This morning we are starting a series on the Letter to the Colossians. For each of the next four weeks, we will hear a whole chapter and then pull out a few phrases to focus on. Then by the time we come to the end, we will have heard the letter in its entirety and explored some of its key themes. It is possible that this is not unlike the manner in which the letter was first received, with the letter delivered by a messenger who read it to the gathered church and then elaborated on some of its points. It is easy for us to forget in a culture of high literacy rates and personal study notes, but reading and studying scripture used to be an entirely communal affair and remains so in some places. It is good for us to spend time in private reflection, but we shouldn’t underestimate the value of coming together around scripture as a community, whether that is a gathered community in the church building, or a dispersed community listening or reading along at home.
Colossians 1 (NIV)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
Before we dive into chapter one of the Letter to the Colossians, it might be helpful to start with some background to the text we are going to be reading together over the next four weeks. The first thing to say is that it is a letter. The name does rather give that away, but it’s important that we don’t take it for granted. A letter is written by a particular author to a particular audience at a particular time about a particular subject, and that means that not everything it contains will be universal. The letters we read in scripture were kept and shared and eventually gathered together because they were believed to be valuable for the wider church, and there will of course be much we can learn from them, but they were not written to us and so not everything in them will be relevant or appropriate for us. They don’t make that claim for themselves, and we can get ourselves into all sorts of difficulties if we expect it of them, as we will see when we hit chapter three. Instead we need to practise discernment, seeking and testing the underlying principles in the text, and then asking what they might mean for our own lives.
So let’s look at some of the particularities of the Letter to the Colossians. From the opening verse, it appears to have been written by Paul and Timothy, possibly scribed by the latter with the former signing his own name in the final verse. Some scholars question this attribution, suggesting that it is a later writer using Paul’s name, as there are some linguistic and stylistic differences from the undisputed letters of Paul, but writing styles can vary naturally over time, so the argument is not conclusive. In some senses, it doesn’t matter much who wrote the letter. We know it was written in the first century because it was referenced by Ignatius of Antioch, who died at the very beginning of the second century, and there is significant overlap with other contemporary letters, so it is certainly an example of the kind of teaching that was being shared among the early churches. For the sake of ease, I will assume the letter was written by Paul, probably during his time under house arrest in Rome in approximately 62CE.
That considers who the letter was written by, and when it was written, so now we come to who the letter was written to, and why it was written at all. It is called the Letter to the Colossians because it was intended for the church at Colossae, a small city in what is now Turkey. It was a cosmopolitan place with a mix of Jewish and Gentile communities, known for its fusion of religious influences, including an angel-cult centred on the archangel Michael. It seems this had led to a syncretistic view of Christ, which saw him as one expression of the divine among many, and a gnostic rejection of the world, which saw all matter as evil and looked for secret knowledge. The church at Colossae appears to have been founded or at least led by Epaphras, described as a fellow servant and faithful minister, and only known to Paul by reputation. Towards the end of the letter, Paul says that Epaphras sends greetings, which suggests that he is currently with Paul rather than the church. So perhaps Epaphras has visited Paul and shared with him some concerns about the community and the influences of syncretism and gnosticism on their doctrine, and that is what leads Paul to write.
We’ve done a fair bit of background work there, but hopefully that will set us up well for getting into the letter itself. We’re not going to go through it line by line or we’d be here until we start on chapter two next week, but instead we’ll take a more focused look at what I think are the three main points of this first chapter. The first is Paul’s commendation of the church at Colossae, as he says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing among them, and speaks of their faith and love that spring from hope. I think that pairing of faith and love is really interesting, as we might say that faith looks to God and love looks to others, and the two need to be held in balance if we are to live well in the world, if the gospel is to both bear fruit in our own lives and grow in others. However I particularly want to pick up on the idea that they spring from hope, in part because there is a wonderful joy and energy to that image of springing, and in part because we have to be so careful with the word hope.
