Studies in Colossians – 1:19-20

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.

We look now at the final two verses of Paul’s 6-verse hymn exalting Jesus Christ in truly superlative terms. The key word here is at the very beginning of verse 19: for. It could be translated at “because.” The function of this small word is to tell us that what follows is the ground for what Paul has said already. And this foundation is awesome.

Paul has sung Christ’s praises in such strong terms because (i.e., by cause of the fact that. . .) “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” These are even stronger terms than Jesus himself used when he said:

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:6-9).

In Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. That’s an astounding claim! If you want to know God, entrust yourself to Jesus Christ. If you want to see God, look at Jesus Christ.

We must be careful here. Paul does not mean that Jesus exhausts the self-revelation of God. There are other ways in which God reveals himself but none so fully as in Jesus Christ. He reveals himself Spirit-to-spirit in prayer. He certainly revealed himself to his beloved Hebrews. Think, just for outstanding examples, of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and especially David. They knew God. They understood a very great deal about the character of God. Martin Luther was baffled for years by the fact that David understood God’s forgiveness and grace so deeply without ever having seen Jesus.

Not only has God dwelt fully in Christ but through him has reconcile everything in heaven and on earth to himself, “making peace by the blood of his cross. Pause for a few moments to meditate on these two verses and you’ll find your mind and heart starting to expand to the point of bursting. All the fullness of the Creator of the universe dwells in Jesus Christ, by whose bloody cross we are forgiven and reconciled. This just won’t fit into our hearts and skulls. All the fullness of the Lord bleed on the cross.

On the cross we nailed Jesus and poured out all our hatred of God, inflicted on him all our sinful ways and thoughts and feelings, murdered him just to release onto him all that we in fact have deserved to be given to us. And he did not defend himself from the immeasurable injustice of what we were doing. He simply accepted, defenselessly, the full blow of our rebellion. It was a rebellion that began in the Garden of Eden and has been renewed by every generation and every individual since then.

And, since the Lord accepted it all, there was no longer any barrier to our peace with him. His love for us was uninterrupted, unstopped. Justice, we would think, would have required of him that he stop us by crushing us, by forcing us to accept all the consequences of our own sin. But, no, he simply accepted it all himself.

To the Corinthians Paul wrote, For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (II Corinthians 5:21).

With such thoughts in mind, such monumental thoughts, Paul will now begin to help us understand both the motivation and the means for continually growing and bearing fruit. Find yourself from time to time slipping into thinking you’re good enough to get by? Paul will remind that there was no limit to the grace of God which was to be seen – and still is – on the cross of Jesus Christ. He did not love us part way and we must not love him part way. So we’ll read on, prepared to be pulled out of any complacency which might be limiting our growth.

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Studies in Colossians – 1:17-18

This will be 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.

We continue to bask in Paul’s hymn of exaltation as he sings his praises of Jesus Christ. This is not merely a hymn of joy, however, because it is also an excellent theological affirmation of the Christ in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” as we shall see in the next blog posting.

For today, we’ll dwell in just two verses, 17 and 18. Jesus, says Paul, is “before all things and in him all things hold together.” These two thoughts make even more explicit what we saw in verse 16, that Jesus Christ is the center and the circumference of all reality.

I’ve always been disappointed that when someone says we need to be realistic, they invariably mean we ought to expect less of life. But if Jesus Christ is the center and the circumference of all reality, then to be truly realistic means to take his Lordship seriously, to rest in his love and grace, to devote ourselves to pleasing and honoring him. To be realistic is to raise our vision and our hope, not to expect less.

To say that Jesus is “before all things” means he is the highest priority in the universe. We must reflect that reality by making sure he is the highest priority in our lives and hearts. Some people say that means he is to be number one on our list of priorities. I suspect Paul would say something a bit different: Jesus Christ is to be the whole list! There is no number two. Jesus is not to be the most important part of our lives: He is the whole of life. Jesus is not to be part of life at all: he is life. It’s that simple.

Does that mean nothing else matters? Far from it. What it means is that all else and all other people matter to us all the more because they matter to Jesus. Loving my wife is part of my love for Jesus. She is part of my Item #1 on my list, not number two.

To say that “in him all things hold together” is to affirm the same idea in a different set of words, to see the one diamond by looking at a different facet. To focus our attention on what distinguishes one person from another is to think like the Pharisees, who were among the very few who could not get along with Jesus.

