This month at the churches I serve we are observing Bible Month. This is an initiative launched by the Methodist Church to foster Biblical literacy by encouraging congregations to focus on a particular book of the Bible during June. This year we are looking at the New Testament book of Colossians, dividing the whole book up over four Sundays. I have already written posts about the other parts of the book. This Sunday, I am at Methodist Conference in Birmingham and so other preachers have covered the final part of the book but I thought I would just make a few comments about Colossians 3:18-4:18 today.
Over the last three weeks, our congregations in Barnes and Putney have worked through the first three chapters of the book of Colossians. We have learned how the author – whom many people identify as the apostle Paul – wrote to the small church in ancient Colossae (now in south-west Turkey). He encouraged them in their faith, warned them about false teachers and encouraged them to adopt a new way of living as Christians, always acting with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (3:12). Running through all these verses is the central message that Jesus Christ “is all and in all” (3:11). In Jesus, we encounter God; in Jesus, we see the perfect example of how to lead our lives; in Jesus, we may have hope for the future.
This final section of Colossians is, in some respects, the hardest to tackle – and the two local preachers who have led worship on these verses in the churches I serve have certainly let me know that! The passage is, however, full of fascinating insights into Paul’s life and ministry, and some useful challenges to contemporary Christians.
It may be easiest to start with the end of the letter and work backwards. In the final section (4:7-18), Paul concludes his letter in the same way he does many others, sending greetings not only from himself but from those he was with. There is so much of interest here, but we may wish to note the following:
- we meet a number of familiar figures in this passage that we encounter elsewhere in the New Testament, for example Tychius in Ephesians 6:21-22 and Onesimus (the runaway slave) in Philemon.
- we again hear news of Epaphras, the founder of the church in Colossae (see also 1:7) – even though he is far away, he is still praying hard for his brothers and sisters at home.
- verse 4:15 is an important reminder that at this time all Christians met in individual’s houses, and women often seemed to act as their leaders.
- the reference to another letter to the church in nearby Laodicea has intrigued Christians and historians for years, as no such epistle has survived. We know that Paul wrote other letters (notably to the Corinthians) that have also not survived.
- the final verse seems to indicate that Paul used a secretary, or amunuensis, to write the letter but added his personal greeting here (see also Gal. 6:11). Some scholars have wondered whether this might help explain some of the stylistic differences with Paul’s other letters.
- the last verse and 4:3 seem to tell us that Paul was in prison at the time he wrote this letter. Paul was imprisoned on several occasions but many commentators suggest that this was during his imprisonment in Rome, around 60/61 AD.
In all this, we see how Paul is not acting alone but is part of a global network of churches and Christians, constantly communicating and crucially praying for one another. As a Methodist, I see in this something of our ‘Connexion’. This is the word British Methodists use to talk about their church: not as an institution but a living ‘connection’ of congregations. ‘Connexion’ is just an old spelling of ‘connection’, dating back to how John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, described the collection of congregations he established. For Methodists, this inter-linking is at the heart of our identity: we are not solitary Christians, struggling alone, but part of one body, whose head is Jesus Christ. This is very much expressed by the annual meeting of representatives here at Conference, where we not only transact business but, just as Paul did, share news, greetings and prayers with old friends and new.
Before this final greeting section, we have Paul’s final words for the Colossians. Again, this is fairly typical of the epistles in our New Testament, and perhaps even of the letters, e-mails or phone calls that we write or make. Just before the end, we remind the person of a few key messages, or reflect on the main subject of our conversation: “Don’t forget to…”; “We’ll be thinking of you next Tuesday…”; “Remember, be firm when…”. Here, Paul does something similar and returns to a theme he picked up in the first verses of his letter: prayer. “Devote yourselves to prayer” (4:2), he urges them. He has already told them that he prays for them (1:3, 1:9), now he urges the Colossian Christians to pray for him too. This too was, and is, the true network that supports Christ’s church, with Christians across the world holding each other up in prayer – like an invisible safety net. Paul reminds those first Christians, and through them us, that following Jesus is hard (that is why he is in prison) but that they do not face these challenges alone. In the same way, all members of Conference here in modern-day Birmingham have this morning made a solemn commitment to hold up in prayer those who are to be ordained this day.
