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.

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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!

RUN THE RACE WITH PERSEVERANCE

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All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

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Single Sermons. Hebrews 11.

 I want to do something a little bit different this time. I often go through scripture paragraph-by-paragraph. I think this is helpful in many ways. But we need to remember, when we read on our own, that the Bible was written book-by-book. The best way to read it is first in large chunks, as it was written. After we’ve read the large chunks, then we can go back and break it down, piece by piece. This time, I want us to read one large chunk. The selection below is approximately half as many words as one of my sermons. Taken in this large chunk, it is a kind of mini sermon. So, let’s read it, and then I will add a few thoughts at the end. But don’t read it as prelude. Read it as part of the main body of this message.

HEBREWS CHAPTER 11

​​11 1 Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. 2 For our ancestors won God’s approval by it.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.
5 By faith Enoch was taken away so he did not experience death, and he was not to be found because God took him away. For prior to his removal he was approved, since he had pleased God. 6 Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.
7 By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the One who had promised was faithful. 12 Therefore from one man — in fact, from one as good as dead — came offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and he was offering his unique son, 18 the one it had been said about, Your seed will be traced through Isaac. 19 He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and he worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, as he was nearing the end of his life, mentioned the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions concerning his bones.
23 By faith, after Moses was born, he was hidden by his parents for three months, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they didn’t fear the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter 25 and chose to suffer with the people of God rather than to enjoy the short-lived pleasure of sin. 26 For he considered the reproach because of the Messiah to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since his attention was on the reward.
27 By faith he left Egypt behind, not being afraid of the king’s anger, for Moses persevered as one who sees Him who is invisible. 28 By faith he instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch the Israelites. 29 By faith they crossed the Red Sea as though they were on dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to do this, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after being encircled by the Israelites for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.
32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead — they were raised to life again. Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, 36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

121 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. (Hebrews 11:1 – 12:2. HCSB)

 Faith considers the unseen to be better than what is seen. It considers God’s promises to be better than anything the world has to offer. It draws a line in the dirt and says, “God’s promises are better than anything I could find in this world. Having the promise of God, as yet unseen, is better than having the physical reality of what the world offers.”

I think this message is especially relevant when it comes to our way of doing church in small groups in the home. Sometimes, it seems like no one else is doing it like us. Sometimes, it feels lonely. Sometimes, we wonder if we are really accomplishing anything. But we won’t truly see what are accomplishing until we see Jesus face-to-face. Stay the course. Run the race with perseverance.

I want us to think about verses 13-16:

13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

It might help to think about what these heroes of faith were thinking about. What are the great promises of God that are worth more than anything in this world? The author of Hebrews says that to have this kind of faith we must believe God exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. Those must be amazing rewards, considering what these people gave up for it. So what are the rewards?

First and foremost, the reward is Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus, we have all the fullness of God’s grace. We can look to receive “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:20).” In Jesus we find, sometimes, temporary healing of our current physical ailments, (James 4:14-16) but always the promise of eternal healing, bodies that do not get sick, die, or decay (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). In Him we have perfect, permanent love; he loves us even more than we love our own children (1 John 3:1; Psalm 103:8-13). Through Jesus we can have true inner peace (Philippians 4:7), no matter what the circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12). Through Jesus, we can also have peace with others, even though we may be very different (Ephesians 2:14). Because of Him, we belong to a new and permanent family, where we are no longer strangers and alien to each other. In Jesus we have undeserved favor; we have the forgiveness of sins, we are made holy and righteous.

The following verses do a great job of summarizing all this:

3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. 4 For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.
7 We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him 10 for the administration of the days of fulfillment — to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.
11 We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.
13 When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (HCSB; Ephesians 1:3-14)

The heroes of faith considered all this to be worth far more than anything they might gain on earth. Think about this. Every person you have ever loved, or ever will love in the future, will eventually die. Their corpses will either be burned, or they will disintegrate with time. Everyone who ever knew you and appreciated you will die and rot. You yourself will die, and your body will become fertilizer. Unless you are extremely lucky, the work you do here and now will be forgotten by everyone in the world within a hundred years. Everything and everyone that you try to live for here and now will be destroyed by death.

But the promise of God in Jesus is a permanent home. In that home, the people you love will not die. In that home, the work you do, the things you create, will stand forever.

Like Paul, these faith-heroes considered earthly riches and  achievements as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus

7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8, ESV2011)

These faith-heroes knew what martyr Jim Eliott said nineteen centuries later:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Now, to live like this can be lonely at times. It is so different from the way others live. All around us, people are investing their time and energy in the things of this world, and they seem to be fine; sometimes, even really happy, successful and fulfilled. In our new world of social media, all this gets distorted even more. Just remember, the people you see on the internet are a very carefully cultivated and edited version of the real thing. Just because people look great online doesn’t mean that they are really doing as well as they seem.

The call of our sinful flesh, of the world and of the devil is seductive. They tell us we can find what we need apart from Jesus Christ. But we have four tools to help us live this lonely, different, life of faith. The first tool is the Word of God, the Bible. We must read it, if we are going to persevere in faith. The second tool is presence of God through the Holy Spirit. The third tool is this great cloud of witnesses. We are surrounded, not only with the people mentioned in Hebrews 11, but with two-thousand years more worth of faithful Christians who chose to turn their backs on sin, flesh and the devil. They turned their backs on security, comfort, success, and ran the race with perseverance.

The fourth tool is each other. We who are living differently than the world must band together, and encourage each other. We aren’t as alone as we might feel sometimes. Reach out to each other when it feels difficult. Inspire one another to love and good deeds. So, I say again:

1 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3, ESV2011)