Preaching From Colossians

C. DeWitt Matthews  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 16 - Fall 1973

Preaching from Colossians, or from any other book in the Bible, is an effort to communicate the meaning of God’s revealed truth. The whole process is two-way—the preacher and the listener participating together in what is being said and heard—or there is really no communicating going on. In short, any sermon is a futile exercise unless the audience is involved in what is being said.

Although no sermon ever “makes contact” with all members of a congregation at the same time or to the same degree, the preacher should always be trying to learn better ways of communicating so that the number of people who are not being “reached” will be reduced to the fewest possible number. How a thing is said, then, is at least as important as what is said although some vigorously debate this contention. But the battle between those who stress content and those who emphasize process is equally time-wasting. The solution is never actually either/or but both/ and, for content and method are twin necessities in effective preaching.

There are some minimum guidelines for communicating the Bible’s message in preaching. First, the preacher must know the Bible—God’s book—lovingly know it. What study this demands! What probing, what analyzing, what exegetical discipline! It is a truism, but I hope not a trite one, that knowledge of the Bible for preaching requires knowing such elemental things about a biblical passage as who wrote it, to whom, and under what circumstances, plus the peculiarities of tenses and various word nuances. A study of history, archeology, and geography should follow in sequence ahead of any attempt to break the passage down into clear content statements.

So a thorough familiarity with the biblical text and background is prerequisite to going any further with the sermon’s development.

But equally necessary is an understanding and appreciation of people. Preachers who stay in their study rooms—ostensibly because they have a high view of sermon preparation, but actually to avoid contact with people—may know the Bible but they generally are unaware of the human condition. Such men seem to ignore what their congregations are thinking or feeling, and so they are “shooting in the dark” when trying to “hit” a human situation that may not even exist in that group. It was perhaps this type of man who provoked the little Scotch lady to say that her pastor was invisible all week and incomprehensible on Sundays!

I interviewed the pastors of a dozen small churches in a pioneer state and found that none of them had visited in the home of every family in his membership. One had been pastor of a church for five years and still had not done it! I concluded that these men evidently did not believe that a precise knowledge of their people’s cultural level, background and upbringing, family and personal situation, business and professional involvement, was of any sermonic significance. But without a continuing effort to stay informed about his people’s changing needs, a pastor will most likely preach to strangers though living among them for years.

Knowing the Bible and knowing the people are two sides of the same coin and there is very little communication in preaching unless both sides are present.

A third principle which helps rescue preaching from the wilderness of abstractions and generalities is specificity. Sermons, like custom-made clothes that fit a particular person, should be prepared for and preached to a specific congregation, in a specific place, at a specific time to meet specific conditions.[1]C. DeWitt Matthews, “Sharpening the Sermon’s Cutting Edge,” Proclaim, (July, August, September, 1973), p. 39. John Henry Newman wrote in this regard as discerning a statement on the nature of preaching as the English language contains.

Definiteness is the life of preaching. A definite hearer, not the whole world; a definite topic, not the whole evangelical tradition; and . . . a definite speaker. Nothing that is anonymous will preach; nothing that is dead and gone; nothing . . . of yesterday, however religious . . . and useful. Thought and word . . . must issue fresh . . . from the preacher’s mouth . . . (and) breast if they are to be “spirit and life” to . . . his hearers.[2]John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1959), p. 388.

This insight if strongly adhered to will give “grab” to sermons, for they will have been prepared for these people and these people only. How often do sermons lack this sharp application principle and thus are so flattened out to apply equally to everybody that they actually “grab” nobody!

Another caution to watch is to avoid bogging the sermon down in the Bible. By this I mean the urgent need for sermons to shift quickly in their emphasis from the biblical world’s ancient culture into modem life style. Obviously, the Bible talks about some details of primitive days that do not apply in the same way or to the same degree in current situations. If they do not apply, a preacher should make no apologies for not using such passages in sermons. But this decision to delete can be dependably made only after the most careful research and comparison. Most of the time underlying principles—though couched in obscure terms—still are there. These principles confront any human situation at any time, but the discerning preacher must make the distinction between his world and the ancient one, pointing out which cultural patterns mentioned in the Bible still are applicable, and which are not.