Finally, I return to the hardest section of this passage (3:18-4:1). This is a very controversial and challenging passage. Many excellent scholars have written about it and I would urge people to engage with the numerous excellent commentaries that have been written on this book (a selection is given below). The passage needs to be read in the context of its own times, when for example fathers had the right of life and death over their own children, and in the context of the New Testament, where such lists of household rules are not uncommon (e.g. Eph. 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).
The one point I wish to make here, is that these verses present us with the acute challenge of being ‘people of one book’ (as John Wesley described himself) . How are we in 21st Century Britain meant to respond to these texts, which in many ways seem so out of touch with our understanding of human relationships and the world in which we now live? So much has been written about this subject but it remains a vital one for us, and these verses from Colossians make the challenge very clear.
There are some parts of this passage that we may agree, or half agree, with. Children should obey parents, for example when they are seeking to protect them from harm or to educate them properly. Husbands and wives should love one another. But there are undeniably also verses with which we disagree strongly, notably the commandment for slaves to obey their masters (3:22), even if these masters are also commanded to be fair to them (4:1). This is one of a number of Biblical texts where slavery is seemingly simply accepted as part of life’s natural order; something we now find abhorrent. (Although we should note that there are more slaves now, thanks in large part to human trafficking, than ever before.)
These verses present all Christians acutely with the challenge of how we are to interpret our own scriptures. They demonstrate very clearly how we can never simply abdicate all responsibility for interpreting and applying scripture by saying, ‘For the Bible tells me so’. We cannot just apply the authority of scripture to a belief, for example, that wives should always be submissive, based on 3:18, if we refuse to accept arguments for slavery based on 3:22. We must have a consistent approach to all of scripture, which honestly recognises the need to bring in other tools that inform our reading. (Something that nearly everyone does, if they are self-aware.) For Methodists these have always been reason, tradition and experience, which with scripture form the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is a means of reading the Bible that I believe allows us to read such passages with honesty and integrity.
Tomorrow, at the Methodist Conference, this challenge of how we read our Bibles, will once again come to the fore. We shall not be discussing Colossians but the report from the Marriage and Relationships task force: God in love unites us. The report addresses the whole field of human relationships but it is the section that deals with same-sex marriage that has perhaps inevitably attracted the most attention. It is undeniably the most controversial item on the Conference’s agenda and we will, once again, see impassioned debates, with the issue of scriptural interpretation being crucial. Inevitably, some people have refused to even countenance the issue of same-sex relationships, and in some cases of even homosexual identity, because of certain passages in the Bible.
The texts are different but the same fundamental question remains as with the Colossians text. If those passages are unquestionably authoritative scripture, then are all the others as well? The report lays out a response to these arguments that is far better than I ever could manage (read section 4 of the report, in particular). It offers a well thought out and faithful response to the challenge of reading the scriptures in our own time and context. I pray that Paul’s words in Colossians may be heeded by all present, and the debate that will follow: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (4:6).
This is a very brief response to a passage that raises huge issues. I hope, though, that you have enjoyed dwelling in the letter of Colossians as much as I have this month. The response from my congregations has certainly been positive to this splendid initiative, and I do hope we shall repeat it again next year. It is vitally important that we all recognise the tremendous gift and responsibility texts like Colossians represent: the gift of a life-giving word; the responsibility of interpreting it properly, “to serve the present age”.
- Barth, Markus, and Blanke, Helmut, Colossians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994
- Campbell, Constantine R. Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013
- Dunn, James D G, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014
- Levine, Amy-Jill, and Brettler, Marc Zvi, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edn.), Oxford: OUP, 2017
- Moo, Douglas J, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Nottingham: Apollos, 2008
- O’Brien, P T, ‘Letter to the Colossians’ in Gerald F Hawthorne and Ralph P Martin, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Leicester: IVP, 1994, 147-53
- Pao, David W, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Colossians and Philemon, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012
- Smith, Ian K, Heavenly Perspective: A Study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae, London: T&T Clark, 2006
- Sumney, Jerry L., Colossians: A Commentary, London: WJKP, 2008
- Witherington III, Ben, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007