The modern evangelical church has definite Pharisaical tendencies, having emphasized the differences between the believers and the non-believers, the Christians and the non-Christians, the saved and the unsaved. Those differences are real enough but do not deserve the emphasis we give them. As we focus on seeing Jesus in every person and situation – since he is the center and circumference of all reality – we will consciously and deliberately seek to see what we have in common with others more clearly than we see what divides us.

We are to be an inclusive people as much as possible, as was Jesus. Remember, the only people who were excluded from his circle were the religious leaders of the day. The ordinary Jew and the ordinary Gentile were both welcome to his love and his blessing. Jesus was inclusive; in him all things held together. . .except for those people who valued their position and power more than the truth.

Continuing that same line of thought, Paul becomes a bit more specific. Jesus is “the head of the body, the church.” Just as in English, the Greek word here translated “head” can mean the literal head on our body or it can mean the boss or the leader. Paul is thinking of the body as a metaphor, with our heads symbolizing the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Think of how many times in the life of a church, the decisions are made in harmony with the financial report rather than in faithful response to our living Lord. Often that’s because we are urged to “be realistic.” Yes, but remember that Jesus is the center and circumference of all reality. To be realistic is to be filled with and guided by faith!

Jesus is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” Again, Paul is adding more words to expand the depth of his meaning. As we noted earlier, when Paul can’t find words strong enough to carry his meaning, he just piles a bunch of words together for the cumulative effect. Now however, he is coming to the point of all this emphasis on the priority of Jesus Christ: All this pile of words is meant to add up to just one thing, that “in everything he might be preeminent.” In both Greek and English this is a simple word meaning to be first or have first place. Jesus is number 1 on a list of just 1 priority.

If you’ve found yourself saying things like, “I want Jesus to be a part of my life,” you need to be very careful. Jesus is the whole, not a part. That’s why he said if we’re lukewarm he will spit us out of his mouth. If we are a field in which he plants the seed of his word, but we grow weeds as well as the Gospel, we will bear no fruit for him. If we are a fig tree marked by beautiful leaves but no fruit, he will wither us to the root.

On and on we could go, noting all the myriad ways the New Testament makes the point that Jesus Christ is to be all or nothing for us. Our commitment to him is to be total and absolute.

But wait a minute! That almost sounds like we’re saying we are to be more committed to Jesus than to God the Father or to the Holy Spirit. That raises some great theological questions. They will have to wait until our next posting in which we look at verses 10-20.

Meanwhile, work on shortening your list of priorities until it has just one item: Jesus.

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Studies in Colossians – 1:15-16

This will be 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.

In Paul’s intercessory prayer, his mind is on what he trusts the Lord will be doing in the lives and hearts of the Colossian Christians. And that has led him to think more directly about the Lord himself. He has spoken of God as the one who, through Jesus Christ, has delivered us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of light, where we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Now, like Gene Kelly suddenly bursting into song and dance amidst the rain, Paul shifts into full-throated praise of Jesus Christ, perhaps even quoting an actual first century hymn.

Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” What a delightful phrase! The image of invisibility. If we want to know the fullness of God’s self-revelation, we have to look at Jesus Christ. In his incarnation, his enfleshment, he embodies the very character of his Father.

Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation.” In our day we are likely to think this means Jesus was the first part of creation. The reference, however, is not to chronology but to status. Jesus is the premier, the very center of all creation. One inescapable implication is that Jesus has only one rightful and appropriate place in your life and mine: right at the center!

In Christ all else was created. The universe as we know it is somehow (in ways beyond our imagination, of course) encompassed by Jesus Christ. More specifically, Paul is thinking here of thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities. That is, he has quickly narrowed the scope of his concern to the “competition,” the human authorities who appear to be ruling the world. No, says Paul, Jesus Christ is the sovereign Lord, not any humans.

Not only that, humans and all else were created through him and unto him. He is the agent of all creation and he is the goal toward which all creation is aimed. He is the center and the circumference of all reality, of all that is. Is that true for your own heart? Is Jesus the center and circumference?

One very obvious question we’re left with is, If Jesus is the image of the invisible Father, but Jesus is no longer visible to us except indirectly through Scripture and the inner revelation of his Spirit, are we now left with no way to “see” the character of God? And the answer to that question is equally obvious: We are now the image of the invisible Christ. The only remaining question is whether we are accurate images, giving a true picture so that anyone who knows us already knows a great deal about the Lord.

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Studies in Colossians – A Return to 1:5b-8

This will be 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.

