This is the talk I gave on Sunday at Putney Methodist Church. I shall also be sharing it with my congregations at Barnes and Roehampton Methodist Churches next week. This is part of the Bible Month initiative, which this year focuses on the book of Colossians. We shall be working through the entire book during the course of this month. The specific text today was Colossians 1:1-23.
This June we are, once again, marking Bible Month, an initiative launched by the Methodist Church to increase Biblical literacy among its congregations. In the last two years, we have been encouraged to look at the books of James and Jonah, and this year it is the turn of the short but important New Testament book, the letter to the Colossians. Over the next four weeks, we shall be working through its four chapters each Sunday morning. By the end, I hope that we will all have come to understand far more about this part of our scriptures.
I have the privilege of starting this preaching series and of introducing the whole book. There is much to say and much that I would like us to spend time reflecting upon together. Going through even just the first 23 verses that have been allocated to me this first week, I have highlighted so much that we could usefully discuss all morning. However, I must content myself with pointing out a few key verses and words in the first part of this fascinating book. Let us begin at the beginning!
1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ”
As is customary in ancient letters, the epistle to the Colossians begins by identifying its author: the apostle Paul. We should note immediately the extensive debate that has raged since the 19th Century about who actually wrote this text. The Early Church was universal in its opinion that Paul wrote the letter, and Colossians appeared in all the earliest lists of canonical books. The letter, including its opening, is very ‘Pauline’ in many ways – that is in comparison to the other letters that are undoubtedly by the apostle in our New Testament (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, etc.). However, some scholars have questioned this attribution, primarily owing to differences in style (syntax, grammar, vocabulary, etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, in theology.
These are important debates and we owe a great debt to Biblical commentators for increasing our knowledge of our own scriptures. The fact is, though, that there is simply not enough conclusive evidence to ‘prove’ that Paul did not write this letter. For me, the best answer is to say that Paul probably used a secretary, or amanuensis to draft the letter, and was writing to a specific audience in Asia, which could help explain some of the stylistic differences. A reasonable date for its composition would also seem to be around 61/62 AD, making it one of Pauls’ last letters, which is why it may reflect a theology that seems more developed than many of his earlier writings.
1:2 “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae”
As always, Paul’s letter is not written to everyone in the first instance (although they would be widely circulated later). Instead, he is writing to a specific group of people, in a specific place, with specific challenges and gifts. In this case, he is writing to the small Christian community in a place called Colossae.
Colossae (now sadly a mound of unexcavated ruins) was located in Phrygia in the fertile Lycus Valley, which was part of the Roman province of Asia (modern-day Turkey). It was a wealthy city, famed for its wool in antiquity and on the main roads running north-south and east-west. This aided its prosperity and helped make it a meeting point for travellers and migrants. However, in the 1st Century AD, its prosperity was increasingly threatened by the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, and the moving of the important north-south highway to pass through Laodicea instead. One important thing we know about Colossae is that 2,000 Jewish families had been forcibly moved to this area by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus III in c. 200 BCE (Josephus, Ant. 12.149).
A final important fact about the city is that Colossae was seemingly destroyed in an earthquake around 61/62 AD. The lack of reference to this event in the letter has helped historians date the it to before that date, perhaps immediately before, in fact. We shall talk in a moment about what we know about the church in this place but for now it is important to stress, once again, that Paul was addressing real people facing real political and economic challenges, in a real time, in a real place.
1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God”
We now come on to the letter proper, and I would begin by challenging you to consider how you start a conversation, a letter or an e-mail? Paul regularly begins his letters with this expression, “Grace to you” (e.g. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3). Even when the apostle has hard words for his audience, he begins with a sincere hope that those to whom he is writing may experience God’s grace and peace. How we understand the word ‘grace’ is a sermon in its own right but we may wish to think of it as something like the undeserved, unearned blessing of God.
How often do we start a conversation – sadly, especially in church – with a question, an accusation or even an insult? (“Why did you choose that third hymn?”; “I see that you still haven’t…!”; “Nice to see you working for a change!”) Paul’s opening words are a vital reminder of how we are meant to treat one another as Christians.
1:3 “In our prayers for you”
Another common feature of Paul’s letters, is that he will be begin with a prayer for his recipients and / or an assurance that he has been praying for them. In this way, Paul reminds his fellow believers that they are part of an inter-related group of churches that continually upholds one another in prayer. I know from my own ministry and experience, that being assured you have been prayed for makes a big difference to people, often even if they would not consider themselves to be Christians. We need to pray for one another at all times, and importantly we need to build each other up by letting others know that we are praying for them.
1:4 “the saints”
A good Bible quiz question is to ask what Paul’s favourite term of address is for the recipients of his letters (1:2, 1:4; Rom. 1;7, 1 Cor. 1:2, etc.). The answer is ‘saints’. When we read about some of the distinctly un-saintly behaviour in places like Corinth, we may question the appropriateness of this appellation! However, Paul continues to use it.
He does so not to flatter his audience’s egos, nor brush up their halos, but to remind them of their status as those who have been “transferred … into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). They have heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and have been saved by God’s redeeming work through his life, death and resurrection. They do not need to earn this title; they need instead to bear fruit that is worthy of this great gift (1:3, 1:10). For Paul, saints do not live in stained-glass windows; he expects all those who claim the name ‘Christian’ to behave like saints. I am not sure how saint-like you are feeling this morning, but you should know that Paul would expect no less of us all! We are not meant to leave the work of Christ to others, but take up our responsibilities to be saints in every corner of the globe.
