Maintaining Relationships in the Local Assembly
Robert F. Wall
The believers at Colosse had already put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new (Col. 3:9–10). This was something they did (and every Christian believer does) in principle by believing the gospel (ch. 1:5–6). Now Paul exhorts them to put off those characteristics of the ‘old man’ that the natural conscience may find less offensive, and not just to ‘put to death’ those gross sins in which they once walked. They were to ‘put off … also, all these things, wrath, anger, malice, blasphemy, vile language out of your mouth’ (Col. 3:8).
In the verses that follow Paul turns from their conduct in general, to their behaviour towards one another in particular. Later in verse 5 of chapter 4 he speaks of the need to walk in wisdom towards those who are without but here in verses 9 to 17 he specifically addresses those who are within and shows the attitude and conduct that is becoming towards one another.
Do not lie to one another
In verse 9 we are exhorted not to lie to one another, ‘having put off the old man with his deeds.’ This exhortation isn’t restricted to what we say but addresses every form of deceit. In Acts 5 we read about Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit in seeking credit for something that was not true of them. In their case the intervention of the governmental judgment of God was immediate. We must remember that the devil is a liar and its father (Acts 5:3; John 8:44). In contrast, the Lord Jesus came into the world to bear witness to the truth and always spoke it (John 18:37; 8:40). He was entirely without hypocrisy (John 8:25). What place have lies among the people of God? They breakdown the confidence that we should have in one another. Rather, we are to ‘speak truth every one with his neighbour, because we are members one of another’ (Eph. 4:25).
Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved...
Paul next exhorts the Colossians in view of what they were in Christ. In Him they were the elect or chosen of God, and holy and beloved. Living in the light and love of this they could be sure of the Lord’s help as they sought in dependence on Him to answer to the positive exhortations in this section. Putting on these qualities is not something superficial. Christ was their life and living in that life these features would be manifested in them.
In this section we have the character of Christ (vs. 12–14), the peace of Christ (v. 15) and the word of Christ (v. 16). They are put before us in the form of exhortations and as we respond positively we can be sure that harmony in the local assembly will be greatly helped.
Bowels of compassion and kindness
Firstly they were to be marked by a genuine concern for one another (c.f. Phil. 2:20). Compassion is not passive but what stirs one to act in view of need that is known. Elsewhere we read of ‘[the] bowels of mercy of our God’ and His intervention in Christ (Luke 1:78). Of Christ Himself we read: ‘And on leaving [the ship] [Jesus] saw a great crowd, and he was moved with compassion for them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things’ (Mark 6:34). He provided appropriate spiritual food to meet their spiritual need, as well as material food before He sent them away (see also 1 John 3:17).
Kindness is a characteristic of divine love (1 Cor. 13:4). It is gentle and charming (Prov. 19:22). ‘Bowels of compassion’ emphasise the deep inward feeling from which the action proceeds whereas ‘kindness’ emphasises more the character and spirit of the individual carrying out the action. These qualities give confidence and build up relationships among the saints. They too strengthen the practical unity of the local assembly.
Lowliness and meekness
While bowels of compassion and kindness manifest themselves in activity to meet the needs of others, lowliness and meekness are rather those inner qualities that keep us in our right place as those who are completely dependent upon God. Both were seen in the Lord Jesus (Matt. 11:29).
Lowliness, sometimes translated humility, means literally to have a low-lying mind. It is a quality produced in us as we spend time in the presence of God. There we learn how great He is and how small we are. In truth we are nothing in ourselves though grace has a purpose that involves each one of us. That purpose will certainly be accomplished but the glory all belongs to God. This right assessment of ourselves leads us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. This is practical salvation; to have a saved mind.
Meekness is rather that quality that receives everything from the hand of God and submits to His will (see Matt. 11:1–26). It does not look at second causes. As we pass through difficulties with Him, we learn Him in a deeper way than would otherwise be the case. There is blessing in it. This shuts out bitterness and lifts us above the anger and resentment to which the flesh so readily gives place.
