As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.
There is much we do not know about the circumstances on the day in the early 60s of the first century a.d.when two men, named Tychicus and Onesimus, arrived in the town of Colossae bearing two brief letters. Colossae, located about 100 miles inland (as the crow flies) from the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey, on the south bank of the Lycus River, was not a particularly important town at the time. We know little about the group in Colossae to whom the letter was addressed. Some of its members may have been ethnically Jewish, but most were not. From time to time they met, it would seem, in the house of one Philemon (see Philem. 2).
The only reason we know anything at all about this group of people is that the letters that arrived in Colossae that day are now to be found in the New Testament. They were written by someone very well known to us: the great apostle Paul. Although Paul is one of the most influential figures of world history, his importance was far less obvious to his contemporaries. Indeed it is interesting to reflect on what the recipients of his letter that day in Colossae would have thought about him. Most of them had not seen him in the flesh (2:1), although some of them (including Philemon) had. Yet they had certainly heard of him. From the available evidence it seems that they had become Christian believers some time earlier as an indirect consequence of Paul's vigorous teaching about Jesus Christ in the coastal city of Ephesus, about 100 miles to the west (see Acts 19). Apparently among those who heard Paul then, probably in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), and were persuaded and repented and believed, was Epaphras, a citizen of Colossae (Col. 4:12). Such was his joy at his new faith in Jesus Christ that he returned to Colossae, and to the nearby cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea, himself proclaiming Jesus Christ (see 4:13). One of the letters now borne by Tychicus and Onesimus from Paul (see 4:7-9) was addressed to those in Colossae who had come to faith in Jesus Christ through the efforts of Epaphras (1:7).
Although we do not know exactly what happened that day, I like to imagine the small group of believers called together, presumably to Philemon's house, with the rather exciting news that a letter had arrived from Paul
- the man who had taught Epaphras about Jesus.
In the first part of this volume we will be listening to the letter that was read to the gathering that day in Colossae. Our purpose is strikingly like theirs. We will be hearing a letter from a man we have never seen in the flesh, but who has played a significant role in our faith in Jesus.
In my imagination I see Tychicus standing before the hushed gathering, taking out the parchment, and beginning to read: 'Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father' (1:1, 2).
We who have the great collection of Paul's letters in the New Testament are a little spoiled. The first few lines of a letter from Paul begin to sound the same. Today's readers of the New Testament have heard something very like these opening words many times. But for the listeners in Philemon's house that day this was new. True, they were familiar with the form. Letters typically began in this way.I doubt they thought twice about that. It was what was said that captured their attention.
In these opening words Paul summed up, in a way that the letter will more fully explore: (1) how they should think of Paul; (2) how they should think of themselves; and (3) how they should think of life.
1. How to think of Paul (1:1)
How do you think of Paul? After all these years, with the great volume of commentaries that have been written on Paul's letters, the vast tomes on Pauline theology found in theological libraries, as well as the smaller number of biographical works on this great man's life, we might well think that we are in a very different position from those who first heard these words that day in Colossae. While the obvious differences between now and then are considerable, I would like to emphasize the similarity of our situation. How we think of Paul is just as important as it was for those believers in Colossae.
Paul introduced himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. The message that Epaphras had earlier brought to Colossae was about Jesus. Jesus was a Jewish man, who had lived only a few decades earlier in a relatively remote corner of the Mediterranean world that was the Roman Empire. Through Epaphras' words those listening to this letter had come to believe something about Jesus. The message about Jesus claimed this title for him: Christ. Christos is Greek for the Hebrew title Messiah. This could only be understood by reference to the Jewish scriptures that we now know as the Old Testament. The promises and the hopes found in those scriptures were the basis for the message about Jesus. It was precisely because of Christ Jesus (Messiah Jesus, promised King Jesus) that Paul (himself a Jewish man, of course) had written this letter to the group of non-Jewish people (at least predominantly so) in Colossae, a city he had never visited (as far as we know).
These Colossians had already learned enough about Messiah Jesus to have their own lives radically changed. We will hear more about that in due course. For the present we notice that Paul introduced himself as one who had been sent ('apostle' comes from the Greek word meaning 'send') by the Messiah Jesus: Israel's King. Unless we see something of the peculiarity of this situation we will not appreciate the impact these opening words must have had on those who first heard them.
There are so many things to say about Paul. It has been plausibly argued that he was the greatest intellect of the ancient world, surpassing even Plato and others. Certainly his impact on world history has been immense, although largely unacknowledged. We could speak of his particular and profound insights, his extraordinary strategic missionary effort through the Mediterranean world, his capacity to address the needs of the churches he founded, and so on. Volumes have been written about Paul. Rightly so. We can study his brilliant understanding of so many things: the work of Christ, the justification of sinners, the church, eschatology, the Spirit. As Peter acknowledged, 'there are some things in [Paul's writings] that are hard to understand' (2 Pet. 3:16). There is certainly much to learn.
