COLOSSIANS #18: THE KEY TO NEW LIFE

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Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.

COLOSSIANS #16: GROW LIKE A TREE, NOT LIKE A WEED

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Sometimes our  Christian culture can give us the idea that we ought to be constantly having amazing spiritual feelings and experiences. But at best, that idea is distorted. The message of this text – the message of the Bible – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. This applies to both churches and individual Christians. Growth is something Jesus does in us and for us. He uses simple, straightforward means to grow us, and anyone can participate in those means.

COLOSSIANS
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Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

Remember last time, we considered the very important phrase: “as you received Christ as Lord, so continue in him.” Verse 7 is connected to that thought:

You have been and will continue to be rooted in him. You are being firmly built up in faith, you are being established in accordance with what you were taught, and you overflow with thanksgiving. (my own translation/paraphrase from Greek)

The verbs here are all present tense, passive voice. What that means is that they are describing something that is being done to you, and that continues to be done to you. We talked about how we received Jesus not by doing good things, but by trusting that he has already done them. So he is also rooting us (that is connecting us deeply to him). He is building us up in faith, he is establishing us – that is giving us a firm foundation in Christ. All of this is according to what we were taught, that is, according to the Bible. And it results in joyful gratitude on our part.

As we think about all this, a few things come to mind. First, in our mortal lives right now, following Jesus is something of a process. We are being rooted in him, built up in faith and established. It is ongoing. It isn’t that one moment we are godless pagans, and the next we are ready to be missionaries or monks. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is working to enlarge our spirits, to wean us away from our sinful flesh, and to draw us more and more into His abundant life. We should also make sure to understand that these words apply not only to individuals, but also to church communities. People in those days were just as likely to think of themselves in terms of “us” as often, or more, as “me.”

The words used to describe the process are not dramatic. Instead they indicate patient, deep growth. First, we are being rooted. If you think about the plant world, you can’t even see roots growing. That all happens beneath the surface. Roots are vital to the survival of any plant, but roots are not flashy. They are not quick. They grow slowly and hidden.

When we think about the next one, being built up, we can see something happening in that process. However, in Paul’s day, before modern technology, buildings took a great deal of time to take shape. In the ancient Mediterranean world the majority of the buildings would have been made out of stone. The stone had to be cut by hand, hauled by hand, or horse, and put in place by hand. The ingredients of the mortar had to be ground (perhaps with the assistance of a some sort of primitive mill) and mixed by hand. So, though you can see the results of building up, that too, takes a lot of time.

Then we come to being established. Again, this is something we can’t really see. Being established, in this context, means that we are firmly set in Jesus. An established business is one that has been there for a long time, and has roots in the community, and strong financial and marketing practices. An established fact is one that is not in doubt. When we are established in Christ, We have strong spiritual practices (reading, praying, serving), and a meaningful connection to Christian community (church). When we are established, whatever comes, we won’t be shaken from the foundation we have in him.

Being rooted, built up and established is all in accordance with what we were taught. Paul is referring to the teaching of the Apostles, which, these days, we call “The Bible.” The Bible is one of the primary places in which we get to know Jesus, and by which we give him access to our lives. The other ways are based upon the Bible: the sacraments (especially communion, since it happens regularly) and Christian community. If we cut ourselves off from any of these three (The Bible, The sacraments or Christian community) it will interfere with the growth that the Lord wants to provide.

I want us to understand what good news this is. In the first place, these are all things being done to us by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t rooting ourselves, or building ourselves. The Spirit is doing it. All we have to do to receive it is to trust Him.

Now he does use certain methods to root us and establish us in Jesus. But these are not complicated. And if we really do trust Jesus, at least a part of us will actually want to do these things. Anyone can read the Bible, or listen to it in an audio version. Anyone can receive the sacraments. Anyone can be part of a church. It doesn’t require something exceptional on our part to grow in Jesus. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person. We don’t have to have certain kinds of experiences or emotions or passions.

