Colossians Part 2: IN CHRIST, IN THE WORLD

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Colossians, in many ways, is all about what it means to be in Christ, and, at the same time, in the world. We generally understand the second part. We know we sin. We know we hunger, thirst, and experience pain and sorrow. We also experience joy and happiness in the world. But we often struggle to know what it means to be in Christ at the same time. This is one of those cases where we must first trust it is true before we can begin to experience what it means. God is calling us to trust him when he says we are holy, and that he offers us the same Grace and Peace that are found in Jesus Christ.

COLOSSIANS PART 2: COLOSSIANS 1:1-2

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

The letter begins with Paul who also says Timothy is also writing. There are two reasons that Timothy is mentioned. In the first place, from very early on, Paul was a mentor to Timothy. He regarded him almost as an adopted son, and he appeared to be grooming Timothy to replace himself when he died. So several of his letters are  sent from both Paul and Timothy. Also, Timothy already had a special connection and ministry to the City of Ephesus, which was the only big city near Colossae. The Colossians might have already known who Timothy was. In any case, this is not just Paul’s letter, it is a letter containing true Christian teaching, approved not just by Paul, but by the other Christians who were with him there in Rome when he wrote.

The second reason Timothy might be mentioned is that it was probably Timothy who actually physically wrote the letter, while Paul dictated. It appears that Paul dictated most of letters, while others did the actual physical writing of what he said. So for example, at the end of the book of Romans, Paul is greeting the Christians in Rome, and then there is this:

22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (ESV Romans 16:22).

Tertius doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t compose the letter; it is just that Tertius is the one who took Paul’s dictation.

Often, Paul wrote a line or two of greeting in his own handwriting, even when the rest of the letter was dictated. Consider these examples:

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (ESV. 2 Thessalonians 3:17)

21 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. (ESV. 1 Corinthians 16:21)

11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 (ESV. Galatians 6:11-12)

Remember, the manuscripts that we have today are copies of copies, so we don’t have an actual sample of Paul’s handwriting. But it appears that he was a little self-conscious about it. Personally, I think he had problems with his eyes, which made it difficult for him to write well.

Let’s move on.

2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

I want to say a word about gender language here. I remember a time, when I was growing up, that the normal usage in language was to write “he/him/his” when the person involved was generic – that is, it could be either a a male or a female. So you might write: “A traveler could very easily lose his luggage in place like Baghdad. He should never take his eyes off his bags.” Now, the traveler could be male or female – it didn’t matter. This was not offensive to anyone at the time. Everyone understood you had to use some kind of pronoun, and he/she was awkward, so it was “he.” However, these days, we have become extremely sensitive, and easily offended, so that sort of thing doesn’t fly anymore. Even so, English still does not have a singular generic and neither does ancient koine Greek. So, when it says, “brothers” everyone in those days would have understood that this included both men and women. Almost every time it says “brothers” in the New Testament, what it really means is “fellow Christians, both male and female.”

So Paul writes this to “the saints and faithful fellow Christians in Colossae.” I don’t love how this sounds in English, because it makes it seems as if we have two groups: saints, and then faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. Actually, it leaves room for a potential third group: fellow brothers and sisters who are not faithful. However, Paul clearly did not intend us to think there was a such thing as a Christian who is not faithful, and he did not even mean us to think there is a difference between “saints,” and “fellow Christians.” The Greek word for “faithful” could actually be translated as “believing.” The word “and” is actually a very flexible conjunction, and in this context, I don’t think it means “in addition to.”

So, I think what Paul means to say is this: “I write to the saints – that is, those who put their faith in Christ.”

I don’t want to breeze over the word “saints.” According to the Bible, every Christian is a “saint.” The word “saints” in Greek (agiois) is literally “holies.” If you have surrendered your life to Jesus, you are a “holy one.” This is not a special privilege given to people who have proven themselves to be a cut above the rest. This is the title given to every single person who has faith in Jesus. If you are in Christ, you are a “holy one.” When you trust Jesus, you receive the very holiness of Jesus. This is going to come up again, later in Colossians.

