In Colossians 1:24–2:5, the apostle Paul invites the Colossian believers to examine the shape of his ministry, his goals, and the pleasures he takes from his labor. In the face of false teachers among them, he lays down a spiritual plumb line against which we may measure a ministry’s legitimacy as we ask, “Whom has God really sent to us?” In other words, who should become a pastor, what should their work look like, and what should they hope to accomplish through it?
In part one of this pair of articles, we learned from the pattern of Paul’s struggle. Anyone who goes into pastoral ministry should do so with the confidence that it is God who moves him there, not his own preferences and ambitions. He should commit himself to teaching the Word of God and not human ways of thinking. And he should do so in the manner God has ordained: preaching. Ministry is thus a God-given calling to teach a God-given Word by a God-ordained method.
In part two, we now go on to draw lessons from the purpose Paul saw in his work and the pleasure he took from it.
The Purpose of the Struggle: Mature Christians
We can see Paul’s purpose plainly stated and unpacked in Colossians 1:28–2:4:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. (Col. 1:28–2:4)
If the pattern of ministry is a God-given calling to proclaim a God-given Word, the purpose is what God has given that Word to accomplish (2 Tim. 3:17). Pastors “toil and struggle” to proclaim Christ so that they “may present everyone mature in Christ.”
A pastor should seek that at the very core of their being, his flock would be strengthened, would be stirred, would be lifted up.
Tellingly, Paul sets the action of proclamation—“warning” and “teaching”—in the present continuous tense, which means he is speaking about continual, habitual action. Maturity, in other words, is not instantaneous. It is crucial to have a sense of history. The number of people in the pews on any given Lord’s Day is no measure of one’s success. Rather, pastors should ask themselves whether the people who are under their care—however many God has granted them—are becoming more Christlike from one Lord’s Day to the next.
What does such maturity look like? Paul reveals the particulars with respect to “those at Laodicea” and others who have not seen him “face to face.”
First, Paul says, he struggles so that their “hearts might be encouraged.” A pastor should seek that at the very core of their being, his flock would be strengthened, would be stirred, would be lifted up. Even when it is necessary to warn believers and speak with forcefulness, the people of God still should understand that the Word comes in order to encourage us.
In the Bible, “the heart” refers to the core and the center of man’s being—our inmost self. It is the touchstone of our words and of our actions (Matt 12:34; Luke 6:45). The pastor’s goal is to bring the hearts of God’s people close to the heart of Christ. It is not the task of pastoral ministry to simply transmit information from the pastor’s head to the congregation’s heads but that God may indwell people’s hearts and draw them to the heart of the Lord Jesus. As God’s people draw near to the heart of Christ, they will find joy in His presence and take courage from His promises, remembering that they are in Him and He in them.
Second, Paul says he struggles so that they might be “knit together in love.” This “love” is not mushy sentimentality but a love formed by truth. Christian unity is found in believers’ union with Christ and in their submission to Him as “the head of the body” (Col. 1:18), of which they are all a part. If the community of God’s people is not marked by love, then it has not been formed in the image of Christ, for the commandment He gave to us was to love just as He loved (John 15:9). Methods change, programs come and go, but “love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8).
Believers are also united on the basis of their understanding of God’s truth and preparedness to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:17). Whenever the belt of truth is left off in the armor (Eph. 6:14), chaos will ensue. Love and truth are always interwoven. So it is very important that believers learn to speak the truth to one another with gentleness and that when they receive rebuke, they do so with humility and honesty. Failure to do so will sooner or later lay the body flat on its back.
Third, Paul says he struggles so that they might “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery.” This mystery, again, “is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The purpose a pastor pursues is thus to bring the flock to an ever-increasing understanding of the Gospel.