We’ve looked now at Paul’s report on his intercession for the Colossians. He has not been to Colossae (on the Meander River in present day Turkey) but has heard about the young church there. His instinct, we’ve noted, was to look for a trio of signs of God’s workmanship among the Colossian Christians: Faith, hope, and love. That’s a familiar set of values in Paul’s writings.

Having thanked God for the work he has already achieved in the Colossian fellowship, Paul moves on to ask God to continue their spiritual growth. All this is part of Paul’s concern that the Gospel might flourish and bear ever-increasing fruit.

In our earlier posting, we skipped over verses 5b-8 because they are parenthetical remarks. Now it is time to go back and see how they fit into the context of the first 13 verses of chapter 1.

Paul’s idea in these verses is that the Gospel, which the Colossians have heard and accepted from Epaphras, is “bearing fruit and growing” in the whole world. Twice he mentions truth, once as the truth of the Gospel and once as the truth about the grace of God. While not a direct part of his intercession, these remarks are an aside meant to emphasize the importance of the ever-growing influence of the Gospel. They make sense in light of the question raised in verse 2 about whether there might be saints (i.e., people who have accepted God’s call) who are not faithfully fulfilling that call.

Having heard Paul’s thanksgiving and intercession, and now seeing that this parenthesis points in the same direction as the prayer, it is clear that one of Paul’s central concerns – if not the central concern — in this epistle is that the Colossian Christians might be showing signs of growing lax in their determination to continue growing spiritually and to sharing the Gospel in an ever-increasing circle to those around them.

It is going to be fascinating to see how Paul addresses this concern. If we dwell carefully in this letter, we will better understand how to help one another to be perpetually maturing Christians. This is especially important in our day because the Evangelical circles I’ve always been a part of have frequently spoken of becoming like children entering the Kingdom of Heaven, while seldom if ever mentioning the far deeper and broader call of the New Testament for us to grow up. It’s time to correct that serious error. And this letter will encourage us beautifully.

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Studies in Colossians — 1:12-13

This will be 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.

We ended the last posting with a glance at Paul’s reference in verse 12 to “the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”

This is the only reference to light in the whole letter, so we have to conclude that it is not a major theme on Paul’s mind at this point. We’ll find its meaning, therefore, in the more immediate context. And the takes us directly to the next verse. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,”

The word Paul uses for “domain” refers to the power of someone in authority. It is sometimes used to identify the authority itself and sometimes to identify the person holding that authority, such as in verse 16.

Obviously, what makes the new kingdom of God a place of light is that it is “the kingdom of his Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” This line reflects Jesus’ claim that he is the light of the world (John 9:5. Take some time in the next day or two to look through the theme of light in John’s Gospel. It is mentioned 16 times.)

Darkness is one of the key marks of the world of sin, which is like a thick cloud shutting out the light of God’s love, grace, and beauty. Jesus Christ breaks through the clouds by being the agent of forgiveness.

Notice that in Christ the Father has “qualified” us for our entry into the kingdom of light. The word translated “qualified” is not a fancy term in Greek. It means the same as in English: to make sufficient, qualify, authorize. But when we think about the implications of this unassuming word, it becomes awesome. Just think of it: Whoever you are, you probably don’t think of yourself as one of the world’s greatest Christians. Yet you are qualified to enter the eternal kingdom of God! Though the devil may whisper in your spiritual ear a whole host of reasons why God ought not to let you into the kingdom, he is lying to you. All the negatives have been forgiven. God holds nothing against you. . .if you have in fact accepted that forgiveness.

Do you know what it means to accept that forgiveness? There is an initial step of confessing your own sense of being unworthy and unclean. You lay everything in faith before the Lord, the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’ll feel pretty vulnerable because you’ll be very aware that the Lord is the righteous, all-seeing Judge of the Universe. You’ll know what you deserve.

God knows it, too. That’s what the Cross of Jesus means. All that you deserve was given to him on the Cross. All the hatred and venom that cost Jesus his life came from your heart. Not yours alone, of course. Mine was included and so was everyone else’s.

But the Cross tells us something more. It tells us not just what we deserve but what we are worth to God. He — in the person of his Son — accepted all the hatred we could spew forth against Jesus. It was aimed at the Father himself . . . yet God thought we were so valuable to him that he simply accepted it with no defense of his Son. And that is love!

So God sees all the ugliness in us and has even tasted it in his Son, yet we remain to him the priceless pearls created in his own image. No matter your history, no matter how much darkness resides in you, when you entrust yourself to Jesus Christ you are forgiven everything, made clean and pure through and through, and from day one are being renewed back into God’s image, into Christlikeness of character.

