I preached on the 7th at Network Vineyard. It was the first in a series at the church on Colossians. The sermon begins with the background to Colossians and then provides some thoughts from 1:1-1:14. You can hear the sermon here.
Has anyone heard of foundmagazine.com? It’s a website which features a daily ‘found object’ – a letter or a drawing or a photo that someone has found and sent in. I like the glimpse into people’s secret lives that I get from these found objects. People from around the world leave comments trying to guess the origins of the found object. Who is in the photo? What are they doing? Or who wrote the letter? What’s going on?
I’ve got this book that collects the best of Found and I want to read you one of the letters in it.
Dear Mrs Dionne,
I am so, so sorry about your husband. I want you to know that It was not my fault. I left Dragon’s Tongue, Nick Trenkle and Dom Walbridge did most of what was done. Andy is a great photographer. I saw you at the trial, and I wanted so terribly much to say something to you. To tell you how sorry I was. How sorry I am. I am so, so sorry.
Sincerely, Mike M. Mcafee.
We could spend a long time trying to work out things about this letter. What was done to Mrs Dionne’s husband? Was he murdered? What is the Dragon’s Tongue? What has Andy’s photographic skills got to do with it? Is Mike telling the truth?
But we’re not here to study this letter, we’re here to study a different letter. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Of course, it presents similar problems. It’s tempting when we read the Bible to assume we already know the backstory, we already know exactly what’s going on and we can just leap in and make sense of it straight away.
But actually, we’re picking up someone else’s letter and there’s a lot of things we need to understand to make sense of it. We do the Bible a disservice when we think it’s easy to understand. If we wanted to fully understand this letter from Mike Mcafee, we would want to know the answers to those questions about the background. We would start following up on clues – we know the letter was found in Gainesville, Florida. We would look back over trial records and newspaper articles from this city to see if any match the names we have.
When it comes to Colossians, we can be thankful that there’s hundreds of detectives all over the world who have been working on it over the last centuries to answer those questions. We call them New Testament scholars.
Colossians is one of the more elusive of Paul’s letters. The detectives have put up lots of plausible and sometimes implausible guesses about it, but there’s some things that we just can’t know for sure because we don’t have enough information.
Paul is writing from prison. The letter is most similar in content to Ephesians. It is related to Philemon because Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus are part of the church at Colossae.
The town of Colossae is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. It was in the province of Asia, which is modern day Turkey. It’s about halfway between Jerusalem and Rome. It was in an earthquake prone region near the larger town of Laodicea. In 61AD, a massive earthquake shook the area and archaeologists and historians think that Colossae was abandoned then. Given that the gospel didn’t come to this region till the mid-50s, Paul’s letter to the Colossians must have come not long before the earthquake.
Today is the first anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires. It was probably a disaster of similar magnitude. It’s a strange thought to think of the church receiving this letter in the months or years before their town is destroyed. I hope they remembered Paul’s letter at that time and it was of comfort to them. I hope they didn’t feel in the midst of death and destruction that the things he said no longer felt true.
Paul had never visited Colossae. He writes as a well-known and well-respected church leader to a church which he didn’t start and which has never seen him in person. However, he did spend a considerable amount of time in Ephesus in the mid-50s. Ephesus was also in the province of Asia, 200km from Colossae – a week long journey on foot.
Paul mentions his beloved fellow-servant Epaphras in 1:7, who had taught the church at Colossae to comprehend the grace of God. Perhaps Epaphras met Paul when he was at Ephesus in mid-50s and became a Christian. Paul would have instructed him in the way of Jesus and sent back to his hometown to spread the news of Christ.
A few years later, there s an established church at Colossae. Jews and Gentiles are fellowshipping together as the body of Christ. But there’s problems in the church – false teaching is leading people astray. Perhaps Epaphras was so worried he wrote to Paul in prison. Our detectives have spent a long time debating the nature of the false teaching. The false teachers were insisting that everyone practice rigorous self-denial and worship angels. These practices would deliver them from the principalities and powers and gain access to the full, secret knowledge of God and his will.
Paul spends quite a bit of the letter outlining a positive view of Christ and the Christian life different to the false teachers. He also directly refutes their teaching in chapter 2.
Teaching against the worship of angels in order from deliverance from principalities and powers, Paul focuses in this letter on the supremacy of Christ. If there’s one thing to remember from Colossians, it is its focus on Christ as the image of the invisible God.
You might think that you could find that anywhere in the New Testament, but you’d be wrong. The New Testament books don’t express things in the same way. It took a lot of thinking, praying and revealing from God to get from the wandering teacher-healer named Jesus to being able to say that he was the Messiah to being able to say that he is the very image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation in whom all things in heaven and earth were created. That wasn’t the answer that came to the disciples’ mind when Jesus asked them who he was. They weren’t ready to say that yet. You won’t find this sort of statement about Jesus in Matthew, Mark or Luke or even so much in the earlier letters of Paul. You will find it here in Colossians and in John’s writings. I like the way Paul says it here in Colossians perhaps best of all.
