The Letter to the Colossians (8)

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Advancing His Kingdom’s Order in a Disorderly World (Col 2:4-8)
Advancing the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in a Disorderly World
The last time I was here we looked at Paul’s Prayer-plus in Col 2:1-5. Actually we only managed to look at 2:1-3. The prayer ends in 2:5 with the apostle’s expression of hope and belief in answered prayer: “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ”. In other words, I am already anticipating, seeing and rejoice to behold the answer to my prayers. And what I am looking forward to see is “your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (2:5). “Your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ”! With these eleven words, Paul states his ultimate goal for writing this letter. This letter was in other words, an instrument to help fulfil Paul’s goal of instilling good spiritual order and firmness in faith in the Christians of Colossae. Or as the Good News Bible renders it: to build Christians with “the resolute firmness with which you stand together in your faith in Christ”! That was the point of the Book of Colossians!
You can tell that this was really Paul’s driving purpose for writing this letter because he repeats this statement in an expanded form in the next two verses: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7). That is what good order and firmness means – to receive Christ Jesus the Lord and to walk in Him as people who are rooted and solidified, built up in Him! If you want a memory verse or passage which summarizes the letter’s message, this is it, Col 2:6-7. Colossians is designed to advance His Kingdom’s Order!
The question I want us to devote ourselves to answer is why did Paul choose this aim for his letter? What was going on in Colossae to make the Apostle focus specifically on this theme of advancing the kingdom’s order, of walking in Christ while being rooted and built up and established in the faith?
Well, to start with see what he says in 2:4, and then in 2:8. First in Col 2:4, he explains His prayer by telling the Colossians: “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments”. Then in 2:8 he repeats it in another form: “See to it, then, that no one enslaves you by means of the worthless deceit of human wisdom, which comes from the teachings handed down by human beings and from the ruling spirits of the universe, and not from Christ” (2:8).
So there we have it. The brothers and sisters were exposed to negative pressures which had the potential to delude, deceive, divert or enslave them. That was why Paul wrote this letter to urge and show them how to remain solid and grow in the face of these negative pressures. It is from this passage, Col 2:4-8, then that we get the uniting theme of this letter: Advancing the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in a Disorderly world.
Not that Col 1 is irrelevant. We have found how right from the beginning, with his thanksgiving prayer, and with his account of the founding of the kingdom by the Lord Jesus and his explanation of his role as a minister of the Gospel, all along Paul has been driving at this point. But now that he has laid down the doctrinal foundation, he is ready to begin the application in Col 2. So he states his theme and purpose in full here in 2:4-8.
Let me read the whole passage again and see how it makes sense of our theme: “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 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”.
What I want to do this morning is to turn the sermon into a Sunday School of some sort, if you like, and devote myself to teach a bit about the context of the Book of Colossians. I need to do this for three reasons. First of all, we really cannot fully understand the letter without trying to get an idea of what it was like to be a Christian in Colossae. Of course this is the inspired Word of God written not just for them at that time, but also for us. As such we can within reason ignore their context and still the Spirit will speak to us through His word. That is after all how most believers read the Bible anyway (but don’t tell that to my seminary students!!).
However, I think it is important from time to time to remind ourselves that we are not the first generation of Christians. And so it is only when we make the effort to get some idea of the difficulties and the challenges and the social pressures that previous generations of believers, especially the first generation, it is when we make the effort to get some sense of the nature of the pressures that they were under then will we be able to get a handle of what God was saying to them through this letter. There is a temptation for every generation of Christians to think that we are a special case and that our social context is far more difficult that the context in which other believers before us lived. It is only as we get some idea of the context of the believers who first received the Word of God, lived it and passed it on to us, it is only when we get some idea of their pressures that we realize that we are not that special so we should stop excusing ourselves. I hope to show you this morning why we should stop thinking ours is more difficult than theirs!
The second reason why I need to do this is that unlike most of the letters of Paul the context behind Colossians is somewhat disputed and certainly not as straightforward. You may well have heard or read of competing accounts of the context of this letter and how scholars disagree about it. And it is fair to say that our account of the context can affect how we interpret some of the passages. Several phrases and especially passages in Col 2 are liable to be interpreted one way or another depending on how we understand the context of this letter. So I think it will be useful to try and explain this context a bit more.
Thirdly, and to me, this is the most important reason why I need to delve into the context of Colossians, thirdly, we shall find that there are several parallels between the situation in Colossae then and our situation today. So, if we are able to appreciate the challenges and struggles and problems that the Colossians faced, then we will be in a better place to understand how the words also directly fit us today. Let me address this issue of context then with three points based on 2:4-8
1. The Disorderly World that Prevailed in Colossae
2. The Dangerous Words that were Peddled in Colossae
3. The Divine Word Proclaimed to the Colossians
The Disorderly World that Prevailed in Colossae
Paul doesn’t waste his words to describe the context of the Colossians. But we get a hint about it in our passage. First of all, notice what he says in 2:4 – “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments”. Underline the word no-one, because it gives us a clue to the context. This is the first of four occasions in this letter that Paul uses this word to describe those who were causing trouble in Colossae. He never identifies any specific person or group of persons responsible for the problem. He simply keeps on using this generalization – no-one.
