Colossians 3:12-14 – Forgiving One another (Reading Matthew 18:21-35)


Gordon Wilson (an extract from Wikipedia)

On 8 November 1987 a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded during Enniskillen's Remembrance Day parade, injuring Gordon Wilson and fatally injuring his daughter Marie, who was a nurse. In an emotional television interview with the BBC only hours after the bombing, Gordon Wilson described his final conversation with his dying daughter as they both lay buried in rubble. His words "I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge" were reported worldwide, becoming among the most-remembered quotations from the Troubles. The 60-year-old publicly forgave those who had planted the bomb and said he would pray for them. He also begged that no-one take revenge for Marie's death and pleaded with loyalists not to do so. Whereas IRA attacks in Northern Ireland often resulted in reprisals by loyalists, Gordon Wilson's calls for forgiveness and reconciliation came to be called the Spirit of Enniskillen.

As a peace campaigner, Gordon Wilson held many meetings with members of Sinn Fιin. He also met once with representatives of the Provisional IRA. Wilson sought to understand the reasons for the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen. He also held talks with loyalist paramilitaries in an attempt to persuade them to abandon violence.

Gordon Wilson was a man of strong Christian faith and attended Enniskillen Methodist Church.

What can persuade a man behave like that? What can enable a man to behave like that? How can one person have such a transformative influence upon the society in which they live?

The answer is, Jesus. Here was a man who sought to follow the Lord Jesus and to live in a way that reflected the character of his master.

And this is the life that Paul is calling the Christians in Colossae to live – and through his words, this is the life God is calling us to live each day of our lives.

At the beginning of Colossians chapter 3 Paul writes, "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:1-4)

"You have been raised with Christ" – you share in his risen life; you live in him and he lives in you. "Set your minds on things above" – not because you no longer care about life and relationships in this world, but you are no longer to live as this world lives. By the risen power of Christ, live as he lived; live in a way that anticipates the life that shall be yours when Christ appears and you are made perfectly like him and his glory suffuses every aspect of life in his creation.

So to the verses of our text today: Colossians 3:12-14

12 Therefore [the 'therefore' links what Paul is now saying to what he has said at the beginning of the chapter], as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved [this is who you are, so], clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 

Here is the glorious purpose of God for us.

There is so very much in these verses. Did any of you watch the animated version of Charlie Mackesy's wonderful book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse? It was shown on BBC Television on Christmas eve. Charlie Mackesy is a Christian who attends Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of Alpha – for which he did the artwork. The book and the animated film are full of winsome wisdom. At one point, as the boy and the mole are sitting together on a branch of a tree, the Mole asks the Boy, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' – a question you perhaps remember being asked when you were young; I wonder what answer you gave?. After thinking for a while the boy replies, 'I want to be kind.'  What an astonishing and deep answer. Kindness is one of the qualities found in the list above even as it is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. It is a quality that needs to mark our lives even as it marked the life of the Lord Jesus. It is an aspect of the character of our God displayed particularly in the Lord Jesus Christ (see Titus 3:3-5). How we wish it were to characterise and transform our world – Putin, politicians, international relations, families…


But this evening, I want to focus particularly on the theme of forgiveness.

Jesus forgave others

Jesus scandalised the Jewish leaders of his day by having the audacity to forgive the sins of many who came to him. Remember the paralysed man brought to lie at Jesus' feet. Jesus said to him ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ And he showed that he had power to forgive sins by telling the man to 'Get up and walk,' and that's precisely what the man did.

But perhaps most remarkably, when Jesus, had been flogged, mocked and beaten and was being nailed to that most cruel instrument of execution which was the cross, he cried out, 'Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.' Jesus forgave those who crucified him.

And Jesus taught his disciples that they must forgive one another

Earlier, we read Matthew 18:21-35. Remember Peter's question: ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Peter thinks that he is being so generous, so gracious, so kind in being willing to forgive someone who offends him seven times – would we manage to pass such a test? But Jesus pulls the rug from under Peter's feet not only with his immediate response, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]', but he goes on then to tell the parable of a king and two of his servants. The king forgave the first servant an unimaginable debt – a debt he was quite unable to pay – but that servant then refused to forgive a far smaller debt owed him by a fellow servant. It's a shocking story. But it’s a story about the way we so often behave.