Nevertheless there is a fundamental question that can easily be overlooked. How do you think of Paul himself? As we listen to Paul, as we study his teaching, as we learn from him, it is very important for us to recognize that he is not simply another thinker or teacher, but that he addresses us as Jesus Christ's representative and spokesman: 'apostle'. He speaks not just about Jesus Christ, but for and on behalf of, from Jesus Christ. No less is meant by the introduction, 'Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus'.
There was, therefore, something special happening as this letter began to be read that day in Colossae. I suspect everyone would have sensed it as these first words were heard. They had learned well of Christ Jesus from Epaphras. They had (as we will see) come to true and marvellous faith in Christ Jesus through Epaphras' faithful testimony. But now the apostle of Christ Jesus himself was addressing them.
This certainly means that Paul speaks with authority, the authority of Christ Jesus. It means he has every right to claim a hearing from anyone who claims to take Christ Jesus seriously. Our attitude to the apostle of Jesus will reflect something of our attitude to Jesus. Yet it is more than that. We ought not to think of Paul only in terms of his authority. He was sent by our Lord Jesus Christ. We ought to be as thrilled, delighted and eager to hear Paul as we would be to hear Jesus himself. Indeed his words come to us from Christ Jesus.
Furthermore Paul is this apostle by the will of God. It will become clear in the course of this letter that this is more than a general assertion of divine providence over things that happen. In that sense you may be a student, a husband, a mother, an electrician (or whatever) 'by the will of God'. That is an important perspective for us to have on all of the events of life. God's good and sovereign hand does rule over all things. The implications of that for our Christian lives are huge. In the course of this letter we will see that the will of God of which Paul speaks is both more specific and more magnificent than general providence.
In 1:9 we will hear that he prayed for the Colossian believers that they 'may be filled with the knowledge of [God's] will'. That does not simply mean filled with the knowledge of God's providence over everything that happens. God's will, Paul will go on to explain, involves how all things were created for his beloved Son (1:16). God's will is that all his fullness dwell in him (1:19). God's will is to reconcile all things to Christ, making peace by the blood of his cross (1:20). In other words, God's will is his great purpose for the whole of creation, at the centre of which is Jesus Christ.
Do you think you are filled with the knowledge of God's will?
If you are (or if you want to be) then you need to understand that Paul is Christ Jesus' apostle by the will of God. The great plan of God, in other words, to reconcile all things through Jesus Christ, includes making Paul Christ's apostle. This will be explained more fully as the letter unfolds (see especially 1:23-2:5). As Christ Jesus' apostle, Paul was a servant of the gospel (1:23), he suffered (1:24), he was given by God the stewardship to make the word of God fully known (1:25). Knowing and understanding that Paul is Jesus Christ's apostle is part of knowing the will of God. Pay careful attention therefore: as we respond to what we hear from Paul, we are responding to the will of God.
All this casts an important light on what was happening on that day when the Colossian believers heard Tychicus begin to read this letter. As we begin to read Paul's letter it is important for us to recognize whose words these are.
Having introduced himself in such striking terms, Paul included another name with his own: Timothy our brother. We know that Timothy had been involved with Paul in the Ephesus ministry (Acts 19:22). Perhaps Epaphras had spoken of him. Certainly Timothy was a most trusted colleague of Paul; his right-hand man, we might say. Timothy was a brother, not only to Paul, but also to these Colossian believers (hence 'our brother') even though, as with Paul, most of them had never have actually met him. The point of mentioning Timothy here will become clearer in a moment.
2. How to think of yourselves (1:2a)
The addressees of the letter are now identified: To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.
In many contexts Paul uses the expression 'the saints' to refer specifically to Jewish believers in Jesus. It is possible that 'the saints and faithful brothers' refers to the Jewish ('the saints') and the non-Jewish (the 'faithful brothers') believers in Colossae. The non-Jewish believers have been brought to join the Jewish believers when they came to trust in Messiah Jesus, Israel's promised king. They became 'faithful (that is, believing) brothers'. They now belonged to the new family of God's people as fully as 'brother Timothy'. A little later, Paul will put it like this: '[God] has qualified you [Gentiles] to share in the inheritance of the saints [the Jews] in light' (1:12).