Sometimes, our present Christian culture in the Western world seems to push toward having big, exciting experiences, filled with wonderful feelings. It seems like we are supposed to always feel these amazing emotions toward God. We are supposed to be continually blown away by what God is doing in our lives. Think of a typical worship video. There’s a huge crowd. The people on stage are raising their hands and singing with deep emotion. The music creates a big atmosphere. Cut to the crowd where people stand with their hands up, tears streaming down their faces or kneel, shaking with feeling.

I don’t think that sort of thing is bad in and of itself, but it tends to send a misleading message. It encourages us to think we should move from one high to the next. We think maybe there is something wrong if we aren’t moving in a huge, obvious, upward spiritual trajectory. We think we must be terrible Christians if our faith doesn’t look like those YouTube worship videos.

But that isn’t the case. The message of this text – which is the Bible, not a worship video – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. I have amazing spiritual experiences once in a while. Probably not more than once or twice a year, probably less, and they last only a few minutes. And it might be that Jesus gives me them that often because I’m not normally an emotional person, and he wants me to grow in that area. These spiritual experiences are great. But they are not the substance of my faith. I would grow even without them, because it is Jesus who causes me to grow.

This is really important. Yes, we should be growing as Christians. But the pace and type of growth are up to Jesus. The growth comes not because we earn it, but because we trust him. We may not even be able to see some of it. Think about roots again. You don’t really know how good the roots of a tree are until a storm comes. Then, and only then, you can tell if a tree’s roots are strong or not. If you are worried about the rate of your growth, trust Jesus. Ask him to cause you to grow, and trust him to do it. Don’t fight with him about basics like reading your Bible, and praying, and being involved with Christian community, but understand even if you do all that, you won’t grow unless Jesus makes it happen.

I also want you to think of these things in terms of your local church. It is easy to get impatient with your church. But here, spiritual growth for both individuals and churches is described in terms that are slow, gradual and patient. Yes, there are big, exciting churches out there. It is not my job to judge them but I realized years ago that spiritual reality can be very different from how things look on the surface. Not every big, exciting-seeming church is spiritually healthy or pleasing to the Lord.

I want to consider the next piece: overflowing with thanksgiving.

I think it is clear that thankfulness also has great power to transform our attitudes and thoughts. It is very difficult to be both bitter and thankful at the same time. It is hard to thank God profusely for what he has done for me, and, at the same time, be angry at him. When we thank God, it helps us to focus on what is good, and ultimately on the Good Giver. Being thankful to the Lord for all things, including my pain, has been part of the transformation for me of turning my struggle into a blessing.

But thankfulness is more than just a way to manipulate us into a positive attitude.

Thankfulness is both a result of, and a means to, trust in Jesus. The more we really believe what he has done for us, and learn about it, the more grateful we will be. On the other hand, thankfulness helps us to receive in faith what Jesus has given us. You can’t touch forgiveness with your hands. You can’t touch love, or hope, or grace or joy. But when we thank God for these things, we receive them more deeply in our hearts. Thanking him helps us receive, and also strengthens our connection to the One who gives.

I am not naturally a grateful person, perhaps because I have had so many good things handed to me during my life. But I have found that if I can find some way to start thanking God, even for something quite small and insignificant, it gives the Holy Spirit a crack to work with. Then I gradually become more and more thankful, for deeper and more important things. So I might start as I shower, thanking the Lord for hot water, or even just running water. Then I might thank him that I have the ability to stand up and take a shower. I’ll thank him for water. That might remind me of my baptism, and so I thank him for adopting me as his child and giving me the Holy Spirit. And so on.

Some thoughts for application:

  • Have you been tempted to be impatient with yourself or your church because growth seems so slow? How does this text address your impatience?
  • Have you thought that your spiritual growth all depends on your own efforts? What does this text say to you about that?
  • What are some things that you can be thankful for? Take ten minutes (time yourself!) to thank God for various things, big and small.

Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope.

