Colossians: 1:1 – 1:17

Colossae mound

(Col 1:1-5a ESV) Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,  2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.  3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,  4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,  5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.

“Hope laid up” is means hope kepts in a safe place for future use. If they’d had layaway plans in the First Century, this is the word they’d have used. The idea is that our hope is stored up in heaven for us to be brought out for us at the right time yet to come.

(Col 1:5b-8 ESV) Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,  6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing–as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,  7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf  8 and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

“The word of truth” is, of course, the gospel. We often think of “truth” as any proposition that is true, but the New Testament writers usually use “truth” in a very specific sense. It’s the truth in contrast to the lie that permeates the Empire. It’s the truth about Jesus, contrasted to the lie of paganism and all other pretenders to truth.

The “grace of God” is, of course, God’s generosity in the form of Jesus’ redeeming work. This grace is “in truth” because God’s generosity comes through the gospel.

“Love in the Spirit” means more than “love.” Paul isn’t just tossing in church words to sound eloquent. Rather, he means love that is prompted by the Spirit — the right kind of love, the love that God gives his people.

(Col 1:9-12 ESV)  9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.  11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

By now, surely the Colossians are impressed by Paul’s prayer life. He is clearly in constant prayer for a church he never visited, just because it’s a church. It’s not even in a big and influential city, and yet Paul — who was surely a very busy man — makes Colosse a routine part of his prayer life.

And Paul plainly expects his prayers to be effective. He prays for the Colossians to have knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. He prays for them to have “power” commensurate with the “might” of the Lord. This is to give them endurance and joy.

“Inheritance” is a word borrowed from the Torah. There, it speaks of the land, the Promised Land. In New Testament use, “inheritance” is shifted from the land in Palestine to the new heavens and new earth — the entire world merged with heaven for our enjoyment.

The goal, of course, is for the Christians to “bear fruit in every good work.” Some have argued that “fruit” in the New Testament speaks particularly of new converts, on the theory that fruit contains seeds and creates new plants. But that’s not the image. There is only one vine. The goal isn’t t plant new vines; it’s for the vine God planted to bear fruit — that is, to be productive of something valuable to God — “every good work.”

This is the Christian ethic. The focus isn’t on fleeing evil (although that is essential). Rather, the goal is to take us away from evil and to instead be productive members of God’s Kingdom, doing good — not to earn salvation but to accomplish his mission in us.

Notice how he combines “every good work” with “the knowledge of God.” To Paul, knowledge of God isn’t just about Bible class. You learn about God from doing good works. As Jesus taught in Matt 25, when we serve “the least of these,” we serve Jesus himself. We find the face of God in the faces of those we serve. Knowledge of God comes much more through service for those God loves than through study.

(Col 1:13-14 ESV)  13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

“Has delivered” indicates that it’s an accomplished fact. The delivery has already occurred. We’ve already been transported from darkness to light, from the world to the kingdom.

Now, “kingdom” is a big word. The word might be better translated “reign,” that is, we’ve been delivered from the land of rebellion to the land where God’s rule is honored.

Just so, “kingdom” carries the meaning of “nation.” We are no longer citizens of Rome but of heaven. God is our king, not Caesar. We’ve changed nationalities. We become resident aliens, citizens of another nation visiting this foreign land on the business of our king — who is the true king of this land as well, but whose authority hasn’t yet been fully acknowledged.

“Jesus is King” means “and no one else is.” The ultimate source of all authority and power is Jesus, and we may serve no other master. Therefore, for example, when we vote, we vote as Christians, not as selfish people of the world. We vote the ticket of service and sacrifice, as this is the nature of the kingdom.

We have redemption, which literally freedom from slavery. Paul is saying to his readers — some of whom owned slaves — that you were all once slaves and God has paid the price of your manumission. He bought you in the slave market and set your free. He paid the price.

You see, “deliver” means “cause to escape” — as in “deliverance.” Paul is paralleling the Exodus, comparing our salvation today to God’s saving the Israelites from slavery by delivering them from captivity and preparing for them an inheritance.

Slavery is a distant memory for Americans, but was a present reality in Colosse, and freemen would have been embarrassed to be called slaves manumitted by God from slavery, but that’s the idea. And just as in the Exodus, this kind of freedom means leaving one country to become citizens of another. The Israelites were no longer citizens of Egypt, but of the Promised Land. And they’d have been crazy to think of themselves as citizens both of Egypt and the Israel, serving both Pharaoh and God. God defeated Pharaoh.

(Col 1:15-17 ESV)  15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Paul now changes the subject, transitioning from our part of the story to Jesus’ role.

“Firstborn” doesn’t mean that Jesus is a created being. Rather, he is the heir apparent to the throne of God. Indeed, he is the “image” of the invisible God. We can’t see God, but have been allowed to see Jesus, and he is God’s eikon. An eikon (or icon) is a portrait or image. In a world without photography, the way you could know what the Emperor looked like was to see a bust of his head — an eikon.

Now, this is a word loaded with meaning.

(Gen 1:26 ESV) Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Mankind was supposed to be in God’s image, but we are broken images of God because of sin. Jesus, therefore, is true humanity. He is what we were always meant to be. Jesus doesn’t call us into a new way of being, but into the original way of being. He calls us back to Eden — and, indeed, our inheritance is a return the Garden, to walking once again with God and in right relationship with each other.

And so, Jesus shows us God’s essential nature, but he also shows us our own essential nature — which is an amazing thought. To be like Jesus is to be like God. And so … what is Jesus like? What is the image of God that Jesus shows us?

Paul first teaches a history lesson. Jesus was present with God at the beginning and was part of the making of the Creation. And the created order includes “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” — all things with authority — all authority comes from Jesus. It may be abused. It may be used for sinful purposes, but no one has authority over Jesus. Rather, Jesus has authority over everyone.

Jesus is from before the Creation, but he is not the god of Deism. He continues to be active in this world. All things “hold together” because of his ongoing activity.

“Hold together” has the sense of being organized in the right way. In the Greek, “holds together” means it not only doesn’t fall apart, but it was put together right. Jesus fit the universe — and the powers — in their right places, and Jesus continues to hold it together.

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Colossians: Introduction

This summer, I’ll be teaching an adult Bible class on Colossians and Ephesians. I’ve decided to start with Colossians, because I’m very familiar with Ephesians and not so familiar with Colossians.

In fact, it’s a letter that’s not studied that often in the Churches of Christ. It’s a little too short for a quarter, and much of its content is treated more extensively in Ephesians. And so I’ll start in Colossians. Continue reading