Longsuffering and Forbearing one another
After reference to those inner qualities that maintain dependence on God and preserve quietness within we have the longsuffering and forbearance that are necessary because there is still sin in us.
To be longsuffering is literally to be long-tempered. Where there is this quality there is not a rash reaction to provocation but self-control. If a response is appropriate, it is a considered one. We are to bear with one another, remembering that ‘we all often offend’ (Jms. 3:2). How much Christ bears with in us! Should we not bear with one another?
The believers who together form the local assembly may have different backgrounds (e.g. Col. 3:11) and be very different in personality and character. While the enemy always seeks to magnify these differences the Spirit of God occupies us with Christ and the fact that ‘He is everything, and in all’. As Christ is this to us practically, we will be occupied with what we have in common in Him. We have been called in one body (see also v.15), having the life of Christ, and are to relate to one another accordingly.
Forgiving one another, if any should have a complaint against any; even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also do ye
There is to be forgiveness should there be occasion to blame another. The wording ‘any … against any’ covers perhaps not only individual complaints but difficulties that may arise between families etc. The words ‘even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also [do] ye’ show both how readily given and also how complete the forgiveness is to be.
And to all these add love, which is the bond of perfectness.
Divine love cannot be separated from its source and is only manifested in the lives of believers as communion with God is maintained. Here it is said to be the ‘bond of perfectness’ since it binds together in a two-fold way. Firstly it binds together these different qualities by maintaining their divine character. They belong to the moral nature of God of which every believer is made a partaker and are not to become or be mistaken for natural amiability. Secondly, as the life and character of Christ are manifested in these qualities the saints are bound together practically and the unity and testimony of the local assembly is maintained.
And let the peace of Christ preside in your hearts, to which also ye have been called in one body, and be thankful.
The peace of Christ is that peace that Christ knew when He was here and which He gives to us (John 14:27). It flows from communion with Him and the consciousness that we have an adequate resource in every situation. This inner peace preserves from the agitation and fear that otherwise might disturb the company. Its enjoyment enables saints to realise practically the unity of the spiritual body of Christ in its local aspect and nothing hinders the thanksgiving in which all participate.
Let the word of the Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another,
The word of the Christ is to be in our hearts, occupying our thoughts and directing all our words and actions. As it has this proper place in our lives our spiritual understanding will increase and be manifested in wisdom towards other believers, bringing suitable teaching and, where appropriate, admonition. The teaching unfolds the truth of scripture, while admonition necessarily addresses what is wrong and needs correction. Evidently, where the spiritual state is good there is no resentment or working of pride when this is done.
In psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God.
The word of the Christ dwelling in us richly is also to manifests itself in singing to God. There is communion through the word and the liberty of grace. We can sing intelligently to God about our Christian experience (which is based on an accomplished redemption), of the One in whom we are blessed and of all that is ours in Him.
And everything, whatever ye may do in word or in deed, [do] all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him.
Everything that we say and do is to be done as those who are here to represent the Lord Jesus. There is the consciousness of the divine favour in which we stand and thanksgiving to God the Father who is the source of all our blessing.
How beautiful is the picture that is presented to us in these verses! Would we not all desire to be part of such a company? Indeed we can be if we all take up the exhortations in this section and in dependence on the Lord seek to answer to them. May we have grace to do so, even in these last days.
When things go wrong
It is remarkable how early in His ministry to the Jews, and subsequently when speaking about the assembly, the Lord gave directions about the resolution of difficulties between brethren. He knew that such difficulties would arise and in both cases leaves us in no doubt as to the course of action that is to be taken (Matt. 5:21–26; 18:15–20).
It is clear that we are called upon to act, and to do so as soon as we realise that there is a problem. This is emphasised by the Lord’s words in Matthew 5:23–24: ‘If therefore thou shouldest offer thy gift at the altar, and there shouldest remember that thy brother has something against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and first go, be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.’ Although the context is clearly a Jewish one do we not feel the force of the Lord’s words? A ‘gift’ is taken by which it is intended to honour God and in going up to the temple one’s conscience is in exercise. Then, at the altar, it is brought home to the conscience that his brother has something against him. We might have thought that it must always be right to put God first, that the gift should be offered and then reconciliation with one’s brother actively sought. The Lord, who knows our hearts, shows that in these circumstances the gift is unacceptable. One must leave the gift at the altar and first be reconciled to one’s brother, and then the gift can be offered.
