Studies in Colossians – 3:18-4:1 part two

The discussion, which its great emphasis upon the responsibility of the man, now turns to the relation between master (again, the male) and slave. The slave, like the child, is to be obedient to the one who is over him or her. But Paul is being very specific here. Where our modern translations have “earthly” masters, Paul has written “according-to-the-flesh lords.” That is, slaves are to obey bodily what the masters of their bodies demand. That leaves soul and spirit free!

The slave is to obey the master as part of what it means to fear God. This is spelled out in surprising detail and contains extremely important lessons for all of us. We all live “under” someone’s authority. The old American frontier is long gone and its rugged individualist is no longer a hero but merely a misfit.

In all their work as slaves, they are to have a sense of obeying and serving God, not just their masters. Is it not important that we all realize that same reality? No matter who is giving us orders, our inner sense is that we are obeying God. That inner sense will give a deep meaning to our work and, most importantly, will protect us from obeying evil orders. We cannot accept an order from a human which would not come from the Lord.

The slave is given a harsh warning. Not only is there a reward awaiting the good servants (cf. the hope that awaits us in heaven) but the wrongdoer will be paid back in kind for whatever wrong he has done “and here is no partiality.” That last line indicates that even the slave is held morally responsible for his deeds and cannot hide behind the master’s orders. Wow! That is radical stuff which ascribes to the slave not only a great dignity but a moral responsibility as great as anyone else’s.

But notice Paul’s subtlety here. Immediately after affirming that God shows no partiality in his judgements, Paul’s mind goes to the masters. They are to avoid the impartial judgement of God of treating their slaves justly and fairly, knowing that we all have a Master in heaven. That is, we are all slaves in a very real sense and are therefore equal with one another. Master and slave are on equal footing before the Lord!

I’m surprised Paul didn’t take the obvious next step and remind the masters to live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others – including your slaves – as you would have others – including slaves – do unto you. What a subtle way to begin freeing the slaves!

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Studies in Colossians – 3:18-4:1 part one

Paul now begins a distinctly different section, though it is still part of the “application” section of his letter. You’ve probably noticed in other writings of Paul that the first half is theology and the second half is practical advice based on that theology.

In Colossians the transition from theology to practicality came in the second half of chapter one. “And you,” he wrote in 1:21, “ . . . he has now reconciled. . .in order to present you holy and blameless . . . IF you continue in the faith.” That sentence gave us a sense of Paul’s purpose, to encourage the Colossians to continue living by and growing in their faith in Jesus Christ.

Since that point he has been showing us, directly and indirectly, how to live by faith, how to live faithfully.

Now he addresses Christian family life, which in his day often included not just parents and children but also bondservants, what we would call slaves. We want to be careful, first, to note exactly what he says to each family member and, second, how the various directions fit together to create a whole and healthy family.

To the wives he says just one simple thing: “Submit to your husbands.” Sounds like it flies in the face of modern feminism. In its own context, of course, it would not have seemed radical or odd. It was merely the ordinary rule of thumb for good order in the family. It is not wise of us either to demand that ancient literature meet modern standards (that’s chauvinism) or to think we are fully bound to follow ancient customs. The Bible must be read with a good dose of common sense. And in this case Paul gives us a fuller context in which to interpret his word to the wives.

To the husbands Paul says two things. First, the husband is to love his wife. We can certainly affirm that a husband who dominates his wife is not a loving husband. So already we see that Paul is deliberately and consciously softening his words to the wife. Were we to stop reading and start arguing with Paul before he addresses the husband, we would not understand what he is saying.

Second, the husband is not to be harsh with his wife. This probably didn’t need to be said at all, since the command to love clearly excludes harshness. By including this word anyway, Paul is making emphatic that the husband is to be gentle and kind.

In premarital counseling, I frequently used the parallel passage in Ephesians (5:20-6:9), which spells out these ideas in much more detail, especially in his instructions to the husbands. I would ask the future groom to write out all Paul expects of the wife, and I would ask the future bride to note all he said to the husband. They always ended up with a long and impressive list. I would then ask the wife how it might affect her if her husband were to live up to Paul’s words. Without hesitation, the young women always answered, “I’d love him the same way.”

