‘Without doubt’, according to Bishop J.B. Lightfoot, ‘Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul is addressed.’
Certainly, it had once been a prosperous city, situated on a strategic crossroads and renowned for its flourishing textile industry. But by Paul’s time it had declined in size and significance. In part this is because a main road was rerouted (bypasses caused problems in the ancient world too) leading to Colossae being isolated and overshadowed by nearby cities. A town of faded glory, so far as we know, it was populated by low born ‘ordinary’ people who farmed crops and looked after sheep, eking out a living in the associated trades of shearing and dyeing wool, and selling it in the market.
And yet it is ones like these to whom Paul writes, addressing them as ‘God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ’ (1:2). Paul locates them geographically in Colossae and theologically in Christ, describing them as holy and faithful in Christ even while living in Colossae. Their Christian faith doesn’t remove them from the world. They continue to live and work and raise their families ‘in Colossae’, but do so ‘in Christ’, rooted in the lordship of Jesus (2:6-7). Seated with Christ at the right hand of God (3:1), the Colossian Christians are also called to live out their lives in the here and now, their identity in Christ touching every area of their daily existence – as shepherds and slaves, as wool dyers and market traders.
Fruitfulness on Location
As so often in his letters, Paul thanks God for the Colossians, excited that the gospel which has been ‘bearing fruit and growing in the whole world’ (1:6, again reinforcing the cosmic significance of Jesus) has also been bearing fruit and growing among them. That fruitfulness is then applied to the Colossians again as Paul prays for them to be ‘bearing fruit in every good work’ (1:9).
In line with Paul’s own concerns, LICC’s creative and practical DVD resource, Life on the Frontline, was designed to alert Christians to the missional significance of their everyday locations – the places to which God has called us, where we spend much of our time, where we meet people who don’t know Jesus – our frontline. Its follow-up DVD resource, Fruitfulness on the Frontline, encourages us to see how God might work through us on our daily frontlines, as we seek – in his strength and by his grace – to make a difference where we are, ‘bearing fruit in every good work’.
Paul prays for fruit for the Philippians too, that they will be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God’ (1:11). Far from being incidental, his references to ‘bearing fruit’ here and elsewhere tap into a rich seam which runs through the Bible from beginning to end. We find fruit on the first and last pages of Scripture – in the garden of Eden and the new Jerusalem – and almost everywhere in between. Look more closely, and it becomes clear that God’s desire for fruitfulness is as extensive as the gospel – with what God has done in Christ in bringing men and women back to himself and in setting in motion his plan to restore the whole of creation.
Created for Fruitfulness
So it is that fruitfulness begins with God himself, who creates land with the capacity to produce plants and trees which bear fruit, who blesses animals to be fruitful and multiply, and who calls on human beings created in his image to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ (Genesis 1:26-28). That original mandate has to do with building families, growing crops and breeding animals – essentially cultivating creation. Yet, such cultivation provides the basis for the organisation of society and includes, by extension, the development of culture and civilisation – building houses, designing clothes, writing poetry, playing chess – as we represent God’s rule over every activity, in relationship with others, reflecting God’s own creative hand.
Sadly, the expectation that Adam and Eve would spread God’s blessing from Eden to the whole world is shattered when they disobey God and are expelled from the garden. What will God do now? But, as Genesis continues, so the promise of fruitfulness is reiterated – to Noah after the flood, and to Abraham and his family, where numerical growth of the people is bound up with God’s covenant with them, for the sake of blessing all nations. Then, after the covenant at Sinai, the promises are linked to the people’s obedience to God in the promised land, as God’s ‘vine’ planted there (Psalm 80:8-11).
Through all this, as we see in Psalm 1 and elsewhere, bearing fruit becomes an archetypal image of godly living. The righteous, those in covenant relationship with God, who constantly meditate on his law, are like a tree planted by a stream that produces fruit (Psalm 1:3). The tree is well located, well planted, and well-watered. Because of that, it thrives, bears fruit in season and does not wither.
