Friday, July 18, 2008

Colossians 1:9-10

9For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of hHis will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way:

Right off the bat here, we learn a very important truth. Paul has just pointed out several spiritual works that God has begun in the Colossians, all of which he learned from Epaphras, and his immediate response is not relief or even excitement, but prayer. Spiritual works seen in others are to serve as motivations for prayer. We often see disasters and distresses as motivators for prayer, but we more often than not forget to pray for continued benevolences when times are good. When Paul sees God at work, it’s prayer time. Why? Because Paul knows that prayer is the instrument God has ordained through which to bless His people.

Paul sums up his prayer section by asking God to fill the Colossians with knowledge (Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:9-10) through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. He requests for them the maximum – the fullness – both in terms of the nature of the knowledge (true practical truth as opposed to speculative falsehood) and their capacity to contain and grasp it (for natural man cannot comprehend spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14)). Some will say that since “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), we ought to cease to pursue knowledge. But that is clearly incorrect. Other will say that God is incomprehensible, so we shouldn’t bother with pursuing knowledge. But God is not incomprehensible (He certainly comprehends Himself); rather we find Him incomprehensible in our current stance. That’s why Paul asks God to fill believers with knowledge (of Him and His will). We just talked about the importance of the “knowledge” aspect of the gospel, and in v10, Paul gives the reason for its importance: that you may live a life worthy of God and please Him in every way. You can’t do that without Biblical knowledge, and you won’t want to do those things without Biblical knowledge; practical Biblical knowledge and wisdom ought to lead to a righteous life, worthy of and pleasing to God. That makes perfect sense. Only when you know the truth can you purposefully do the truth and live by it.

Living a life worthy of God (Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:12) and pleasing Him (Romans 8:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 4:1; Hebrews 11:6) in every way is a daunting thought. Paul gives four insights to this concept in v10-12, and we'll look at them, starting next week.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Colossians 1:6-8

6... All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth. 7You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

In v6, Paul uses hyperbole, saying, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing.” His exaggeration is to point out his ministry in the urban centers of the Roman Empire has effectively brought the gospel to the civilized world. It’s meant to bring hope to the Colossians. The gospel has not merely affected them, as if they believe foolishly; and it hasn’t been unlocked by false teachers in the areas only where they’ve traveled. No, the gospel is the unchanging word of truth, and its effects are worldwide. Because the Christian faith is transmitted when it is explained and understood, the gospel is intellectual in nature. We can think about it, talk about it, explain it, and understand it. The gospel is information about God’s grace that is “heard,” “learned,” and “understood” by the mind, so that it can produce the intended effects in those who affirm it. Thus “knowledge” is crucial to the gospel.

Some say that “knowledge” is controversial and divisive, especially in Colosse since they were facing early forms of gnosticism (i.e., in order to have a deeper experience of God, you must obtain this special knowledge); but that “knowledge” was merely intellectual and speculative – the gospel is simple practical truth to be learned, embraced, and experienced. Thus, Peter, as Paul does throughout his epistles, can encourage us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and forever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18). Paul says this: “Not only have you heard it, not only is the gospel everywhere, not only is the gospel effective, and not only did Epaphras preach to you the whole of the gospel, but you understood it” (v6). “Do not be tricked by someone saying that you need a new and improved teaching. You understood the grace of God when Epaphras first taught it to you. And I see the evidences that you understood it, because God has worked in you faith and love and hope.”

Paul has never been to Colosse, and so he is likely responding both positively and negatively to the Colossians regarding what he has learned of their situation from Epaphras, the man who shared the gospel, the word of truth, with them in the first place, as we see in v7. Epaphras had been in Ephesus some hundred miles to the west of the Lycos Valley and he had heard the preaching of the Apostle Paul there. Paul compliments him, calling him that faithful man, who took the gospel back to the Colossians, who in turn came to Christ and formed a church in that city where Paul had never been.

Epaphras had visited Paul, and one of the things that he told Paul was that there were apparently false teachers in the congregation confusing young converts. They were teaching an odd mixture of Christian truths with Jewish ritual practices and even pagan beliefs and practices. They were not outrightly denying Christ, but they were mixing the gospel of Christ with truth and error. They were teaching a hodge-podge of things, which Paul will outline for us in chapter 2.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Colossians 1:3-5

3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints-- 5the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel 6that has come to you.