1:5 “You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel”
If there is one thing that our world today needs more of, I think, then it is that most precious quality of ‘hope’. So many people in our world today are desperate for something or someone to inspire hope. Paul here reminds his recipients that they already possess the greatest hope possible: the “truth”, the “gospel” – the good news of Jesus Christ. This is their ultimate source of hope – not their possessions, their knowledge, their economic prospects – but the gospel. The good news of what God has done for all of us through Jesus Christ.
There is an added political dimension to this statement, though. The word translated as ‘gospel’ in English is euangelion in Greek, from which we derive the word evangelism. In the world of the Colossians, this word “denoted a weighty, authoritative, royal, and official message” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica). In particular, it was used to refer to an important message from the Roman emperor, who by this time was increasingly regarded as a living god, especially in this loyal province of Asia. For Paul to refer to the ‘gospel’ as somehow relating to the life of a penniless Galilean Jew, who had died on a Roman cross, is a radical, even revolutionary statement, therefore. It challenges us to reflect on where our ‘good news’ comes from, and maybe whether we too need to challenge the authorities and structures that seemingly control it.
1:6 “bearing fruit” / 1:10 “as you bear fruit in every good work”
As mentioned earlier when talking about ‘the saints’, Paul expects the readers of this letter to be living out a life worthy of their high calling. The metaphor of trees, roots and fruit is one that is used commonly throughout the scriptures, perhaps most notably by Paul when talking about the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22-23). It challenges us to consider whether others can see the example of Jesus and the words of the Bible making any positive effect in our lives.
1:7 “This you learned from Epaphras”
The letter to the Colossians tells us that the church there had not been founded by Paul but Epaphras (1:7, 9, 2:1, 4:12). It is possible that he is one of the people who heard the good news during Pauls lengthy stay in nearby Ephesus (Acts 19). Seemingly, Epaphras had gone to visit Paul in prison and was unable to return, hence the letter sent with Tychius (Col. 4:7-8). Epaphras is probably a shortened version of Epahphroditus: not to be confused with Epaphras of Philippians 2:25-30, operating in Macedonia. We may wish to reflect here on who is our Epaphras? Who worked hard so that we might hear the good news of Jesus, and who will be Epaphras for others?
1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”
This verse starts the most important passage of this letter, and the central thrust of the whole text: the centrality and all-sufficiency of Christ. In these verses, Paul is probably quoting an even older piece of early Christian liturgy or a hymn. Commentators think this because of the way the language and the style changes at this point. In some ways, what is being said here is not very shocking or novel for us. We know all these things: that in Jesus Christ we have seen God; that as a member of the Trinity, Christ was eternally present with God; and that Christ had a key role in the creation of the world. That is because our understanding of who Jesus is part of our essential doctrines and statements of belief. Even we un-liturgical Methodists (who practically never say our creeds!), will have picked this up through our prayers and our hymns. Yet this beautiful bit of prose in Colossians is one of the first times that this belief about who Jesus actually is, was seemingly set down on paper. At the time it was shocking and radical, because there were many (and still are) who believed that Jesus was ‘just a man’ – a very good man, a prophet even, but still just a man.
The language Paul uses draws upon Old Testament texts in part, like those found in the book of Proverbs (8:22-30), which speak about Wisdom being created by God in the earliest stages of Creation. Some of you may also think that this language sounds very familiar, and it is indeed redolent of the opening of John’s gospel (1:1-3) but we have to remember that at this stage John’s gospel was probably still around 30 years away from being written!
This then was a very shocking and radical statement by Paul. It built upon what he and others had come to recognise through their experience of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and their reflections upon it, but it was still a radical departure for many. It was a doctrine that would ultimately drive an inseparable wedge between Jews and Christians, and would cause immense divisions and discord within the early Christian Church. However, this is not a dry and dusty piece of theology, it is ultimately the source of the “hope” of which the apostle writes (1:5), for it means that in Jesus we have seen and encountered God face to face. If we have Christ, then we need nothing more. That is the point of the whole letter.
1:18 “He is the head of the body, the church”
Finally, the centrality of Christ is the most important theological reflection in this letter but in this verse we find another major development in Christian thinking. Previously, Paul had seemingly thought of every church as a self-sufficient, separate entity. Sadly, this is how many people still act today! However, the apostle makes an incredibly important statement here, in which he suggests that all churches everywhere are in fact part of one body, however different and diverse they may seem. Whatever may divide them – language, culture, worship style, etc. – they are united by their faith in, and love for, Jesus Christ. He is our head. In Greek thought ‘head’ implies not only authority but also sustenance, directing and sustaining the rest of the body. In the same way, we need to emphasise how much our different congregations have in common, rather than our differences, and how if one part of the body suffers, then all parts do.
There is so much more that we could talk about this morning even in this short passage, not least the work of Christ in reconciling us to God (1:20). However, I know that our Sunday lunches beckon! I hope there has been something that has challenged you or caused you to reflect, though. These are our scriptures and we need to know what they say. Paul is writing to us here today in Putney, just as much as he was writing to the Colossians two thousand years ago, and he has words of wisdom and insight for us all. I pray God’s blessing upon our reading of his holy Word this day and always.