Colossians & Philemon
Lecture: Colossians & Philemon
Today we’re going to look at the Book of Colossians and then we’re going to look at Philemon. It’s about five chapters all together. Colossians is the third of the four prison epistles, so Paul is still in jail in Rome while he writes his letter to the church of Colossae. It’s very common to lump Colossians and Philemon together because Philemon is the fourth of the prison epistles. There’s not a lot of similarity between Colossians and Philemon, other than they come one after the other and Onesimus is mentioned in both. I think it’s mostly that the book is so short that publishers don’t want to have commentaries published on Philemon alone, so they always stick it with Colossians. We will also talk about Colossians and Philemon together.
In terms of commentaries we have a few good ones: Anything from David Garland is a very good commentary, and this is the commentary in the NIV Application Series. As you see, I keep referencing this series a lot; it really is a good series for you all. If you want something that is more detailed, F. F. Bruce’s commentary on Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians is in the Eerdmans series. Normally this series is pretty technical, but Professor Bruce covered a lot of ground in a few number of pages so this one addition in this series is not quite as technical as some of the other ones are. Anything that Bruce writes is a masterpiece. I’ve not seen the Philippians and Colossians Commentary in the New American Commentary Series, I don’t know the author and I’ve not read it, but the series is pretty stable so I just want to mention that. There is one more, N. T. Wright did one on Colossians and Philemon. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries were the main stay of lay evangelical commentaries for years and years, and those of you who are a little older than I am probably relied heavily on these because it was the only series around. It’s a wonderful series. For a long time, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries were simply the best lay commentaries that there were and evidently Eerdmans is redoing the series. N. T. Wright is one of the main Pauline scholars today. This is his work and I’m sure it’s very good.
Background on Colossae
Let me say some things about Colossae in terms of an introduction. Colossae is a small agrarian town. It’s in the middle of Western Asia Minor so to get your bearings, here’s Ephesus, so you know where we are, on the southwest corner of modern day Turkey, and if you go straight you have these three cities that function together: Hierapolis, which I don’t believe occurs in Scripture, so if the name is not familiar to you don’t worry about it; Laodicea; and then Colossae. These were three pretty agrarian towns in that part of Asia Minor. It’s 120 miles east of Ephesus and it’s really an insignificant city, at least politically. There is no great road, there were some roads going through it, but it wasn’t anything like Ephesus in terms of its political might. In other words, we’re passed the suburbs, and we’re way out of town. Laodicea was a slightly more important city, but Colossae wasn’t. Partially because of that, it’s not been excavated. We know where it is because the mound is there.
In terms of Paul’s relationship to Colossae, as far as we know he never visited there. Now he was three years in Ephesus and so he may have journeyed inland, and we just don’t know about it, but we don’t know explicitly of him going to Colossae. We do know that Paul evangelized a man who was from Colossae, a man named Epaphras who is named later on in this book. Epaphras was probably someone from Colossae who had come to Ephesus, who had become a Christian and then took the Gospel back to Colossae and planted a church there. It’s also possible that there was another man named Philemon, the one he wrote the book to, who was also from Colossae and had been evangelized in Ephesus and had gone back to Colossae. We don’t know for sure, but that’s a pretty good guess. There’s not a lot of other information in the Pauline writings about Colossians.
Salutation, Thanksgiving, and Prayer (Col. 1:1-14)
With that as background let’s just jump into the book. Paul starts as he often does with a salutation. He goes through his normal thanksgiving and prayer; we talked about this prayer a bit last time when we talked about Paul’s prayers in Philippians. You see the same prayer here: a prayer for maturity; a prayer that people grow in their Christian walk. It’s interesting that later on in Colossians 4:12 Paul writes, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” Paul’s whole team is praying for the maturity of the people in these different churches, but I just mention that in passing.
The Supremacy of Christ (Col. 1:15-20)
We get right to Colossians 1 starting at verse 15-20, and this is one of the most Christologically important passages in all of the Bible as we strive to understand who Jesus is. There are just some pivotal areas there. The Ephesians 1:3-14 passage is another that is critical to our understanding as to who Jesus is, the study of Christology. Verses 15-20 are one of those passages, and this is one of those passages for when you ask people, “Who do you think Jesus is?” and they say “he’s a good man; he was a prophet.” This is a great passage to take them to because condensed in here is a phenomenal amount of information about Jesus, so it’s a passage that’s worth keeping at least tabbed in your Bible or something. Let me just read it and then we’ll come back and look at the pieces. By the way I should say that you can read between the lines here to understand what’s going on in Colossae—that Jesus is being downplayed, Jesus isn’t important, other things they are claiming are more important—and so Paul starts with this hymn of who Jesus is and the overall thrust of it is to emphasis the supremacy of Christ, he’s everything, he’s at the top of the ladder all those kinds of things.
Verse 15: “he” meaning Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (15). 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 (16). And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (17). And he is the head of the body,” and the body is “the church. He is the beginning,” in other words, he is “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent (18). For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things (19),” in other words, through Jesus to reconcile to God the Father all things, “whether on earth or in Heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” This is a lot of really condensed stuff; let’s walk through it.
