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In the Spirit (1:8)

In Colossians 1:4 Paul acknowledged the love these believers have toward one another. He praises and thanks God for having evoked this in their hearts. In v. 8 he mentions it yet again, but here explicitly describes it as being "in the Spirit."

Somewhat surprisingly, this is the only explicit reference to the Holy Spirit in the book of Colossians. Needless to say, there are countless activities and virtues and experiences mentioned in this book that are elsewhere in the New Testament attributed to the work of the Spirit, but in Colossians this is simply taken for granted rather than openly stated. So, Paul has thus far said five things concerning Christian love: (1) it cannot exist independently of faith in Jesus (v. 4); (2) it is an affection for and commitment to "all the saints" (v. 4), not just those whom we find it easy to love and who in turn will love us back; (3) it is a public virtue, one that will make itself known in visible and vocal ways (v. 4); (4) it is the fruit of hope, which is to say that love flows from the fountain of confident expectation that what God has promised and laid up for us in heaven will indeed come pass; and (5) it is ultimately the work of divine grace in our hearts, for it is God whom Paul thanks for its presence and expression in the lives of the Colossian believers (v. 3).

To these five truths Paul now adds a sixth. In v. 8 he mentions the ministry of Epaphras (I'll return to him in the next study) who "has made known to us your love in the Spirit." So, this love of the Colossians one for another is in some sense due to the work or operation of the Spirit in their lives.

This phrase "in the Spirit" could also be translated "by the Spirit" or "through the Spirit" in the sense that it is the Spirit who is responsible for the power and incentive and steadfast commitment to fulfill whatever is in view. For example, Paul exhorts us to pray at all times "in the Spirit" (Eph. 6:18), by which I think he means, among other things, (a) as the Spirit prompts us, (b) in the strength and power the Spirit supplies, (c) always asking the Spirit to bring to mind the truths of God's Word that are relevant to the person or subject of our intercession, and (d) always and ever dependent on the Spirit to cleanse our minds of sin and guard us against distraction and frustration. I should also mention that in view of Paul's description of tongues as praying "in the Spirit" (same Greek phrase; 1 Cor. 14:13-19) he may also have this in mind in Ephesians 6:18 (although, as noted, praying in the Spirit encompasses far more than merely praying in tongues).

Therefore, to experience and express "love in the Spirit" points us yet again to the divine origin of this affection. It is a God-given love, one that cannot be cranked up or willed into existence by human grit and determination. James Dunn put it best when he described this love as one that "can only be aroused and sustained by the Spirit of God. The phrase carries overtones of an inspiration that wells up from within, charismatically enabled (Rom. 2:29; 1 Cor. 12:3,9,13; 14:16; 1 Thes. 1:5), and that depends on continued openness to the Spirit if its quality of unselfish service of others is to be maintained" (Commentary on Colossians [Eerdmans], 65).

Clearly, then, this love that the Colossians have for Paul and for all the saints is not a love that is natural to the human heart. We are by nature selfish and guarded and absorbed with our own concerns. If we are to love as the Colossians loved it must happen "in the Spirit," which is to say: as the Spirit reminds us of Christ's love expressed in the cross, as the Spirit works to direct our thoughts from self to the saints, as the Spirit awakens in us a recognition of the presence of Christ in other believers, as the Spirit overcomes our inclination to harbor bitterness and unforgiveness toward those who have hurt us, as the Spirit energizes our hearts to believe that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive. This is why "love" is a fruit of the Spirit, as Paul states in Galatians 5:22.

There is yet a seventh, and final, observation Paul makes about this love. He has already said that love (and faith) flows from that hope laid up for us in heaven (v. 5a) and that this hope is an essential component in the gospel which the Colossians (and we) heard (vv. 5-6). Indeed, this gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the Colossians (and us; v. 6). This fruit, in part, is love. So, the way this love will continue to be nurtured and nourished and sustained in our hearts through the activity of the Spirit is by listening to and reading about and trusting in the truth of the gospel!

If hearing the gospel produces hope and hope produces love, we must be diligent to immerse our minds in the gospel by reading of it in the inspired Word, by meditating on its promises, obeying its warnings, memorizing those texts that speak of its blessings, and trusting that it will do for our souls what nothing else can. As we, by God's grace, focus our faith on the promises of the gospel and relish its beauty the Spirit will work to evoke and stimulate and sustain a supernatural love one for another that will redound to the glory of Jesus, for "by this all people will know that" we are his disciples, if we have "love for one another" (John 13:35).

Relying on the Spirit with you,