Again, sermons ought to be preached in the present tense, not the past. Newman’s fine observation flatly said, “Nothing that is dead and gone, of yesterday,” will preach. Admittedly, the biblical record is about events that took place before we came on the scene—a history of what occurred in an ancient time and place. But there is no better way to dull a sermon’s listenability than to preach it in the past tense. For instance, people rarely get excited about Abraham’s historic trek across an uncharted desert, or Paul’s intrepid missionary journeys, or any other ancient episode, unless they can see these early descriptions as illustrations of the same principles that operate in their own day. Further, the Bible’s account of God encountering Moses at the backside of the desert, described in colorfully descriptive language, makes little sense to modern audiences if the sermon just relates the account and asserts with dead literalism that modem man needs a desert and a bush. The chances are very strong that no members of modem congregations have ever had a burning-bush experience, per se, but they need to be shown through the sermon that the reason the narrative is in the Bible is to suggest that when we try to run away from our responsibility or moral demands, God pursues us around every turn of the road, over the long years, and into the wasteland of our very existence to persuade us to repent and become available for his purposes. In this metaphorical sense all modem congregations have burning-bush experiences, and they need to be told about them, using Moses’ experience as an illustration of all men’s continuing condition.

Finally, sermons from the Bible should assume a variety of forms. For instance, a provocative professor of preaching, believing that “most sermons . . . in Christendom have nothing at all new in them,” pleads for courageous experiments in sermon form and application. He urges preachers to assume an innovative stance, and not be content with how sermons have always been structured, phrased and applied. “Sermons which know where they’re going,” he says in a recent book,[3]John Killinger, Experiential Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), pp. 9-26. “because they have been there so many times before, are no sermons at all.”

This assertion may vex the sermonic traditionalists who fear a change in form and approach will weaken the eternality of the biblical content. But experimentalism in form and direction does not necessarily imply that content must also change. So biblical sermons can and should be conceived, delivered, and applied in different ways in order to catch the fleeting attention of many worshippers who feed so constantly on a secular culture’s innovative diet.

These elements- a thorough knowledge of the Bible’s con­ tent and background, an awareness of people’s needs, a firm holding to specifics and not generalities, an artful transfer of the congregation’s attention from the Bible’s ancient world to the current situation, a determination to talk about God and man in the present tense and not in the past, and a willingness to experiment with innovative sermonic forms—will help preaching, from Colossians or from any other book, come alive, be current and convincing in its applicability.

Now, look at some representative sermon outlines dug out of Colossians. I shall introduce each with a practical paragraph. The phraseology in the outlines and the titles will indicate my intention to stay close to our day and the text. Doubtless, there are more preachable ideas in Colossians than I am citing. Each preacher will do his own “digging” and selecting if he wishes to cull from Colossians more preaching material.



The ministry is being harshly scrutinized these days. One critic has categorized preaching as boring, dull, uninteresting, irrelevant, lacking in courage and incomprehensible.[4]Clyde Reid, The Empty Pulpit (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967), pp. 25-33. Another claims that the average sermon contains too many ideas, is too analytical, and offers little prescription for a cure. He further says that sermons are too formal, too impersonal, too propositional, and are lacking in specific guidance for people’s commitment and action.[5]Reuel L. Howe, Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue (New York: The Seabury Press, 1967), p. 32.

Three such analysts have published a book that tries to answer the question of why men leave the ministry.[6]Gerald J. Jud, Edgar W. Mills, Jr. and Genevieve Burch, Ex-Pastors: Why Men Leave the Parish Ministry (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1970), p. 59. Still another talks about the preacher finally disappearing from society.[7]Laile E. Bartlett, The Vanishing Parson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 79.