Jesus is Fully God
First of all, “He is the image of the invisible God (15),” later on in verse 19 he’s going to say, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Now when he says “image of the invisible God” that doesn’t mean he’s a bad copy it means he’s the visible representation. It’s the same idea we had in Philippians 2 where in the older translations it’s as though he existed in the form of God, which means he is exactly what God is, we just don’t have an English word for it. Here’s one of the strongest thrust for the deity of Christ. He is the image; he is the exact representation of the invisible God. Again you have to remember that all the time the biblical writers are describing Jesus, while they didn’t have the word trinity, they understood that Jesus was fully God and yet there was more to God than Jesus. That’s the tension that developed in the doctrine of the Trinity, but it’s a tension that Paul lives with and so he’s very careful on how he words things. He never says Jesus is God period. Because he understands as we understand that that’s not accurate, I mean at times you wish he had, right? “Just get over your theological nuance Paul and say it. I need a verse to quote to my neighbor, ‘Jesus is God,’” but Paul doesn’t give up the nuance and so in his language he’s always allowing for the trinity, he’s always allowing that Jesus is fully God, but there’s more to God than Jesus. He says, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” he was fully God in other words. That was the first thing.
Jesus is Firstborn
Second of all it says that he is “the firstborn of all creation.” There are a couple ways to understand this. One is to think in terms of primogenitor, that the firstborn gets the inheritance or at least the bulk of the inheritance. That’s part of the language that is used of Jesus in the Bible in a desire to emphasize his supremacy. It is perhaps more likely though that he’s making an allusion to Psalm 89:27. Psalm 89:27 is a verse that the Jews came to understand to be prophetic, that it initially was about David, but they understood that it was prophetic about the Messiah. Psalm 89:27 says, “I” meaning God “will make him” King David, i.e., the Messiah “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” Certainly there is some sense of inheritance rights, of primacy in creation, but there may actually be an allusion to the fulfillment of prophecy. Aren’t these prophecies frustrating? Don’t you wish that you had a first-century Jew’s sensitivity to the Old Testament, so that when these allusions are made you would pick them up right away? But Paul picked them up and he expected the people he wrote to to either know them or figure them out, so firstborn, either primogenitor or Old Testament prophecy.
Jesus is Creator
The third is that he is the creator, “by him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him.” He is creator of even the rulers and authorities. Now rulers and authorities in Paul are spiritual beings, and when we get into Colossians we will see that they were animist, they believed in spirits and powers. Paul wants to assert from the very beginning that Jesus created everything, all the spirits, even the ones you are worshipping. There is some hint, and you’ll see it in chapter 2, that there is some Jewish influence there, and there are Jewish archeological artifacts they have found in the area, so there is some Judaism present, but it doesn’t appear to be a strong presence. I think part of the problem is they haven’t excavated this city, so we don’t know if there’s a synagogue. Notice the relationship that exist here, “all things were created through him and for him.” Later on it says that they were made by him, meaning Jesus.
Here’s one of those places where you can distinguish the functioning of the Godhead. Who created the Heavens and the earth? God. God the Father is the one who makes ultimate decisions in the Godhead, the decision to create, the decision to redeem, the decision to end time—that authority lies with God the Father. You can justifiably say that God the Father created all things, but he does it by ideation, he says create it. It’s God the Son who actually does the creative work and here’s one of those passages that says all things were created by him; you get the same thing in John 1. In other words, you have God in Genesis, you have this spirit hovering over and then you have God saying, let us make man in our image, so you’ve got the Trinity in Genesis 1 and 2, but the God who actually formed the earth is God the Son. It’s easy to look and think that’s God the Father, but it’s not, it’s God the Son. God the Father gave the command, he is the ultimate creator, but because of this passage and the one in John we know that it was God the Son who actually did the work. God the Father makes the decision and God the Son does the work and then God the Spirit brings things to completion. That’s another passage.
Notice that the world was not only created by Jesus and through Jesus, but it was also created for him. You have to watch all these little words in Paul when he starts getting theological. This reminded me of the last verse in Romans 11:36 where Paul says, "For from him" meaning Jesus "and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” The point is the supremacy of Christ in creation, not only did he create all things, but he created all things for himself. Now we know from Philippians 2 that when everything is subjected to God the Son he will in turn, turn it over to God the Father. But when you talk about the supremacy of Christ, not only did he create it, but he created it for himself. That’s why all that we do, we do to the Glory of God. There’s a strong doctrine of creation that’s going on in here. All things find their purpose and their meaning in Jesus because all things were created for him. Ok, so that was point 3, that he created.
Jesus is Pre-Existent
Point 4 is this phrase that he is before all things. This is another statement of the preexistence of Christ, a doctrine that was implied in passages like John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” but here you actually have a biblical writer saying it that he was before all things, that he existed before he was, at least was as a human being.
Jesus is Sustainer
But point 5 goes on to say that Jesus is not only the creator, but he is the sustainer; these are my word not Paul’s, but Jesus is the sustainer. Paul says, “in him all things hold together” in other words, Jesus didn’t just create and walk away, do you know what that’s called? Benjamin Franklin was one of these, where God is the divine clock maker; it’s call deism, deism is the belief that God created all things, wound it up like an eternal clock and just let it go and doesn’t intervene in history—he’s hands off. Well God didn’t wind it up and let it go, he’s intimately involved in it, he is the sustainer, “all things hold together” in Christ.
As I understand, in atomic physics they still don’t know what holds atoms together. I’ve asked PhD’s in Physics about this, but it’s been awhile. When they don’t know what it is they make up a name for it, nuclear glue. They don’t even know what holds atoms together. I had a friend; she and her husband were both PhD’s and her specialty was memory. You know your brain never forgets anything—it’s stored in some sort of protein strain and you lose track of things, but they’re all still back in there. If you have open brain surgery and they stimulate a part of your brain, you could remember something that happened when you were six perfectly. I ask her, “Do you ever think that maybe the brain just works because it works, because God said ‘work’?” She smiled and said, “Sometimes I think that is what’s going on.” You know maybe someday they’ll find what the atomic glue actually is, because as I understand physics, everything tells us the atoms should explode apart because all the forces are repulsing each other. Why do they stay together? We don’t know. How can your brain remember the color of the car that went past on your fifth birthday? How does that happen? The theological answer is that Jesus is the sustainer of all things, that Jesus didn’t just create it, but he holds everything together—supremacy of Christ is pretty amazing isn’t it.
