Lecture 7: Colossians and Philemon | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 7: Colossians and Philemon

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Romans to Revelation

Lecture: Colossians and Philemon

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I. Character Links between the Prison Epistles

Now we turn to the four letters that have often been labeled as Paul’s prison epistles. These four letters include Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians and Philippians. As we pointed out in an earlier lecture, 2nd Timothy was also written from prison, but the predominate view throughout the history of the church has been that it emanated from a different imprisonment and different set of circumstances in which we will cover when we discuss the pastoral epistles. Traditionally, the letters have been viewed as coming from Paul while was under house arrest in which the Book of Acts ends. There is one early dissenting tradition in the history of the church that considered the possibility of an Ephesians presentment. We know from the Book of Acts that Paul was also imprisoned in Caesarea Maritimes (by the sea) in Israel to be distinguished from Caesarea Philippi to the north of Galilee, but for the most part, these options have not commended themselves for the reasons we point out in our accompanying text book.

Today many scholars believe a somewhat stronger case can be made for placing Philippians into one of these non-Roman imprisonments and so we will discuss the issues which are quite similar but not identical to the debate surrounding the location of Paul’s imprisonment for the first three prison letters when we get to our introduction to Philippians. Meanwhile, we will proceed on the assumption that these letters were written from Rome while recognizing that very little of exegetical significance when it comes to interpreting specific passages in these letters hinges on that debate. A bit more will be at stake when we come to Philippians.

The PowerPoint slide (being used by the lecturer) is designed to stress that Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians also share a common gate at which they were sent out through common letter carriers to the same geographical area of the Empire, namely communities in western and central Asian Minor. We may deduce this from the less well-known names that appear in the introductions or closing greetings or travel reports of these three epistles. Philemon and Colossians share six important names; Colossians 1 discloses Epaphras, the founder of the Colossian church and his name recurs in the letter to Philemon and one of the people sending greetings. Onesimus is a slave of the house hold of Philemon to whom the short little letter of Philemon is addressed and toward the end of Colossians. Aristarchus, Demus, Mark and Luke all send their greetings, apparently companions with Paul during his imprisonment and all of those coincidences together suggest that these letters are being sent out at the same time. And that in fact Philemon’s household may well be a part of the church in Colossae, indeed, Philemon may well be the leader or resident elder of the home congregation that he is hosting. In which case, the otherwise unattested names of Apphia and Archippus in Philemon 1:2 could represent his wife and adult son, thou these are informed guesses at best. Only one significant name joins Colossians in Ephesians suggesting that they were sent out jointly but it is the highly significant name Tychicus, the letter carrier, almost guaranteeing that we should put Ephesus into the mix with Philemon and Colossians not least because Ephesus was the main port on the west coast of Asia Minor to which a boat coming from Rome would arrive and then letter carriers would natural travel overland, the roughly hundred miles to the east to the much smaller community of Colossae.

No such links of any kind require us to match Philippians with the same mail deliver and Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians and we will reserve further comment on Philippians for a separate lecture. There is no particular reason as a result if we are preceding in Chorological order as this survey of Paul’s letter is attempting to do for starting with Philemon rather than Colossians or Ephesians, but we have to pick some order and so perhaps beginning with the most undisputed letter in terms of Pauline authorship and moving to the most disputed makes as good sense as any sequence. If indeed Philemon and the church that may have met in his house to form the collection of Colossian house churches then we may cover a bit more background of both of these letters before embarking on and exegetical survey of them individually. Little is known about ancient Colossae compared to what we have unearthed about these other communities to which Paul wrote. No archaeological digs have ever been undertaken at the tell or hillside where it is believed whatever ruins of Colossae may exist remain buried precisely because it is comparative small and significant and therefore not of interest to major benefactors who fund such archaeological digs. Tourists can roam about on that hill side, every now and then unearthing a small shard of rock of some kind from the Byzantine era. But what is close to the surface from Paul’s day has long since been removed and disclosed to nothing of any archaeological interest.