And the point of the story is that we are to forgive the offences others have committed against us just as God has far more wonderfully forgiven the incalculable debt of our sin and rebellion against him.

Back to Paul and Colossians

And this is Paul's point as he writes to the Colossians – and to us – saying, 'Bear with each other, and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.' Colossians 3:13.

Well how has the Lord forgiven us?

Forgiveness flows to us from the cross

Let me take you back to Colossians 2:13-14 where Paul writes,

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.

Remember that when Jesus was crucified, the charge against him was nailed to his cross, 'This is the King of the Jews'. But Paul tells us that is was as if the list of our sins, the many thousands of ways we have fallen short of all that we should be – that great list of charges that could be brought against us in the Day of Judgment – was taken by God and was nailed to Christ's cross. "He bore our sins in his body on the tree", he bore our condemnation. We have been forgiven through the cross. In the words of the hymn we sang earlier:

My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!

my sin, not in part, but the whole,

is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;

praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Forgiveness does not come cheap. Forgiveness is not a matter of brushing our sin and wrongdoing under the carpet. Sin needs to be atoned for, just as the blood of animals was shed for sin under the Old Covenant, so Jesus paid the price for our sin.

God is a God of forgiveness

But we must not think that Jesus' sacrifice of himself on the cross forces the hand of a reluctant Father. On the contrary, Jesus' death is an expression of God's great love for us: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). It is love that moved the Father to send the Son and it is love that took Jesus to the cross, He "loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).

Our triune God is a God who loves, forgives and welcomes sinners. Think for a moment of the story Jesus told which we call the parable of Prodigal Son. Remember how the father in the parable runs to meet and embrace his errant son. Here is extravagant love; here is wonderful forgiveness as the son who had brought shame to his father by squandering his father's money is welcomed back as a much loved and much valued son. It is costly forgiveness but it is forgiveness freely given to the transgressor.

And we are to forgive like this

We are to forgive one another as the Lord forgave us. This too is an act of love – "And over all these virtues", says Paul, "put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity." Such forgiveness can be costly and painful. It means letting go of the hurts and resentments that so readily spring up in our hearts. It means being willing to love and embrace the one who has hurt us and to welcome them back into our company and conversation just as God has embraced us in Christ.

But let me just add a word here. For reconciliation to take place, it requires two parties to act. The prodigal could only be welcomed home because he had come to his senses and returned from the far country seeking a place in his Father's house. Jesus forgives sinners, but the rebellious sinner who will not come to Christ will not experience the forgiveness and acceptance of God. We should always be ready to forgive, even to forgive at great cost to ourselves, but reconciliation requires some movement on the part of the one who has wronged us. But we must always be ready to forgive others just as God has forgiven us in Christ.

And even where someone has wronged us and is reluctant to be reconciled with us, we are to be generous in seeking to bless them rather than harm them, just as God pours out his blessings upon us day by day.

And we need to forgive others daily. Since Liz and I started worshiping in an Anglican church we have become more accustomed to repeating the Lord's Prayer in worship. And in that prayer, Jesus taught his disciples – he teaches us – to pray that our heavenly Father would provide us with our daily bread – all we need for the day ahead. This suggests that this prayer is a model for our daily prayers. And so we are taught also to pray daily that our heavenly Father would forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. We are reminded that even as we need daily forgiveness from God so also we are to forgive others daily.

How can we live like this? Only by the power of the risen Christ living within us – apart from him, we can do nothing.

The witness of forgiveness

Let me close by returning to the story with which I started, the story of Gordon Wilson. The words and acts of forgiveness of this man, who had been so deeply hurt, touched and transformed the lives of many others. In a world where people are so often seeking to hit back against those who have hurt them, forgiveness acts as a powerful witness – a witness to the power of grace that transcends the demands of law and of rights.

Nelson Mandella's willingness to sit down and talk with those who had imprisoned him and had mistreated his fellow black Africans transformed the situation in South Africa – as did the words of Desmond Tutu and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation commission. Forgiveness brought healing and reconciliation. Many similar stories can be found in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide in which more than 500,000 Tutsi were killed by armed Hutu militias. Forgiveness was foundational to rebuilding Rwandan society.

So here is the challenge for us. If we were to begin to forgive one another as God has forgiven us in Christ, might this not form the most powerful witness to the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ and begin to transform the society in which we live?


Marshfield – 8/1/2023