Jesus is the Head of the Church
Well he moves on to number 6 and says that Jesus “is the head of the body,” and then he identifies that by body he means the church. This is stated a couple of times; we’ve seen the same imagery in Ephesians 4 that we as the church are his body…and the elders and the pastoral staff are the head? No! We may act like it, but that’s not the case, Christ is the head of the body, Christ is the head of the church and we all exist under his authority.
Jesus is the Firstborn from the Dead
Number 7: “He is the beginning,” and then he says let me tell you what I mean by that, he’s “the firstborn from the dead,” in other words, Jesus was the first to be raised, and I’m going to say this and then I’ll qualify it: he was the first to be raised from the dead. “Now wait a minute—other people were raised from the dead!” What we mean by saying it, is that when Lazarus was resuscitated, he was dead he was brought back to life. The son of the widow of Nain was resuscitated in the sense that he was dead and was brought back to life. That’s not what happened to Jesus on the cross: when Jesus died and was raised again, this is the theological way to express it, all that’s going to happen to us at the end of time when we get our new glorified bodies and fully participate in the new age—that’s what happened to Jesus. When he was raised it was not a resuscitation, he was raised into a new life as Paul says in Romans 6. He was the first to be raised to that life—a resurrection body and a resurrection life. No one has done that and no one will do that until the end of time, and then we all get to do it, but he was the first and that’s the point, he was the firstborn from the dead, the first to rise from the dead.
One of the questions in my mind is how can God with whom there is no change become something that he was not in the incarnation? As I understand the theologies, they teach us that Jesus continues forever as the incarnate God, that he forever continues to be fully God and fully human. Yet he exists in this resurrection body, the kind that can appear and disappear and move great distances relatively quickly. I don’t know how to package that and I imagine that the theologies have a little clearer picture, but I don’t think anyone really can understand it. I’m assuming that if you have Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology he gives a more precise answer, but there’s not enough material in the Bible to really come to a full answer. You have the post-resurrection appearances where he appears and disappears, where he can eat fish where he says “don’t be scared of me, spirits don’t have flesh and bones like I do.” God has flesh and bones? It’s what he says. I don’t know how all that fits and I don’t imagine we’re ever really going to know until we see him face to face. He’s the first to be raised to this new resurrection life, the resurrection we get to enjoy when we get reunited with our bodies at the end of time.
Jesus Reconciled All Things
Eighth and finally in verse 1:19, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him” through Jesus, God the Father “reconciled to himself all things,” and he reconciled by making peace by the blood of Jesus’s cross. In other words, God’s the great reconciler, so through the work of Jesus on the cross, you and I are able to live at peace we are no longer at war with God because forgiveness for our sins is available. God is the great reconciler.
As we get into chapter 2 you’re going to see that Paul is not just describing Jesus, but he’s describing Jesus in a way that the Colossians need to hear him. Because for Colossians there was so much superstition and magic charms and amulets, that Paul is saying, that’s not how you come to peace with God. You don’t say your magical incantations and pour the water and rub your amulet, that’s not how you get to peace with God. You get to peace with God through what Jesus did on the cross. What’s coming up in chapter 2 is in Paul’s mind now and he’s laying the foundation for that. It’s a wonderful passage on the supremacy of Christ and how he is supreme and preeminent over anything and everything.
Student: What does he mean when he says reconciled “all things, whether on earth or in Heaven,” —what in Heaven would need to be reconciled?
Response: I don’t know. I’ll make a guess, that the point is that all things are reconciled no matter where they are, they are reconciled to him—Heaven and earth. I don’t know if by Heaven he means the spirit world, well you can’t have demons being reconciled to God. The emphasis is on all things. The problem is that reconcile is such a powerfully theological word for Paul to describe, the fact that you and I are no longer at war with God because our sins are forgiven that I wouldn’t want to water it down to make it applicable to demons finally saying, we’re wrong. I would think that just because it is such an important Pauline term, that it would not include demons. Because the angels are in Heaven and they are all reconciled, they’re doing just fine. So, I don’t know—good question.
Summary of Pauline Theology (Col. 1:21-23)
The main part of Colossians is in 2:6 and that’s where Paul’s trying to get, but he’s laying ground work here. In verses 21-23, I called it a summary of Pauline Theology. This is an amazing four verses, again these are other verses that as you are sharing your faith with someone, if someone asks, “What’s a Christian?” this is a great place to go. Now it’s dense, it’s compacted theology, but look at everything that is in these verses—there are at least four things.
Paul says, “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” so there’s your doctrine of sin, there is your doctrine of total depravity. You were a completely horrible person without Jesus, but what did Jesus do? Verse 22, “he has now reconciled” he’s reconciled you “in his body of flesh by his death,” there’s your doctrine of conversion—your doctrine of salvation. That what you and I could not do for ourselves, God did for us through Jesus’s physical body as it died on the cross. There’s your doctrine of conversion. Why did he provide the possibility of conversion? “In order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,” there’s your doctrine of sanctification, your doctrine of spiritual growth and maturity of holiness. This is what he wants, he wants us to be holy and blameless and above reproach when we stand before God in judgment. Then verse 23, you’ve been reconciled, “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard,” and then he goes on and talks about some other things. See fourthly, there’s your doctrine of perseverance that you are reconciled to God. The friendship has been established “IF indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting.” There’s no event salvation here.
