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.

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