Friday, May 21, 2010

Complete in Christ: Introducting Colossians with Questions and Answers

1. Who wrote Colossians?

In the very first verse the author calls himself Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus (NIV). This is the former Saul, who was called into Christ's service on the road to Damascus (Acts 9: 1-19)

2. If Paul was the author, who was he writing to?

According to chapter 1, verse 2, Paul wrote to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae.

3. Colossae. Where was that?

It was in the Roman province of Asia, a region about the size of the State of Arkansas and located at the western end of modern-day Turkey. The site of ancient Colossae is now uninhabited. Here's what it looks like today. Prior to New Testament times, it was a major city. But by the time Paul wrote to the Christians there, Colossae had been in decline for many years, and would have been regarded as "off the beaten path." Not exactly colossal.

4. Most of the time, Paul wrote to churches that he himself had planted. Is that true of Colossians?

No. In 2:1, Paul clearly states that the Colossians had never seen him. And according to 1:6-7, the Christians at Colossae had learned the gospel from Epaphras.

5. So who was Epaphras?

From what we can gather, he was from Colossae (4:12), and had planted the church there. It's safe to assume that he had learned the message about Christ during that time recorded in Acts 19:9-10, when Paul taught every day in the hall of Tyrannus for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

6. If Paul had never been to Colossae, what caused him to write to the church there?

The best explanation is that Epaphras, knowing first-hand the trouble in the church, traveled to Rome where Paul was under house arrest (4:3, 18). Epaphras went there knowing that he could ask for Paul's advice and help. In response to his appeal, Paul wrote the letter we call Colossians.

7. What were the issues in the Colossian church?

Apparently, the congregation had come under the influenced of some impressive but misguided teachers. According to 2:4, these people were capable of deceiving others. In the words of 2:8, they threatened to take the minds of others captive by philosophy and empty deceit.

8. What was this "philosophy and empty deceit"?

Once again, the letter itself, especially chapter 2, is our best source for answering the question. Apparently, the false teaching at Colossae involved a mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs and rituals. These included the following:
  • Abstaining from certain foods and drinks, and observing special days (2:16)
  • Worshipping angels, who may have been seen as mediators between God and humanity (2:18)
  • Observing general rules that emphasized denial: "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" (2:20-21)
  • Harsh treatment of the body (2:23)
9. Why were these beliefs and practices opposed in the letter?

For a variety of reasons. First, in some cases, the doctrine of the misguided teachers was outright error. An obvious example is the worship of angels mentioned in 2:18.

Second, some of these observances may have been right in and of themselves. But in the case of the Colossians, they were kept for the wrong reasons. As Paul explains in Romans 14:1-6, an individual Christian is free to regard one day more sacred than another, so long as he is convinced in his own mind, and so long as he doesn't make what he values an ethic for the entire church.. On the other hand, if a Christian feels compelled to observe certain days in order to remain in God's grace, that Christian is headed in the wrong spiritual direction (Galatians 4:8-11).

Third, and most serious of all, the effect of such teaching was to give place to the elemental spirits of the universe and to downplay the importance of Christ.

10. "Elemental spirits"? What does Paul mean by that?

In his book, Backgrounds of Earliest Christianity, Everett Ferguson helps us to understand what people in the first century assumed about them. As Ferguson explains, long before the time of Christ, many Greeks came to believe that the heavenly bodies were gods. To this day, the planets in our solar system bear the names of pagan gods. The spheres of the universe were under the control of these gods, whose power was unlimited. Of course, the religious thinking and practices of the day were heavily influenced by this view. Much of what people did was designed to protect themselves and to win the favor of the elemental spirits. Evidently, the misguided teachers at Colossae had mixed this view of the world with the Christian view.

11. So what did Paul say in order to correct and warn the Colossians?

Plenty. The first goal was to re-establish the majesty and pre-eminence of Christ in the minds of the Colossians. The word all shows up 24 times in this short letter. In most instances all refers to Christ in some way. Notice, for example, the use of that word in a passage that intensely focuses on the supremacy of Christ, Colossians 1:15-20. According to these verses, Christ is:
  • the image of the invisible God and the first- born of all creation (1:15).
  • the creator of all things (1:16).
  • before all things, and the sustainer of all things (1:17).
  • the head of the church, and the first-born from the dead (1:18).
  • the dwelling place of all the fullness of God (1:19).
  • the one who reconciles all things to God the Father (1:20).
This was the Jesus of whom the Colossians had first heard. This was the Jesus whom they had first received. And they were to live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as they had been taught (2:6-7). To put it another way, living for Jesus Christ meant not only the right understanding of him, but also right kind of life. This is the subject of the very practical section in 3:1-4:6.

12. What kinds of behavior does Paul emphasize there?

He seems to be writing to a group made up mostly of former pagans. Having referred to a sinful lifestyle, he goes on to say, You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived (3:7). But now, as God's chosen people, the Colossians are to put off the old ways of sin, and put on the new way of righteousness in Christ. They should give special attention, says Paul, to the way they relate to other people and to what they say.

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