Obviously a single sermon cannot completely rebut these negative appraisals, but this one could perhaps be used to help neutralize for congregations this widespread effort to down-grade the ministry. It should recognize the unrest among ministers themselves and their discontent with the complexity of the roles they have to assume as is graphically described in another recent book.[8]Donald P. Smith, Clergy in the Cross Fire (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973), pp. 13-19. It could draw a contrast between the secular view that the ministry is just like any other profession and that people enter it for purely selfish reasons such as prestige, social acceptance, and tax considerations. Over against these unflattering evaluations of the ministry could be set Paul’s high view of his work for God. Specifically, he claims in this text that God willed that he become an apostle. After his decision to do so he associated with persons of like mind such as Timothy, and he related best with congregations of people who had committed themselves to Christ. A relevant outline to answer the title’s question might be:

  1. They believe it is God’s will for them to enter the ministry. (1a) (Paul called himself an apostle—one who is sent—but everyone called into God’s service is sent out to accomplish a work.)
  2. They benefit from associating with others who are comrades in the work. (2a) (Our brother Timothy.)
  3. They function best in congregational fellowship. (2b) “to the saints and . . . brethren at Colossae.”



Expressed appreciation is the oil that lubricates human relations, and congregations feel its absence sharply. Since most of the people who serve in churches are volunteers, they are encouraged by their associates’ commendations. But often the minister may not give them approving comments. This is a serious oversight that can damage the fellowship. In fact, it is appalling how frequently church disruptions are begun by disgruntled people who feel that their work is unnoticed by those whose approval they seek. The minister can easily overlook this important thing—expressed gratitude. But in this letter Paul puts strong emphasis on being grateful for one’s helpers.

  1. He is grateful for their faith in Christ. (4a)
  2. He is grateful for their love for all God’s people. (4b)
  3. He is grateful for their hope in the heavenly future. (5)

Faith, hope and love were among Paul’s favorite themes and here he is thankful for the people who have these virtues, and tells them so.



Pastors are frequently asked, “Will you pray for me?” Such a request can be turned aside perfunctorily because other duties seem to absorb the pastor’s attention. But a wise pastor never knowingly minimizes the importance of praying for his people. Some sensitive men keep a prayer book in which they write their people’s names and conditions. This helps them to pinpoint the need. Others, unfortunately, habitually and mechanically race through a prayer formula but not with true intercessory concern.

In this passage the apostle lists five specific reasons why he prays for Colossian Christians.

  1. He prays for converts no matter who wins them. (He mentions the work of Epaphras as an example.) (7)
  2. He prays that increased knowledge of God’s purposes will support the converts’ initial profession. (9)
  3. He prays that their profession and knowledge will result in Godly attitudes and deeds. (10)
  4. He prays that God will give them strength to endure every situation that may arise. (11)
  5. He prays that they will be thankful for having left their darkness and entered into God’s light. (12)


Colossians 1:13-14 SALVATION WORDS

One of the difficulties in understanding the biblical teaching about God’s saving process through Christ is the necessity to harmonize the many words used to describe what happens. This text is an example. Paul was conscious of the meaning of salvation by God’s grace in contrast to his previous dependence on Hebrew legalism. So he wrote of ten about salvation through Christ alone. Here he talks of it in three ways: (1) being rescued from darkness; (2) being ransomed from enslavement; and (3) being transferred into another realm of duty and destiny. He is dealing with salvation but using a different word each time. So this sermon could profitably be a word study, being careful to use graphic illustrations about light and darkness, freedom and slavery, and leaving this world of sin and weakness to be taken into God’s heavenly kingdom—in the present and the future.

  1. We are rescued from darkness. (13)
  2. We are ransomed from sin’s enslavement. (14)
  3. We are transferred into another realm (God’s kingdom). (13b)

Of course, the power of word study sermons lies in the suitability of the illustrations used. The heavenly kingdom-“the kingdom of His dear Son” —has a present and a future connotation. We enter the kingdom now but we are translated into it fully and finally at death.


Colossians 1:15-18 A HIGH VIEW OF JESUS

The Christian faith rises or falls with Jesus. He is its supreme hero, its reason for being, and its ultimate goal in character and faith. So it is not surprising that Paul has such an exalted view of Jesus. His life’s whole direction and purpose were changed when Christ confronted him on the Damascus road. From then on the apostle never let anyone or anything diminish his view of the role Jesus played in the Christian scheme of things. Here he calls Jesus God’s best image, creation’s chief agent, and the head of the church.

