Studies in Colossians – 2:4-5

This is a series of brief comments on Paul’s New Testament Epistle to the Colossians. I hope it encourages you to study the Epistle – and all of the Bible – with great care. The more we dwell in Scripture, the richer it gets. Take the time and the rewards will be deep and refreshing. Be sure you read this blog with your Bible open to Colossians.

Why is Paul speaking in such superlatives about Christ and about all we gain from knowing Christ? We’ve already seen enough to believe that Paul’s purpose in this epistle is to firm up the faith of the Colossian Christians, encouraging them to remain strong in their devotion to Jesus Christ. So it is sufficient for us to say that he has written 2:1-3 in order to reassure them that Christ is worth any devotion, any faith, any cost.

Yet, to be very clear, Paul now adds a more specific reason for all this encouragement. “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” In other words, Paul has heard that there are people trying to distract the Colossians from their devotion. The Colossians are being challenged by “plausible arguments.” Someone is directly challenging their beliefs about and therefore trust in Christ. We’ll have to read a bit more to find out any more details about the nature of the challenge.

First, Paul wants to assure them that, despite not having met them in person, he is with them in spirit and is glad for any signs he can see (or hear about) that they are maintaining “good order” and “firmness’ of faith.

The word here translated “good order” is taksin, used Occasionally in the New Testament, especially in Hebrews to refer to “the order of Melchizedek.” The idea is that, when all things are in their right place, we have “good order.” Nothing out of place. The word translated “firmness” is stereoma, which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. From its use outside the Bible we are sure of its meaning: “firmness, stability.”

We see, then, that Paul is adding nothing new to what we have already noticed. These words are added for emphasis. Remember that this is a characteristic of Paul’s style of writing. When no words are strong enough to convey his meaning, he simply piles lots of words together, using repetition or lots of synonyms to make his intensity unmistakable.

Paul has had many positive things to say about the Colossians and their faith. Still, he is obviously deeply concerned at signs that doubt is creeping in because of the challenges they are facing. To turn the spotlight around to shine directly into your face and mine, we have to ask about our own faith. Are we, in the words of Jesus in Revelation, “lukewarm”? “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

Being moderate in our faith makes us repulsive to our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. Think about that long and hard.

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Studies in Colossians – 2:1-3

This is a series of brief comments on Paul’s New Testament Epistle to the Colossians. I hope it encourages you to study the Epistle – and all of the Bible – with great care. The more we dwell in Scripture, the richer it gets. Take the time and the rewards will be deep and refreshing. Be sure to have Colossians in front of you as you read this blog.

Paul wants the Colossians to know that he works hard on their behalf, even though he has never been to Colossae or its near neighbor Laodicea. His work for them is part of his broad ministry throughout the Roman world, a ministry which he describes in rich terms.

[I work so] that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all he treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Whew! Try to understand all that with just one reading! Before writing any of these postings, I usually translate the passage from Greek for myself. When I opened my Greek NT to this passage, I did so with the confidence that Paul’s original language would be clearer than the translations. Hmm, didn’t work that way. Ever try walking through a patch of quicksand?

But let’s dig in. Just because the text stretches us doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.

First, we see his goal: the encouragement of their hearts. That, of course, is exactly what this letter is intended to do as Paul encourages the Colossians to persevere in their devotion to Jesus Christ. The word translated “encouraged” is parakaleo, which can be translated as encourage, comfort, advocate. In the Gospel of John, this is Jesus’ word for the Holy Spirit. Here it is a hint of where the sentence is going: We are to be an encouragement to one another.

Second, the encouragement comes from the hearts of the Colossian Christians being united, knit together in love. It is not my faith alone which makes me strong, not your faith alone which makes you strong. Our strength lies in the loving communion we share in Christ, believing on each other’s behalf.

Third, this mutual encouragement leads us to a deep sense of wealth as we revel in all the riches that await us in Christ as we grow in clear and certain understanding and insight. This does NOT mean that we learn lots of cliches and pat answers. This is not a matter of seeing some truisms but seeing into them, having inisght.

Fourth, this mutual encouragement leads us also to an ever-growing knowledge of Christ himself. As we share Christ’s love, we find we are sharing Christ’s heart. And as loving one another leads us to knowing one another deeply, so we find that loving one another leads us to knowing Christ more deeply. We cannot emphasize enough that the New Testament – like the Old Testament – speaks more often of shared faith rather than individual, private faith. “Private” Christianity is a modern contradiction in terms. We are who we are together.

Fifth, in Christ we find the hidden secrets of wisdom and understanding. At its heart, the secret revealed in the coming of Christ is simply Christ himself, the hope of glory as Paul said in 1:26-27. But in Christ we discover a whole world of treasures, all part of wisdom and understanding or (more literally) wisdom and knowledge. We ought never to forget this trio of mutually dependent ideas: wisdom is built on understanding which is built on knowledge. And those who are wise are motivated to gain more and more knowledge, thus feeding the cycle.

