Friday, 25 May 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 3

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I've been reading the Letter to the Colossians and sharing a few thoughts here. You can catch up on chapter 1 and chapter 2, then it is time to look at chapter 3.

Paul has been addressing a line of teaching that was taking root in the Colossian church, which as we saw last time was probably a form of Jewish-influenced mysticism. In order to tackle this teaching, Paul reminded the Colossians of how glorious is this Christ whom we worship. They do not need to seek out mystical experiences because 'Christ lives in you' and 'you also are complete through your union with Christ'.

In chapter 3, the focus moves on to practical elements of behaviour for Christians. As verse 8 says, 'Now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behaviour, slander, and dirty language'. This is what should characterise our lives instead (v12-15 – my emphasis):
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

I particularly love verse 17 in this chapter, as it brings home the point that our whole life should be glorifying to God. I've read that the various religious systems in the 1st century Roman empire were heavily ritual-based, with people performing their acts of worship at the temples and then getting on with the rest of their business. In contrast, Christianity is a whole-of-life thing; there is nothing God is unaware of or not interested in:
Whatever you do or say, do it as representatives of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.

Now, I think it's easy to view this as a negative thing, a very demanding standard. How can we 'let our hair down' if God is always watching us and expecting us to behave ourselves, so to speak?

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole issue, in my view. God isn't interested in external conformity, he wants internal transformation. 'Let God transform you by changing the way you think'. 'Faith by itself isn't enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.' 'A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart.'

So then, the goal is character change, in order that we will naturally do what is pleasing to God. When we are working, we will work hard for God's glory. When we are letting our hair down, we will party in a God-honouring way. Watching our behaviour isn't really the point, although of course we do all have to be aware of our actions and thoughts as we aren't yet fully transformed and sanctified!

The last part of Colossians 3 has specific instructions for certain groups of people; wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. That final pair has caused controversy over the years. Is Paul endorsing slavery? At the least, he's not condemning it, which does strike me as odd. Indeed, Christians used to take this passage (and others) as God's approval of slave ownership.

This is a difficult one, that strikes at the heart of how we read the Bible. Some people feel it entirely sensible to take phrases and passages out of their setting in order to prove certain points. I think that approach can lead to all sorts of trouble and just ignores the fact that each book in the Bible was written in a particular context. And in reality nobody takes the Bible to be entirely accurate (dare I say that!?); one obvious example is Genesis 1, in which the moon is described as a light – 'the smaller one to govern the night'. We know the moon is not a light; does that mean the Bible is in error and our faith is for nothing?

It's more sensible, I think to read the Bible as a divinely-inspired library of books that shows God's story and interaction with the world through the course of history. The Bible gives us the best possible picture of what God and his people are like, an idea which I tried to unpack a little bit in another couple of blog posts, here and then here.

Finally, on the slavery point, let's remember Paul's little letter to a man called Philemon, in which he advocated for the freedom of a certain Onesimus, who had run away from his position as Philemon's slave. Here's how Paul appeals to Philemon:
So if you consider me your partner, welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Colossians 4 will follow in a few days' time, but for now I'll leave you with this, while trying myself to live with it in mind:
Put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you... Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him... Above all, clothe yourselves in love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 2

A week or so ago I started a series of posts looking at the book of Colossians. You can read my thoughts on Colossians chapter 1 here and when you've done that, let's turn to chapter 2.

The first part of chapter 2 carries on from the previous chapter, with Paul writing about his hopes for the Christians in Colosse and Laodicea. These hopes centre on Jesus Christ; referring to 'many other believers who have not met me personally', Paul says this:
I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God's mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
It seems Paul hadn't been to Colosse himself; the church there sprung from the work of a man called Epaphras. Paul had heard from Epaphras about how the Colossian Christians were doing, and much of the report was very positive. From chapter 1:8 and 2:5:
[Epaphras] has told us about the love for others that the Holy Spirit has given you.
...I rejoice that you are living as you should and that your faith in Christ is strong.
As an aside, Paul's writings are often used as evidence of the 'justification by faith' idea, which states we can't do anything to make ourselves right with God. Yet Paul clearly does think our actions are important; faith in Christ is not merely about believing (in a 'sign this statement of faith' kind of way) certain things.