This is one of the strongest verses in the Bible on perseverance, the strongest ones are in Hebrews, but this is one of the strongest. You are reconciled not if you raised a hand when you were twelve, you were not reconciled if you just merely had a spiritually emotional experience when you were a kid, but you are reconciled to God IF you continue. Now that’s really strong isn’t it. He’s talking to a church gone nuts—they have so mixed Christianity in their superstitions and to them he says, you’re reconciled IF you hold on to the Gospel—that’s a threat in the historical context—that’s a warning that they can’t do what they’re doing, they need to get straightened up.
Paul’s Ministry to the Church (Col. 1:24-2:5)
In 1:24 then Paul starts talking about his ministry to the church, he’s really starting to prepare us for what is going on in Colossae. He starts off with one of these difficult verses, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings,” is Paul is a masochist? No, he says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”—it gives me joy to suffer when I know that I am suffering on behalf of you and that’s why he’s in prison. He’s in prison for preaching the Gospel in Ephesus and other places and he goes it gives me joy to suffer on your behalf. “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” That is an awkward verse and I’ve never read any explanation of it that really makes me feel good about that verse. It’s like there’s a certain amount of suffering that has to happen and Paul’s filling it up. Paul’s suffering is adding to the suffering of Christ and all other Christians to fill up to this amount of suffering. There’s no other verse really in the Bible that gets close to this. Anyway, certainly suffering is part of the Christian walk. Anyone who thinks suffering is a sign only of sin hasn’t read the Bible very carefully. Paul’s rejoicing in his suffering because of what it’s doing—it’s filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. He’s suffering for the sake of the body.
He goes on to make a strong case for Christian maturity in verses 28-29. Look at verses 28-29, “him” meaning Jesus “we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ (28).” There’s your goal, not just converted, but “mature in Christ. For this I toil (29),” this is a word that refers to manual labor; it’s a word that’s used for digging ditches for very hard work, it’s one of Paul’s favorite words for the Christian life—he toils, we toil the Christian life is just flat out hard work isn’t it. He says "For this" that maturity of the church "For this I toil, struggling with all his energy" (Jesus's) "that he powerfully works within me" (by the Holy Spirit) (29). You have a neat balancing of at a human level saying I’m going to work as hard as I can. Christianity is not an excuse to not do the hard work; it is toil, it is struggling, it is suffering, and we are called to do it so we try to learn what it means to rejoice in that right? But at the same time we understand that the energy with which we toil is the Holy Spirit’s energy, the verse in Romans that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that is at work in you and me. We struggle and toil with the power that raises dead people to life—that’s the energy that we have and so you have this balancing that is very crucial. The same balancing you have in Philippians 2:12 “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (12), for it is God who works in you (13),” giving you the desire and then the ability to accomplish his will. He gives us the will, he tells us what we are to do and we are to work the implications of our “salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing all along that God is the one who enables us to do so. It’s the balance of the Christian life and here’s another verse that shows that same balance.
Getting to the Issue at Hand (Col. 2:1-5)
Paul gets into 2 and he says, I’ve laid the ground work it’s time for me to start talking about what’s going on in Colossae. Go down to verse 4 please, “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” This is a hard, hard word to translate and people have misused this verse to say that you should have nothing to do with philosophy, that you should have nothing to do with logic, and that’s not what he’s talking about. He’s talking specifically about the kinds of arguments that are going on in Colossae and he’s saying “I say this in order that no one may delude you with” arguments that seem to make sense to you at one level even though they contradict Scripture in my teaching to you. You’ve got to read this verse in context is what I’m saying, Paul’s not anti-logic, but he’s thinking ahead of what’s been going on in the Colossian church.
He says, Verse 5: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” There it is again, this is Paul being perhaps overly optimistic, overly positive, to motivate people. I can say to someone, “You’ve got to buck up” or I can say “I rejoice to see the victories in your life.” If you were struggling what you would hear me saying is I believe in you, you can do this, I know you may have had some struggles, but hang in there, you can do this. That’s the motivation that is going on here because as soon as you start the next verse you see what a miserable wretch of a church the Colossian church is. Paul’s being optimistic and he wants to see them move forward and he’s trying to motivate them as the master motivator. “…rejoicing to see…the firmness of your faith.” Of course, 1:23, some of your faith isn’t really that firm so I have to threaten you, but here I’ll motivate you. Do you see what is going on? This is Paul the master motivator.
Colossian Heresy (Col. 2:6-23)
In Colossians 2 starting at verse 6, we are full speed into the heresy that was being taught in Colossae. Let me just give you a little bit of background in terms of the spiritual climate of the area because it’s really important to understand what Paul is fighting against.
Spiritual Climate of Syncretism
First, Colossae was a place of syncretism; syncretism just means you mix things. Today it’s just pluralism. The spiritual climate of Colossae is, sure we’ll believe what you believe along with everything else we believe, and then we’ll merge it all together.
Student: Kind of like Catholicism in Central and South America, what happened there?
Response: Yes, that’s what is going on in Catholicism in various places, but Central and South America is an example. That’s what syncretism is, is when you take stuff and you merge religious systems together until there’s no uniqueness to Christianity, but it’s just one or the other. So you have this phenomenal amount of mixing and it’s hard to know all the different things that are being mixed. Among other things there is just a lot of superstition.