No wonder Paul calls the kingdom of God a place of light instead of darkness!

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Studies in Colossians – 1:11-12

This will be 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.

The second half of Paul’s intercessory prayer is in the form of a blessing. This makes no substantial difference in its meaning, since “May you be strengthened . . .” is the same as “I ask God to strengthen you.”

Paul wants the Lord to bless the Colossians with strength. And here we run into one of my favorite characteristics of Paul’s way of writing. When words just are not big enough to convey Paul’s ideas, he piles a bunch of them together. It is not elegant but it is effective. In this case, a literal translation captures that sense of words being piled together:

In all enabling power may you be empowered by the measure of God’s glorious, authoritative power.

The first two – power and empowered – translate the Greek word from which we get the English “dynamite.” It means the ability to perform a particular activity or endure some great trial. The third is quite different. It is the word “kratos,” from which we get the partial word “crat,” as in “autocrat” or “democracy.” It is the authority to rule and command.

Putting them altogether, we learn that we are to be given an enduring power that measures up to or corresponds to God’s own power as Lord of the Universe. However much we may want to qualify or soften that implication, it remains impressive that our God-given strength might in any way or to any degree be like God’s. We have to remind ourselves of Genesis: “Let them have dominion . . .” We have always been intended to have great strength and authority because we have been created in the image of the Lord of the Universe.

We accept that strength by faith even though, oddly enough, it usually feels to us like weakness. Jesus on the Cross, doing the most powerful work of all time, must have felt weak and helpless. Just so, we often feel that way and must learn not to take our own weakness too seriously. We act on the basis of our trust in God’s-strength-within-us, no matter what we happen to feel.

Notice that the purpose of all the strength is not to enable us to do a mighty work for God, who doesn’t need our help in doing mighty works, but to endure and be patient with joy. Clearly Paul does not have in mind a kind of endurance which is a “grit your teeth, hunker down, and hang on” kind of experience. Rather, we endure with joy and happiness. Others might look at us and not even recognize we’re enduring something which really tries our patience. What they see instead is someone who so trusts in God that even great challenges cannot dampen our joy.

And besides joy there is gratitude. Gratitude is essential, not optional, in a healthy, God-honoring way of life. It keeps us both God-centered and humble because it is a constant reminder that all good things are gifts from the Lord.

At the center of our gratitude is the perpetual awareness that we have been given the right to “share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” In our next blog, that will be the beginning point.

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Studies in Colossians — 1:9-10

This will be 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.

For today I will skip over verse 5b-8, which are parenthetical. I’ll return to them in a few days.

Remember that in verses 3-5a Paul has told us that he thanks God for the faith, love, and hope that he has heard characterize the Colossian Christians. Now, beginning in verse 9 he tells us what he asks of the Lord on behalf of those Christians. It is certain that our churches would be far stronger were we to learn to pray for each other this way.

Do you want to learn the art of intercession? Then pay careful attention to Paul’s example here. Listen to it with me.

First, he prays consistently. He cannot mean he prays every moment for the Colossians but that he prays for them consistently and persistently.

Second, when he prays he first asks that:

They be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
In all spiritual wisdom and understanding
So that they might live a life worthy of God
Fully pleasing to God
Bearing fruit in every good work
And increasing in the knowledge of God.

Pay careful attention to how each of those lines relates to the others. Notice, for example, that the starting point is knowing what God expects of us (rather than what God promises to us, as is the more common emphasis in our churches today) and concludes with increasing in the knowledge of God himself.

Notice, too, that knowing God’s expectations is not, is not, is not a matter of learning some rules of behavior. It requires that the Spirit teach us wisdom and understanding. These are not words I often hear today, in the church or outside it. The trio of ideas – knowledge, understanding, wisdom – is absolutely fundamental to a mature Christian life. We must know reality, both that which we can see for ourselves and that which we learn only as the Lord reveals the truth to us. Just as importantly, having seen the facts, we must be able to understand what they mean. And finally, as people of understanding, we learn to make wise decisions. Each step is built on the one before it. There are no shortcuts.

The purpose of learning to live by God’s expectations is so that we can be and live worthy of God. That is, we are to bring honor, not shame, to our Lord. We do this in three ways: pleasing God, being fruitful in practical ways, and – here’s the goal – flourishing in our direct knowledge of the One who knows us.

If that we all we ever prayed for each other, we would all be deeper and richer in every way. But Paul is not yet done. We’ll look at verses 11-12 next time.

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