It is however worth reminding ourselves that it was what some call Paul’s fourth missionary journey or perhaps, better, his captive journey to Rome, more precisely dated to the fall, winter or spring of AD 60, followed by his two years of house arrest from perhaps 60 – 62 during which these letters would have been written and if we see reason to place Philippians a bit later and during a somewhat discouraging time of Paul’s imprisonment there. We may well want to date these first three letters to AD 60 or 61. The letter to Philemon can easily be neglected, two pages stuck together. The basic plot is straight forward; Paul has met up with a slave from the household of Philemon by the name of Onesimus who has become a Christian as a result of his time with Paul in prison, presumably in Rome. And now Paul is sending him back to his master and urging Philemon to welcome him at the very least as a fellow brother in Christ and possible as something more. Historically, the most common understanding of the circumstances leading to Paul meeting up with Onesimus have been that he was a run-away. Slaves desired their freedom in the ancient world as they have in all cultures that have included the institution of slavery and as in other times and places often tried to secure this freedom by running away. If this is indeed the scenario behind Philemon, then Paul is implicitly requesting as he asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, that he not punish nor execute him which Roman slave owners were legally permitted to do. But that alone would hardly account for this inclusion for this little letter in the Biblical Canon. Even if tradition is accurate, that Onesimus became the Bishop of the church toward the end of the first century, and this would certainly account for the letter preservation.

II. Colossians and Philemon

There are a number of reasons why this letter merits even more respectful preservation, treatment, study and ultimately Canonization. After a conventional and short introduction and similarly short thanksgiving prayer; the body of Paul’s letter seems to hint at more than merely welcoming Philemon back as a Christian brother but return him to his identical role as a household slave. Already in the thanksgiving prayer, Paul lavishes praise in his prayer, which of course he knows Philemon will read, on the fellowship of his faith. Verse 5 describes the reason for Paul thanking God for Philemon because of his love for his people and faith in the Lord Jesus. And then with this back ground, Paul continues, I pray literally that the fellowship of your faith or as NIV says, that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective, deepening your understanding of the good thing we share for the sake of Christ. And in verse 7, Paul reinforces this prayer and plea by reminding God and Philemon that his love has given Paul great joy and encouragement not least because he has refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. In addition to being a sincere prayer of gratitude, all of this sits very naturally as an introduction to put Philemon in as good a frame of mind for exceeding to Paul’s request.

Some translations, particularly the older additions of the NIV speak in verse 6 however about Philemon’s sharing of his faith in a way that suggests for many modern English readers that Paul is grateful for Philemon’s evangelistic activity. On this reading, verse 6 can become a very crucial text to inspire and motivate believers at other times and places for active evangelistic witness since the results, perhaps even the purpose of such activity can then be declared that one’s faith becomes effective and one’s understanding of every one thing we share in Christ becomes deepened, but as the discussion in the textbook suggests in more detail that this is more certainly the wrong interpretation. Nothing else in the letter remotely suggests that anyone is talking about Philemon evangelizing anyone. In fact, apparently, Onesimus never came to faith while he was in Philemon’s household but only when he met up with Paul. Rather, using the most common meanings of the words and grammatical constructions here, Paul is praising the love and refreshing of hearts of the fellowship that Philemon has regularly extended to fellow Christians, but let this be the first time when one of his own former slaves had become a Christian.

Paul wants to make sure that Philemon doesn’t express a double standard but gives Onesimus the same kind of welcome. It is worth reflecting on the more increasingly modern popular options as an alternative to the theory that Onesimus was a run-away rather than some other kind of dispute between slave and master resulting perhaps that Philemon suggested that Onesimus seek out Paul. This would explain why the two did in fact meet up such a long ways away, harder to explain if there was no prior knowledge of Paul by Onesimus. In order that Paul function in what was called in the Roman World, a friend of the Master, who could act as a mediator or arbitrary in helping to settle disputes. Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon’s interpersonal welcome, at least for fellow Christians would be every bit if not more poignant, for it would mean that the arbitration would likely be accepted by Philemon. Paul believed that it had been a success and that the welcome home would not have been to punish a returning slave because he would not have been a run-away, but must have been something even more. What would that be?