I grew up in a conservative Baptist church which was always talking about the Bible, but less so about Jesus Christ. I think my church tended to think the Bible was the image of the invisible God. But actually the Bible teaches us about Christ, who alone is the image of the invisible God.
So, be looking for this high view of Christ as we study Colossians over the coming weeks.
Try to picture yourselves as the church at Colossae, gathered in one of the wealthier members’ loungeroom. Tychicus and Onesimus have arrived from Paul with this letter written on a scroll. You all share the Agape meal in memory of Jesus. Then Tychicus reads the whole letter out to you and explains the parts that people don’t understand. Here, again, is the section we’re looking at today:
Colossians 1:1-14 (Today’s New International Version)
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father. [a]
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all his people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true word of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world— just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, [b] who is a faithful minister of Christ on our [c] behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, [d] 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you [e] to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
As you would expect, we have a greeting to begin this letter. Timothy is named as a co-author of the letter, so I’ve been amiss in not giving him credit so far. We learn at the end of the letter that Paul isn’t the one writing it down, as he makes a point of saying he writes the last sentence in his own hand. Maybe Timothy was the one writing it down, and maybe he put things in his own words. Some scholars think this is why Colossians is different to Paul’s other letters.
He addresses the believers as ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’ in verse 2, a Jewish term for the people of God. It shows how inclusive Paul was of these upstart Gentile believers. They weren’t even circumcised but he is willing to call them ‘holy ones’. Ultimately the term extends to us too. What does it mean for us to be ‘holy ones’? To be holy is to be ‘set apart’. Are we ‘set apart’ enough in our behaviour and lifestyle? Are we distinctive from the world? Are we holy?
Paul and Timothy then extend God’s grace and peace to the church. We talk a lot about grace, but we don’t talk enough about peace. When we do, we think about inner peace. But what about peace in our community, harmonious relationships where God’s shalom rests on his people?
What about peace in the world? Are we wishing peace for the world? Or are we caught up in the world’s way of doing things, its use of violence and force to settle disputes? When Paul wrote this letter, there was a kind of peace – Pax Romana, the peace of the Roman empire. It was an absence of war brought about by Roman dominance, and it wasn’t God’s shalom at all. It relied on military might, slavery and oppression of subject people like the Jews.
The peace the New Testament has in mind is the peace of the kingdom of God. It’s a peace brought about by the way of the cross, where we absorb violence rather than retaliating. One of the ways the early church was set apart from the world – one of the ways in which it was holy – was its refusal to participate in the Roman empire’s oppression and violence.
We need to remember how crucial peace is to the kingdom of God and practice it, pray for it, wish it on each other, wish it on the world. Not the peace of Rome or America but the peace of the kingdom of God where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, so that the weapons of war become useful, productive tools.
Thanksgiving and prayer
The rest of our section from verses 3 to 14 is a thanksgiving and prayer. Paul gives thanks for the good things he has heard about the Colossians and prays that they would ‘lead lives worthy of God’, using the opportunity to express some important truths about God and Christ that the Colossians needed to hear.
In verse 5 Paul writes, ‘the hope that is stored up for you in heaven.’ As you hear that, you might be remembering the last sermon I gave when I talked about the idea that our future existence is not life in heaven but in a renewed creation where heaven and Earth coexist. How does this verse fit into that perspective?
If heaven is God’s dimension of existence, then this is actually a way of saying that our hope is stored up with God in a reality that is invisible to us now. When Christ returns, this hope will be fully present in our dimension. Tom Wright says it’s like a parent in the lead up to Christmas assuring a child that ‘there is indeed a present kept safe in the cupboard for you.’ It’s not that the child will have to spend all Christmas in the cupboard to enjoy it; instead, at the appropriate time, the present will be brought out of its safe hiding-place.
Verse 6 –
All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.
What are we to do with this image of the gospel spreading out through the world, bearing fruit? It is a beautiful, inspiring image. You can imagine the joyful optimism Paul and the early Christians had as they saw the gospel do amazing things and spread so quickly in such a short amount of time.
But we hear this verse 1950 years later. In the centuries since, the gospel has so often been twisted and distorted. Paul wasn’t able to stamp out all the bad teaching and bad religion. Misuse and misunderstanding has bore much rotten fruit and poison fruit.
As we hear these words, we can still give thanks for the fruit the gospel has bore in our own lives, the ways in which following Jesus has made us better people. We can give thanks for the way the gospel has brought freedom and new life to so many people over the world for so many centuries.