With this prayerful opening to his letter, Paul is ensuring the Colossians that they have indeed heard the entirety of the gospel. There’s nothing new that they’ve missed, as the false teachers in their midst may have claimed. He thanks God for the faith of the Colossians and their love for the saints. In so doing, he undercuts the false teachers. It’s as if he’s saying, “I thank God that you do not need to be looking for a new and improved teaching because you’ve got the truth.” Calvin says, “He praises the faith and love of the Colossians, that it may encourage them the more to alacrity and constancy of perseverance. By showing that he respects them, he procures their friendly regards, that they may be the more favorably inclined and teachable for receiving his doctrine. Paul admonishes us, by his example, to acknowledge with gratitude not merely those things that the Lord confers upon us, but also those things that he confers upon others. But for what things does he give thanks to the Lord? For the faith and love of the Colossians. He acknowledges, therefore, that both are conferred by God: otherwise the gratitude were pretended.”

In v4-5, Paul mentions together faith, hope, and love. He does this in numerous places (Romans 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 5:5-6; Ephesians 1:15-18, 4:2-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:3, 5:8; other authors do as well in Hebrews 6:10-12, 10:22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-8, 21-22), and these three elements – gifts of God and not virtues produced by fallen humanity – help us to understand the basics of the Christian religion, the only true religion in the world. Cheung points out, “When subjective and emotional meanings are attributed to these words, they cannot convey anything substantial about Christianity or accentuate its distinctive features against other religions and philosophies. But when understood according to their biblical usage, these words are able to embody some core aspects of the Christian religion.” Cheung also suggests that, when properly understood, there is no faith, hope, and love in any other religion. True faith, true hope, and true love are exclusive to Christianity. Another important thing to point out, other than the fact that these are gifts from God and not produced by us, is that Paul attributes an object to each of them. Let’s look at that:

First, Paul notices their faith “in Christ.” His message in v4 is to say that faith in Christ, trust in Christ, reliance on Him, commitment to Him, is enough; no other requirements are necessary. And second, Paul notices their love “for all the saints.” Love must be rendered first and foremost, especially in terms of degree, to the saints, and secondly, and to a lesser degree, to all of God’s creation. This is how God’s love is displayed, most fervently toward His own, yet still in some degree to creation. This is not simply a human affection that is being spoken of here. This is self-denying concern that puts the best interest of others as a priority in our relationships to them. This love for the brotherhood is a distinctive gift for the spirit. Third and finally, Paul sees their hope as being “stored up in heaven” – the future glory. And interestingly, Paul notes that this hope is the cause of their faith and love. Faith and love “spring from” hope (Hebrews 11:1). It has been said the future belongs to those who belong to God. That is our hope and, as we expect that reality, it breeds faith and love. Calvin says, “For it is of necessity, that the man who is fully persuaded that a treasure of life is laid up for him in heaven will aspire thither, looking down upon this world. Meditation, however, upon the heavenly life stirs up our affections both to the worship of God (faith), and to exercises of love.” So there’s no need of mystical experiences to have proof of God’s saving grace. Faith, hope, and love are all the proof we need to see God’s grace at work in us by His Holy Spirit.

We’ve seen that the Colossians’ faith and love “spring from” the hope that is stored up in heaven, and now we see that they heard about this hope “in the word of truth, the gospel” (v5). This gospel is a message about God’s grace, bearing fruit consisting of faith, love, and hope once it is heard and understood (v6). In v5, Paul tells the Colossians that they’ve already heard the gospel, which is what he will be telling them; thus there is nothing new in his teaching. This directly contrasts the teaching of the false teachers, which is always something new. There is a similar message in Jude – be on guard when it comes to new teaching.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Colossians 1:1-2

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2To the holy and faithful [or believing] brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father [and the Lord Jesus Christ].

Though he had never been to visit the church at Colosse, the believers there undoubtedly knew who Paul was; nevertheless he introduced himself as having authority directly from Jesus Christ Himself. Paul calls himself “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” Now it was also Paul’s will to be an apostle of Christ, but only after the Damascus Road conversion experience, one of the clearest illustrations of monergistic regeneration that you’ll see in the Bible. Paul’s will was to detain and destroy Christians until Christ confronted him. Once Paul experienced Ezekiel 36:25-27, his will was aligned with that of God. And so he announces his authority to proclaim the truths contained within this letter.