Again, an increasing number of scholars, particularly in cultures no longer tempted to find biblical support to justify slavery has suggested that it was Onesimus’ freedom that Paul was indirectly requesting. Why not more directly? Why not make it more unambiguous? We’ve spent some time in our textbooks, suggesting a number of reasons why. Perhaps the two most significant of those are that a direct rebellion might not have worked and perhaps would prove counterproductive as it could have squashed the entire Christian movement and secondly, particularly in these early years of Christianity, it was crucial to communicate to a culture that knew much about human war and rebellion, that the Gospel was fundamentally a Gospel of peace about forgiveness of sin rather about improvement of one’s physical being, material or socio-economic lot in this world. We may compare the positive witness and success of many various spiritual and non-violent protest movements of the 20th and 21st centuries as well. Though in many cases as those movements grew, there was violence and defection from the original vision and cause among at least a fringe group of those movements.

But just how indirect or obscure is Paul’s request for Onesimus’ freedom? Perhaps it is not quite as opaque as some of us in very direct and blunt cultures might at first think. As the body of the letter progresses, verse 8 finds Paul declaring though he could be bold and order Philemon, he prefers (verse 9) to appeal on the basis of love. This is always a very commendable motive asking for something somewhat indirect and even euphemistically. Verses 10 and 11 makes it clear that his appeal is for Onesimus who is now useful, the very meaning of Onesimus in Greek because he has become a believer, a spiritual son of Paul in a way he had not been before. Use to Paul as well as to Philemon. Verse 12 makes it very clear that he is sending him home, despite (verse 13) his preference for keeping Onesimus with him, which would not have been legally possible had he been a run-away slave, but would have been, had he appealed to Paul as an ominus dominus (owned by someone). The reason for that preference, still within verse 13, could take on Onesimus’ place, since we know from Colossians; Onesimus has been with Paul at one point and helped him while he was a prisoner. Ancient prisoners received no food or goods of any kind from their jailers but depended on friends or family from the outside for help. But Paul continues (verse 14), for he did not want to do anything without Philemon’s consent.

Again, we sense an elaborate build up, that is perhaps more understandable if Paul was asking for more than just a courteous punitive re-instatement of Onesimus as a household slave. If he continues in this mode, not until verse 17 do we get Paul coming to the exhortation part of this epistle or in this case the request portion? If you consider me as a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me, but Philemon would not welcome Paul as a slave returning home. He would welcome him as a partner and free man and fellow worker in the Gospel. If he has done you any wrong and owes you anything, charge it to me. For Onesimus is just a run-away slave then if he has stolen money and property, Paul was offering to reimburse Philemon. If he is merely an ominus dominus, Paul may be offering to settle some other kind of dispute that may have had financial overtones or at the very least, reimburse Philemon for lost man hours. The emphasis behind this promise is reflected in verse 19 where Paul takes the pen from the scribe and says, I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will pay it back, but reminds him, perhaps reflecting that Onesimus as well had become a Christian to Paul’s ministry and that he owns him his very self. He continues to say that he could have some benefit in verse 20 and in verse 21 says, ‘confident in your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do more than I ask.’ Instead of just asking that Onesimus be allowed to return to his slave duties, Paul seems to be asking more than that. What else could that be?

The letter hasn’t really been understood during times of church history, but it is a story that is well worth studying and reflecting on. And it is an illustration, again, as we can see in the Book of Acts in chapter 16 when Paul appeals for public release and declaration that he and Silas have done nothing wrong after spending a night in the Philippian jail. Paul appealed there to his citizenship only when the timing of the appeal would be most beneficial for the public well-being of Christianity in that community, not when it would in a private encounter with the Philippian jailer from the night before would have exempted him and Silas from spending a night in jail. Paul, like Jesus before him can speak eloquently of giving up his rights. We saw that in 1st Corinthians 9 with the right to receive remuneration for ministry. We saw it at length in 2nd Corinthians when Paul contrasted his whole style of ministry as one of suffering and being persecuted in contrast to the false apostles and Greco-Roman religion hecklers that has so confused the Corinthian church. But when it comes for seeking justice for others, even if it may require tack and time and patience and certainly a lack of violence, Paul is not nearly as passive or quiet as some have charged, and then finally, a point that should have become evident in our conversations thus far.

