Monday, September 8, Colossians Chapter 1
Paul almost certainly wrote this letter in AD 60 while under house arrest in Rome, the same time he penned other letters of which we still have Ephesians and Philemon with Philippians in 61 AD. Paul did not ever visit the city and the church seems to have been planted by Epaphras, possibly after being converted by Paul in Ephesus. Dr. Thomas L. Constable has this to say about the theme of the short letter:
The only information available to help us reconstruct the heresy threatening the church comes from indirect allusions and the emphases in this epistle. We conclude that the false teachers were not giving the person and work of Christ proper interpretation or emphasis. They were distorting and minimizing these doctrines. The false teaching also contained a philosophic appeal, whether Oriental or Hellenistic we cannot be sure (2:8). Notwithstanding there was an emphasis on higher knowledge of the cosmic order. There were also elements of Judaistic ritualism and traditionalism present (2:8, 11, 16; 3:11). However, contrary to orthodox Judaism, the false teachers were encouraging the veneration of angels who they believed controlled the operations of nature to some degree (2:18-19). There was an emphasis on ascetic self-denial (2:20-23) and apparently the idea that only those with full knowledge of the truth as taught by the false teachers could understand and experience spiritual maturity (1:20, 28; 3:11). These emphases later developed into Gnosticism, though in Colosse the Jewish emphasis was more prominent than in later Greek Gnosticism. It is easy to see how such a cult could develop and gain adherents in the Greek-Jewish culture of the Lycus Valley.
Gnosticism is an easy heresy to fall into for it depends on the person to bring about his own salvation. The Judaizers believed doing the Law was the only way to salvation. They were the most influential Gnostics in Paul’s day, but there were Greek Gnostics who taught variations of the same theme from the Greek thinking. Similar to Buddhism, the Greeks believed humans to be prisoners in this world, somewhat like The Matrix. We can escape this false world if we obtain the secret knowledge. There are many variations on this idea, both in ancient times and today; belief in the ability of science to create a perfect world, in a strong military to save us, in the use of crystals to focus the energy all around us, etc.
There were hundreds of mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire and most practiced some sort of Gnosticism. They began to try to mix their mysticism with Christianity leading in the Second Century to a Gnostic movement so strong that we believe half of all Christians practiced some form of Christian-Gnosticism. While the Church was able to force it underground eventually, it has never gone away.
In contrast, Paul preaches a simple message of faith in God who has shown us Mercy and has chosen to make us his children. In verse 13 Paul contrasts the kingdoms of light and darkness. All of the mystery cults met in the darkness; that is one of the reasons they were mysteries.
Paul points out that Jesus was a partner with his Father in the Creation. He is in control of everything. Nothing is beyond his power. It matters not how weak or strong I am, the Son of God is in control. If I cannot do good, he will make it good.
You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don’t walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted. There is no other Message—just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message. I, Paul, am a messenger of this Message. MSG
As for verse 24, I myself have been made a minister of this same Gospel, and though it is true at this moment that I am suffering on behalf of you who have heard the Gospel, yet I am far from sorry about it. Indeed, I am glad, because it gives me a chance to complete in my own sufferings something of the untold pains for which Christ suffers on behalf of his body, the Church, Phillips Chrysostom has this to explain: It seems indeed to be a great thing Paul has said, but it is not based on arrogance, far be it. Rather, Paul’s words come from his deep love towards Christ. For he will not have the sufferings to be his own, but his, through the desire to reconcile these persons to him. And what things I suffer, I suffer, he says, on his account. Therefore, don’t thank me, but express your gratitude to Christ, for it is he himself who suffers.
Tuesday, September 9, Colossians Chapter 2
Paul opens this section with another complex sentence best replicated by the RSV. For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at La-odice′a, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
First note that the letter is intended for Laodicea as well. It would have been circulated to other churches after that. Take special note of the last few words in light of the first chapter. Paul was fighting opponents who preached a secret knowledge. Here he uses three of their favorite words, mystery, wisdom and knowledge. Paul begins to explain that God is the source of all mystery, wisdom and knowledge.
The human tradition of verse 8 called for a variety of actions in addition to accepting Jesus. Remember that the Gnostics called themselves Christians and required their followers to accept Jesus and his sacrifice. By the second century many of them rejected Jesus as truly human and other rejected any notion that he was of God, but they still required belief in him. I agree, it seems strange.
Some of the requirements presented besides following all the rules of the Pharisees from the Jewish side of Gnosticism were going through ritual initiations, learning a complicated code, studying the mystery books, etc. What Paul says is, it is all a waste of time and has nothing to do with salvation: believe in Jesus, period.