Alas, however, the repeated complaint of the prophets is that Israel as a vine or vineyard seems unable to bear fruit. ‘The song of the vineyard’ in Isaiah 5:1-7 is particularly poignant, recording God’s deep sadness that his chosen people who had been planted to bear fruit, ultimately for the blessing of the nations, had produced only sour grapes. The consequence in the Old Testament story is that they suffer judgment and dispersal in exile.
Even so, the language of fruitfulness is picked up again in promises of restoration back to the land, sometimes associated with the giving of God’s Spirit (as in Isaiah 32:15-17). Isaiah 27:1-6, in particular, provides a moving counterpart to 5:1-7, using the same language. In spite of their fruitlessness, God remains lovingly committed to his people, and will assume responsibility for the care of the vine, watching over it, watering it, and protecting it against enemies. This is because he has large-scale plans for his vineyard – nothing less than to ‘fill all the world with fruit’ (27:6)!
Fruitfulness in Christ
Given the rich Old Testament background, it’s perhaps no surprise that Jesus uses images related to fruit and fruitfulness, sowing and harvesting, fig trees and vineyards. Especially evocative is his statement ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener’ (John 15:1). The upshot of Jesus’ declaration and his use of the vine image is that he is now taking up the role God had assigned for Israel. Union with Jesus in the vine means participation in the restored end-time people of God who are called to bear fruit to God’s glory (John 15:8).
Paul too picks up the language of fruit at various points in his letters, where the original mandate of fruitfulness given at creation finds fulfilment in the worldwide transformation of a people – Gentile as well as Jew – a people who bear the fruit of the Spirit as a sign of the new creation. As Paul says in Galatians 5, those who walk by the Spirit (5:16) and are led by the Spirit (5:18), who live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit (5:25) are no longer under the authority of the law. Nor are they bound to ‘gratify the desires of the flesh’ (5:16), that way of life marked by alienation from God and each other. Instead, the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Spirit have ushered in a new era – a new creation no less (6:15) – in which the Spirit animates our relationship with God, just as he promised through his prophets.
Then, as we have seen, when writing to the Colossians, expressing thankfulness to God for their faith, love and hope, Paul says that the gospel is ‘bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world’, just as it has been doing among the Colossians themselves (1:6). And as part of his prayer in 1:9-14, Paul prays that they will be those who are ‘bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God’ (1:10). Those references to ‘bearing fruit’ and ‘growing’ are remarkably similar to the phraseology and thought of Genesis 1:28. Paul appears to be suggesting that the gospel is creating a people who now fulfil the purpose of the creation mandate, a people who are being remade in the image of the Creator (see Colossians 3:9-10). Amazingly, Paul sees God’s originally intended design for humanity finally being completed through the power of the gospel bearing fruit in the lives of men and women!
As we pray and work to see fruit in the spread of the gospel, and as we abide in the vine bearing fruit to the glory of God, and as we seek to walk in step with the Spirit who does his new creation work in and through the church, we look forward to the new Jerusalem where trees will bear fruit for the healing of the nations. Echoing Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12), John too sees an Eden-like ‘river of the water of life’ proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1), with the tree of life on both sides ‘bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month’ (22:3). Where humans were formerly denied access to the tree of life, now John’s vision includes it, describes how it produces fruit every month which renews those who eat it.
The picture John paints – of free access to life and vitality – is hugely significant in a world where people struggle to overcome disease and death. Here the natural order is wonderfully transformed, with God’s promises of restoration finding their ultimate fulfilment in the renewal of the cosmos to be a place where God and people can truly dwell together. Here too, citizens of the new earth are drawn from all nations in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, itself reflecting the original blessing of fruitfulness on humanity right back at creation.
Fruitfulness, then, is bound up with the larger biblical drama of creation and redemption, promise and fulfilment, God’s relationship with his people and his plan for the nations. And it’s our privilege as disciples of Christ to take our place in his grand scheme, working out the implications of the gospel on our frontlines, our lives reflecting the scope of his reign, our relationships displaying the arrival of the kingdom and anticipating its future completion, all the while bearing fruit to the glory of God.