The little letter of Philemon is a gem of a model of pastoral tack. In a context where writer and recipient of a letter did not know each other well, one could make a case that Paul was employing a manipulative form of sociology, but between two people who had once been partners in business and ministry. Where there is a relationship that Paul can describe in the second half of verse 19 as Philemon owning him his very self. This letter takes on a very different appearance, blunt commands, particularly in the ancient Mediterranean world were not appropriate in such contexts. But the carefully chosen words of gratitude that lead up to Paul’s request; the language in verse 8 of appealing on the basis of love rather than commanding and in verse 9, appealing as an old man, a prisoner, a human in a fragile and vulnerable situation, rather than an apostolic authority.

Showing how much Paul cared for Onesimus, would have liked to used Onesimus for himself but so respected not in this reading and so much the law but as Philemon’s wellbeing and desires. The language of hope for a coming visit to reassure Philemon of good relationships remaining between the two but also in a very gentle and indirect and tactful way, a reminder that he will be able to come and check up on whether Philemon has granted his request. Just as the very fact the letter is addressed to, at the very least, an entire family and most likeness, a small house church meeting in Philemon’s home would give an indirect measure of accountability to Philemon by virtual of the other Christians who would have heard of Paul’s concerns and held Philemon accountable for following up on them.

To conclude, this is a very deceptively short and straight forward letter, which in fact pays careful scrutiny and leisurely study and contemporary application to a particular situation.

What of the letter to the Colossians; afore chapter epistle to the entire church and community of Colossae, no doubt including Philemon congregation. Here, we are faced as we were with 2nd Thessalonians, first of all, over the debate on whether or not Paul wrote this epistle. Of a number of questions, of which the two most central include: whether or not the style and contents of Colossians is too different from the seven undisputed letters of Paul to have come from the same writer. Secondly, it is too similarly in style and content to letter of the Ephesians, which is even more widely believed to be pseudonymous to have come from Paul. As with 2nd Thessalonians, we leave the interesting student to read the textbook and its sources for further details. Suffice to say that the issue of style is perhaps the hardest to simply forget it. Many, even more conservative scholars, who believe they link with Paul can opt to one of those forms of letter compositions, given Paul’s choice of stylistic preference for the letter, after which he would reread the letter ensuring that everything he wanted to say was phrased exactly the way he would want it to be. For Colossians, Timothy’s role as co-sender and even perhaps co-author in 1:1 has made him a natural candidate for such an amanuenses and Ephesians bares at least some similarities to the writing style of Luke leaving some to wonder if Luke as such an amanuenses because we have no other samples of Timothy’s writing style. We have no way of comparing Timothy and Colossians or Timothy and Luke for that matter, so again this remains speculative but at the very least, we must acknowledge that there are plausible historical alternatives to merely jettisoning the letter and labeling it as inauthentic and fully pseudonymous.

More difficult and complex even than the issue of authorship is the problem of the false teaching, the worldly philosophy that chapter 2:8 labels as hollow and deceptive, discloses Paul having to combat with this letter to the Church in Colossae. The rest of chapter 2, gives us the most detailed window into what that heresy is, as scholars have come to term it, may have embraced. Because he immediately turns to emphasize the full deity of Christ in bodily form, there may have been questions about deity or the humanity of Jesus or both because of issues concerning circumcision in the verses immediately following, it is natural to assume a Jewish or Judaizing background to at least some of the heresy, which is reinforced in 13 – 15 with references to circumcision and legal indebtedness. The rituals introduced in verse 16 of eating and drinking could refer to the dietary laws of Judaism or the problem of food sacrificed to idols of 1st Corinthians 8 – 10 or some combination of the two as may have been present in Romans 14 – 15. The new moon and Sabbath day festivals were probably exclusively Jewish in which case the religious festivals may have been as well, though there were plenty of Greco-Roman such festivals as well. The false humility and worship of angels is a bit more difficult in verse 18. If this is a false kind of pseudo humility that fallen angels are seen in their worship of their lord, the devil, or even pretending to worship God himself or separated from false humility and referring to the genuine worship that good angels give to God, then this could be some additional form of Jewish practice that has changed in some respect. This grammatical expression may refer to humans worshipping angels who were almost non-existent in Judaism and therefore suggest a Greco-Roman or even a Gnostic component to this heresy which was from a Greco-Roman asceticism or Gnostic philosophical dualism.