Verses 9-15 is as neat a description of the Gospel as the Bible contains with verse 15 being the exclamation point.
On Easter Sunday, 1917, Karl Barth preached to his congregation in Safenwil, Switzerland. The entire sermon was taken from verse 15. Just after the end of the Great War, he was invited to be a professor at the University of Göttingen in Germany where he influenced many including Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were both active in the resistance against the Nazis, though Barth was forced to return to Switzerland while Bonhoeffer was hanged. Here is part of that great sermon.
Today we may all celebrate a triumph. As spring will presently draw us out of our living rooms and kitchens into the gardens, fields, and woods, where a warm sun will give us a feeling of wellness, so also the loving God now calls us out of all the houses of our opinions and thoughts and prejudices, our cares, sadness, and anger. So the loving God now draws us down from the high horse of our points of view and converts these self-informed ideas of ours, like one might turn an old coat inside out and hang it to let it air. So the loving God leads us beyond our narrow doorways into the street, so that we can see the heavens and each can face the other. God says to us, “Now let us celebrate, now leave everything you can do—and see what I can do. See what I have done and accomplished, while you were busy with figures and studies, arguing and getting angry, crying and sighing. See what I have done and accomplished, while you, living your lives in utter seriousness, put knowing expressions on your faces, spoke smart judgments, and threw up your hands to give them emphasis. Now look what has happened in the meantime and rejoice: Christ is risen!”
Paul moves from that powerful proclamation to a direct attack on the Judaizers by saying that the Scriptures (OT) were but a shadow of the coming of the Messiah. Once the Messiah has arrived he replaces that shadow with the real thing. We are not bound by the rules of that shadow. Paul might have added, I am still not going to eat pork but you can if you want to. It will not make you less of a follower of the Messiah.
Verse 20 is a strongly condemning verse for all of us. We are to place all our being in the spiritual world of the Son of God and we can best do that by copying the human Son of Man, Jesus. We still try to enforce restrictions on our fellow Christians: dress for church, stand, sit, kneel, pray this way, avoid bars, do not smoke or drink; the list is almost endless. Paul would have much to say about our modern Gnosticism.
Wednesday, September 10, Colossians Chapter 3
Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached two sermons in Berlin on verses 1-4. It was in 1932 a year before Hitler came to power. But the existing government had reinstituted the use of the name of God to open every parliament session. Bonhoeffer considered that an empty phrase. In his first sermon he had this to say:
That is certainly an extremely off-putting way to start a conversation with a person: Since you have been raised with Christ….
What is it supposed to mean to us that we have been raised with Christ? It is incomprehensible for us. It seems foolish to us. It is completely uninteresting to us. It seems to us completely ill-suited for the beginning of a conversation….How should the certainty that we have all been raised in Christ affect the relationship of the teacher to the pupil, the friend to the friend, the wife to the husband, and the father to the son? If we tolerate this idea at all, then only as the crowning conclusion of a brilliant lecture?…
When we are in need, in questions of politics or the economy, in questions of the education of our children, in questions of married life, when we are unsure in what form and toward which goals we should structure our whole life, would it occur to a single one of us, whether we are the questioners or those who should give the answer, to state as the first proposition of this deliberation, in all decisiveness: All of us together have been raised in Christ? You parents and husbands and wives, you who are one another’s friends, you apartment-house residents with all of your difficulties and disagreements, you employers and you employees, you who yearn to become real, strong, capable people—all of you have been raised in Christ?…
Our disobedience is not that we are so little religious but that we actually would like very much to be religious, find it very edifying when someone somewhere says and writes: “In the name of God, Amen,” are very much reassured when some government or other proclaims the Christian worldview. It is our disobedience, it is our fleeing, it is our calamitous downfall—that we, the more pious we are, are all the less willing to let ourselves be told that God is dangerous: that God does not allow God’s self to be mocked; that we human beings must die if we really want to have anything to do with the living God; that we must lose our life if we really want to gain it; that we must be baptized not only with water but also with fire and the spirit; that this “In the name of God, Amen,” if it really is to have any meaning and not be just empty talk, is a majestic region that one can enter only as a completely captive slave—or not at all.
To drink this cup of God’s, if one really knows what one is doing, that is serious. And to drink the cup of nothingness, that dark drink, if one really knows what one is doing, is also serious—and the eternal God with his glowing promise is infinitely closer to those who do this than they could imagine from afar.
But to stand somewhere in the middle of it all with some kind or other of harmless, naive, pious or impious talk, religious or irreligious interest, fleeing from the One who is eternally alive and fleeing from the eternally dead—that is nothingness.