Holiness is a concept that we don’t talk about very much. Of course, part of it is a sort of “goodness” – an unusual, special kind of goodness. Part of being holy is also about being different. Holy things are not like every day things. Holiness makes something special, set apart.

Many years ago, a friend of mine – let’s call her “Jane” –  had the experience of being made into one of God’s holy ones. We were praying for every individual in our house church meeting. For each person, I was praying, “Holy Spirit, pour out yourself on [this person].” When we came to my friend Jane, I paused. She was not yet a Christian. My theological side thought, “The Holy Spirit cannot come into Jane, because she hasn’t yet received Jesus.” But, I thought it would make her feel awkward if I prayed anything different, so I asked the Holy Spirit to pour himself into Jane, also. Afterwards, she said to me: “When you prayed that prayer, He really did!” You see, when I asked the Lord to do that, Jane believed that he did do it. And by that believing, she received it.

She went home that night, and said to her boyfriend, “Honey, I love you, but we can’t sleep together anymore, or live together, until we are married.” When he asked why, she said, “Everything is different. I have the holy Spirit in me now.”

That’s exactly the heart of holiness. When we belong to God, everything is different. We aren’t like everyone else in the world. God lives inside of us through his Spirit, making us holy, set apart, different. When my friend Jane believed this, it became a reality to her. Listen – brothers and sisters in Christ – it is also a reality for each one of us. I know we see things that appear to contradict that reality. But God’s word is more powerful than those temporary setbacks. When we believe we are holy, we begin to act like we are holy – just as Jane did. And God says it, so we ought to believe it.

There is another thing about the people to whom this letter is written. Greek, of course, has different rules than English. This opening phrase does something interesting in Greek that it cannot properly do in English. Let me try to give you  sense of it.  Paul says he writes to the:

In Christ holy-ones, that is, the believing brothers In Colossae.” These believers are right in the middle of two important places. They are In Christ, and they are In Colossae. Literally, in the Greek, they are in between Christ and Colossae. This is kind of picture of where and how we live out the Christian life. We Christians are in Christ, and we are also in the world. We have a heavenly home. Our future is in heaven. As we will see later in Colossians, in some ways, our life is already in heaven, in Christ. And yet we also live right here on planet earth where we have to pay bills, and eat, and where we can still find joy and happiness. The whole letter of Colossians, in some ways is about what it means to be In Christ, in Colossae. Though we aren’t in Colossae (any followers in Turkey, please give me shout!), thankfully, the Colossians were human beings, and human nature doesn’t change that much. In this letter we will find valuable lessons about what it is to be In Christ, in whatever situation we find ourselves. I am in Christ, in Lebanon, TN. You might be in Christ, in Southern CA, or in Chennai, India, or anywhere else. The things that the Holy Spirit said to the Colossians will help us still today. We are in Christ, and In the world. Following Jesus is really all about figuring out what it means to be both of those things at the same time.

For myself, and most of those I know, the primary difficulty is about what it means to be “in Christ.” We  know we are in the world. We know we sin, we know we get hungry, and have needs, and experience sorrow and pain. But we are different from those who do not yet have Christ. We aren’t only in the world. God calls us his holy ones. At the very end of verse two, we are offered grace and peace from God our Father. That offer comes through Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ. So, for those who are in Christ, we have the very grace and peace that God the Father gives Jesus his son.

I mentioned the story of what happened when one woman who believed it. She was in the world, for sure. She had her struggles with addictions, immorality, anger, selfishness, depression, all of it. But when she believed that she was in Christ, when she believed that God had made her one of his holy ones, it changed everything.

So today I ask you: believe it. Count on it. God has granted you grace and peace. He has made you one of his holy ones, part of his family. We can count on this, not because or our own strength or any kind of quality in ourselves. We count on it because of Jesus. I paraphrase Martin Luther when I say: “If I look at myself, I cannot see how I could possibly be saved. But when I look at Jesus, I cannot see how I could possibly not be saved.” Our faith is sure because of Jesus. Though we are in the world, we are in Christ Jesus.