And what is that way? The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church. And Paul emphasizes that this means he is to love her self-sacrificially.

Then comes the word to the children, who are to be obedient to their parents. I’ve lived a long life and has watched many children grow up. Of this I am sure from repeated observation: Children who learn to ignore their parents grow up to ignore the Lord.

And again the men are addressed, this time as fathers. They are not to discourage their children, not to break their spirits. This is sometimes done, Paul notes, by fathers fighting too hard against the natural resistance children have against restrictions on their freedom. This resistance grows, of course, until it peaks in adolescence. (Side observation: adolescence is a modern invention, a sign of a luxurious culture which can afford for children to stay out of the workforce until late the teens or early twenties.)

Fathers need to recognize and respect that the child’s resistance is a necessary part of the child’s development. It is the child learning independence.

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Studies in Colossians – A Review of 2:1-3:17

Now here’s a homework assignment for you. Do it carefully and you’ll appreciate the benefits for years to come.

We’ve noticed that Paul uses a series of the connective word “therefore” (2:6, 2:16, 3:1, 3:5, and 3:12). That means each of those section is dependent upon what has been said before. Each is derived from an earlier idea. The first “therefore” sends us back to the paragraph comprised of 2:1-5. And the last section is 3:12-17. Therefore (see, I can use the word, too!), 2:1-3:17 is an easily recognizable section of logical steps.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to summarize each of the six sections into a brief sentence which captures its essence. Be sure that you do so in such a way that the “therefore’s” tie them together. At the end of the assignment you should be able to express the whole passage in half a minute or less. Then for the next several days recite your summary of the passage, practicing until you can do it strictly from memory.

Do that and you are well on your way to giving a one minute summary of the whole book of Colossians in a way that shows its basic content, its purpose, and its inner coherence.

Here’s one further observation that may help you gain a sense of the whole passage. The first “therefore” (2:6) could be said to be the introduction to the whole series of therefore’s. Verses 6-7 give a summary of the whole passage. Had you noticed that? Paul reminds us that we each begin our walk with Christ in faith and must therefore continue in faithfulness for all our days.

And here’s a simple form that may be of help:

2:1-5 —

2:6-15 — Therefore,

2:16-23 — Therefore,

3:1-4 — Therefore,

3:5-11 — Therefore,

3:12-17 — Therefore,

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Studies in Colossians – 3:12-17 part two

These verses (3:12-17) form a beautiful passage calling us to “put on” a set of personal qualities of which we have two observations. First, all of these are qualities essential to the Christian unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17. Second, these are the personal qualities which mark Christlikeness of character.

We have divided the passage into two parts, solely for the sake of keeping these blog entries relatively brief. Logically, the entire section is a whole.

In verse 15 we hear two ideas. The second is Paul’s familiar call for us to be thankful, while the first is that we are to let “the peace of Christ” be the “referee” between our hearts. We tend to read the sentence as if it were speaking of the personal and private inner peace of each believer. That’s not at all what Paul has in mind. Rather, his concern is for our unity, the unity we have with one another when we are in communion with Christ.

Then Paul goes on to call us to “let the word of Christ dwell” richly in our fellowship. Those who dwell in the Word find that the richness emerges in ways far deeper than we can experience when we simply glance at one isolated passage after another. And they find that when we dwell in the Word, it somehow begins to dwell in us. By the Spirit of the Lord, our very character becomes increasingly shaped by the Word of the Lord. But it takes time. There are no shortcuts. “Dwelling” can’t be done briefly.

How do we enjoy the richness of the word of Christ? By teaching and admonishing each other wisely. Notice how this reflects the very same concerns Paul has in his own ministry. He says in 1:28 that he warns and teaches everyone in wisdom so that we may all mature in Christ. Just as Paul’s ministry is an extension of the work of Christ (1:24), so is our ministry to be an extension of Paul’s. In light of this, I strongly urge you to review the whole book of Colossians, noting all you can see about the nature of Paul’s work.