Three very fascinating and passionate and contemporary approaches to this heresy have attempted to see it emanating all from one religious / philosophical source. Several commentators, none in more detail than James Dune and his new International Greek commentary on Colossians and Philemon do attempt to see all of this coming from Jewish and therefore, Judaizing sources. Ebert Schweitzer finds intriguing parallels to the combination of features discussed here in the cult that grew up and took its name from the long since deceased Greek philosopher, come mathematician Pythagoras. Quintin Arnall sees parallels to these elements in various forms of Phrygian Folk religion in the province nearby to Colossae and we might add in nearby provinces as well. But for most scholars, some combination of Jewish and Hellenistic or even Gnosticizing if not yet full blown Gnostic, syncretistic, unique, eclectic, previously not encounters mixture seems to be the most responsible way of identifying this Colossian heresy. Or if we put aside for the moment the question of origins and focus merely on the doctrinal components inferable from the text, thus far surveyed, there appears to have been Christological deficiencies, soteriological deficiencies and anthropological deficiencies in this false teaching. If we allow even for the possibility for both Jewish and Greek backgrounds, this enables us to consider a possible way in which these defective teachings played themselves out and led to the combination of problems that Paul had to address.

If Judaizing elements contributed to the heresy, Christ would not be fully God because of the non-Trinitarian monotheism of non-Christian Judaism in the 1st century. But if Christ is not fully God, then he has not provided full eternal salvation and therefore as in the Judaizing agenda, Christians must supplement or fill up what is lacking but in regard to human salvation by doing good deeds, particularly the national badges of righteousness that were so central to 1st century Judaism, i.e. circumcision, dietary laws or Sabbath keeping. If we allow for at least some element of Hellenistic philosophical dualists and even Gnosticizing background to the heresy, then the Christological issue would be that Christ would not be fully human. For a god could not literal partake of the material world since matter was inherently evil. So therefore, again, Christians would not be fully saved because Christ could not fully identify with them because of not being completely human. But this time what must be added is that which will perfectly save the human spirit because the body is irredeemable, being irredeemably evil and thus a focus on inter spirituality which perhaps is best reflected in the contrast between verses 3:1 – 4 and verses 5 and following were using language that at first appears to reek of mysticism, ‘set your heart on things above. Your life is not hidden with Christ’ is defined in terms of very mundane, earthly, bodily morality; obedience and good behavior against the dualist view of enter spirituality divorced from outward actions. That or something much like it seems to account for quite a bit for what Paul has to say in response to the heresy.


More broadly still, the outline of this short letter nears that of Romans even though shorter. It includes the conventional greetings, thanks giving and prayer that leads a bit more imperceptibly to the body of the letter and the theological exposition probably because of the insertion of a pre-Pauline creed or confession, much like we discussed in 1st Corinthians 15 with Colossians 1:15 – 20. The theological exposition clearly shifts to ethical exhortation with 3:1, the second half of the standard Hellenistic body and others who are traveling to Colossae from Paul, greetings to various people are made and a typical conclusion to round out the last twelve verses of chapter 4. If we then unpack the body in greater detail, we come to the Christ hymn as it often has been called as the opening of the information section of the letter, richly compacted with a key Christological confession of Christ as Lord of the Cosmas and therefore of the church. These are some of the most exhaled Christology in the New Testament. They are advanced descriptions of deity and sovereignty and Lordship which were not merely some late 2nd or 3rd generation Hellenistic corruption of the simple original Gospel of Jesus, the nice Jewish rabbi.

Chapter 1:21 – 2:23 can then be seen as Christ’s work for the church as in 2nd Corinthians 5 and Romans 5. It involved reconciliation with God, 1:21 – 23, but here, Paul wants to deal primarily with reconciliation between Jew and gentile, so much more crucial for his audiences, particular the ones in the diaspora; and then, the segment that introduces the problem of the false teachers along with Paul’s response as drawing the limits for reconciliation. This is no inclusive or pluralist or postmodern non-sense that ignores that mutually conflicting claims of most religious worldviews in the history of humanity and naively thinks that in some ways be seen as teaching the same thing and be equally acceptable. There can be no reconciliation in Paul’s mind with false teachings of the kind represented by the Colossian heresy.