Our thirst for knowledge and understanding and wisdom ought to spread as broadly as possible, though time and ability do limit us. We should value and learn about trees and history and theology and art and trout, about philosophy and psychology and music and . . .on and on and on, ever hungry for more knowledge. We are currently in a phase in our country when ignorance is being touted by some as a virtue. We should fight this with all our energy.

The center, however, of all knowledge is our knowledge of Jesus Christ. Remember what Paul said in 1:17, that in Christ “all things hold together.” Jesus Christ is the focal point of all God has revealed about himself and the focal point of all we can know about the universe, ourselves included.

Want to be rich? Then revel in the treasure chests of knowledge and wisdom to be found in Christ Jesus. You will be wealthy beyond measure, rich in joy and peace and love.

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Studies in Colossians — 1:28-29

This is a series of brief comments on Paul’s New Testament Epistle to the Colossians. I hope it encourages you to study the Epistle – and all of the Bible – with great care. The more we dwell in Scripture, the richer it gets. Take the time and the rewards will be deep and refreshing.

Continuing his discussion of the nature of his own ministry, Paul says he proclaims Jesus Christ and breaks that down into two halves: Warning and teaching.

He must be warning people of the awful consequences of ignoring or demeaning the Gospel Secret (“Christ in you, the hope of glory”). And the teaching must be instructing people in what God expects of us and promises to us. It is safe to say that if we want a sample of this two-part proclamation, we need look no further than this very epistle to the Colossians.

More than a few terrible preachers, I fear, practice the warning and the teaching without noticing that this is to be done “in all wisdom.” For some, preaching is little more than passing along some very old cliches developed in the 19th century. There is no wisdom in that.

And I’ve noticed over the years that in evangelical churches we tend to remind each other often that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. The Bible, however, places much more emphasis upon us growing up, not remaining little children. That part of the biblical message seems to have been lost on us.

Notice what Paul says is his purpose in proclaiming Christ: “that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” The word translated “mature” (Greek teleios) is not uncommon in the New Testament but it is somewhat obscured by the fact that it is translated sometimes as “mature” and more often as “perfect.”

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:48 that we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Paul tells the Corinthians (I Cor. 14:20) that they are to be infants in evil but mature in their thinking. Perfect, mature: same word.

The word means fulfillment of all we have been intended by God to be. We are to become the persons God has intended us to be. That is perfection, maturity.

And notice that simple prepositional phrase: “in Christ.” Maturity is not something we achieve on our own. That possibility was closed to us ‘way back in the Garden. We become mature as we are drawn ever-closer to Christ and walk in communion with him.

What does maturity look like? The simplest description is that maturity is Christlikeness of character. We are mature to the degree that we resemble Christ in character. Our personalities may vary greatly from one person to the next but the core of our character is to reflect, to be the image of Jesus Christ.

To be a bit more psychological about it, we may say that maturity means being responsible to God for ourselves. Both halves are essential. We are responsible for our own decisions and our own character but it is crucial that we understand we are responsible to God for these things.

We cannot say, “It’s my life and I can do what I want with it.” No, we must answer to our Lord. Nor can we say, “I did so and so because God told me to do it.” While that may be true, it is really just our own business. In talking with others, we have to take responsibility for our decisions. What if some very godly Christian believes you have made a mistake? That person is in an awkward position, too awkward to correct or question you, if you’ve already declared God has directed you. You’ve made it seem as if disagreeing with you means opposing the will of God. That may or may not be true but it is graceless to frame a conversation that way. No matter how convinced we are that the Lord has directed us this way or that, we must take responsibility for our own decisions.

I still laugh when I think of the young man who had a real crush on a college girl. Shortly after she went off to school, he showed up saying he had moved to town. It was obvious that his decision was dominated by his desire to be near her but, when asked why he had moved, he replied, “God led me.” A more accurate answer would have been, “I just couldn’t stay away from her.” No shame in that, no need to make it seem somehow a holy decision.

We take responsibility for our decisions if we are mature in Christ.

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Studies in Colossians — 1:27

[I apologize that the last posting was labeled “1:27” but actually was about 1:26. I have a perfectly good excuse for the error. . .though I don’t know what it is.]

This is a series of brief comments on Paul’s New Testament Epistle to the Colossians  I hope it encourages you to study the Epistle — and many others — with great care. The more we dwell in Scripture, the richer it gets. Don’t rush. When tempted to do so by life’s busyness, remind yourself that the Bible is a love letter from God to you. . .

Remember from 1:2 that the word “saints” means those who are claimed and called by the Lord to be devoted to him. It does not mean that the saints are those who live up to the call. In fact, the purpose of this Epistle – or at least as much as we have understood so far – is to encourage the saints to be faithful to their calling.