As we close today, I want us to meditate on what it means to both in Christ, and in the world, to be one of God’s holy ones. Hear the Father’s welcome: “Grace and Peace to you, my child!”

 

 

Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

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It is important for us to understand the world that these Colossian Christians lived in, so that we can see why Paul wrote what he did, and how they would have understood and applied it to their lives.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Download Colossians Part 1

Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to the Christians in the city of Colossae. Colossae was a relatively small town in an area of the world that we would now call southern Turkey. It was three to five days’ journey east from the large city of Ephesus. In order to understand this book of the Bible, it is important to know a little bit about the kind of world those Colossian Christians lived in.

By that point in history, virtually all of the land within two-hundred miles of the Mediterranean sea had been conquered first by Greeks, and then by Romans. Though there were still local customs and languages, for the most part, everybody spoke Greek, and participated in what we call “Greco-Roman culture.”

Colossians has a lot to say about worshipping God. A big part of that culture was about worshipping various gods. The chief god was Zeus, and his wife was Hera. Apollo was the god of healing, among other things. Hermes was the god in charge of messages and communication. So, if you sent an important letter, you might make an offering to Hermes to make sure it was favorably received. If you wanted healing, you went to the shrine of Apollo. Athena, besides being a goddess of war, was in charge of weaving and pottery, so if you were a craftsman in these trades, you probably worshipped her. In fact, many trades (like baking, blacksmithing, leather working) had guilds, and one of the main things you did in your trade guild was come together and worship the god who was in charge of your trade. Colossians also mentions drunkenness, and sexual immorality. Often times, worshipping the various gods involved feasting, getting drunk, and then having sex in the temple or shrine of the god you worshipped. Generally, they were not having sex with their spouses in this context. So, Paul writes about sexual immorality.

In addition, the Greco-Roman people had a fascination with what they called “mystery religions.” Anything strange and mysterious and weird drew their attention. And, of course, there was a great tolerance of any sort of worship or religion. It was no big deal if one man preferred Apollo, and another Zeus. People didn’t care. But what was not tolerated, what eventually led to persecution, was when Christians said everyone else was wrong. As long as you could agree that your religion was one of several dozen equally valid ways, there was no problem. But it was thought arrogant to claim that your religion was the One True Way. Sound familiar?

The one exception to these sorts of religions was Judaism. Jews worshipped only the one God, and they had a special dispensation by the Roman government, so they were tolerated. By this point in history, however, Jews did not live simply according to the Old Testament. They had developed an elaborate system of laws and theology that went far beyond what the Old Testament teaches. Christians, of course, worship the same One God, though they did not add all of the things added by the Jews, and added instead, the wisdom and truth brought by Jesus Christ.

So, when Jews and Christians met each other, they had this in common: they worshipped only the One true God as revealed first in the Old Testament. They shared some of the moral values that no one else in the culture had. In some times and places Jewish people, recognizing the common ground they had with Christians, sought to turn the Gentile Christians into Jews. In other places, they condemned Jewish Christians, claiming they had fallen away from Judaism. They wanted to make Christians live according to the Jewish laws – even the ones that weren’t in the Bible. Paul writes about this sort of thing in this book of Colossians.

Paul talks about the roles of women and men in the family and the church. Women in that culture were not as free as they are now, but were not as oppressed as some people might think. For example, a woman named Hedea won the war-chariot race in Corinth in the year 43. If a woman won the race, it isn’t a stretch to assume that more than one woman participated. War chariot racing is a violent, physically demanding sport, but apparently, women did it. In many places, the New Testament talks about prominent women who had enough influence to get Christians kicked out of local towns. Lydia was a businesswoman; no mention is made of a man in her life. She appears to be self-sufficient, and no remark is made as if that was particularly unusual. In the first century, in Ephesus, there was a woman holding a position something like what we would call “superintendent of the school district.” Many women had work that required them to travel around the town and do business.

