The Christian Scripture is filled with beautiful literature. For example Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is classed by believers and unbelievers alike as one of the most glorious speeches of all time. The letter to the Romans stands as the foremost example of elegant argument while revealing grace! The gospel of John handsomely tells the story of Christ’s life from the heart of the disciple whom Jesus loved to our hearts. The book of Hebrews exquisitely explains that Jesus is better than Moses. And we have yet to mention I John as a lovely tutor for young Christians, the knockout epistle of Philippians, the beautiful Acts of the Holy Spirit, and more. With super models of Scripture like these on the runway captivating everyone’s eye it is no wonder that Paul’s modest letter to the Colossians is often overlooked, pushed off the stage, and even lost in the shadows. In this article I hope to remind us that the book of Colossians is a Cinderella beauty worthy of our attention.
Recently I had the privilege of teaching through Colossians and I was thrilled by the captivating truths and winsome conversation found in this unassuming little book. This book highlights Paul’s ability to be all things to all people as he shares the same gospel, but in the velvet glove of persuasive speech to people he never met in person. I have much to learn from Paul.
Paul’s Purposeful Prayer
Paul begins this letter just as most of his letters, with a prayer for his audience. He prays,
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints— the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.Colossians 1:3-14 (NIV)
And like Paul’s prayers in his other letters, this prayer also appears to introduce the major themes of his letter as underlined above. Though Paul had not met them, the themes above highlight that he was cheering for their spiritual growth. Colossians 4:7-9 indicates that Tychicus likely carried the letter to Colossi while traveling with Onesimus. This reference links the church of Colossi with Philemon verse 2 which indicates that this church met in Philemon’s home. Paul was very thankful for this church, concerned for each individual there, and rooting for their spiritual success. In this article I hope to highlight Paul’s progression through his: 1) points, 2) protective choice of phases, 3) poignant and practical purposes, and 4) persuasion of Philemon. My 'pologies for the poetry!
Spiritual growth is the emphasis of Paul’s prayer and this letter. Paul reminds us that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing all over the world just as the gospel is bearing fruit and growing at the Colossian church. And Paul prays that they could be filled with knowledge, live worthy lives, bear fruit, grow in the knowledge of God, and be strengthened with God’s power. Paul serves as both coach and cheerleader for the Colossians as he calls the plays for their spiritual defense and offense and he leads the cheers for their spiritual win.
Paul’s Point Progression
1. We thank God for you and pray for your spiritual growth, 1:1-14
2. Christ is foremost, 1:15-20
3. Christ is the beginning of your spiritual growth, 1:21-23
4. Christ is the mystery of God that I am commissioned to explain to you, 1:24-2:5
5. Christ is not only the beginning, but the continuance of your spiritual growth, 2:6-7
6. Christ is better than hollow and deceptive philosophy, 2:8-23
a. Christ has fullness of Deity and we have Christ, 2:9-13
b. Christ has cancelled and triumphed over the basic principles, 2:14-17
c. Christ has more wisdom than human tradition, 2:18-23
7. You set your heart on things above where Christ is seated, 3:1-4:1
a. You put to death your earthly nature, 3:5-11
b. You clothe yourself with Christ-likeness, 3:12-17
c. You submit to Christ’s pattern for relationships, 3:18-4:1
8. You be thankful and pray for open doors for our message and clear speech, 4:2-6
9. You listen to my final instructions and remember my chains, 4:7-18
The progression begins with Paul praying for the Colossians and ends with Paul asking the Colossians to pray for him with a detailed recipe for spiritual growth in between.
Paul’s Protective Phrases
Many commentators explain that Paul wrote Colossians to address a particular heresy that combined elements of Judaism, asceticism, and Gnostic teachings. This heresy is often labeled the Colossian heresy. While this may be true we should also note that Paul uses some words and phrases less familiar to us that may make his meaning more difficult to understand.
For example the word cheirographon is used only 1 time in the Bible and is translated in the NIV as 'written code'. Philosophia is used 1 time and is translated as ‘philosophy’. Acheiropoiētos is used 3 times and is translated as ‘not done by hands of men’. Exaleiphō is used 5 times and is translated as ‘cancelled’. Stoicheion is used 7 times and is translated as ‘basic principles’. Paradosis is used 13 times and is translated as ‘tradition’. We might assume that since these word choices may be less common that the issues addressed are unique to the Colossians and are appropriately named the Colossians heresy. Yet is this really the case?
Colossians 2:8 warns that human tradition and basic principles are deceptive and will take us captive rather than help us like Christ. But what are human tradition and basic principles? The word paradosis or 'tradition' was also used by Christ to describe the Pharisaical additions to the law. Colossians 2:18-23 expands on the very same idea. The word stoicheion or 'basic principles' is also used in Galatians 4:3 to mean the Mosaic Law. Colossians 2:14-17 also expands on this very same idea. Likewise Ephesians 2:11-22 is a parallel passage with a more clear reference to the Mosaic Law.
The meaning of cheirographon in Colossians 2:14 is debated but the context and the parallel passage of Ephesians 2 make it clear that Christ forgave us by canceling the obligation that stood opposed to us, the Mosaic Law. Christ performed a good old fashioned mortgage burning! So turning to human traditions or to the Law of Moses is opposed to the gospel of grace, however these problems were not distinct to the Colossians, but commonly addressed in New Testament letters.
Colossians 2:11 also speaks about circumcision. This was one of the most common debates Christians had with unrepentant Jews in nearly every city. So the book of Colossians joins the same debate saying that physical circumcision is nothing while spiritual circumcision is everything.