But the flip side is that we should pause and take stock of the bad fruit from Christianity in our own lives and in the world. Has our zeal for the gospel ever made us arrogant or cruel to others? Has it made us unloving to people we think immoral or ungenerous toward other points of view?
And perhaps we can pause to remember all the people burnt by the misuse and misunderstanding of the gospel, all the people who ate poison or rotten fruit. Over the last decade, a number of my friends have lost their faith. They have been hurt, damaged, dismayed and unconvinced by the church. They were damaged by the sexist things they were taught, the anti-intellectual things they were taught. The power struggles and petty fights. The lack of love.
There’s a risk of being simplistically triumphal in our faith and ignoring the struggle faith is for many Christians. For those on the edge of faith, it’s often even hard to express their struggle, because there’s too many people around for whom everything is simple and black and white. It’s good to be inspired by Paul’s picture, but it’s also important to remember that it doesn’t match everyone’s experience of Christianity. As we pray for the gospel to spread, let us pray that it bears good fruit and doesn’t poison people.
Fruit and the empire
That’s my personal reaction to this verse. I want to offer something two of our detectives write about it. In Colossians Remixed, Sylvia Keesmat and her husband Brian Walsh write that fruitfulness and fertility were images the Roman empire used about itself in statues and artworks and everyday household items. Everyone living under the Roman empire was subconsciously forced to acknowledge that Rome was the source of fruitful abundance. If you wanted to share in that fruitful abundance, you stayed faithful to the Roman empire.
This means that in claiming the fruitfulness of the gospel, Paul is making a counter-claim to the Roman empire. He is Paul telling a boldly different story – it’s not the empire that is fruitful; the empire is part of the dominion of darkness. It’s the kingdom of the Son which is bearing fruit, this underground movement of slaves and women, masters and men, Jews and Greeks all brought around the same table. A ragtag bunch against the Roman empire.
What empire do we live under? It’s an empire of capitalism and its headquarters is in the USA and Australia is a major outpost. It’s not all bad, but it’s certainly not all good. It tells us that fruitfulness and prosperity are found when you become a loyal citizen of the empire, when you consume and work hard and play hard. When you spend your leisure time shopping. When you keep buying so the GDP doesn’t drop, so that economic growth doesn’t stop.
What is the nature of our subversive fruitfulness? Our fruitfulness in the shadow of the empire? Paul is about to give us some clues about that.
Live a life worthy of God
‘For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you might have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.’
What does a life worthy of God look like? Let’s divide up Paul’s sentence here, but with some humility because he wasn’t making a simple list and a different translations make completely different sentences of these verses.
1. Bearing fruit in every good work
Good works always got a bad rap in the church I grew up in, and that’s a heresy. Martin Luther was right when he said that good works don’t save us, but we’ve taken that idea to an extreme ever since. Paul and Jesus are really clear: God saves us so that we can do good works. God brings us into a kingdom of light where good works are the norm.
In answer to the question of what our subversive fruitfulness looks like, it looks like good works. The New Testament is constantly telling us about what counts as good works. It’s feeding poor people and helping the widows and orphans. It’s healing the sick. It’s visiting the prisoners. It’s caring about the refugees.
What does it look like today for us? You need to do some hard thinking and discerning about that. It’s something we should be talking about around our tables and during the break and in our life cells. Things are different these days, we have a government which looks after people better than the Roman government. But we still have poor and needy people. We still have refugees. Many good works will look much the same as they did 1950 years ago in the province of Asia.
2. Growing in the knowledge of God
It pleases God to grow in the knowledge of him. Studying the Bible is one way to grow in the knowledge of God. Be prepared to do some hard work and go deeper, learn the context and background to the Bible so that you’re not just reading your existing ideas into the text. You won’t come away with easy answers directly applicable to your life. You’ll have to start by understanding the strange world of the Bible in its context before you can bring it into your context.
3. Being strengthened so you can have great endurance and patience
Living as a Christian requires endurance and patience. There are hard times and hard people. Be prepared for them and know that it pleases God for you to patiently endure.
4. Giving thanks to the Father
Let’s remember that as we worship God, and let us try to bring worship into our everyday life, so that we have an attitude of thankfulness under our breath and in our hearts and minds. Easier said than done.
So there we have the first part of Paul and Timothy’s Letter to the Colossians. What should you try to remember from what I’ve said?
- Foundmagazine.com is very interesting
- Paul never visited Colossae.
- The false teachers are telling the Colossians they have to worship angels and deny their bodies to have secret knowledge of God.
- The main point of the letter is that Christ is supreme, the very image of God.
- Let’s not ignore or privatise this word ‘peace’
- Nathan compared heaven to the present cupboard
- Be aware of the poison fruit the misuse of the gospel has spread around the world.
- The Colossians had the Roman Empire to watch out for; we’ve got the Global Capitalism Empire to watch out for.
- Being fruitful is a subversive act.
- Doing good works is fruitful.