III. The "Domestic Code"

Unpacking the ethical material a bit more and reiterating what we introduced briefly, we see how what begins like a segment commanding believers to appeal to and concentrate on heavenly things rather than earthly things, is not defined in terms of any exotic spirituality but the humdrum routine and often more demanding responsibilities of holly living in the mitts of ordinary life. A possibly preformed section tucked into this half of the body as well, but rather being decreed, chapter 3:18 - 4:1 introduces the literary form of a house cell or domestic code, common in ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman writers and in later Christian authors as well, in which individuals or groups of individuals in relationship of authority and subordination to one another, particular in an extended household or in groups, clubs or institutions, modeled on the household needed to know how to live out their respected roles; and then finally, always crucial but never glamorous, ethical injunctions about the nature of proper prayer and Christian speech.

Unpacking the concept of the domestic code just a bit more, it’s interesting to observe the identical three groups discussed in Colossians: husbands and wives, parents and children, master and slaves will reoccur in Ephesians as well. And again, two of those three will reoccur in 1st Peter but instead of parents and children, Peter will talk about governing authorities and their subjects and then in a separate part of his book, separating from his treatment of the other three, hence the dashed line, elders and the rest of the congregation are subordinate to the elders of a given local church. So we will have more to say on this literary form in our lectures on both Ephesians and 1st Peter. For now, however, it is important to point out that however we interpret Paul’s commands and we must admit these are not popular messages in an age of equal rights for all people. But whatever we do with Paul’s domestic code or even if we assume a pseudonymous writer authored collisions; whoever inserted and thus agreed with the household code is clearly also the individual who wrote 3:11 which reads very much like Galatians 3:28. Here there is no gentile or Jews, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, barbarians or suppliants but Christ is all and in all. Except instead of referring to male and female as in Galatians, Paul is talking here about barbarians and suppliants and repeats the contrast between gentile and Jew by phrasing it in terms of those who have or lack circumcision.

Further support for our hypothesis in discussing Galatians, programmatic text like 3:28 or here in Colossians 3:11 do not by themselves settle the issue of whether there remains a distinctive role for gentile and Jew individually or any other pair of categories in such declarations and in such household codes. It’s also worth stressing that what we take for granted most of the time in non-controversial texts must be remembered here as well, remembering that any biblical writer must be judged by the writings and cultural standards of his day, not by those of some other day. As to the letter from Philemon, we could have wished that Paul would have left out or modified these household codes so that slaves and masters did not appear at all. Wives had no call to submission and to be consistent, we would also have to include children who were never told to obey their parents, which would not be a wise move and also call into question our desire to rewrite the inspired text as we felt best. But if one compares Paul’s words against this ancient context, they sound downright liberating.

Compare the extreme and very telling words of the Wisdom of Sirach, an ancient Jewish apocryphal document, which in chapter 30:1 and following, reads, he who loves his son will whip him often in order that he may rejoice in the way he turns out. He who disciplines his son will profit by him and booster him among acquaintances. He who spoils his son will bind up his wounds and his feelings will be troubled with every cry. A horse that is untamed turns out to be stubborn and a son that is unrestrained will turn out to be willful. Pamper a child and he will frighten you, play with him and he will give you grift. Don’t laugh with him unless you have sorry with him and in the end you will gnash your teeth, give him no authority in his youth and do not ignore his errors, bow down his neck in his youth and bit his sides while he is youth, least he become stubborn and disobey you so you will have sorry of soul from him. Unless the women feel that they have fared better, in Sirach 42:9, a daughter keeps her father secretly wakeful and worry over her robs him of sleep. Once she is young less she does not marry or if married less she be hated while a virgin, less she be defiled and become pregnant in her father’s house or having a husband less she prove unfaithful or though married less she be barren. Keep strict watch over a head strong daughter less she make you a laughing stock to your enemies, a byword in the city and notorious among the people and put you to shame before the great multiple. Do not look upon anyone for beauty and do not sit in the mist of women for from the garment comes the moth and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness, better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.