The second occasion is in our Col 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”. He repeats it again in Col 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”. Then finally he repeats it in Col 2:18 – “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”. So four times in Col 2, Paul uses “no-one” to describe the sources of the threat, of the doctrinal beliefs and practices that were contrary to the Christian faith in Colossae and exerting pressures on the faithful.
Why, we may ask, why did Paul not specifically identify the source(s)? You would have expected him to do so if only to warn off the brothers and sisters from these harmful sources. Instead he doesn’t name but uses this generalized “no-one” to identify the sources of the threat. Why? Well, there are only three possible reasons why a letter writer might choose to do that. One possibility is that Paul did not know the source(s). But that is unlikely because as we learnt from the beginning Paul writes this letter based on the information he received from the ground channelled through Epaphras. The second possibility is that Paul knew the trouble-makers but he didn’t want to mention names in case that caused more trouble for the believers. This of course is a ridiculous proposition! Why would Paul be fearful of trouble-makers?
So the only plausible reason why Paul would have used this “no-one” is the third. And that is the trouble-makers were too multiple and varied that there was no point going through the list. The fact that Paul uses this phrase “no-one” shows us that the situation was confused and chaotic. To put it another way, there were so many threats in Colossae. Colossae was a melting pot of disorder engineered by so many people! That’s why Paul covers them with “no-one”.
Social Disorder as Context of Colossians
We will shortly find out a bit more about this confusing and chaotic situation in Colossae. But before then, let me push us a little bit and ask another related question: Why was Colossae at that time prone to this disorder? Was there something within the social context that encouraged the development of this chaos?
Yes of course there was! I mentioned last year that there are some ways in which Colossae of the mid-fifties to sixties of the first century shares some social characteristics with modern day Grimsby. In the first place like Grimsby of a century or so ago, Colossae prior to Paul’s time in the second century BC was a prosperous little town. It had a thriving dark red woollen industry which was famously known all over the world as the Collosium, Colossian Wool. It is like the famous Grimsby Haddock! Set by a trading route through the Lycus Valley, traders from the East, from India and China, and of course also from the West, from Spain and Rome, flocked there to Colossae to buy and sell. Many migrated and settled there. So Colossae was a reasonably mixed multi-ethnic place with the presence of Jews, Greeks, and Easterners mixing with the indigenous Phrygians.
By the time of Paul however, Colossae had fallen on hard times, again rather, like today’s Grimsby. Two earthquakes in the first century BC took their toll on the region, but it appears that among the towns of the Valley, Colossae suffered most. The woollen industry of Colossae itself was dying at the time, and worse, neighbouring cities like Hierapolis (a spa town) and Laodicea (the district capital) were comparatively doing better. Colossae of Paul’s day had therefore lost its former glory. And by the way it speaks volumes that Paul should be as interested in this struggling town as he was of Laodicea and Hierapolis, the financial and tourism capitals and respectively. The notion that Paul was only interested in big city missions is a very exaggerated one. Colossians shows us that Paul was as interested in thriving as much as in struggling cities.
But as I say, during this time, Colossae was really struggling and in fact appears to have ceased to exist some by 400 AD. Among the ancients, when a city’s glory is dented, so also will the confidence of its people. The first century Colossian mind appeared to be plagued with discontent, self-doubt, and lack of confidence. And it was this lack of self-confidence that served as the psychological fertile soil which enabled chaos to grow and fester in Colossae.
A chaotic socio-political and economic situation is always a fertile ground for a disorderly socio-religious situation. A people without social and economic self-confidence will sooner or later latch onto any new idea or practice which promises them something new. They might not completely and overtly abandon their beliefs. Often, they would rather add on the new if it improves their chances! That response to social change results in religious chaos! For Colossae, the multi-ethnic mix added more zest to the chaotic mixing of ideas and practices. It is in this sense that I believe the Book of Colossians speaks as much to our world as it did to the first Christians who received it. For our world today is as chaotic as the Colossae of Paul’s day.
Colossians and the Postmodern World
Let me explain the sense in which our world mirrors Colossae. The exact causes of the social disorder in Colossae, and perhaps the nature of that disorder likely differs in type and degree from ours. But our world today is also disorderly. One word describes the disorder of our world and it is called postmodernism. If you have not heard about postmodernism, don’t despair because its definition is as elusive as the phenomenon that it seeks to identify. That’s why nobody has come up with its most precise definition yet! But let’s try to unpack it a bit!
