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.

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