In Rome, at least, marriage was becoming a farce. Divorce was rampant. Men and women swapped wives and husbands like they were at a flea market. There is a marriage record of one woman marrying her twenty-third husband. For the man, she was his twenty-first wife. It was a time and place where sexual immorality was common, and marriage was just not valued. Again, sound familiar?

So we need to understand that Paul’s words about marriage and family were not simply re-affirming what everyone around there believed. They were counter-cultural. Radical, even.

One final cultural thing we should understand: slavery, since Paul briefly mentions that, also. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two types of slavery. The first is what we usually think of when we hear that word. These were slaves used to mine precious minerals, or to work on the Roman war galleys. They were treated little better than animals. They were people who were wholly under the control of their masters, and they were treated horribly. This is not the type of slavery that the New Testament (or Colossians) writes about, since there were no such slaves living in the towns and cities of the Greco-Roman world. Most of these were captured in war.

There was, however, another kind of slave. They were “bound” into service to their masters with a legal agreement. But this situation was much like the position of indentured servant that was quite common among white Europeans during the American colonial period. Certainly, they weren’t free to leave their masters without a change in the legal situation. Certainly, they had fewer rights than legally free people. But it was nothing like the race-based chattel-slavery that took place in America during the nineteenth century. Some translations of the Bible translate this type as “bond-servant” which is probably a better term. There were huge numbers of this sort of “slave” in the world at this time. Many of these people were “slaves” only for a period of their life – ten or twenty years. Most of them reasonably expected to – and did, in fact – gain their freedom at some point in life. They were paid for their work, which basically defies the description of “slave.” They could own property themselves – in fact, there are records of slaves owning slaves! They could marry, and have families, and their “owners” could not separate them from their families.

In those days, a slave with an important job for a wealthy, noble family, was often far better off than a free person trying to make a living on their own.

Now, let’s talk about the specific reasons Paul wrote this letter. As far as we know, Paul himself never went to Colossae. For a time, he planted house churches in Ephesus, and apparently, a man from Colossae, named Epaphras, visited Ephesus while Paul was working there. Epaphras became a Christian while he was in Ephesus, and then returned home to Colossae, where he started teaching people to follow Jesus. Many people there became Christians, and one or more house churches were established there. We know that one of the Christians was man named Philemon, and another one was Philemon’s bond-servant, Onesimus.

A few years later, Paul was a prisoner in Rome, under house arrest, with a fair amount of freedom as he awaited an audience with Caesar. This man Epaphras came to help and encourage him. It appears that Paul had a long talk with Epaphras about how things were going with the church in Colossae, and Paul wrote this letter in response to that conversation.

There were already several people in Rome with Paul, including the slave named Onesimus. In addition there was a man from Ephesus named Tychicus (tik-ki-kis). Tychicus is mentioned several times in the New Testament. It appears that he often traveled with Paul as part of his ministry team, and Paul thought very highly of him. After the arrival of Epaphras, Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians (the one we have in our Bible) and possibly another letter to Laodicea, which has been lost. By the way, I like that we know that. It shows that God was in control of what went into the Bible. Not everything Paul wrote was supposed to be part of the Bible, so God, in his providence, allowed that letter to be lost, while, in his providence, others were preserved.

In addition to that lost letter, Paul also wrote this letter to the Colossians, and a letter to Philemon, whom I mentioned above. That letter is also part of the Bible. Tychicus was given the task of carrying the letters to Ephesus and beyond, and also encouraging the Christians in those cities.

All right, with all this background, I want to do something a little different. We will take the text piece by piece, as I normally do. However, it is very helpful to have a sense of the whole thing before we examine each little part. Therefore, please end your time by reading the entire book of Colossians at one sitting, right now. It took me eleven minutes to do so out loud in the spoken version of this sermon. If you prefer to listen to that, it starts at 26:11 in the recorded sermon. As you do so, write down anything that strikes you, and especially, jot down any questions that come up from what you read. However, jot quickly, and keep reading, so you have a sense for what the whole letter feels like.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today through the text!