  1. He is earth’s best likeness of God. (15a)
  2. He is God’s chief agent in creation. (16)
  3. He is the head of the church. (18)

These three emphases say that Christ is the clearest picture we have of God; that he is involved in the whole creative process, the physical which is done, as well as the continuing creation of a new society in conformity with Christian ideals; and he is the kingly head of the church (the congregation of the faithful), God’s vehicle for accomplishing kingdom purposes.



No sermon can ever hope even to summarize all of the great things that Christ has done and is doing for sinners. They are too numerous and marvelous! But his death on the cross in the place of sinful men stands out in bold, cruel, glorious outline as the supreme act. The substitutionary quality of his death still staggers the imagination and causes even believing men to wonder how it could be. Primitive concepts do not portray the deities dying for man, but rather the devotees dying for the gods. But the New Testament declares that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This is, undoubtedly, Christ’s supreme work on our behalf. The text says just two things about it, but they are adequate to make it clear.

  1. He reconciles sinners to God by dying for them. (20)
  2. He brings sinners into God’s presence fully accepted. (22)

Christianity, then, is not a religion that primarily stresses what man has done or should do for God as much as it emphasizes the remarkable things God has done and is doing for man. The death of Jesus for sinful man, making reconciliation possible, is God’s greatest gesture of good-will, his costliest act, his crowning proof that He is love at its highest and best.


Colossians 1:24-29 REVEALING GOD’S SECRET

How often have you heard someone claim that Colossians 1:27b, “Christ in you the hope of glory,” refers to the Christian’s commitment being the hope of getting to heaven? The confusion arises from identifying the word “glory” with heaven. But “glory” when referring to heaven is not a biblical concept, but a hymn writer’s view. Thus we have numerous hymn poems and gospel songs that speak of the “glory land,” meaning heaven.

Therefore, this is an opportunity to tell your people that this verse refers to the Christian obligation, through commitment to Christ, to reveal God’s glory, or character and purpose, to the world, not to the assurance that the believer will go to heaven.

Secondarily, it is legitimate to talk of the “riches of the glory” to mean that the Christian life is filled with all kinds and degrees of wonderful rewards, the greatest of which is the opportunity to share God’s grace with others.

Why this secret or mystery was hid is not made clear. But with Christ’s coming, believers enjoy the glories of the faith and of sharing them with others. Human instrumentality is made imperatively important in the knowledge of God’s purposes getting abroad.

  1. The secret is that God’s people will share God’s relationship.
    1. They enjoy the bounties that come from the relationship.
    2. They share these with others who do not know about
  2. The secret has long been hidden. (26) Tread softly here in claiming to know exactly why. It may well have to do with some aspect of the “fullness of time.” The concern should not be why it was hidden but why we continue to hide But witnessing about God’s saving purpose in Christ is often covered up by rituals, activities, and the barnacles of time.
  3. The process of revealing this secret is accomplished by proclaiming God’s message in (28) I think this is the real focal point of the sermon. Christ abiding in believers is God’s best way of propagating the faith—getting the word about God’s glory (his character and purpose) out to the world. It is not so much “if you have it, flaunt it,” but if Christ is in you, then demonstrate by word and deed that God’s character is being expressed by your witness.



Every door worth the name has a lock to seal it and a key to open it. How safe are treasures unless they are secured by locks? But of what use is a lock if no key to it is available?

Paul here calls Jesus Christ the key that opens all of God’s hidden treasures. This is his way of saying that without Christ as the key we are powerless to fathom vast areas of God’s functioning. But with the revelation that is in Christ a rich treasure of comprehending God’s wisdom and knowledge is ours.

Let us readily admit that without the historical Jesus God remains for most an elusive mystery. Even when we recognize that God is spirit we are still left with unfulfilled hopes. But if God is like Jesus—or Jesus like God—then we not only can understand more of God’s mystery but are no longer afraid of God. At least, Paul evidently believes that much of God’s meaning for man’s destiny lies hidden from human sight unless Jesus opens up the riches. In what ways is Christ the key to God’s treasures?

  1. He is the key to understanding the complexities of man.
  2. He is the key to unraveling the mystery of God.
  3. He is the key to comprehending God’s highest wisdom that is in Christ.



