I’ve had two major Bible study projects this year. The first was a men’s Bible study/chapel preaching series on marriage. The second is a careful study of the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, which I’m teaching to the same group of men two mornings a week, and also using as the basis for my current preaching series at my church.
The Colossians material has proven to be some of the richest experiences in Bible study I’ve ever enjoyed. Helped by my recent reading of N.T. Wright’s introduction to the New Testament, and especially by the provocative Colossians Remixed, I’ve derived more enjoyment and helpful teaching from this study than from any previous study of Paul’s letters.
Though I have been studying Colossians for several months, I am just now halfway through the book. Still, I would like to share some of what I am learning in Colossians here at Internetmonk.com. These posts will take more of the form of abbreviated versions of my preaching from Colossians than the more exegetical Bible studies. The exegetical work is an important part of my study, but in preaching I am working more toward application, which I hope will be of value to my readers. There will be no particular order to the posts.
Spiritual Stew or The Bread of Life?
When I was a freshman in college, I was usually eating in the college cafeteria on the weekends. Not by choice, but I was broke and the cafeteria was free for students.
On Sunday nights, the cafeteria almost always had the same meal: soup. Usually “vegetable soup.” Now if you were a careful observer, you would discover that this soup actually contained leftovers from several other meals earlier in the week. There was Monday’s green beans, and Tuesday’s meat loaf, and Thursday’s potatoes. The “Sunday Night Stew” was made up of this and that from the previous week’s menu.
Stew isn’t a bad meal, particularly if you are hungry. In fact, combine it with a good loaf of bread and you can have a fine meal.
Well, I’m setting you up for a metaphor with that story, a metaphor to understand a rather complicated section of Colossians chapter 2.
Almost every one of Paul’s letters contains one or more serious problems in the church that the apostle wants to address and correct. Sometimes the problem is so pressing, such as in Galatians 1:6-9, that Paul barely gets the greeting onto the page before he launches into a response to the problem. Other times, the letter is a catalog of problems, such as in I Corinthians, and there is a whole list of problems to be addressed.
Colossians is a bit unique. Reading chapter one, it is easy to believe there is no problem in the church at Colossae. But by the time we arrive at the end of chapter two, we’ve read one of the most extensive, detailed and comprehensive descriptions of a problem in a local church anywhere in the New Testament.
The Colossian problem is a “soup” of false teachings. These are described particularly in three places in the chapter:
Colossians 2:8 8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Colossians 2:16-18 16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of f and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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,
Colossians 2:20 – 3:1 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)- according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
One way to judge a good commentary on Colossians is whether they claim to know exactly what is going on in this church, or if the author has the humility to say he/she doesn’t really know what has happened to the Colossians. It’s a complicated matter, and I doubt if we will ever know exactly what the problem was. It certainly defies simple labels like “Judaizers” or “Gnosticism.”
The Reformation Study Bible has four pages of introduction to this letter. Two of those pages are devoted to the “problem” described here. Individually, we know what many of these terms refer to…but how they all wind up in one church is a mystery.
Paul mentions–among other things–Greek philosophy, asceticism (which is self-inflicted suffering of some kind), restrictive rules about food and diet, the worship of angels, visions and ecstatic boastings, the worship of “elemental spirits,” and a whole array of things normally associated with Judaism, such as the festivals, New Moons and the Sabbath. It’s hard to understand how one church could have become, in a short time, home to so many different kinds of spiritual teaching and practice, yet all the time be a church that confesses simple faith in Jesus Christ!
Each one of these practices could take up a long discussion, both inside and outside of scripture. What may be more useful, however, is the meaning of one word in chapter 2, a word that doesn’t occur elsewhere in the New Testament. In verse 23, Paul says that this religious “stew” can be described as ethelothreskia, or “self-made religion.” The King James Version called it “will worship.” Other translations translate the word, “self-imposed worship.”
Whatever label we might put on this spiritual stew, it is a home-made recipe! It was the Colossians taking whatever was in the culture, whatever was in the preferences of the hearers, whatever came packaged in the teaching of a persuasive teacher, whatever religions the converts struggled with leaving, whatever seemed appealing and tolerant to include, whatever felt good, and combining it into a “self made,” “self-imposed” spirituality. They cooked it up themselves, and it was quite a stew!
The claim that Jesus is Lord is an audacious claim. It’s never more outrageous than when it confronts all the other “gods” in our lives. It’s our own loyalty to other ways of finding meaning and purpose in the world that present the great challenge to the Lordship of Jesus, both in the first century and now.
Now….I hope many of you have already seen the obvious. The “spiritual stew” Paul describes in the Colossian community is remarkably like the spiritual atmosphere in our own American culture, and unfortunately, much like that in many of our churches.
In a few days, I am going to a church in a university town to teach a seminar on evangelism and other religions. Even in Kentucky, it is not unusual to meet Muslims and Hindus in rural communities, so this kind of evangelism training is valuable. But let’s face it: the average university student is going to meet 25 people who have created their own religion out of various elements of culture and spirituality before he has even one opportunity to dialogue with a committed member of another religion. This kind of eclectic, personal spirituality is, as Harold Bloom has rightly noted, the gnostic religion of our time, because only we can really “know” what it is.
As a woman called Sheila told one researcher, her religion was her own creation: Sheilaism. You can’t say it much better than that.
Today’s spiritual stew is made up of leftover moralisms from church, the latest spirituality fad from Hollywood, bits and pieces of the worldviews of professors, friends and greeting cards, ingredients from television and books, and a generous seasoning of personal preference. Add in the almost universal loyalty to politically correct versions of tolerance and relativism, and you have the “do-it-yourself” spirituality of American culture.
