On Monday night we began what we plan as a several week trip of studying through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. To introduce the letter, we looked at some background, thought about what letters are even doing in the bible, read the entire letter in one shot, and then shared some observations. Here are the notes.
Intro and Background
What is this document?
A personal letter, written by one of the leaders of the early church, a man known as Paul, to a group of Christians who regularly met in the ancient Greek city of Colosse. [show map of asia minor] This church would have been the first group of its kind in the city in history, since Christianity was only a few decades old, and the message of Jesus was spreading through the Roman empire as something brand new—everywhere it went, it was the first time people had ever heard about Jesus or experienced the power of the new life he offered.
- Written by Paul in Rome in Prison around 60 A.D.
- See 4:7-10, Philemon 1-2, 10-12, 22-24
- Sent with Tychicus and Onesimus, along with Philemon to the church
- Tychicus probably carried Ephesians too, and dropped it off along the way. See Eph 6:21-22
What are the New Testament letters?
The followers of Jesus experienced a new power after he had ascended to heaven. And that power, which was the personal presence of God himself, the holy spirit, made them excited about Jesus and also made them able to go everywhere telling people about what they had discovered in this person the Romans thought they killed. The Holy Spirit also empowered them to remember, understand, and proclaim what Jesus said, did and meant. Eventually the hand-picked leaders of the movement who Jesus left behind wrote down what they taught. They wrote the four authoritative biographies of Jesus. And they also started writing letters to the new communities of Christians that were forming wherever the message was being proclaimed. These letters explain who Jesus is and what He did, and tell those who’ve become Jesus’ followers how to live as followers of Christ, since Jesus wasn’t visibly here to walk around behind.
The City of Colossae…
- “Least important city” of any of Paul’s letters
- Had been one of the most important in the region 300 years B.C.
- Located in Asia Minor at cross roads which led to Ephesus and Sardis.
- And its highway location made it a travel stop and gave it a mix of different ethnic groups, and religions and philosophical viewpoints.
- Paul never visited. (2:1)
- Probably founded by Epaphras (see 1:7-8, 4:12-13) during Paul’s stay in Ephesus (Acts 19:10)
- Epaphras went to Rome where Paul was to ask questions about a kind of teaching that had sprung up in Colossae, and then got imprisoned along the way.
The Heresy Paul was writing against…
- 2:8 – depending on human tradition about elemental forces instead of Christ
- 2:16 – Advocated observance of certain food and calendar rules
- 2:18 – focused on asceticism, angels and visions
- 2:20-23 – Teaching various rules to obey
- 1:19 – Talked about “fullness”
- 2:11 – Promoted circumcision
What was the heresy:
“The false teachers were probably people from within the Colossian Christian community who were bragging about their ability to find ultimate spiritual “fulfillment” via their own program of visions and asceticism. It seemed that the universe, in all its vastness and intricacy, was beyond human comprehension or control, being governed instead by a host of wrathful gods and indifferent supernatural powers. Human beings could do little more than struggle against the relentless tide of “Fate.” For them, personal and material insecurity, not to mention moral and spiritual indeterminacy, characterize the human condition, which often amounts to little more than fruitless search for meaning that ends with death and oblivion… Often abetting this “common core” was the belief that the very fabric of the universe suffered from some sort of irreparable rift. The two fundamental realms of reality that make up the universe, the celestial and terrestrial, are set in opposition to one another on account of some cosmic crisis, variously described…”
“In response to this unsettled state of affairs, mortals sought some understanding of and access to the supernatural powers that controlled their lives, often via intermediary or demonic beings or through mystical experiences. This would involve discovering some sort of effectual means for appeasing, worshipping, or manipulating these powers in order to obtain a degree of protection or in order to escape the corrupted, terrestrial world, either in this life or the next.”
[W.T. Wilson, The Hope of Glory: Education and Exhortation in the Epistle of the Colossians. Quoted in.Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, p. 59.]
Thoughts after reading the letter whole:
- The word of God contains everything we need for life. You hear this letter, and it’s a perfect example of how God chose to teach us with the bible. It doesn’t have a verse for every situation. But it doesn’t need to. What it does say is enough to affect every area of our thinking and living if we want it to. It’s got enough practical instruction to keep us busy for a long time and to change us in profound ways. And it’s got enough truth about God and the Universe to impact and transform our thinking for the rest of our lives. And this is how the bible as a whole works.
- Like the word of God, Jesus is enough for us. (1:19) And I don’t mean he’s enough like, a granola bar is enough to get you through your first class. I mean he’s enough like, 10 billion dollars would be enough to pay off your college debt. Paul knew this by first-hand experience, and lived a life that proved it, and he was super urgent about sharing that with all the new followers of Jesus which were joining the family of God right at the beginning there. So this letter is filled with examples, personal testimony, and direction to get us to see that we don’t need to go to anyone but Jesus for whatever our lives and souls need.
- There is nothing small about Christianity, or the message of the Jesus. (1:12) This goes with the last point. The Colossians were clearly being tempted by a message and a way of thinking that claimed to have what Jesus and the message of the gospel didn’t have. We don’t know exactly what it was they were trying to get through these other things Paul writes about, but we can totally relate if we stop and think about it. What kinds of belief systems or ways of living or ways of being spiritual do people run to when they start to turn away from Jesus or add to his message? What tempts us to other things? Typically, it’s when we start to think Jesus and the message of the gospel aren’t enough. I think this is why Paul likes to “go cosmic,” he wants to show us that the bigness of what God is doing through Jesus totally includes our lives and everything in them. Can God handle my problem? Well he’s handling the universe, so… yeah. Can Jesus help me with my emptiness? Well, he himself is filled with all of God’s fullness, so…yeah. As I like to say…the solution to all our small problems is found in God’s solution to the big problem of the whole universe. Just to take one example—His solution to the brokenness and alienation in each of our lives is what Paul writes in 1:20—the reconciliation of all things to himself. He’s healing all our human brokenness by closing the gap between everything and himself, specifically, the gap that human sin created.
- It tells us a lot about God that he would give us documents like this. First, just the fact that a personal letter can also be the word of God shows us that God doesn’t have to cancel out our humanity to work in and through us, and he doesn’t have to move us out of the way to accomplish his aims. In fact, that’s one of the really astonishing discoveries you make when you press into knowing God. A lot of the time he’s working with humans and through That’s why you can have a piece of writing that’s totally human and totally divine. Second, the letters like Colossians show us that God cares deeply about communicating to us. And they show us that he has. He is there, and he is not silent. We have no excuse for not knowing who God is, once we’ve been introduced to the bible. If you feel like God is distant, keep coming on these Monday nights as we study this letter. God draws near to us when we hear his word.
- Paul really loved Christians. If you look at the beginning and end of the letter, in the first chapter he’s telling these Christians he’s never met how excited he is for what God’s doing in their lives, and in the last chapter he’s giving shout outs and personal greetings to the whole big family. He’s a total people lover. That was only because the Spirit of God had changed his heart and made him a lover of people. That’s what God wanted to do in his life—change a hater to a lover. Read Acts chapter 9 to watch it happen. And since that’s true, it means this… God loves Christians. God loves humans. God loves you.
- If following Jesus hasn’t really been your thing, or if God isn’t part of your mental space… We’re going to do something totally culturally irrelevant tonight—we’re going to close a bible study by inviting you back to another bible study.