Don’t ever call Paul repressive or chauvinist in light of that kind of background in the Wisdom of Sirach. You now realize how mild his restrictions are and how counter cultural his commands to the authority figures were, to love and not mistreat those under them.

IV. "How Would You Respond to..."

In closing, not least for the sake of varying the format of these lectures, but also because the student by now will have had numerous examples and exposures to wrong as well as right interpretations of Scripture. Let’s take a little time to reflect on a number of misinterpretations, commonly ascribed to various texts in Colossians. The student may wish to pause the sound file at the end of each question before listening to the lecturer’s response, particularly if these media files (lectures) are being listened to before the lecture’s printed material have been read, but perhaps even if you are listening to this after reading the text, just to see you can recall what the text suggests or perhaps to see you agree with it. Not one of these is unanimously agreed upon by scholars and some of them are quite debated. We begin with Colossians 1:15, ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.’ So what do we do with the Arians of old and JW’s today who appeal to the language to the Son being the firstborn over all creation, and therefore ascribe to Jesus as the first of God’s created beings rather than being co-equal in deity with God from all eternity past. Of course, this cannot be the answer; the correct interpretation is Paul’s subsequent insistence in 1:19 that God was pleased to have all his fullness to dwell in him. Made even clearer in 2:9 for in Christ, all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form. Here, it is important to realize that the Greek word for first born, pototokas, can mean first in rank or privilege or prominence and not merely, first in sequence or birth or creation.

Secondly, still in the Colossian hymn, shouldn’t a straight forward reading of verse 20 lead to the doctrine known as universalism that sooner or later, God will save everyone? Perhaps even all the fallen angels or even the devil, himself? Since we read that in and through Christ, God is reconciling to himself all things or all beings, could be another translation. Whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross? We’ll see the same issue and textual solution when we come to the Philippian hymn in Philippians 2:11, but even in this context, it significant to notice that a purpose clause of verse 18 carrying over to the purpose of reconciling in verse 20, does not necessary guarantee the outcome. There still has to be a human response and moreover, and so the context of verse 18 – 20 clearly is talking about the church, the community of God’s redeemed people, just as verse 21 and following talk about the transformation from alienation from reconciliation taking place and will continue to take place only as people have faith (verse 23), and what about 1:23 with its notorious ‘if’? We are reconciled and will be presented to God unblemished if we continue in our faith, established and not moving from the Gospel. Does this suggest that some can and perhaps even will give up the true Christian faith and then therefore be lost. Does this support Armenianism as opposed to Calvinism with respect to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints or more commonly understood as ‘eternal security’ for the Calvinist and perhaps ‘tongue in cheek’ eternal insecurity for the Armenian. Here, an important grammatical observation proves key to our answer; this represents what in Greek is called a first class rather than a third class condition; the two kinds of conditional clauses which require in English in many instances the identical word, ‘if’ in English translation. But the first class condition was an ‘if clause’ in which no doubt introduced. It was not being called into question in any way. If the writer wanted to say, ‘if’, he would have used the third class condition.

A fourth enigma; we have already alluded to in some of the phraseology of 1:24; what if we now use it in its original context and read that Paul rejoices in his suffering for them and continues, ‘and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.’ Does this teach incomplete atonement? This is precisely what afflicted the Colossian heresy or is Paul reusing some of their language but applying it in a different way and if so, in what way? The answer to the first question would clearly be no but the second, a possibly Yes. The afflictions and suffering that Paul experiences that he believed are incomplete, reflect language reminiscent of other Jewish sources, pre and post Christian, sometimes referring explicitly to what came to be known as the Messianic woes, in which there would be a time of great suffering among God’s people, linked to the concept of a great tribulation before the Messiah would come, but that there was a fixed period and finite or limited amount of suffering such that more than any individual, group or community or period of time of God’s people endured, the rest of them would have to endure before those afflictions would be completed and the woes of the Messiah were finished, ushering in the presence of the Messiah.

