This quarter at my congregation we are studying the Book of Colossians. As many commentators point out, the opening section of the book (1:3-23) is framed by the use of the word gospel.
“since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:4-5).
“if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:23).
But as you look at these bookends more closely, there is a specific nuance of the gospel Paul has in mind. In 1:4-5, he says that the Colossians heard about “the hope laid up” in heaven when they heard the preaching of the gospel. And in 1:23, Paul says that what the Colossians heard was “the hope of the gospel.”
In other words, according to Paul, a fundamental aspect of gospel preaching is hope.
Yes, the preaching of the gospel looks to the past work of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). And yes, the gospel applies that work to the present circumstances of every sinner, who is to unite himself with Christ’s death and resurrection through faith and in baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-12). But gospel preaching as done by the apostles and their associates also included a future dimension, the hope of glory with God forever.
I must confess that this apostolic emphasis has been absent from much of my preaching. As I reflect on my sermons through the years, I’ve focused a lot on the work of Christ, and on the need for personal faith and the importance of baptism. But I have not preached very much about the hope for the resurrection from the dead, the new heavens and earth, and the divine glory that is ours to share as we are reunited with God.
Yet, when I look at the New Testament, I see this forward-looking, hope-filled message everywhere. For instance, according to Peter, it is part and parcel to being “born again.”
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).
Here’s another example. When Paul commends the Thessalonians for the great reputation they have in Macedonia and Achaia, he says:
For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
There is a “turning from”, but there is also a “waiting for,” that is supposed to happen when the gospel is received.
In the systematic study of theology, scholars work with distinct categories like Christology (the person and work of Christ), soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and eschatology (the doctrine of last things). But in the apostolic preaching, the work of Christ in his death and resurrection is seamlessly connected to the message of salvation and the future hope of glory. You can see this interplay at work in passages like Romans 6:5-11-
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
And in Philippians 3:8-11-
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
In light of all of these passages, it is a serious mistake to truncate the message of the gospel by diminishing (or completely ignoring) the future component of Christ’s saving work.
One last point. When Paul opens the letter to Colossae, he commends the Christians there for their faith in Christ and love for all the saints, which he says they possess “because of the hope laid up for” them (look at 1:4-5 again). Their faith and love were prompted by their hope. And if such faith and love are lacking in your life, may I suggest that the underlying cause is a lack of vibrant hope. And the way to get back on track is to “set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2).