When you read the secular texts of how you can be kept safe from an angry God, it’s pure superstition. One of my favorite passages is when you see the god approaching, I’m going to forget the specifics, but you sneeze three times, you clap and then you say three lines of gibberish. People spent years trying to translate this one line and finally gave up and decided it was all gibberish. That’s the superstitious milieu that the ancient world largely was. We have the Roman gods and we have Mithras and then we have the Jewish people, and we think of these well defined systems. Most of the world was superstitious with lots of magic and all of this meshed together. The Colossian church just took Paul’s gospel and meshed it with magic. There’s a lot of superstition going.
Emphasis on Food Laws
Second of all, we can see that there is some real emphasis on food laws and the assumption is that there’s Judaism mixed up in this. One of the strangest things happened to me was the first time I got to go to Israel. I was up above Tiberius on the western side of the Sea of Galilee inland about two miles. I was walking along, and there is pretty much an unexcavated Jewish synagogue you get to walk on. I was looking and I thought wait a minute, that looks like a zodiac, horoscope stuff, and I pulled some weeds out, and it was a zodiac! It had the names of the twelve patriarchs written around them and it was full of Jewish symbols, but it was what you would get killed for in the Old Testament—a capital offense. Judaism was not this monolith; we know there was rabid amounts of polygamy in Judaism outside of Israel. Judaism wasn’t this nice monolithic structure that we like to think it was.
When we start seeing food laws, you automatically start thinking of the fringes of Judaism. Now food laws come up in non-Jewish contexts, but they come up a lot in Jewish context. It also explains why you have in verse 11 discussions of circumcision. If you look at 2:16 it says, "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath." Even over in verse 21 you may have more Judaism being reflected, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” so all that to say, with the food laws that were being taught in Colossae you probably have a strong Jewish influence, not of mainstream Judaism, but a fringe Judaism, the superstitious, syncretistic Judaism.
Animism and Angel Worship
Thirdly, you have a lot of what is called animism—they were animists. Animism is simply the belief in spirits and demons, and there was evidently a lot of that going on in Colossae. Zondervan has a wonderful four-volume series called the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, it’s a beautiful set of books that goes in canonical order. They work through the text and they give you all the background information. Clint Arnold, who teaches at Talbot, was the editor, and they just did a beautiful job. If you’re into backgrounds, this is the best source of background information to get.
Let me read for you Clint’s summary of the animism that was going on in this area. This is his doctoral dissertation so he knows what he’s talking about. He says, “The people feared the many spirits associated with the wild life, agriculture and the inner section of roads. Spirits were associated with some objects that could pose a significant threat to one’s safety. They believed that astro-spirits, the zodiac, planetary deities and the constellations held sway over fate and influenced the affairs of day to day life.” It’s not hard to think of modern parallels to that is it? “They were also fearful of the underworld and to the god and goddess such as Hades and Hecate. Not least they had to be weary of the spirits of deceased ancestors and of the untimely dead who haunted and could wreak terror. They invoked spirit assistance or angels to protect them from curses.” Sound familiar? It’s very similar to the New Age movement. “To drive away spirits causing fevers, headaches, or horrible nightmare apparitions.” That’s the world that Paul is in, and it not just Colossae, this is what the ancient world was like. It was all superstition and great fear and they had taken that and had meshed it with Christianity. You can see why Paul starts with such a strong emphasis on the supremacy of Christ. There are all these other fears weighing in on people and they just need to put Christ where he belongs and make him preeminent over everything and it takes care of the problem.
Here is a slide of a Christian amulet. You can tell it is Christian from some of the drawings and the words on it. This is a Christian amulet depicting a rider slaying a demon; the reverse side has the inscription, “Guard from every evil him who carries this amulet.” These are Christians coming in with their little magic charms, rubbing them, thinking that they are going to keep them safe. Sound familiar? Some things never change, do they? Here’s another from Clint’s book, they refer to a book called the Testament of Solomon, which contains a Jewish folk tradition on dealing with demons. One portion of the text ostensibly helps a person discern what demon is causing a particular ailment, so if you have a headache or a toe ache those are different demons, so you have to figure out which demon it is. The remedy typically involves calling on the appropriate angel who can then thwart the evil workings of that demon. You have to figure out what’s wrong, what demon’s causing it so you know what angel to call to come in and to get rid of the hurt. Here’s one of the examples, “I, Solomon, the rider, summoned the first spirit and said to him, who are you?” (This would be to the demon.) He replied, “Why, I am the first deacon of the Zodiac and I am called Ruach. I cause heads of men to suffer pain and I cause their temples to throb, so this is the demon of migraine headaches.” Then Solomon says, “Should I hear only Michael, the Angel, Michael imprison Ruach, I retreat immediately.” All it takes to get rid of a headache is to identify the demon causing it, then get the right angel to come and if you call the right angel to come he can force the demon to retreat. This is the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ came in to. You know Galatians, at the right time God sent his Son; it was the right time at many levels. One certainly was the horrible state of superstition and magic that was going on. That’s all under the category of animism.
Fourthly, there evidently appears to be real worship of angels, so maybe this is a subcategory of animism, but I made it a fourth point. Again the idea was you’d wear an amulet and you would say the names of the good spirits and then they would make the bad ones flee away. That’s the climate of Colossae.
Solution to the Colossian Heresy
What’s the solution then? Well as you go through this section and I’m just going to summarize, Paul gives two basic solutions.
One is, first of all, don’t get deceived, don’t get tricked by philosophy and human tradition. And when he says philosophy, see verse 8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition”; he’s not saying that Christians can’t be philosophers. He’s referring to the philosophical mumble jumble that’s being taught in Colossae and he’s saying don’t get tricked by it. Ultimately he says it’s all demon inspired, the second half of verse 8, this is all “according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” He says don’t be tricked, don’t be tricked by all the appearance of wisdom and the arguments and all the force of culture. In other words, don’t give in to peer pressure or don’t give in to cultural pressure.