That’s a big deal for the Colossians, who were visited by traveling teacher preachers who came with no authority like Paul’s. This ought to remind us of the importance of the authority of Scripture in our own experience. Christians acknowledge the Bible as authoritative. The mark of a Christian is a love for God’s word. We must desire to live under its authority. Calvin said, “The Bible is the scepter by which the heavenly King rules His church.” What is your attitude to Scripture? Oftentimes, our problem is not so much with an interest in the Scripture; we want to hear what it says. But our problem is with a practical denial of its authority in our lives. We accept that it’s the word of God, yet we live in ways that contradict it. We say that it is the authority, but we live as if it is not the authority in our lives. Coram Deo

Also in v1, we learn that Paul is with Timothy at the time of this writing. Timothy’s mention in the introduction is one way in which Paul mentored Timothy, treating him as authoritative before the churches at large. Having his name tied to Paul, Timothy would be all the more prepared to serve as Paul’s successor, at least in some fashion, once Paul was martyred. Even in this small way, Paul is preparing Timothy for future service, just as Moses did with Joshua and Jesus with Peter. Do you have a mentor?

Next in v2, the letter is directed “to the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse.” First, these brothers and sisters in Christ at Colosse were in the midst of the mystery religions and the immorality of the Lycos Valley in their day. Laodicea was only a few miles away, and Paul directs his attention to that congregation in this letter as well (Colossians 2:1; 4:13-16). Laodicea is the church that Jesus calls lukewarm in Revelation 3:14-22. This was not a good place to be from, not a region noted for its orthodoxy or its holiness, and yet here are people who have been called out of darkness into light. God has people even where the light shines very faintly.

Second, these brothers in Christ at Colosse were “in Christ.” The Spirit unites us to Christ and the instrument of that bond of the Spirit is faith. So those who are in Christ trust in Him, they believe in Him, they rest on Him, they flee to Him. This letter is written distinctly, exclusively, to them. Third, these believers are called holy, set apart, and they are called faithful. These words from Paul are true, and they are also a stimulus; even in his introduction, Paul is already encouraging his audience to faithful obedience. A. W. Tozer said, “The Bible recognizes no faith that does not lead to obedience, nor does it recognize any obedience that does not spring from faith.” Next, Paul calls them brothers. They are united in the common bond of peace through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). And remember, Paul is not speaking from personal experience of these people. He’d never met them. Paul is setting forth their status. He says, “This is what you are, Christians; now be who you are.” Realize what that means. “You have been made to be faithful, now be faithful.” “You are brothers and sisters in Christ, now act like it.” Paul always places the indicative before the imperative. He says what you are before he tells you what he wants you to do. “Here’s who you are, believer; now live in accordance with what God has made you to be.” That leads us to the blessing:

Finally, Paul greets in his customary way, with a benediction of grace and peace from God – that’s what we all need from Him, not justice and wrath, but grace (undeserved favor) and peace (objective and subjective spiritual peace; not circumstantial but relational). And these come with Paul’s sincere prayer – undeservingly and in spite of our demerit. May we all experience these blessings of Paul’s benediction.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Colossians Preview

I am indebted to the following resources for aiding my study of Colossians:

  • The Reformation Study Bible Footnotes from Colossians
  • John Calvin’s Commentaries on Colossians
  • Ligon Duncan’s & Derek Thomas’ Sermon Series on Colossians
  • Vincent Cheung’s Commentary on Colossians

Cheung says, “Paul’s letter to the Colossians is an impressive piece of writing that weaves together high theology with holy living, and exhortations with warnings. One of its main themes is the fullness of Christ, and the fullness that Christians have in Him. By this we mean that Christ’s person and work are complete, and Christians have benefited from this completeness. Since this is the case, any attempt to supplement or replace the person and work of Christ is in fact to undermine and devalue Him, thus severely compromising the integrity of the Christian faith.” Paul wrote this letter from prison (house arrest) in Rome around 60 AD, some 5-7 years after the church had been founded (by Epaphras as we’ll see).