It is not clear that Paul means to make that distinction (between Jewish and non-Jewish believers) in verse 2. These words could be translated: 'To the holy and believing brothers in Christ at Colossae.' The original grammar slightly favours this and the following exposition understands the words in this way. Yet the weight of what Paul is saying here does not depend on resolving this small ambiguity, for either way he is speaking of the astonishing new identity of the Colossian believers. We must understand that this is identical to our identity today if we believe in Messiah Jesus as they did. Let us notice carefully five things that the Colossians were being encouraged to understand about themselves.
First, Paul calls them 'holy'. That is an astonishing thing for a Jew to say of non-Jews. Israel was God's holy people (Exod. 19:6). Within Israel the Levitical priests were the holy ones (Exod. 28:2). The 'holy ones of the most high' in Daniel's famous vision were those of Israel who would rule the world (Dan. 7:22). Yet Paul calls this gathering of mainly non-Jewish Colossians 'holy'. It is not a description of their character or conduct. They are holy in the sense that Israel was holy: set apart by God and for God.
It is an astonishing privilege to be able to say that this is true of Christian believers today. The arrogance of the claim would be breathtaking were it not all of grace: we are God's holy ones. Is that how you see yourself, and your fellow believers? Later in the letter we will hear Paul draw out some of the consequences of this wonder: 'Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience...' (3:12).
Second, Paul calls them 'believing'. If that is the sense (rather than 'faithful') it demolishes any misunderstanding that 'holy' could be an arrogant claim. For 'believing' is not something you can boast about. He does not say 'circumcised', or 'baptized', but 'believing' or 'trusting'. Believing here means dependence on another (namely, Christ Jesus, as we will hear in 1:4). Such faith is not impressive, but it is all-important. In a few lines Paul will be saying how he thanks God because he had heard of the Colossians' faith in Christ Jesus (1:3, 4). A little later, he will underline the supreme importance of continuing in this trusting dependence (1:23). It is a theme that we will hear much more of as this letter unfolds (see 2:6, 7).
Third, Paul calls these Colossian Gentiles he had never met 'brothers'. As truly as Timothy, Paul's close companion and trusted co-worker, who was with him as he penned this letter (Timothy may have been the scribe who took down the apostle's words, see 4:18), was a brother (1:1), so were they. Christ Jesus, you see, was drawing together a new family in which people
- as different as Greek and Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free (3:11)
- love one another as brothers (3:14).
We have an awkward language problem here that I doubt we can solve. 'Brothers' in this context, of course, embraces 'brothers and sisters'. The problem is that 'brothers and sisters' categorizes us into two groups at the very point where the biblical language wants us to see one group. We are to understand that we believers are all 'brothers'.
The fourth reality Paul points to is the Colossians' life 'in Christ'. He will say later 'your life is hidden with Christ in God' (3:3). The intimate, personal relationship they have come into with Christ Jesus accounts for everything that has been said so far. 'In Christ' they are the holy ones. 'In Christ' their faith rests. 'In Christ' they are brothers. These things, in other words, are only real because of Christ, and because of their relationship to him. We will hear more about this wonder in due course.
The fifth thing Paul says here about the Colossian believers is simply that they are 'at [literally "in"] Colossae'. The wonderful theological assertions that have been made (holy, believing, brothers, in Christ) apply to a particular group of real people in a specific location in this world. They are not abstract ideas. They are as real as the people gathered in Philemon's house in Colossae, listening to this letter being read.
3. How to think of life (1:2b)
The identification of the sender and the recipients of the letter is followed by a greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. This is what I want you all to know in life, Paul seems to say: Grace and peace from God our Father.
Grace is what characterized the message about Christ Jesus that Epaphras had brought to Colossae some time earlier. Paul describes that day as 'the day you... understood the grace of God in truth' (1:6). He will conclude this letter with the simple powerful words, 'Grace be with you' (4:18).
Of all the forces and influences that surround you, does grace, the grace from God our Father, have its dominant place? Soon we will hear something of the transforming power of this divine kindness in the lives of those touched by it (see 1:3-14).
Peace here is not simply peace of mind, but the peace that the grace of God has established: the peace that has been made by the blood of Christ's cross (see 1:20). Later in the letter Paul will fill out this brief word: 'And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful' (3:15).
'Grace and peace to you from God our Father' is what we know if we are 'in Christ Jesus'.
It would have been something, wouldn't it, to have been in Philemon's house in Colossae on the day Tychicus began to read Paul's letter?
In every way that matters, it is just as important for us today to hear these words from Christ's apostle. There is no good reason why their impact on us should be different from their impact on them. Think carefully, in the light of these opening words, about your own attitude to Christ's apostle Paul, your understanding of yourself as a Christian believer, and what matters to you in life.