Preachers in our day are often tempted to focus too much on behaviors: “How to Be a Good Parent,” “How to Be a Good Spouse,” and so on. And pastors should offer advice on such subjects—but they cannot be the staple diet. People may feel that they need a course on how to be the perfect husband or how to be the right kind of mom, but what they actually need most is to understand who God is and what humanity is in relationship to God. When people really understand the Gospel, their ability to be a good mother, wife, coworker, or whatever else begins to fall into line.
Because a pastor’s purpose is to see God’s people mature in Christ, it will be his great delight to see that maturity tested and proved sound.
A complete understanding of the Gospel also guards believers from false teaching—that is “in order that no one may delude” them “with plausible arguments.” Unless a congregation has been nurtured and instructed in biblical doctrine, then it will be filled with those who fall for feeble reasoning paired with fast talking. Mature people are prepared to examine all teaching for the truthfulness of its content rather than the attractiveness of its packaging, because they have come to full knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Pleasure from the Struggle: Orderliness and Firmness of Faith
After laying out a pattern and identifying his purpose, Paul finally expresses the pleasure he takes from his ministry: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5). As the Colossians grow into maturity at the proclamation of the Word, he says, “I delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.” The pastor whom God calls, like Paul, will find joy in the orderliness and firmness of their people.
An Orderly Company
The orderliness Paul refers to is the kind that would have described ranks of the army. It is the opposite of chaotic disarray. Everything God says is to be done in a fitting and orderly way. The church is to be like an ordered battalion, with every soldier in his appointed place. It’s no casual campout; orderliness represents an absolute, unquestioning commitment to the standing orders. Christ is Lord, and His people are engaged in “a continual and irreconcilable war”1 for sanctification in this sinful world. Once believers submit to the authority of the Commanding Officer and begin to follow His orders, they understand who the real enemy is.
Two things then follow. First, they don’t fight each other. Soldiers may be prone to squabble, but no one turns his back on his fellows in arms in the face of enemy fire. Every time believers fight with each other, it’s a sign a church has lost sight of the real enemy. But it is a delight for a pastor to see his flock marching under the banner of Christ and engaging together in the battle against sin and Satan.
Second, believers form bonds of brotherhood. How often do you see veterans who continue to meet and share their lives with war buddies? It is not because they went to the same school, had the same general interests in life, or have the same personality type but because they fought together underneath the same banner and against the same enemy. As believers submit to their Commanding Officer and fight the battle together, they will find friendship like they’ve never known before. Pastors may find great delight in the mutual love that grows in this brotherhood in arms.
A Firm Bulwark
When Paul describes the “firmness of faith” he delights in among the Colossians, the picture is of a solid bulwark, an unbreakable square, solidly immovable against the shock of the enemy’s charge. Because a pastor’s purpose is to see God’s people mature in Christ, it will be his great delight to see that maturity tested and proved sound.
It is not the strength of our effort but the strength of God’s enabling which allows God’s servants to carry on.
This is why pastors should find themselves praying often for the people under their charge, as Paul so often does in his letters. Whatever else happens, it should be their desire that the flock may continue to love and serve the Lord Jesus. Wherever they go, whatever influences they come under, however the preacher himself may fall short, his hope should be that by God’s mercy, they will carry on to the day of the Lord and delight together with him in the presence of Christ. One of the greatest delights in pastoral ministry is to see that our children are walking in the truth (3 John 4).
The Power for the Struggle: God’s Own Energy
Paul describes his progress toward this goal as a struggle because it is a struggle. It’s a struggle to be prayerful. It’s a struggle to be positive. It’s a struggle to keep going in the face of setbacks and discouragements—when the people that you thought were the starters on your team quit showing up, when people you thought you could depend on turn and walk out of your life. How can anyone hope to accomplish such a task?
Paul gives his answer in the last verse of chapter 1: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29). Pastoral ministry is a struggle, but the one God calls is able to struggle with God’s energy. Ultimately, it is not the strength of our effort but the strength of God’s enabling which allows God’s servants to carry on. As you consider the example that Paul sets for us in these verses, remember: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
The Westminster Confession of Faith 13.2. ↩︎