Of course, while all of this is highly individualized, it grows especially well in a church that has removed the exclusive claims and clear truths of the Gospel. In churches that are more interested in growth than in truth, where preachers are playing the role of “life coach,” and confessions of faith have been replaced by “Your Best Life Now,” this spiritual smorgasbord is the usual fare.
When a church has come under the influence of false teaching, there is often a false teacher. In Revelation 2, the church in Thyatira has come under the influence of “Jezebel,” who is misleading some in the congregation back into pagan spiritualities. The Corinthian church had come under the influence of paganized women prophets and false apostles. Was there a dominant false teacher in Colossae? There is no evidence of such a person in the letter.
The Colossian church wasn’t begun by Paul, but by his associate Epaphras. We don’t know anything about the beginnings of the Colossian church, except from Paul’s own words:
Colossians 1:3-7 3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing- as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant.
It’s rather sobering to think that a group of Christians could have such a commendable start, and then fall to the point that their church reads like a description of a new age carnival.
Those of us who live in this aggressive, secular culture need to remember something: People are spiritually hungry, and evangelism alone won’t necessarily bring a permanent resolution to that hunger. People are looking for authentic life in the Spirit. They aren’t just looking for affirmations to believe or doctrines to memorize or Bible verses to collect. They are looking for a kind of life that deeply drinks from the wells of genuineness and authenticity.
Many of our versions of Christianity don’t even attempt that experience. We’re shallow. We’ve offered a different message, but not a different life. If there is anything that becomes clear in the Colossian letter, it’s that Paul’s response to the Colossian mess is not just doctrinal–and it will include much valuable doctrine as we will see–but it is a matter of the individual and corporate life in Christ that the Christian community pursues in different contexts.
Look at just one part of Paul’s words in the second half of the epistle. While the “spiritual stew” problem is in chapter two, there is no doubt that Paul’s ministry response is to build a community of believers that seek the Christ-life corporately and passionately.
Colossians 3:12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 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. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Relationships. Worship. The Body of Christ. A spiritual life that treats one another as members of Christ.
Is this descriptive of what we experience as Christians? If not, are we surprised that the cheaper, exaggerated versions of spirituality that abound in our culture find so much interest and so many customers?
I want to complete this message with the most obvious aspect of the Colossian letter: It’s the most Christ-descriptive letter in the New Testament. There is more information about Jesus Christ packed into a few paragraphs in Colossians than almost anywhere else in Paul’s writings.
This material is found in two places. The first is in chapter one, as Paul makes a comprehensive description of the Christian life, redemption, and the ministry…all centered around an incredibly rich description of Jesus Christ.
Colossians 1:13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 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. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. 24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, 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, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Follow the many references to Jesus through this section. It is extraordinary and life-changing to contemplate all that God is for us in Christ and all he has done for us in the Gospel.
The second especially focused section of teaching about Jesus is throughout chapter two, as Paul confronts the Colossian heresy head-on. The apostle describes the spirituality the Colossians have “cooked up,” but then offers the “Bread of Life,” Jesus Christ, as the true, preeminent and exalted answer to every human spiritual longing.
Here is just one example:
Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
One of Paul’s most powerful descriptions of Jesus is in response to the encroachments of some form of Judaism into the church. We know from almost every New Testament book that the relationship of Jesus-believers to the older covenant faith was a contentious and confusing one. Yet Paul, in a single sentence, beautifully relates Jesus and the old covenant in a way that values all that came before, but exalts Jesus Christ above all: Colossians 2:16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.This is a wonderful way for us to respectfully address spiritual seekers of every kind: Jesus is the substance that you are looking for among the shadows.
One of the problems Christians have in dealing with other spiritualities is a tendency to be disrespectful and argumentative. How wonderful it would be if we could be like Paul in Acts 17, telling the Athenian philosophers that the God they were searching for in ignorance, he was going to plainly proclaim to them.
You see, Paul respects even the erring spiritual-soup chefs in Colossae. He is a pastor, and his message is compassionate, plain and clear: the religions and spiritualities of this world, no matter what their various pedigrees, are all shadows. Christ, however, is the substance. He is the true God. He is the final Word. All our searches for meaning and truth end in Jesus Christ. In a culture of spiritual smoke and mirrors, Jesus is a true light, the real life and the living bread.
It is important to say that while Jesus puts every other spiritual authority under his feet and triumphs over them, the Gospel does not deny the fact that we are spiritual beings looking for spiritual reality. Because we are fallen, our search is not in God and for God, but in places where we can hold on to our own sovereignty. Christ triumphs over us and subdues our arrogant wills as well, but he does it by reconciling us through his cross; he does it by loving us. He brings us into his Kingdom and makes us his children, he gives us new appetites and a new identity. No matter how much Christ is exalted, we never cease to be beloved individuals, and that is why Paul realizes that these Colossians are baby Christians who need to be taught. They need the truths of the Gospel and the foundations of life in Christ. Though not there in person, he is pastoring them as a mother or a father loves his/her own children.
This is a wonderful model for us. Believing in Jesus is the beginning of a journey, and part of that journey is learning that the world’s spiritualities are insufficient, and Christ is all-sufficient. Let’s live, teach and enjoy that message, so that Christ can be the all-satisfying Bread of Life for many who still don’t know there is such a wonderful gift available to those who will believe and receive.