Verse 23 I think is a pretty important verse in all this, where Paul says about these false teachings, "These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body," in other words, the people who are teaching this heresy appear to be the ultra-religious. The were the scribes and the Pharisees of Colossae and they were severe to the body. They probably fasted heavily or maybe they cut themselves—it’s not just a modern thing. Cutting yourself as an act of worship has been around since sin’s been around, and he’s saying they have the appearance of wisdom, they have the appearance of religiosity, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
A while back I expressed my lack of interest in Lent and of giving up things for God. One of the reasons is I’ve never found them to be of any value. I’ve never found anyone who truly grew in their spiritual walk by giving up things for God, leaving fasting out of the equation. This is a verse that is often in my mind when you see people trying to go the extra yard to be especially religious and you go, but is it doing any good? It has the appearance of wisdom, but because it’s contrary to the Gospel it doesn’t help, it doesn’t help at all.
Student: What are your thoughts on St. Francis of Assisi? I don’t know anything about St. Francis of Assisi—I saw the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon, but I have no assurance that that was historically accurate so I don’t know.
Response: I remember the first time I heard one of my professors say that it was freeing, it was George Ladd, when you ask him a question he says, “I don’t know, that’s Old Testament, I don’t know.” It was like, oh wow, I don’t have to appear to know everything. I don’t think that animals have souls because Scripture never says they do and it would be a violation of the teaching of Scripture and of Genesis 1. If I understand Assisi right, then I would disagree at that point.
Don’t be deceived, and the other side is, keep the centrality of Christ, that’s Paul’s solution. You’ve already seen it in 1:15-20, but it’s all the way through this paragraph. For example, look at verses 2:6-7, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,” in other words, don’t change; you became a Christian with him being supreme in your life—stay that way, don’t change. Verse 7: “rooted and built up in him” (Christ) “and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Down in verse 9, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” See you can see the Colossians were downplaying the centrality of Christ and so the solution is get Christ back up where he belongs in the place of supremacy.
You can see bits and pieces of the heresy, for example, down in verse 16, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” Again we’re in the area of Romans 14-15, the gray areas, we’re not talking about things that violate Scripture, but personal preferences for religious rituals. He said don’t let anyone pass judgment on you just because you won’t do the same rituals they are, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (17). Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism,” insisting that certain physical things that God’s created are in fact bad, and you can get closer to God by staying away from them (18). “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind (18), and not holding fast to the Head,” which is Jesus Christ (19). You get a flavor for what was going on in Colossae.
I don’t know if I’ve told you this story about a person who at my university was had a religious experience where she saw God in a stained glass window, and how he knocked on the window, and that God is knocking on our hearts. She felt she had this phenomenal amount of authority and needing to be listened to because she felt God had spoken directly to her. That’s the best parallel I know of to this stuff, insisting on taking a stand on visions, not on Scripture but on what God said or what we’ve seen in dreams. I’m not saying God can’t talk in dreams, but when people insist that you do what they say because of their visions and at the same time they are not holding fast to the head that’s a problem That’s the question—are you hanging on to Christ? Is everything subject to Christ or are you claiming something to be preeminent like you and your visions. That’s when you know you’re wrong. That’s the Colossian heresy.
What are some of the modern day parallels just to help? Student: Your last example sounded like Joseph Smith. Response: You have people, Joseph Smith and other people, who have received latter-day revelations, but they simply aren’t true because they are not holding fast to the head. I don’t think anyone in dealing with Mormons would say that Christ has the place of supremacy in the Mormon Church. Their doctrine may say it, but they don’t. Student: What about the Scripture in Joel that says young men will dream dreams and old men will have visions? Response: That’s the prophecy that came through in Acts 2, and that’s also why I’m not saying that God can’t talk that way. The bulk if not all of my experience, except one, is that people who hold on to visions do not hold on to the head, which is Christ. They put their visions ahead of Scripture and they define Scripture by their visions and that’s just wrong—you can’t do that, not and be biblical anyway. I think that’s what’s going on in Colossae. There’s a lot of things aren’t there, there’s voodoo, taboo, superstition, New Age, what else would fit in this category? I was riding with a guy once who drove like an absolute maniac. He was my youth pastor, and he had a little statue hanging from his mirror—I think it’s St. Christopher—and I just made some comment about his speeding and not stopping and reckless driving. He goes, “St. Christopher will keep us safe.” See that’s magic, that’s superstition, that’s not holding to the head which is Christ.
In certain charismatic circles, and again this has died down from where it was 20 years ago when I was in college, but Christ had nothing to do with anything. Everything was subordinate to my word from the Lord or my vision, and it didn’t matter if it agreed or disagreed with Scripture, there was no hanging on to the head. I could go on and on with stories and you may know them as well. I think a lot of things in Catholicism fits in this category as well. Mary worship started in about the fourth century AD and you can trace it pretty carefully. There was a thing called the Magna Mater—the Great Mother—Cult in Ephesus and throughout Asia Minor where it was the worship of an ultimate female deity, and the synchronistic church brought it in and developed Mary Worship out of it. I’m sure Catholics would point to a different origin, but historically I think that’s what happens.
Student: It seems there is a lot of angel worship too.