The Greek word used here is elpida which comes from elpis, meaning to anticipate or welcome, so this hope isn’t about wishing or longing but about trusting and expecting. I wonder then what it was the Colossians expected. Paul speaks of the hope that is stored up for them in heaven and has been heard in the true message of the gospel, so we can reasonably say that it’s something to do with eternity and redemption, but beyond that he’s a little thin on the details. I wonder what it is we expect. Perhaps we feel a little thin on the details too, and perhaps we struggle with the idea of hope as expectation when there is so much uncertainty, but I think we can expect that God’s promises will be fulfilled without knowing what they will look like. This metaphor needs a little more work, and I’m fairly certain it’s not an image Paul had in mind, but maybe hope is a trampoline rather than a foundation. It can feel a little unsteady, and we might not be quite sure what’s underneath it, but there’s enough there that we can be certain of, and the more we lean into it the higher we will spring.
The second thing I want to pull out of this first chapter is the hymn to Christ in verses fifteen to twenty. There is no indication in the text that these verses were intended to be sung, but this passage is often referred to as a hymn because there is a lyrical quality to it. A number of scholars have suggested that it was an existing text which was copied and perhaps adapted but not written by Paul. Whatever its origin, it is a powerful expression of the supremacy of Christ. He is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”. Here I want to focus not on the text but on the context, as this seems an obvious challenge to the syncretism that formed part of the background at Colossae. Paul declares that Christ is without equal or compare, implicitly rejecting the idea that he was one among many, although without explicitly naming or condemning that understanding. Here we find ourselves in the tricky waters of interfaith relations, asking how we affirm our own belief that Jesus is Lord with patronising or antagonising those who do not share it.
Perhaps an answer comes a few verses on when Paul says that through Christ all things will be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is an important thread in Paul's writing, often expressed as the breaking down of boundaries and binaries. Think of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Or Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” If that is our hope, if we trust and expect that all things will ultimately be reconciled in Christ, then perhaps we simply need to own our faith for ourselves, declare it honestly without aggression or arrogance, and then leave the rest to God. At any rate, I believe passionately that the good news of Christ is for all people, but I also think people are more likely to recognise it as good news if I’m not shouting them down with it, and I suspect that living the good news is what will make the difference in the end.
The third and final thing I want to touch on is the idea of revelation that we find in the final verses. Paul speaks of presenting “the word of God in its fullness”, and I fear the church has sometimes taken him a little too much at his word and assumed his writing is everything. There is no doubt that Paul was a skilled preacher and leader, and that his teaching has massively influenced Christian thought and practice, but I do think the word of God is even fuller than he ever knew, because I believe that the word of God is fuller than any of us can ever know. Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead the disciples into all truth, and I think the Spirit is still leading us into all truth, because there will always be more to learn and unlearn and relearn. Paul presented the word of God in all the fullness that he knew, but there is still more fullness to be poured out, and so we need to be paying attention not just to scripture but to the movement of God in the world.
Paying attention just a little longer to this particular bit of scripture, Paul writes of the “glorious riches of this mystery”, and this seems to be a response to the gnosticism that was present in Colossae. Gnosticism is a collection of ideas that came together in the first century among Jewish and Christian cults, and it held that material existence was flawed and evil, and salvation came through secret knowledge beyond the teachings of traditional religion. Paul however insists that “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations” is now made known, the implication being that it and therefore salvation are open to all and not a select few keepers of the hidden secrets. And this mystery is not just known but experienced as "Christ in you, the hope of glory". I would contend that God has been revealing mystery right from the beginning because God always intended that salvation would be open to all, but how extraordinary to think that this mystery now dwells within us as the presence of Christ and the promise of glory. Those words immediately sent me back to a worship song I remember from my teenage years, and so I want to end this opening study of Colossians by reading the lyrics as a kind of prayer, or perhaps we might think of it as a hymn to accompany Paul’s.
God in my living/There in my breathing/God in my waking/God in my sleeping
God in my resting/There in my working/God in my thinking/God in my speaking
Christ in me the hope of glory/Be my everything
God in my hoping/There in my dreaming/God in my watching/God in my waiting
God in my laughing/There in my weeping/God in my hurting/God in my healing
Christ in me the hope of glory/You are everything