“You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Exodus 33:20, NIV, yet that is what we think we can do. We say that we can now approach God because Jesus has made it possible. That is true, but not the whole truth. To join Jesus, we must die. We cannot live in the presence of God; we must die. Only in Jesus can we have life.
In so far, then, as you have to live upon this earth, consider yourselves dead to worldly contacts: have nothing to do with sexual immorality, dirty-mindedness, uncontrolled passion, evil desire, and the lust for other people’s goods, which last, remember, is as serious a sin as idolatry. Phillips
When Paul says, you have been raised with Christ NIV, he does not mean we can do whatever we want, we are to become imitators of Jesus while he was on earth in the same way that a student followed a rabbi for years to imitate every aspect of his life.
Verse 15: Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. NIV Being called to peace does not fit these days when we glory in the American military power. There was a time in this country when the military option was the option of last resort on a list of about 15 national options. We should be uncomfortable with that.
Beginning in verse 18 Paul restates his positions on how people should relate to one another, namely: treat each other as though we were dealing with Jesus.
Verses 24-25 have a final warning: Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work. MSG
Thursday, September 11, Colossians Chapter 4
Paul encourages prayer, as he has done many times before. He urges us to be ready as we meet non-Christians. We are to be the salt Jesus spoke of. Our salt should preserve the Word and the world. It cannot tear down, attack, or destroy. In all ways we are to show peace to the world.
The mention of Tychicus both here and in Ephesians as being the bearer of the letters suggest that he may have carried both letters at the same time. In fact, it is difficult to see how he could have carried one, returned to Rome and carried another in less than a year. The listing of Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, and Archippus in this letter AND in Philemon suggest that they were written at the same time as well.
Even in the Roman world with its thousands of ships and miles of good roads, travel was slow. On land 99% of the travel was a sedate 20-30 miles per day. The ocean was faster, but more dangerous and costly. Depending on the time of year and prevailing winds, a good sail from Rome to Ephesus would be three months. A military trireme could cut the time in half with its 150 slaves chained to the ores. (There were a handful of private triremes and biremes for the “jet setters”.)
Notice that Mark is mentioned, meaning that Paul has gotten over Mark leaving him 12 year earlier. He also mentions Luke as a doctor, the only mention of that detail in the Bible.
Paul greets several people he knows who live in the two cities and closes the book in verse 18 by writing the last words in his own hand. Would that we could find the original copy.
Friday, September 12, Thessalonians Chapter 1
This book takes us out of the historical chronology because it was written about ten years before the last three books we have looked at as well as the book of Philemon. We know that Gallio was proconsul of Ephesus in 51-52 and we know from Acts that Paul dealt with Gallio. We also know that this letter was written from Ephesus. It is also possible that this is the earliest letter we have written by Paul, but it is clearly one of the earliest.
Thessalonica was an important trade center of about 200,000 people. It was also a provincial capital. Paul was forced to leave the city after a short stay and needed to shore up the new converts who had to listen to the Judaizers.
Verse 1 has an unusual format. He lists the authors as usual, Paul, Silas (Silvanus in Greek) and Timothy. Timothy has not yet become Paul’s right hand man, but is making a name for himself. Paul then deviates from the norm and uses To the church of the Thessaloniansin God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: NIV a completely new form of greeting which the Church used in various forms later. He then added Grace to you and shalom. CJB Some early manuscripts add, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul generally began with thanks and prayers, but rarely thank God. When Paul mentions their word by faith, he intends to go into detail in the first 3 chapters. With love (agape) he prays for it in 3:12. Hope appears throughout the letter. Faith, hope and love long before Corinthians 13. Those three are found here and in 5:8, Romans 5:1-5, 1 Corinthians 13:13, Galatians 5:5-6, Colossians 1:4-5, Hebrews 6:10-12, 1 Peter 1:21-22, and others.
Paul called them brothers or brother 28 times in this short letter.
They should never forget, as we should not, that God elected them to follow Him. They were elected with power and the Holy Spirit. Joy comes from the Spirit, not from ourselves.
The Greek word in verse 7 translated model, NIV echoing, MSG example, RSV and pattern, CJB are based on the idea of stamping a coin, making them all alike. That is what we are to be exact duplicates of Jesus. OK, forget the word, exact, until we reach Heaven, but we strive for it.
In verse 9 Paul says that he is still being told about their stamping. They turned away from the idols instead of trying to mix Jesus into the old ways, something we have just seen in Colosse. In verse 10 Paul uses a Greek word that is common in the Greek world but is only used here in the New Testament. It means waiting in patience and trust.
Be righteous and do good.