In Matthew 18 the context is a Christian one. In verse 17 the assembly is mentioned for only the second time, after the first reference in Matthew 16:18. In these verses it is not the individual who is conscious that his brother has something against him who is instructed how to act, but the one who has been sinned against.
In the parable of the kingdom of the heavens in the latter part of the chapter the Lord shows that we are always to remember how much God has forgiven us and not to pursue trivial matters. How contrary to his lord’s mind was the harsh and unforgiving action of the servant who having been forgiven a ten thousand talents debt went out and demanded the one hundred pence owed to him by his fellow-servant, even to the point of having him put in prison. The other servants felt the injustice of the action and told their lord all that had been done. The severity of their lord’s dealing with the ‘wicked servant’ shows how greatly this unforgiving spirit offended him. Having presented the parable the Lord Jesus added His own solemn words, ‘Thus also my heavenly Father shall do to you if ye forgive not from your hearts every one his brother’ (Matt. 18:35).
It is clear that we are not encouraged to pursue trivial matters but if we have been sinned against and we feel it is too serious simply to pass over then we are to seek the resolution of the matter. If this is not done, the breakdown in the relationship may affect others and ultimately the public testimony of the local assembly.
‘But if thy brother sin against thee, go, reprove him ...’
The Lord says plainly, ‘But if thy brother sin against thee, go, reprove him between thee and him alone. If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother’ (Matt. 18:15). The Lord says, ‘go’ and that is what we must do. There is nothing here about writing to the brother or taking the matter up with him from a distance.
The words ‘reprove him between thee and him alone’ are also important. We are not to broadcast what has happened, or to seek to rally others to ‘our cause.’ Such actions are most unhelpful. There is to be a private face to face meeting between the two brothers concerned, with no others present. The sin involved is to be made clear and the fact that real damage has been done to their relationship. It should also be apparent by the spirit in which the whole matter is taken up that one really does want to ‘gain’ one’s brother and is ready to forgive what has been done. This is not something done only because the Lord says it must be done. There is a genuine desire that the relationship may be restored and to that end things are pursued prayerfully in dependence on the Lord and in the grace that He supplies.
‘If he do not hear thee ...’
If the brother who has sinned is unmoved by the reproof, one or two more are to be taken ‘that every matter may stand upon the word of two witnesses or of three’ (Matt. 18:16). Although nothing more is said about the ‘one or two more’ there is certainly to be probity and there should be no hint of personal preference or bias in the matter. As the ‘one or two more’ make clear to the brother who has sinned that he has acted wrongly and urge him to put things right, it may be that the weight of the combined witness will lead the offender to judge the matter in the presence of God and seek reconciliation.
If the offending brother is till unmoved the matter is to be told to the (local) assembly and he is to be to the brother that he sinned against ‘as one of the nations and a tax-gatherer.’ This is most solemn. There ceases to be an obligation to recognise the offender as a brother or to conduct oneself towards him as such. It should be stressed that the words are ‘let him be to thee’ and not ‘let him be to you.’ At this point assembly discipline has not been exercised though if the brother who has sinned continues to be unrepentant that may eventually be necessary.
How often are we to forgive?
In closing we should remember the words of the Lord Jesus in the latter part of the chapter. Peter asked: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? until seven times? Jesus says to him, I say not to thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.’ As has been remarked by others, this really shows that there is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive one another. The Lord’s closing words also show the importance of forgiving from the heart (Matt. 18:35). Where this is done the matter ceases to occupy the mind and mutual fellowship can again be enjoyed.
Truth & Testimony, 2020
In all the saints, as life.
It is possible that they will not take the same view of the matter as the brother who has pursued it in which case the matter cannot be taken further.