Wisdom is a nearly forgotten virtue in our day, to our great harm.

Even our singing is to be part of the task. Our very individualistic “Jesus and me” little choruses don’t do the job because they tend to have little or nothing to do either with substantial biblical theology or with the nature of our fellowship as brothers or sisters in Christ.

And again he reminds us to be thankful (both in 15 and again in 17). With all these reminders to be thankful we cannot help but think back to the opening of the letter. Paul reports on his prayer for the Colossians and notes that he prayer begins with thanksgiving. If we are in the habit of being thankful in all situations, we cannot forget the fundamental fact that we are a Christ-centered people. Gratitude always makes us mindful of the one to whom we are offering thanks.

Whatever we are doing, we are to remember that we have been baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28). Few spiritual disciplines will have as great an impact on our lives and our morality as this: If we claim that Jesus is, in effect, signing his name to each of our days, we will be careful to make our days as worthy of that signature as possible.

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Studies in Colossians – 3:12-17 part one

This is the conclusion of the long passage that began at 2:1. The final lesson in the passage is that we are to become Christlike in character.

3:1-4 affirmed that we have died with Christ and now dwell with him. 3:5-11 drew one conclusion from this affirmation: We must put to death those qualities which are incompatible with our communion with Jesus Christ. And now in 3:12-17 Paul draws a second conclusion: We are to take on qualities which are in fact perfectly compatible with Christ.

The first conclusion was negative: Stop the bad stuff in your life. The second conclusion is positive: start living in a Christlike way.

Remember 3:1-2, where we were told to seek and set our minds on “the things that are above”? By “above” Paul means “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Now we find out what the heavenly things are: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and – above all else – love. The old cliche “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good” obviously does not reflect Paul’s idea of what “heavenly” means.

These heavenly traits are clearly to be found among God’s people on earth but their source is not the world but the Lord. These are characteristics of Jesus Christ and we are being called to Christlikeness of character.

Earlier we noticed the word “mature” in 1:28. Paul says the goal of his ministry is not merely to get people saved but to bring them to maturity. This is a far broader and deeper understanding of evangelism than has been common in our churches for the last couple of centuries. (And that is a great loss for us.)

The word translated “mature,” we observed, is teleios. It means in this context the fulfillment of God’s purpose for each person. We mature as we become the persons our Creator has intended us to be.

That same word, teleios, is used in 3:14. Find it there? The translators have hidden it for mysterious reasons by rendering it “perfect harmony.” That’s a nice thought but doesn’t capture Paul’s message in this verse. Love binds us, fetters us together in fulfillment of God’s intention for us. It is God’s purpose that we be bonded into a single body, the body of Christ (1:18).

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed that all his followers for all time would be one, just as he and his Father are one. Our unity is not to be taken lightly. Our oneness with one another in Christ lies at the very heart of God’s purpose for us. Church squabbles, often over the most trivial matters, are deeply shameful because they are an outright betrayal of our calling in Christ.

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Studies in Colossians – 3:5-11

IF – and that of course is a big IF – we have been crucified and raised again with Christ, we are to be seeking and setting our minds on heavenly matters, not earthly concerns (3:1-4).

Now Paul begins to tell us how to do that. First, we are to put worldliness to death. We must put worldly things away from our hearts. We are not to live by ordinary human priorities but by godly attitudes and values.

“Look out for number one,” says the world. “Be servant of all,” says Jesus. “Counterpunch whenever anyone insults or hits you,” says the world. “Turn the other cheek,” says Jesus.

Paul gives several examples of the kinds of matters we are to drive from our lives: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath malice, slander, obscene talk, lies. We are to so discipline ourselves that such qualities are no longer part of our lives.

And here we bump into one of the fundamental aspects of Paul’s theology: a certain fusion of past, present, and future. We have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. Why do some people walk out of a football game with three or four minutes left on the clock? Because they think they know what the outcome will be. If the score is 34-3, there is no doubt which team will win. The victory is as good as complete and the early leavers will go away saying, “The Titmouses beat the Sparrows” (or whatever the teams are) even before the game is actually over.