Response: Really? I don’t know a lot about that other than what friends of mine who have been missionaries down there have told me, and you hear so much stuff and unless you see it firsthand I’m not sure you can really know what’s going on. What my friends have told me that have been in Latin America and South America is that there is a tremendous amount of mixing that happens of the pagan rituals and the superstition and then they use Christian words and Christian symbols. Whenever you are synchronistic with Christianity, Christianity always goes to the lesser level and the magic goes to a higher level. That’s the problem in these kinds of mixing, but I don’t know much beyond that. Have you had any contact with that? Student: Actually I just saw that in a television special about Pentecostal movement here and also some in Latin America. Response: I don’t know about the emotionalism, it’s more voodoo and taboo and amulets and superstition, is what I understand.
There’s problems on the other side too—I know of a guy who is in the middle of Africa who came to the charismatic church in town where I used to live, and one of the main tongue speakers got up and started speaking and it absolutely floored this African because he was speaking his dialect. There may have only been 1,000 people in the world that knew his dialect—the problem was he was saying curse God and die. I mean he was cursing and cursing and finally this freshman who was up in the balcony of the church had to stand up and yell out to the church what this man was saying. You know there are problems on both sides of these things. That’s what happens when you don’t hold on to the head. Hold on to Christ for all your worth. He tends to take care of those things one way or the other.
Ethical Instruction (Col. 3:1-4:6)
Starting in chapter 3, Paul moves into his discussion of ethics. This is the same basic structure we have in Ephesians and a lot of this stuff we’ve already seen in Ephesians so we don’t need to look at it in a lot of detail. He starts by summarizing the case in 3:1-4, “If then you have been raised with Christ,” in other words, if you’re a Christian, “seek the things that are above,” in other words, not the Colossian heresy, the things that are above, “where Christ is,” the preeminent supremacy of Christ, “seated at the right hand of God (1). Set your minds” and I love that translation because it was mine—every so often you see a phrase—I remember arguing for that—“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (2). For you have died (3),” you can hear Romans 6 imagery “and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (4),” this is the preeminence of Christ and the importance.
In Col. 3:5-17 it’s just a great bunch of instruction on ethics, don’t do these things, do these things, he uses the imagery of putting off and putting on almost like it’s clothing, “Put off the old self” and “have put on the new self.” Verse 13 is another one of those tough verses to live out, “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” You saw a verse in Ephesians along those same lines the last time.
He then moves into a passage of these household codes—husband/wife, children, parents, master, slave. You know husbands are to love their wives and not be harsh; wives are to submit to their husbands. I have a hard time believing that submission encompasses the entire description of how a wife relates to her husband. I don’t like it, and I’m not saying I don’t like submission, but I don’t like it when men say my wife’s job is to submit to me. I don’t think the language can take it. Yes, submission is involved in a husband/wife relationship, but is that all? Is that all there is to it? I think there’s got to be a lot more to marriage then this basic hierarchy of authority and submission going on in marriage. Yet when you hear some people speak you think that the only thing a wife is supposed to do is submit, and I just don’t think the Bible warrants that. I just mention that in passing.
I’ve got to get slavery in Philemon. In Col. 4:1, “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly,” those are revolutionary terms and they are the seed of what became the abolition of slavery. I’m getting to your question that you asked last time. At that time, slaves were property, you treated them anyway you want. I don’t have to treat my property with fairness and justness, but it says “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly”; that’s a revolutionary thing and Paul gets blamed for not caring at all about the issues of slavery and that’s simply not true. Paul is inviting fight, so there are some seeds that are being planted. We’re going to come back and talk about this when we go to Philemon. Also he says “treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in Heaven.” What did he just do? He threatened them didn’t he? He threatened the slave owners he said, you two, masters and slaves, have the same Master. You are under someone else’s authority. You better treat your slave in a way that you want to be treated. There’s all stuff wrapped up in saying that masters have a Master. Elsewhere he talks about how the masters and slaves have the same Master. There are a couple of seeds planted, we’ll come back to that in a second.
Paul goes through some final ethical exhortations, some great verses and his final greeting, and he’s done. I would just mention that in verse 9 he mentions this character named Onesimus: “and with him Onesimus,” was headed back up to Colossae, “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” In other words, he’s a Colossian. Who is this Onesimus? Well, that’s what the Book of Philemon is all about.
Philemon and Onesimus
You have to go past the books in your Bible that are addressed to churches and then past Timothy and then you get to Philemon. It’s a short, one-chapter letter. Paul is writing to a fellow named Philemon, who is evidently a wealthy person who has slaves. It’s possible if you read between the lines that Philemon also sponsored a church in his house. He was probably a wealthy land owner, since he had slaves. We think that probably he became a Christian under Paul’s ministry because Paul makes it very clear that Philemon really should do whatever Paul tells him to do because of their spiritual relationship.
Onesimus, the guy mentioned in Colossians, was a slave owned by Philemon. He evidently stole something or some things and ran away to Rome. About a third of Rome was slave so if you want to hide in a crowd Rome was a good place to go if you were a slave. But the problem was that he met Paul and became a Christian. Paul and Onesimus were struggling with what to do now. Onesimus what’s your relationship to your master and your Christian brother, Philemon? How does all of this work out? Being a runaway slave was a capital offense. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter, but knowing that Onesimus is going back into a culture where Philemon, if he wants to, can have him killed for running away. There’s a lot going on in this book that’s pretty powerful.