It is to the saints that God has made known “how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Wow! That’s what the theological journals call a mouthful. Let’s look at it in detail.

First, we notice that the riches are great “among the Gentiles.” The word translated “Gentiles” is ethnos, which means people in general. Frequently in Scripture the context makes it clear that it more narrowly means the people other than Jews. Though most modern translations use “Gentiles” in this verse, I’m not convinced. Nothing in the context suggests Paul has in mind the narrower understanding of the word. Nonetheless, whether we prefer “peoples” or “Gentiles,” the riches of the glorious mystery are wonderful.

Second, we see that this mystery, this long-kept secret, is richly glorious. . .or gloriously rich. If you’ve never basked in the sunshine of God’s love, maybe it’s because you’ve not taken care to listen to the “still, small voice,” the whispering of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Third, the word translated “mystery” (Greek: musterion), often rendered as “secret,” refers to something hidden until the right time for it to be revealed. Our minds are pushed quickly to the question, What’s the secret?

Fourth, the content of the mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Those first three words capture almost completely Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Christian life. We’ve already glanced at Paul’s words to the Galatians but we cannot refrain from looking again: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

Christians are not identified by their adherence to one religion or another but by the Christlikeness of their character and their lives. After all, if “my” life is really Christ’s life lived in and through me, then my life had better look a lot like his, eh?

“The hope of glory” sends us back to 1:5, where Paul said that our faith and our love are grounded on the hope laid up for us in heaven. Christ has already gone ahead to prepare a place for us in heaven (John 14:3). Now we live infused with his Spirit, called each day to take another step toward the goal that lies before us: full and glorious communion with our wonderful Lord.

Anyone who understands that the blessings of today are just a hint of the glory that awaits us cannot be afraid of death. The grave is just the last big stepping stone into the unimaginable spiritual richness that awaits us.

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Studies in Colossians – 1:26

This is a series of brief comments on Paul’s Epistle to the Colossian Christians. Not a full commentary, it is meant to encourage readers to dwell on the various verses and passages that comprise the letter. Whenever we dwell in Scripture, not rushing but truly dwelling for a time, we find its richness emerging. Those who have strolled through a forest know what happens when they sit quietly for a time: All sorts of life emerges and the silent forest begins to buzz with the sounds of life. Just so in Bible study. . .

The word translated in verse 26 as “mystery” could also be “secret.” Though Old Testament figures, especially David, knew that our Lord inclines toward forgiveness, they had no way of knowing just how the Lord reconciled justice and mercy. It was kept secret from them.

Now in Christ Jesus that secret is made known. Justice demands recompense, restitution, or at the least punishment. Mercy demands that sins be overlooked. How can the Lord deal with human sinfulness both justly and mercifully? The answer is in the Cross and the Empty Tomb of Jesus Christ. All the sinfulness of humankind was centered on the crucified Jesus, who so fully accepted that sin that in effect he owned it as his own. He identified with us specifically as sinners. And the result was that he took on himself not only the sin but the punishment for that sin, which was death itself.

That was only the first half of the process of reconciling us to our Creator. The second and essential half was the Resurrection of Jesus on the third day. Just as Jesus identified with us in our sinfulness, we are to identify with him on the Cross and in walking from the tomb to eternal life. Just as he took our death into himself, so we are to take his risen life into ourselves by faith. It is our oneness with Christ, our communion with him, that constitutes our salvation from death to life.

This is rich and glorious! And Paul uses delightful words to describe this now-known secret: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” “It is no longer I who live,” he told the Galatian Christians, “but Christ who lives in me.”

If you wish to have Christ as some sort of added blessing to your life, you will discover he does not cooperate. The blessing will not come. Christ either is our life or we have nothing to do with him whatsoever. We die with Christ and we live with Christ. We are dead to ourselves but alive to God in Christ Jesus, as Paul told the Romans.

All our hope for the eternity that stretches before us lies in these simple words: “Christ in you.”

Are you lost – and found! – in Christ Jesus?

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Studies in Colossians — 1:24-26

This is a series of brief looks at Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. My purpose is not to write a full exposition but to show how much can be gained by looking carefully at what the text says. Too often we skip quickly from glancing at the text to parroting what we’ve heard before and believed already. That is no way to learn anything new from the Bible. Learning comes first and foremost from looking, looking attentively, looking for a long time.

Paul ended the last sentence with a reference to his own ministry of spreading the Good News, the Gospel.* Now, he tells us, he is rejoicing in his work, though it involved a great deal of hardship. He is suffering but counts it a privilege because he is doing so for the good of others and because he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. . .”

Over the years I’ve been amused at how many people are bothered by Paul’s suggestion that there was something lacking in Christ’s work. Because, for a variety of historical reasons during the 19th and early 20th century, the evangelical church tended to become centered on salvation, everything was interpreted in that light. It is true that all the work necessary for our salvation was accomplished by the Cross and the Empty Tomb of Jesus Christ.