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Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope. Colossians 1:3-9

When we truly hope for something important, that hope creates fellowship with others who have the same hope. Therefore, when the grace and love of God are poured into us, they create a kind of fountain that first fills us, and then pours out of us into our relationships with other Christians, and then fills the church (our fellow Christians) and pours out into the world. That is God design. If the fountain doesn’t seem to be working, the first place to check is the source: our own connection to the love of God in Jesus.

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By the way, I take all of the five verses above in one piece, because, in Greek, they are on sentence. There is a lot to this sentence (paragraph, in English) but all of the thoughts hang together. The ESV translation captures this quite well. Obviously, as we discussed before, Paul has never met most of the Christians in Colossae. But here he points out that because of their common faith, it is appropriate for Paul to give thanks for them, and it is appropriate for all Christians to love even those believers whom they have not yet met. It is worthwhile to notice that the Apostle Paul often gives thanks when he writes. But we should also notice that his giving of thanks is very specific. He thanks God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not thank “the universe,” nor does he just feel vaguely thankful. He is thankful to a specific person, God, that is, the Father of our Lord Jesus (not a pagan god, nor some god-principle). He is thankful to the One the Bible describes as the only true God.

Second, Paul is specific in what he is thankful about. In all his letters, he is especially thankful when he hears that people are putting their trust in Jesus, and receiving the salvation that comes only through him. I think it is often helpful to be thankful for little things, like warm biscuits, and fresh cold water, and good friends and a working vehicle. However, none of those things is guaranteed in life. We can be rightly grateful for them. But we may not always have them. But there is one thing that is guaranteed. One thing, if we want it, is ours forever, and can never be taken from us. There is one thing for which we can give thanks, no matter where we are, or what is happening. That one thing is the love of God given in and through Jesus Christ. Every single person, in every time and place, from a cold dungeon to a sumptuous palace, can thank God for his love given to us in Jesus. God’s greatest gift to us is himself. If God is, well, God, then He is simply the greatest, most wonderful thing in the universe. He gives us many other things, but he also gives us what is best: Himself. He does it through Jesus.

I have said before that giving thanks has real spiritual power. One of the primary ways we can truly “take hold of” some of the “abstract” gifts of God (like love, peace, joy and so on) is to thank him for them. So, one of the primary ways to receive more of Jesus in our lives is to thank God for Him. Paul knew that, and did it regularly.

Paul is thankful for their faith in Jesus, and for the love they have for the saints (remember, that means, all Christians) because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. When we put our faith in Jesus, we gain an everlasting hope. One of the results of that hope is that we learn to love the other people who share it. Not too many weeks ago, we spent time thinking about the hope we wait for in the new heavens and the new earth. This is the hope Paul is talking about. The hope of having our sins and mistakes wiped away beyond memory, and being made perfect, to fulfill every purpose for which we were created. The hope of being completely and utterly known, and still loved. The hope of eternal, abundant, fulfilling, joyful life in the New Creation. The hope of being with Jesus, and our other loved ones, forever.

Hope brings people together. This might surprise you, until you think about it. Have you ever been a fan of sports team, hoping your team will win the big game? When the game is on, and you are gathered with others, don’t you feel a kind of fellowship with those who, along with you, hope for your team to do well? You have a warm fellow-feeling, even with people you don’t know, if they root for the same team. Hope creates fellowship. Also, the more important the hope is to you, the stronger you feel fellowship with those who have the same hope. Elsewhere Paul writes this:

5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (CSB Romans 5:5)

Before we move on, I want point something out. Most of the verses in the New Testament that talk about loving other people are written to tell Christians to love other Christians. Now, it is certainly not OK to hate anyone. Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies, and even to pray for those who persecute us. But Christian love begins with love from and for Christ, and moves from there to love for other Christians. If you love those who are not  Christians, but fail to have love for your fellow-believers, something is wrong. Imagine a fountain that bubbles up into a small bowl at the top. The water fills that bowl, and then spills into second, larger bowl below it. It fills up the second bowl, and spills out over to a third, even larger one below that. That might work as a picture of Christian love. The first bowl is ourselves. The love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5). The second bowl is other Christians. The love that God gives us, spills over into love for others who have the same hope. Next, together, the love that Christians have for each other spills out into love for the world – including those who are not Christians.

