was denying the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ; Christians needed something more than Him to be pleasing to God, to be justified, and to walk with Him. Paul wrote this letter to proclaim and defend the full sufficiency and glory of the Lord Jesus, and it is in that context that we find this declaration of how Christians mature in Christ.
“Him we proclaim” is more literally “whom we preach,” as it continues the sentence in verse 27. Who is proclaimed? The Christ who is in believers as their down-payment of glory; the Christ who is the heart of God’s now-revealed saving mystery; the glorious Christ of verses 15-22—Creator, Lord, Redeemer, Atonement, Blesser, Savior. Paul preached this Jesus—the real, virgin-born, historical, sinless, God-incarnate, crucified, risen, coming again Jesus—because He and He alone is enough to accomplish all God intends on every level. Jesus is God, Jesus is the sinless sacrifice, Jesus is the One with absolute authority over heaven and earth, so Jesus is more than enough!
“Proclaim” is a solemn word used for announcing, publishing, or declaring. It’s used eleven times in Acts (4:2, 8:5,13:38,15:36) and is on some level the duty of every Christian, not just those men in ordained ministry. It is an authoritative, decisive, definitive proclamation of a person, what He did, what He will do, what He is doing, and what He wants (cf. “word of Christ” in Col. 3:16). We are to boldly and confidently proclaim Christ to every member of our churches and in every ministry. He is the answer, He is the focus, His will and His ways are the goal and standard. The next point explains how the proclamation is to be done.
B. The Right Approach (v. 28b)
These two verbs are participles, explaining how the proclamation is carried out. First, Christ is preached negatively through warning. “Admonishing” can also be translated “warning,” and is a compound Greek word that means “to place before the mind.” It carries the idea of gently but firmly instructing regarding beliefs or behavior in the context of making one aware of evil or danger. Are you believing a lie about God? Then you need warning. Are you stubbornly insisting on your rights and quenching love for your spouse or children? Then you need warning. Are you flirting with doctrine that isn’t heresy but is errant? You must be warned of its implications and where it could lead. That relationship, that speech pattern, that value system, that affection, that area of bondage? Pray God puts people in your life to warn you…and pray you have a soft enough heart to heed it! It is interesting to note this word is only used by Paul (except when Luke uses it quoting him), and that this is something all believers are to do for each other (Rom. 15:14). Elders are especially responsible to do it (1 Thess. 5:12), and unruly (1 Thess. 5:14) and disobedient (2 Thess. 3:15) Christians are especially in need of it. Christ wants a holy, fruitful, obedient people, and one key way to cultivate that is through the ministry of admonition.
“Teaching” is the positive proclamation of Christ, and it involves the doctrinal, affectional, and ethical instruction that addresses His will of command and promise for the whole man. To what should the affections of your heart be inclined? God will teach you. What does He promise, what can you trust Him for, what does He says He will do? You need teaching. What does the Word say about the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, justification, future judgment, the rapture, the millennium, angels, sexuality, virtue, marriage, singleness, attitudes, values, music, abortion, life’s purpose, humility, hell, heaven? You need teaching. We are to continue in the Word of God to be continually set free (John 8:31) and long for the pure milk of the word that we may lit. grow into salvation (1 Pet. 2:2). While elders ought to be able to teach (1 Tim 3:2, 2 Tim. 2:2; in the sense of knowing truth and refuting error, not necessarily in the sense of being able to publicly preach the Word on Sunday) this is not a ministry that is for them alone, nor is it relegated to those who have a formal teaching ministry in a Sunday school class. All Christians should know the Bible well enough to be able to impart sound truth to others for their sanctification and growth. Teaching is the positive impartation of truth; preaching Christ properly will impart right thinking and worldview rooted in a right, comprehensive doctrinal framework. Good teachers encourage their hearers to trust and bank on the truth, to love and live on it. They will be exhorted to and have explained to them what it means to live in Christ. Ultimately, this proclamation must be brought down to an individual, personal level as members and elders disciple one another.
The manner in which this is to be done is “all wisdom.” Wisdom is skill at living life under God’s rule. It is transformative to every area of life and rooted in a convicted knowledge of Him and His will through His Word. True wisdom is God’s revealed will for the daily circumstances of life. Note that this means pushy, abrasive, arrogant, or prideful counsel—especially when done without listening or being willing to hear all the facts involved—is not permitted by God. Truly wise counsel is humble and easily entreated while still bold, unashamed, and convinced. We need both aspects in both admonition and teaching if we are going to be useful to the Lord.
C. The Right Perspective (v. 29)
“For this purpose”—the purpose of presenting every believer to God complete in Christ through the preaching of Christ—Paul labors. It is his goal. It is his focus. Everything orbits around this. Note that in the strict sense this takes priority even over evangelism of the lost (though in the broad sense it includes evangelism of both the saved and the lost, as no one can be made complete whop is not first reconciled to God). The idea is that Paul lit. “toils” and “agonizes” for this goal. But he does not do it on his own; the striving is done according to God’s power which works within Paul. As with everything else, God energizes, God enables, God grants the ability (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10). God gives the power for His own work and plans. How good it is to be within His will, knowing that we will never lack His personal enablement for it at just the right time! Do not be lazy nor passive. Do not experience burnout by relying on your own strength. Trust God to fill and enable you for your work—your work that is His—and then do it!
Healthy churches consistently proclaim Christ through warning and teaching, doing so utterly dependent on His sovereign power to bring about fruit for His glory. But O that we and they would excel still more! There is always room to grow, to be refined, to mature in how we mature others. O that God would freshly pour out His Spirit for a new awakening, that God’s people might be more fully equipped for—and earnest about—the proper completing of each soul in Christ, that they might more perfectly bear the image of the Man from heaven, to the glory of our great God.
Nota Bene: I am gladly indebted to John Kitchen’s wonderful commentary, Colossians and Philemon for Pastors (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2012) for some of my comments on the above passage.