Paul’s “Appeal” to Philemon
My guess is that Paul didn’t trust Philemon because he says, Philemon I want you to make the choice, I want you to decide out of generosity of your heart to forgive Onesimus and receive him. Then Paul sits there and threatens him over and over that he must do what Paul wants. I’m not sure how happy Paul is with Philemon. He says things like in Philemon 1:19, “I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it (19)”; I will repay any debt that Onesimus has “to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you (20).” So he tells Philemon about forgiving Onesimus, “I believe that you will,” and then you get the really strong feeling that Paul really likes Onesimus and that Philemon’s a little bit of a problem. That’s the context for what’s going on.
In the time that remains, let me say something about slavery, because the bulk of the biblical discussions of slavery comes out of Philemon. In fact, one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard on racial unity was preached out of Philemon and how Philemon was to receive Onesimus back as a brother; it was a very powerful sermon.
Paul’s Apparent Acceptance of Slavery
The main problem is that Paul appears to accept slavery. In other words, Paul never denounces slavery, I wish he had, it would have made life a little easier, but Paul never denounces slavery. So, for example, when you get into the literature of the pre-war South of the United States, you find them using the Bible to support slavery over and over again. I have a buddy who has a Masters on this issue and he took me to all the really interesting texts where other people just argued forcefully and wrongly that slavery is a good thing. “Slaves aren’t created in the image of God, their lesser forms of life, the Bible says it’s okay to have slaves.” It’s repulsive to think about, but if you want to know your heritage as an American you should read some of this. The closest that Paul gets to denouncing slavery is 1 Corinthians 7:21 and there he says, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it.” This is the passage where he’s saying if you’re married don’t try to change, if you’re unmarried don’t try to change—remember that discussion? He says, “If you’re a slave, don’t be concerned about it” and then he adds, “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” Now that’s the ESV translation, it’s actually a very hard phrase, because it’s just as likely and possible that Paul said, “if you can be free, don’t worry about it,” which really fits the context much better because to everyone else he’s saying, no, stay as you are, but nobody could possibly, at least this day in age, think that Paul would be saying that. I think probably it’s pretty strongly parenthetical and therefore it’s a little contrary to context, but that he’s saying, “If you can get out of your slavery, fine go ahead and do it.” That’s as close as Paul gets to denouncing slavery, at least explicitly denouncing slavery.
Planting Seeds for the Abolition of Slavery
What you have in Paul is that he’s planting seeds. These seeds, when they come to fruition, became the abolition movement. William Wilberforce, the Englishman who was primarily responsible for the ending of the majority of slavery was a Christian, working out of deep Christian convictions. You can’t say that Paul is for slavery, the most you can probably say is that he planted certain theological seeds that later grew to us realizing that slavery is a horrible institution.
You have a seed, 1 Corinthians 7:21 that I just mentioned. You have another seed in the most unlikely place in 1 Timothy 1:10. The word specifically is kidnapping, and it prohibits kidnapping. The majority of slaves were kidnapped; they were taken after a war as victims of a war, as booty, in other words. In the prohibition against kidnapping in 1 Timothy 1:10, he’s following the Decalogue here and he’s following the commandment “thou shalt not steal,” and he chooses the word specifically for stealing people. You have a prohibition against kidnapping, which gets rid of a lot of slavery. Just a little seed.
A third seed, and this is the most important seed that Paul plants, is when he asserts the basic equality of slave and master. That’s the most important seed that Paul plants. The equality that slaves are not lesser, they are the same as the master. Look at Philemon 16, this is what is so important; he’s trying to get Philemon to forgive Onesimus and it’s not just that Philemon has to forgive him and receive him back, but verse 16, receive him back “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” Paul is telling Philemon that Onesimus is not a slave; “he’s your brother,” and you had better treat him as your brother. See there’s an assertion of the basic equality that removes financial barriers between slave and master in that statement. The other verse is Ephesians 6:9, where like the passage we looked at in Colossians 4:1, here the master and slave have the same impartial Master, in other words, it is the inherent threat that both master and slave are going to be judged by the same impartial Master. In those verses you have, albeit very faintly, seeds that are planted that later moved into abolition.
Fourthly, the standard that is given as to why Paul does not aggressively pursue the removal of the slave way is that the entire Roman Empire was built on slaves. If you attacked slavery, you attacked the financial and military heart of the Roman Empire. The argument is generally given that the needs of the Gospel outweigh the need to reform culture. Simply there are things that Paul had to do that were more important than reform the society based on slavery. Some people will accept that, some people won’t accept that.
Let me close with this story. Again, there are people that will hear that and go what a cop-out, Paul should have attacked the slave market, it’s a horrible thing. And it is a horrible thing. We were back at the Evangelical Theology Society on John Edwards 300th birthday, and there were a lot of papers being read on Edwards. Edwards likewise got attacked for not attacking slavery. It wasn’t something he preached against a lot, and people got after him and so the discussion came up, “Was Edwards short-sighted? Was Edwards wrong to not do this?” John Piper made a fascinating point. He said, “From where we sit, yes, we would have liked Edwards, as we would have liked Paul, to have a taken a more active stand against slavery,” but John said, “I wonder what it’s going to be like in 250 years from now when the center of the church is in Africa, and America just has the ancient trappings of a religion, but there is not Christianity in America at all. I wonder what will happen when those African Christians, 250 years from now, look back at the incalculable amount of wealth that the American church possessed and they are going to sit there and shake their heads and say, what was wrong with those preachers? How did they ever let the church waste billions of dollars on themselves and not do anything substantially about missions?” Piper always gets like this—he never just says anything. His caution was, don’t be too quick to condemn Paul and Edwards because they don’t ride your particular hobby horse, because there are many things that we as a church nationally are doing that is absolutely horrible. Churches 200 years from now are going to look back and they’re going to say, “Were they Christians? How could Christians do what they did?” I thought that a pretty good admonition.