One of the most futile and non-productive procedures in the world is to try to live the Christian life “on your own,” separated from a conscious dependence on Christ. Paul’s term is “in union with Christ.” He describes the closeness of the believer to Christ as meaning that how a Christian thinks, feels, and acts is a reflection of how he believes Christ himself thinks, feels, and acts. Whoever accomplishes this completely? No one. But it is still the supreme imperative for Christian living. No one can possibly be faithful to the Lord if he ignores this intimacy with Him. This sermon, then, could reiterate Paul’s firm guidelines for faithfulness. He admonishes us to

  1. Be alert to live in close union with Christ. (6)
    1. By being continually rooted in Him. (7)
    2. By being continually built on Him. (7)
    3. By continually consolidating and strengthening our faith in Him. (7)
  2. Be on guard against those who would lead us away from Christ. (8)
  3. Be sure to be thankful for the relationship we hold to Christ. (7b)

Paul uses synonyms—rooted, built, strengthened—to a plain what he means by living “in union with Christ.” Then he turns on a caution light about those who would minimize Christ. Finally, he encourages us to be truly thankful for the relationship we have with the Savior.



Without graphic symbols to portray its depths of meaning, Christianity would lose much of its grip on man’s imagination and faith. Paul uses circumcision and baptism as symbols of God’s action on behalf of man. “Christ’s own circumcision,” as he puts it, is a picture of man being severed from sin’s power. Likewise, baptism is a continuation of the picture of separating us from sin’s consequences. Of course, it is untenable to interpret this passage as meaning that burying in water washes away sin. But what is the apostle really saying?

  1. Baptism of the believer is a picture of his being buried with Christ—submerged in Christ, enveloped by Christ—made completely secure in Christ.
  2. Baptism portrays the believer’s death to sin and his rising to the Christ level of living.
  3. This transformation comes about through the believer’s faith in God’s power to save from sin. (This is the same power, the apostle is careful to add, that raised Jesus from the dead!)

This passage, then, lays stress on the great work of God’s power in salvation, if accompanied by faith, as portrayed symbolically in baptism. Therefore, baptism is one picture that Christianity should never dull out, change, or eliminate from the rituals of the faith, for without this symbol much of the New Testament’s emphasis on salvation’s meaning is lost.


Colossians 2:13-15 WHAT GOD DOES WITH OUR SINS

Sin is not an “in” word these days. But it is still used in the Bible to describe man’s alienation from God. Some pretend that sin is not real or even serious. Others admit its existence and seriousness but try to evade its consequences. Some run fast and deliriously to get away from their ill-at-ease feeling, but when they stop running the illness does not subside. Some “take a trip” on drugs to neutralize their pangs of remorse. But all of these subterfuges are to no avail. The “damned spot” will not wash out of the fabric of our consciences any more than Lady Macbeth could cleanse the stain her murderous hands had left on hers.

Then God steps into the ugly debris that sin leaves. Can he do anything about it? Paul says in this text that he does three rather revolutionary things about our sins: He forgives them, he cancels them, he nails them to the cross. Of course, the forgiving and the canceling are made possible by what happened on the cross. One should be careful to distinguish between canceling or blotting out, and forgiving. Illustrations can make the distinction clear.

  1. God forgives our sins. (13b)
  2. God cancels our unfavorable record. (14a)
  3. God nails our infractions to the cross. (14b)



Some say that preaching ought to stress earth to the exclusion of heaven. Others emphasize the “otherworldly” aspects of the faith. One claims that sermons should deal with earth where men’s problems are, and not go soaring off into the “wild blue yonder” of another world after death.

But this contention of the importance of earthly considerations, if overstressed, can become nothing more than pure humanism. Nevertheless, extreme “otherworldly” sermons, being careful to avoid a forthright confrontation with man’s earthly struggles, do indeed become cowardly “pie in the sky by and by” sermonic maneuvers. But neither should preaching gaze too much and too fondly into “God’s tomorrow.” It is a matter of degree and timing.

What Paul makes clear in this text is that heaven does affect earth. He calls believers, therefore, to give attention to heavenly values and so influence the quality of their earthly existence. How does he suggest doing this?