So the errors plaguing the Colossian church were nothing more than the common substitutes for Christ found in most places then and now. But why did the Spirit choose the less common expressions of cheirographon, philosophia, acheiropoiētos, and exaleiphō? Perhaps these words were commonly used in Colossi to better explain the gospel truths to their sub-culture. Perhaps the exaleiphō cheirographon communicates a nuance of Christ’s work not highlighted elsewhere, that Christ not only forgave us by being our substitute, but also by satisfying and canceling the Law of Moses and mankind’s obligation to keep it. Perhaps Paul used the word cheirographon with the Colossians rather than ‘Law of Moses’ to shield the Colossians from persecution. Jews were on the warpath over Christians teaching that the Law of Moses is abolished. Maybe Paul didn’t want to throw the Colossians into the heat, but instead chose careful words, understood by Christians, but not by the Jews, giving the Colossians time to develop a passion and conviction to face the heat by choice. Or perhaps, the Spirit simply enjoys variety of expression as the spice of eternal life.
Paul’s Poignant Purpose
Though we may not know for certain the reasons for Paul’s word choices we do know this, he had a poignant purpose. Just as Christ did not avoid issues with the Pharisees but accused them of laying aside the command of God for the paradosis of men, so Paul teaches the Colossians that man-made regulations lack any value is restraining sensual indulgence and merely lead to false humility and harsh treatment of the body. Jesus and Paul point their finger right in the eye of our hypocrisy as we build human standards to reform or justify ourselves rather than trusting Christ.
So just as Christ boldly inaugurated a New Covenant even contrasting the Law of Moses with himself, so Paul teaches the Colossians that the Old Covenant signed at Sinai is now cancelled and superceded by Christ. The people of God no longer stand under, nor are identified by, the Law of Moses, but instead by the Law of Christ. Though the word cheirographon is often misunderstood in our day, it is clear that Paul refused to compromise or parley with the Jews. The Jews no longer had shelter in Moses’ burned up tent, but must repent and enter Jesus’ house or remain out in the cold.
Paul’s Practical Purpose
The theology above may leave us reeling, but Paul does not merely tell us that human traditions and the Law of Moses are useless. He tells us very practically what will work in Colossians 3:1-2 (WEB) saying, “If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth." Now that is practical counsel! ‘That is it?’ you say. Yes that is it! Set your mind on the person of Jesus Christ who is right now in heaven interceding for you before God the Father. This is the first step to spiritual growth. How would you feel if your friends held a special meeting to pray for you and your life’s direction? Would you be thankful? Would you feel weird? Would you tell them to stop? Well Jesus is leading this meeting right now in Heaven and you would be wise to turn your mind and your concern to Christ right now! He will change your life.
Colossians 3:5 (WEB) warns, “Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Notice that Paul does not give even one direction about how to put these terrible sins to death, just to do it! Likewise, if you called the police for direction about how to put a rattle snake to death in your house they would not have a guideline for you. You would not need a guideline. You would immediately use any and every means available to kill that rattle snake. You would throw rocks without concern for windows. You would fire bullets without concern for walls. In the end you would burn your house down before living with a rattle snake. Likewise Paul very practically tells us ‘put the snakes to death.’ Notice that Paul urges us to put to death root causes and not merely deal with symptoms. We would not leave a snake in our house and build partitions for our protection. Nor can manmade barriers keep us from sin. We need grace to deal with sin at the heart level.
Colossians 3:12 (WEB) exhorts, “Put on therefore, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance." We may be tempted to think that being a Christian should make godliness easy, but Paul knew better. We may wonder why we still struggle with the same sins now as before we knew Christ, but Paul had no confusion. We are still sinners and though Christ has hamstrung our sinful nature, it is still alive (or dead, which ever metaphor you prefer). So Paul reminds us that we need to "put on" or "clothe" ourselves with Christian virtue. The metaphor highlights that just like we need to put on clothing every day, we also need to make conscious decisions each day to imitate Christ. Beware if we let go and just do what comes naturally! Instead we need to decide to do what is supernatural and with God’s help love others as he loved us.
Colossians 3:18-4:1 outlines a simple list of commands from Christ for our relationships. Roles for authority and submission are clearly prescribed. However, our problem is usually not in the understanding, but in the application!
Paul’s Philemon Persuasion
Paul wrote to Philemon saying, “Therefore though I have all boldness in Christ to command you that which is appropriate, yet for love's sake I rather beg, being such a one as Paul, the aged, but also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beg you for my child, whom I have become the father of in my chains, Onesimus." (Philemon 8-10 WEB). Paul appealed to Philemon to warmly receive Onesimus, his run away slave, back because he had become a Christian brother. Paul also told the whole Colossian church, “All my affairs will be made known to you by Tychicus, the beloved brother, faithful servant, and fellow bondservant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts, together with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you everything that is going on here” (Colossians 4:7-9 WEB). Paul’s letters pointed Philemon firmly in the right direction. In fact so firmly that Philemon would have created a stink in the whole church to do anything less than what Paul asked. Perhaps Philemon would have no other thought in mind but to warmly receive Onesimus back. However, it is possible to imagine other less charitable responses. So we see that though Paul spoke the best of Philemon, he wrote persuasively to insure the right response.
Paul’s final admonition is gripping, “remember my bonds” (Colossians 4:18 WEB). Today we live in virtual reality where many experience the world watching TV, simulate great contests with video games, and network on Facebook. Things are not wrong in themselves, but they are contrasted with Paul’s life. He experienced the world on the front line of missions, endured the great contest for the gospel, and networked through Asia and Eastern Europe... face to face.
The chains on his wrists were cold hard steel and the Holy Spirit asks us to remember them.