A fifth question, perhaps the easiest of the lot and yet one which reflects attitudes and warning that almost every theological student has had to put up with from some well-meaning fellow believers. Does Colossians 2:8 teach us that we should not as Christians study philosophy because it is hollow and deceptive and can take us captive? Again, no, as these are adjectives that qualify a specific kind of philosophy that one should be on guard for as the verse continues, that which depends on human tradition, that is to say, merely unregenerate convictions and individuals and even the elemental spiritual forces (Greek – Stoicheion), a term that the textbook introduces in Galatians that recurs here that seems to have involved the first philosophical principles and even demonic forces. But even then this is not a prohibition again studying such things. How can one learn to avoid that which is harmful without learning how to identify it? But rather see to it that on one takes you captive through such things and maybe, the most controversial of these things reflecting the baptistic convictions of this lecture.

Isn’t Colossians 2:11- 12 as it has from time to time, particularly in Presbyterian and reformed circles and other legacies of Calvinist thought but to a lesser extent, Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox thinking as well? Aren’t verses 11 – 12 a clear justification for infant baptism because baptism is described as a Christian equivalent to the Jewish circumcision on the 8th day of an infant? There is no question that these were initiation rites we have already discussed in context of Galatians 3 which doesn’t mean that they were identical in every respect. Baptism was for both genders, circumcision was for the male, a major difference. But note more carefully, what is more clear in the Greek syntax but still reasonably transparent in most fairly literal English translations. In him, that is Christ, you were also circumcised with the circumcision not performed by human hands. As baptism was performed by human hands; the circumcision that Paul is taking about in this context is not Jewish bodily circumcision but the Christian circumcision that the next half of the verse goes on to explain, took place when your sinful nature was put off when you were circumcised by Christ when you were saved. When your old nature was put off, not absolutely but decisively, then and only then is baptism introduced in this two verse sentence. Having been buried with him in baptism shows the same close link or autonomy that we saw in Romans 6:1-4, in which you were also raised with him, but here, even more clearly than in Romans, it is not the ritual that saves because we were raised through our faith in working with God who raised him from the dead.

What about chapter 3:1 – 3, where some Christians are particularly caught up in spiritual renewal movements, may come to a point that they argue the cultivation of one’s inner spirituality or what some would call Christian mysticism as opposed to non-Christians form of communing directly with God, is the highest priority for any Christian from which everything else flows. Look at what Paul does immediately after 3:1 – 2 and 4 his concern is that when believers renounce sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, putting on in verse 12, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, etc. Let’s be honest, that’s the harder aspect of the Christian life and also the most crucial.

And then finally, two items which I have not brought up, the answers appear plain and even more straight forward than others. How would you reply to those who argue as people have argued throughout church history in regards to taking one day a week off for rest, even though the day of the Sabbath has changed, yet we have been commanded to keep it. We are to rest one day a week. There are many texts relating to the Sabbath and the laws surrounding it. Colossians 2:16 & 17 is included in these texts being described as a shallow of the things to come. The reality is now found in Christ and therefore do not let anyone judge you over such matters. They are now areas of moral indifference. Paul would have included 1st Corinthians 8 – 10 and Romans 14 – 15 in terms of principles applying to weaker and stronger brothers and Christian liberty and voluntary restraint. And what about the view found in some parts of the world in some Christian traditions that downplay ritual as key required forms of obedience when particularly important decisions in church need to be made such as the ritual of fasting. Is fasting a key to a more effective Christian life which most westerners are missing out on? Well, interestingly there are only two references, two occasions in the New Testament to fasting as something positive for Christians after the resurrection of Jesus which come in the Book of Acts in the context of making choices about the leadership of God’s people. There is nothing wrong with fasting and it may well be very desirable in some settings. If it does lead to and free up time for prayer and contemplation in seeking God’s will. But given the very small role that it plays in the New Testament, it seems difficult to justify as mandatory. It is never prescribed for any situation, merely described and in respect to Colossians, chapter 2:21 – 23 suggests that in many cases, it can create a false humility, a false appearance of spiritual maturity or worship. When in fact, ways to indulge the body after the fast seems to cancel out whatever benefits the fast itself may have intended to bring.

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