Paul’s theology is like that. The final score won’t be posted until we are in heaven and at the moment the Spirit is God is still working in us to restore us to the image of God. Yet, once Christ has been raised from the dead and we have entrusted ourselves to the living Christ, salvation is as good as complete. . .if indeed we continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel (1:23).

Living as we now do between the beginning of our salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its completion beyond the grave, we must consciously and deliberately bring our hearts and minds and deeds in line with the character of Christ.

We might wish the Lord would simply straighten us out and fix us with the sweep of a magic wand. But his concern is not merely to make us behave properly but to restore us to the image in which he first created us. If we are to be godly (short for “God-like”) and to live by godly wisdom, we must be responsible for choosing that which is right and good and true. We are responsible to God for ourselves.

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Studies in Colossians – 3:1-4

We come again to the word “therefore,” though in the English translation I’m using for this series (English Standard Version) it is rendered merely as “then.” Nonetheless it is the same Greek word which Paul used in 2:6 and 2:16. It is a very important word in Paul’s style of writing because he uses it to tell us how different sections relate to one another. “Therefore” means that the ideas to come are based on or derived from what he has already said. (The word “for” is the opposite, meaning the ideas to come are the foundation for what has already been said.)

If – as I greatly hope – you are attentive to the structure of the biblical texts, you may already have noticed that “therefore” is found not only in 2:6, 2:16 and here in 3:1 but also in 3:5 and 3:12. Simply observing that fact makes us suspect that this set of repetitions may suggest that 2:6 through 3:17 form a tightly constructed unit with a flow of closely related thoughts. Indeed, reading the whole section from beginning to end makes us aware that is exactly the case. Each “therefore” marks the next thought in a chain, with the last indicating the end, the conclusion. An easy way to check this possibility is to go directly from the first to the last section to see whether the text makes any sense that way. After working on today’s text, you may want to do that for your own pleasure.

It is important, of course, to note that the first section, 2:6-15, begins with “therefore” and so must be derived on something said earlier. What we find is that the reason we are to be rooted and grounded in faith (6-7) is that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. Only in communion with Christ can we together enjoy “the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (2:2). There is nowhere else to turn, no other person of whom that can be said.

We’ll take an overview of the whole passage again in a few days. For now, let’s focus our attention on 3:1-4. Because of all Paul has said up to this point, he now calls us to “seek the things that are above.” We won’t learn until 3:12 what the “above” things are. What matters at this point is that the “above” (i.e. heaven) is where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. And we who have died and been raised with Christ, who have been hidden in him, are there, too.

We are being told, in effect, to see the things which create our rightful home. In our inner, born-again selves we are already in heaven with Christ. Our eternal life has already begun. But we’re caught in between two worlds. This earthly world still has a certain hold on us and we must choose – consciously and persistently – to dwell instead into the Christ-centered world which is our true home.

All this, of course, is contingent. Notice that first word, the gigantic two-letter word “if.” This promise of being at home with Christ at the right hand of God is applicable to us only if, only IF we have entrusted ourselves into his hands and into his love. The promises and expectations of God are for the people of God. How many people have become angry at God because he didn’t follow their commands, even though they have in no way entrusted and devoted themselves to him?

The word translated “set your minds” (3:1) is one of my favorite NT terms. It refers to our way of thinking, the priorities and attitudes which shape our knowledge and understanding. The new way of thinking which is appropriate to our relationship with Jesus Christ is not shaped by the stoicheia of the world (cf 2:8 and 2:20). Rather, our new mindset is shaped by Jesus Christ himself once we have entrusted ourselves to him totally: heart, soul, mind, and strength.

And here’s another promise for the people of God. Though our lives are now hidden in the heart of Jesus Christ, when he himself is revealed again at the Second Coming, we will also be revealed with him in glory. I confess, I don’t know just what that means but of this I am sure: It’s going to be great and beautiful, joyous and wonderful. freeing and fulfilling.

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