Ligon Duncan and Derek Thomas call their sermon series on Colossians, “The Incomparable Christ,” which is also the title of a book I recommend by John Stott. Paul’s letter is certainly about magnifying Christ, reminding his audience by recalling Christ’s majesty and Lordship in the face of false teaching. This was an “occasional” letter, which means simply that Paul had a specific occasion, or reason, to write it. In this case, there was heretical teaching from within the church. It was an odd mixture of Christian truths with Jewish ritual practices and even pagan beliefs and practices – a Greek-influenced, Jewish philosophy mingled with pagan piety, encouraging followers to submit to occult spiritual / cosmic powers. They were not denying Christ, but they were mixing the gospel of Christ with truth and error. Calvin says they “were intent upon mixing up Christ with Moses, trying to retain the shadows of the law along with the gospel. Hence it is probable that they were Jews.” But Paul calls them vain philosophers (2:8), showing that they had mingled Judaism with Greek spirituality and philosophy. It was a hodge-podge of things, and Paul will outline it for us in chapter 2.

For instance in Colossians 2:11,16-17, Paul says that these people were apparently requiring that Gentile Christians obey Jewish Old Testament ritual law. In v18, these people were teaching that we ought to worship angelic mediators. “We need a mediator between us and Christ if we’re really going to have fullness of spirituality and fellowship; therefore, we should worship all spiritual beings as mediators.” In Colossians 2:20-23, these teachers were also teaching a sort of asceticism, a bodily form of excessive self-denial. All these teachings were being mixed with Christian truth and according to Paul, not only changing the gospel but endangering the spiritual lives of the believers at Colosse – truth is unto godliness and untruth leads to destruction.

Paul writes this letter to combat these errors that offered a fullness of spiritual experience and freedom not previously known by the Christians in Colosse, that claimed a particular insight into the powers of evil and the ability to protect the Colossians from those powers, that offered a deeper knowledge of God and a greater experience of His power, that inclined some to think of themselves as superior to other believers, that led to an impressive self-denial, yet was divisive in this and perhaps surrounding congregations. Paul presses home one truth applied in a variety of ways over and over again in the book. That one truth is Christ, the sole sufficiency of Christ in salvation – justification and sanctification. Paul proclaims Jesus’ absolute pre-eminence and that believers are complete in Him. Faith necessarily rules out reliance on anything outside of Him, for nothing in the universe is outside the scope of His sovereignty.

However, as Cheung points out, “It is unnecessary to assume this background in order to find the letter intelligible. This is because its positive exposition of sound doctrine is so rich, so broad and so deep, that it lends itself to universal application.” So even if we don’t grasp the specific reason for his letter or the heresies against which Paul is writing, we can understand Colossians as a letter written to the church, applicable in all times. Paul wants nothing more than to lead the Colossian Christians, no matter where they are, to Christ as their all-in-all, their incomparable, sole sufficiency in all matters, especially those dealing with salvation. Therefore, the main ideas in the letter are intelligible and relevant to any ordinary reader even without any exposition, or any knowledge of ancient Gnostic and Jewish thought. The assertion that it is necessary to read Paul’s letter against the background of false teachers invading the Colossian church with unsound doctrines is unnecessary and even irresponsible.

Now the gospel of Jesus Christ was not brought to the Colossians directly by Paul. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:7 that Epaphras had come to the Colossians with the word of truth. It is very likely that Epaphras had been in Ephesus some hundred miles to the west of the Lycos Valley where he had heard the preaching of Paul. Then that “faithful minister” took the gospel back to the Colossians, and they came to Christ. A church was formed in that city where Paul had never been. And in this letter, Paul is responding both positively and negatively to what Epaphras told him about their circumstances regarding the mixed messages.

Among the major, and at times controversial, doctrines and issues Paul discusses in Colossians are the incomprehensibility of God and the origin of sin and evil. Paul also plays the philosopher by examining true and false views of humanity. He wants his audience to understand what it means to be spiritual and what it means to see the Father by “looking at” Jesus. Paul does this by showing his commitments to Christ and to the gospel, being one who has the correct view of humanity and the right display of spirituality.

Calvin points out helpfully in closing, “There were three neighboring cities in [an oucast region between Pamphylia and] Phrygia, as made mention of by Paul in this Epistle – Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colosse which were overthrown by an earthquake in the times of the emperor Nero [see the map below]. Accordingly, not long after this Epistle was written, three Churches of great renown perished by a mournful as well as horrible occurrence – a bright mirror truly of divine judgment, if we had but eyes to see it. The Colossians had been, not indeed by Paul, but with fidelity and purity by Epaphras and other ministers, instructed in the gospel; but immediately afterwards, Satan had, with his tares, crept in, according to his usual and invariable manner, that he might there pervert the right faith.” In the coming days, Lord willing, we'll study this short letter of Paul to the Colossians.