Now, if we try to take short cuts on that process, it doesn’t work. If our own bowl is not full of God’s love, we will have nothing to give to our fellow Jesus-followers. Our bowl is the smallest. Loving the world is too big a task for individuals on their own. It needs the second bowl – the combined love of the fellowship of believers – to love the world.

Also, Jesus was very clear – one sign to those who do not know him is that those who do know Him will love each other. People will see quite quickly how we Christians treat one another.

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (CSB) John 13:35

Think about it. If I see a group that sort of barely tolerates each other, that’s not something I want to be a part of, even if the group claims to love me. If they don’t truly love each other, the moment I become a part of them, I will no longer be loved them. You see? So we must love each other, or we cannot hope to love the world.

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother or sister is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (CSB 1 John 2:9-11)

John writes this because if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts, we will naturally love our fellow Christians. The two go hand in hand. Let me be really clear. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the solution is not to try harder. The solution is to connect more deeply with the way God loves us, and hope we have together in Jesus. The more we really trust how much God loves us, the more real our future hope is to us, the more we will love our fellow believers. The first will cause the second. And the more we love our fellow believers, the better we can together love the world.

Paul mentions that this very thing is happening both with the Colossians, and around the world. As a result, the gospel is bearing fruit. There are two kinds of fruit that come about. The first is inner growth. Paul says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in you. That means that it is causing them to grow inwardly. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. (CSB Galatians 5:22-23)

These are things that grow inside us as individuals, and which we practice in our relationships with each other. I would add, based upon many other texts, that we also grow in knowing what the Bible says, and what it means, and how it applies to our lives. There is also growth in the sense of learning to say to “no” to the ungodly world, the devil and our sinful flesh, while we say “Yes,” to God, more and more.

There is an outward kind of fruit, and that is: new disciples. The gospel makes us grow inwardly, and also it grows outwardly, by adding more people to those who have the hope that is found in Jesus alone. Paul says that all over the world, more people are coming to know Jesus. In fact, as we grow inwardly, that causes to treat people differently, and also to motivated to share with them the grace we have received from God.

Did you know that, just as it was true when Paul wrote it, it has been true throughout all of history, and is true even today? I live in the Western World, where Christianity has begun to sort of “age,” and perhaps show signs of decline. But the fastest growing religion in the world today is still Christianity. Though we don’t notice it in America, there are other places in the world where Christianity’s growth is dynamic. In the past, America, and Western Europe sent missionaries all over the world. Today, many of the places that used to be mission fields have such strong churches that they are sending missionaries themselves. I have personally met missionaries from Korea, China, Japan, Brazil, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Bermuda, Tonga, and probably a few other places I have forgotten. Christianity is not, by any means, in decline, when you consider the worldwide picture.

Paul ends this sentence by praising Epaphras, who was the missionary to the Colossians. It is good and right for them to recognize and honor the one who brought God’s word to them.

Some areas for application: Should we consider making it a regular practice to give thanks to God for Jesus, and our salvation? What kind of difference might that make in our day to day life of following Him? Do we love our fellow-Christians? If we don’t, then answer is not to beat ourselves up, but rather, to dig more deeply into the that hope we share with all believers. Finally, is the gospel bearing fruit in your life? I am not concerned about the amount or “size” of fruit in the lives of disciples. I think the real issue is, is there any kind of fruit from the gospel in your life? You see, God is the one who provides the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7: John 15:4). How much, and in which ways, we grow, is up to Him. So the issue is simply this: if you have truly believed the gospel, there will be some fruit in your life, however small. It is usually best to ask a trusted Christian friend about how they see the fruit of gospel in you. We tend to either minimize, or exaggerate what God is doing.

Pray and meditate on these these things now.

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!