So the Christians in Colosse were doing well in many ways. But one aspect of Epaphras' report did bother Paul. From chapter 2, verse 8:
Don't let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that comes from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.
The Colossians were being led astray, away from the belief that they were 'complete through [their] union with Christ' and into the practice of certain strict disciplines. The current scholarly view seems to be that this was a form of Judaism that stressed self-denial (such as going without food and drink for long periods) and mysticism. The community at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, is thought to have followed at least some of these practices. Paul outlines the problem in verse 18 (from the New International Version):
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.
According to a commentary I read, Paul uses the catchphrases of these Jewish teachers in his argument against them:
Humility here means 'self-denial' and describes fasting and other bodily disciplines which were self-denying practices in Jewish, mystical piety that were supposed to open the way for receiving visions of heavenly mysteries.
The worship of angels refers not to worship directed to angels but 'the worship [of God] which angels perform'.
Goes into great detail about what he has seen (literally 'things which he beholds upon entering') is the third slogan from the 'philosophy'. The false teachers apparently claimed to have joined in this angelic worship of God as they entered into the heavenly realm and prepared to receive visions of divine mysteries. They were therefore asserting their spiritual superiority on the grounds of these heightened experiences.
Well, that's all fine and interesting but what can we take from this chapter with regard to our own lives in our world today? I'll pick out two things.

The first practical point is about spiritual experiences. We should not seek them out and neither should we thing ourselves superior, more holy, if we do have such experiences.

I don't think Paul is saying that spiritual experiences are bad in themselves; indeed many people think Paul is referring to himself in 2 Corinthians 12, where he describes someone who 'was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell'. No, Paul's concern is that we keep things in the right order, not seeking mystical experiences but seeking God, the one who gives these experiences as he sees fit.

And that brings me on to the second practical point. It's all about Christ.

Christ is our focus, Christ the 'visible image of the invisible God', the one who 'existed before anything else' and who 'holds all creation together'.

It's worth noting Paul's approach to the problems in Colosse, He didn't launch straight in to a condemnation of the false teaching. Instead he sought to unveil the wonder of Christ, reminding the Colossians of whom they serve and their security in him. Paul's focus in chapter two is on the Christians being 'complete through [their] union with Christ' and 'raised to new life' but this all builds on his wonderful reminder in chapter one of who exactly this Christ is:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see – such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.
Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything.

For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thoughts on Colossians 1

I've not read or written much over the last few weeks so, in an effort to address both those points, here goes with a little series on the Letter to the Colossians. I won't go into a load of theological detail and I certainly don't intend to cover every verse. This will be more of a journey through the Letter, focusing on those points that particularly grab me. Let's start at verse 6. I've written myself about what I think the 'Good News of Jesus Christ' might be all about; Paul (he's generally thought to have written this letter) said about the Good News that it is:
...bearing fruit by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God's wonderful grace
The Good News is God's grace, his overwhelming goodness towards us, and it changes our lives. The next passage I want to look at is verses 9-12. When we pray, it often seems to be along the lines of 'Lord, please fix things for us'. But I don't see much praying like that in the New Testament. Instead, it's 'Lord, please fix us!' - like here in Colossians:
We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding... We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father.
There's another marvellous prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23, which covers the same ground and more:
I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called – his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.
Pray those things for me right now, would you please!? My last thought on this section is about the point of the Colossian prayer. ' We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will...' but for what purpose? Well, let's see:
We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.
That's the point – to live fruitful, God-pleasing lives and to grow in spirit!

On to verses 15-20 now. Some scholars think this passage was already in existence as a creedal statement that Paul is quoting. This would make it perhaps the earliest piece of writing we have regarding Christianity. It's also one of the key passages where the idea of Christ being somehow part of God (not just the mightiest of God's creations) comes from – it is said of Christ that he 'existed before anything was created', 'is supreme over all creation' and 'holds all creation together'.

There's also the simple point that this passage does rather read like a hymn. Christ is being praised in a way that Jews would reserve for God himself, seeing as they were very strongly into monotheism, which is the idea that there is one supreme being who alone should be worshipped. The hymn is arguably elevating Christ to the status of God; indeed, one modern author has said, 'a higher Christology does not exist in the New Testament'.

I'd like to pick out one more point in chapter 1 of Colossians. Sometimes we think and act as if everything depends on our own strength or skill. On other occasions we wait passively for God to sort things out. Paul chooses another option: 'I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ's mighty power that works within me.' God doesn't want us just to let life happen around us, but neither should we think we can shape the world as we see fit, by sheer force of our will. It reminds me of Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28-30:
Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.
Jesus promises rest in the midst of work, not rest from work. Although Paul in Colossians 1:29 uses rather more forceful terms than Jesus ('struggle' doesn't sound much like a burden that is 'easy to bear'), I think they're talking about the same thing.