Colossae was part of the orbit of Ephesus. It appears to have not been personally evangelized by Paul, but by someone among Paul’s fellow workers, Epaphras. It was in the valley of west central Asia Minor with Laodicea and Hieropolis as neighbors.
When one reads someone else’s letter — like we are doing, when we read this one — one must try to “read between the lines” about some things, because one only gets one-half of a conversation. In the letter to the Colossians we read of Paul’s concern about 1) their understanding of Jesus’ nature, 2) pressure from Judaizing teachings, 3) the worship of angels, and 4) self-abuse of the body. Putting these pieces of evidence together, we can conclude that the church at Colossae was facing a challenge of false teaching that included elements of Jewish religion and early dualism or gnosticism.
In a nutshell dualism or gnosticism taught that spirit is good and flesh is evil. With that as an assumption (a bad one), gnostic believers often believed that Jesus could not possibly be the true Son of God (since flesh is evil) and 2) our own human flesh needed to be severely treated to try to rein it in. These are things that Paul needed to nip in the bud, before they became a real problem in Colossae. Sadly, gnosticism did grow and bloom in the mid-second century, despite Paul’s teachings; but it was defeated generally in later years, largely due to Paul’s teachings.
With these things in the background, let’s look at a few passages in today’s reading…
The image of the invisible God — Col. 1:15
Despite Paul’s inspired teaching, there still are people who find it hard to believe that the Son of God, part of the Godhead, became flesh and dwelt among us. But Paul is crystal clear on this matter, Jesus the Christ is no fake or emanation (a favorite idea among the gnostics); instead, He is the very image of the invisible God! Later, Paul will underscore this idea with phrases like: Colossians 1:19 “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him,” or Colossians 2:9 “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” These passages combined with John 1:1 or the story of the Transfiguration, Philippians 2:5-7, Hebrews 1:1ff, and others profess in a loud voice that in Jesus was a truly amazing thing — God became flesh and dwelt among us. Now there are a number of ramifications coming from that one truth, but the one in particular that Paul and other inspired first century teachers seemed to emphasize is that He, therefore, must be obeyed. He’s not a bud, He’s not a good teacher, He’s not a great prophet, He’s not demi-god; He is God in the flesh and must be both heard and obeyed above all others and above all else.
If indeed you continue in the faith — Col. 1:23
There are a number of these sorts of warning in the New Testament; this one just sort of jumped out at me, so I thought I’d make note of the fact that we really must be faithful to our calling, because we really could lose our salvation through neglect or deliberate disobedience. There are those who continue to preach that once one is saved, he/she can never be lost again. The Bible, quite to the contrary, teaches something different. And that’s the reason that we’re commanded to meet together on Sundays to worship the Lord and encourage each other, because it’s frighteningly easy to begin to drift away. Read your Bible, pray without ceasing, go to worship, keep contact with faithful Christian brothers and sisters, deliberately find ways to serve others and the Lord. These things help us to remain on the right track.
See to it that no one takes you captive — Col. 2:8
Words and ideas are much more powerful than we usually give them credit for being. They can change our whole lives in the extreme for better or the worse. Paul was concerned for the Colossians, because he knew the kind of slick-tongued philosophers and pushy teachers of Jewish tradition that were out there; and he was afraid that they might be taken captive (imprisoned) by their false but great sounding teachings. Earlier, Paul had told them, Colossians 1:5-7 “… the word of truth, the gospel which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf,” so that they would know that they got the “full version” of the Gospel, rather than a “starter version”. In other words, he is assuring them that they heard and understood the Gospel correctly from Epaphras the first time. Do we sometimes think that we got the “starter version” by just reading the Bible. Shame on us, if we do. The Gospel doesn’t need improvement by me or you or anybody else — period.
The shadow of the Law, the substance of Christ — Col. 2:17
If there was any “starter version” of spiritual reality, the truth, the Mosaic Law seems to have been it. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but Paul is here assuring the Colossians that going back to the Law of Moses was going back to the elemental things, the shadows of the substance that we have in Jesus! And indeed, there is a really rich study on a large scale through the Old Testament, especially Genesis through Joshua of “type and ante-type” — shadow and substance, parable and reality.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly — Col. 3:16
This is that other verse in Scripture that demands a cappella singing of Christian worship, rather than instrumental music. If you’d like more information about this issue, here’s a good place to look: http://mhtchurch.org/musicandbible.html
Conduct yourselves with wisdom — Col. 4:5
Does evangelism have to be a church program? Or can it be an individual life-style? Vss. 5,6 help us understand that evangelism is not just a church program, but is something that each of us could easily be involved in by 1) conducting ourselves circumspectly among outsiders (do nothing among them that could be construed as improper), 2) use the opportunities that arise (sometimes known as “teachable moments”), and 3) think ahead to have a good and ready answer to questions that others raise to Christians.
See you tomorrow, Lord willing.