  1. By focusing on heavenly values while still on earth. (1, 2)
    1. Through genuinely loving such values. (1a)
    2. Through thinking and studying about them. (2)
  2. By anticipating sharing in Christ’s glory in the ultimate heaven. (4)

If as many students of human nature insist, we become in attitude and action what our minds and emotions feed on the most, then believers should expect and get periodic sermons on heavenly themes. Earth, without some heavenly perspectives, remains a shabby, shoddy place for man to live.


Colossians 3:5-16 CHANGING WARDROBES

The old adage that clothes make the man, though undoubtedly an oversimplification, does point up the fact that when one is properly attired he usually feels better and acts better than when he is slovenly clothed. What you wear does say something about how you appraise your worth.

Paul gets exceedingly practical in this passage on wearing appropriate clothes. He bluntly says that Christians should discard inappropriate attire—unbecoming attitudes and actions. Then he lists what he considers to be satisfactory moral clothes that will truly represent the Christian ideal of conduct.

Of course, the sermon can emphasize as many or as few of the “garments” as desirable, but Paul’s list seems adequate for all. He admonishes believers to

  1. Discard the old filthy clothes.
    1. Physical impurity
    2. Grasping greed
    3. Anger and ill-will
    4. Dirty language and lying
  2. Don the clothes that are fit for God’s people to wear.
    1. Compassion and kindness
    2. Humility and gentleness
    3. Patience and forgiveness
    4. Love and peace
    5. Gratitude and joy



Perhaps no aspect of religious life gets more discussion than prayer. We are always admonishing ourselves and others to pray more, as if an accumulative quantity of praying would accomplish more than one effective prayer experience. The truth is that the best praying requires certain imperative disciplines. Paul includes only three in this passage, but without them prayer is likely to deteriorate into a self-centered, narrow sentimentality and a tiresome repetitiousness, but with a religious flavor. The apostle is talking about prevailing prayer, not just any babbling before God.

  1. Effective prayer requires alert minds. (2)
  2. Effective prayer reflects thankful hearts. (2b)
  3. Effective prayer includes particularly all those who proclaim God’s word. (3, 4)

Most public prayers are tiresomely the same. One wonders what private prayers must be like! Paul contends that prayer will be sharpened in its power and interest if the one praying is mentally alert before and during the praying. This means at least a studiousness about the nature of the objects of prayer, and not just a loose ad-libbing about the same things you prayed for last time. Interestingly enough, Paul stressed the need to pray for those who proclaim God’s word. This seems to be an autobiographical plea for his associates at Colossae to intercede for him. What pastor despises this? Such preparation for praying will give more precise “coverage” to prayers and save them from repeating so boringly what is generally said each time prayer is offered.

Happily, Paul adds thankfulness in prayer, for without gratitude many prayers become almost an exclusive exercise in holy complaining or begging, not a gladsome recitation before God of all his bounties and our thankfulness for them.



It is alarmingly easy to live among non-believers and rarely ever talk with them about Jesus Christ. Most of us exhibit this lack of awareness only too often. Whole neighborhoods are populated with unchurched people who are never even approached about the faith. Therefore, we all need at least occasional rehearsals on how to introduce ourselves and Christ to non-Christians. Paul does precisely this. No one can possibly misunderstand what the great apostle means. Living as he did amid so many people of other faiths, he appeals to us to

  1. Be alert to every opportunity to share with the outsider. (5)
  2. Talk graciously and interestingly to them. (6a)
  3. Strive to give the right answer to each person’s inquiry or objection. (6b)

Christian alertness, graciousness, loquaciousness, honesty, and respectfulness are the human qualities that Paul says non-Christians deserve from believers. Otherwise, how will we ever build bridges of understanding and mutual appreciation across chasms that separate people who may live on the same street but who are worlds apart in religious discernment and commitment? How else can evangelism occur unless Christians present such attractiveness in personal approach to others as Paul specifies?

Paul recognized that non-believers not only may make inquiries about our faith, but that they also of ten have serious objections to it. He advises us to strive to answer their objections courteously, not impatiently try to jam biblical proof texts down their mental throats to cover up or neutralize their objections. One must be wise to be a soul winner, not primarily a tabulator of the number of converts that we may habitually strive to obtain, however many questions we leave unanswered in the quizzical mind of the inquirer.


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