And yet Paul is suffering and a great many people have been martyred over the centuries. Why is that and what does it mean?

The foundation of the Gospel is the work of Christ but the full effect of that Gospel does not come until the Word is spread and accepted. And there is the occasion for Paul’s suffering. Remember that in this epistle Paul is concerned not with calling the Colossians to begin their Christian life but to continue faithfully to follow Jesus Christ. It is the full effect of the Gospel that Paul has in mind. And that full effect is costing him a great deal.

We’ve so emphasized the “free Gospel” that we have failed badly in three obvious ways. First, the “free Gospel” cost Jesus his life. It was not free at all. It’s just that Jesus paid the basic price. Second, the “free Gospel” is hated by those who refuse to submit to the Lord and they make the spread of the Gospel a very costly affair.

Third, have we conservatives not read the powerful call of Jesus to his followers? Listen carefully:

And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  (Mark 8:34-35).

To accept the “free” Gospel is to pay the same price Jesus did — we have to lose our lives. Pretty hard to wiggle out of that one, eh?

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*By the way, have you ever explored that word? It has evolved from the Old English word “godspel,” meaning a good story or good news. We still speak of good stories as casting a spell over its listeners. The Greek word used in the NT is euaggelion, pronounced u-an-GEL-ion, from which we get the word “angel.” It means good angel (a messenger) or good message.

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Studies in Colossians – 1:21-23

This is a series of brief looks at Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. My purpose is not to write a full exposition but to show how much can be gained by looking carefully at what the text says. Too often we skip quickly from glancing at the text to parroting what we’ve heard before and believed already. That is no way to learn anything new from the Bible. Learning comes first and foremost from looking, looking attentively, looking for a long time.

Paul’s exaltation of Jesus Christ has led us to the glories of the fullness of God but has ended with a reminder that we are by nature separated from the glory. Just think of the enormous gulf covered in that last sentence: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” A reader with any sensitivity finds the movement from “the fullness of God” to “the blood of his cross” to be deeply jarring.

Given Paul’s apparent purpose in writing, however, we can see his train of thought. When we behold the extreme beauty of our Lord, part of our response surely must be a fresh awareness that – in the words Paul uses in Romans 3 – we fall short of the glory of God. And the more we are awed by God’s glory, the more keenly we feel just how far short we fall.

So Paul has impressed on his Colossian readers the immeasurable greatness of Jesus Christ at least in part to nudge them out of any complacent thoughts that they are good enough to satisfy God. Trusting that they have gotten the message, he is quick to speak of reconciliation, which is the overcoming of the distance between one person and another.

We were once completely alienated from God but are not reconciled by the death of Jesus Christ, the literal physical death of the one in whom all the fullness of God dwelt. Through Christ’s death we have been made “presentable” again, forgiven, cleaned up. Because of that death, we are now “holy and blameless and above reproach” in his presence.

Paul does not here explain just how the death of Christ accomplishes our reconciliation. He simply assures us that there is a direct cause and effect . . . on one condition. And that is chilling.

The reconciliation is real “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. . .” On the basis of what we have seen so far, it is clear that this is the key to the whole epistle. Remember that the question was raised ‘way back in 1:2, Are there saints who are not faithful? Now we see beyond doubt that this is exactly what Paul is concerned with as he writes to the Colossian Christians.

Coming to faith is beginning on a path, not just stepping through a door into heaven. We are to be persistent. We are to be as stable as the very foundations of a building, firm as a boulder. Persistent in what? Hope. Remember that in verse 5 he has spoken of hope as that which is laid up for us, awaiting us in heaven. We noted that this is an odd way to use the word hope, indicating the content but not the feeling of hope. Our hope, in other words, is not fulfilled on this side of the grave. The completion of our journey toward the fulfillment of our deepest hope takes us to and through death itself.

Christians have been debating for a long time the question of “eternal security.” Is the cliche “Once saved, always saved” true or is our salvation conditional on our persistence in faith? A passage such as this does not help us with that question because salvation itself is not what Paul is addressing. But he does come close enough to get our attention!

The issue is reconciliation, which is one dimension of salvation. It is the relational dimension. When the church has focused solely on the question of salvation in the last two centuries, it has seemed concerned only with what happens to us after death. Paul knows that there is something much more important in the kingdom of heaven than merely our own fate. Our Creator wants to know and to be known. He wants us to be close, to be in harmony, to be in communion with him. That matters more than our own salvation. It is not mere existence, even eternal existence, that is primary. It is love, oneness, unity.

And love requires of us that we be faithful, year after year, day by day. Just from our experiences of human love, we know that to be true. Real faith in God looks like faithfulness. Real love for God is shaped by faithfulness.

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