As the word postmodernism indicates, it describes the philosophical mind-set and the resultant cultural lifestyle which significantly departs from modernism. Many scholars therefore think that postmodernity started in the late 1980s. However, because modernism has not itself completely gone away, it is unhelpful to define postmodernism only in terms of dates. What is more helpful is to first figure out what modernism means and then to think of postmodernism as that type of worldview or mind-set which fughts against and undermines the pillars of modernism.
So, what is Modernism? Modernism has dominated western thought and culture from eighteenth century onwards, and still does to a large extent in much of the world today. It is characterised by almost uniform understanding of the world based on science and reason, and the culture and lifestyle that is built on that. In modernism, people feel confident in identifying the truth, and this truth is defined as that which conforms to science and reason. Christians of course fought against many aspects of modernist philosophy and culture. But by and large society in a modernist context believes that truth is objective; that morality is mostly black or white, that there are right and wrong ways of addressing life’s issues and that these ways do not easily mix!
Most importantly, in modernism, authority was clearly defined, recognized and mostly respected.
Postmodernism undermines these pillars of modernism. Truth to the postmodernist is relative. So, to the postmodernist, truth is subjective, not objective. Truth is in the eye of the postmodern beholder! Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an artistic display made up of a chaotic looking unmade bed surrounded by dirty linen, used cigarette butts and condoms and empty alcohol bottles and so on, that installation won the Turner Prize in 1999! Why, the modernist would ask? To which the postmodernist will say, it is perfect because it evokes different meanings to different people! No wonder it was auctioned last year for £2.5 million! That’s postmodern art for you! Chaotic!! What you see in Tracey Emin’s My Bed is true also in postmodern philosophy, postmodern culture, postmodern religion, fashion, morality or lack of it, and even in some aspects of postmodern science! Your truth, the postmodernist will say to you, is as valid as my truth. Whereas in modernism authority is well defined; in postmodernism, authority is often blurred, confused, and easily contested.
As a result of this, the postmodernist thinks the modernist is arrogant, judgemental and proud, while the postmodernist is instead humble, non-judgemental, loving and inclusive, ready to listen and dialogue with other people who don’t share his or her perspective. In fact the postmodernist encourages people to learn from, borrow and mix ideas, cultures and lifestyles from other perspectives to enrich theirs. That is why the postmodernist is happy to negotiate his or her moral choices depending on the situation. Morality to the postmodernist is never fixed.
So, to recap, at its core, there are three key features of postmodernism, namely (a) truth is relative, (b) morality is grey, and (c) authority is contested.
I am sure you can see why chaos naturally follows in the footsteps of postmodernism. In a modern world, there was order; authority was respected and everybody knew their place. There was a fixed reference point to judge whether this or that idea is correct or incorrect. In the postmodern world, on the other hand, there is no fixed point of reference. Anybody’s idea has some validity and must be entertained! Friends, contemporary social ideas now taken for granted as a given, such as pluralism, multi-culturalism, open-mindedness, tolerance, inclusivity and political correctness, that is, the avoidance of saying things in ways that would be considered by others to be offensive, even if such a thing were truthful, all these ideas and worldviews are cultural babies of postmodernism.
Now, let me clarify this carefully, because I think some Christians mistakenly think of everything postmodern as bad. That is not correct and in fact is unhelpful approach to ministering to our world today as it is! So let me clarify this clearly. Just as not everything to do with Modernism enhance the Christian faith, so also it is that not everything in Postmodernism is injurious to Christianity. Both modernism and postmodernism have their advantages and disadvantages.
So what we need to do is to understand the nature of the phenomenon, its potential to affect our faith, how the Word of God speaks to it and the opportunities it offers for the kingdom of God to be advanced. Conservative Christians must not defenders of Modernism just as we are not haters of Postmodernism. We are proclaimers of the unchanging word! In fact I have argued elsewhere that because many aspects of postmodernism mimic the pre-modern context of the Bible, the Word of God is even more effective in our postmodern world – that is if we conservative Christians can get our acts together and stop behaving like defenders of modernism, instead of being proclaimers of the unchanging word! But that is my soapbox!
My point is our disorderly postmodern world is not dissimilar from the disorderly world of Colossae. We must be like the men of Issachar, who according to 1 Chron 12:32, “had understanding of the times, [they] know what Israel ought to do”! That is what we need. Christians who understand how the social uncertainties and disorder of postmodernism is affecting the advancement of the kingdom! Let me say this again. A disorderly world where people are not rooted in anything makes them prone to the kind of challenges that the brothers and sisters of Colossae also faced. I have said it before, and I say it again. Colossians was written for them, as much as it was written for us!
The Dangerous Words that were Peddled in Colossae
Paul of course was not a sociologist. He was a missionary apostle interested in proclamation of the kingdom. So his key concern was not the socio-cultural disorder in the Lycus Valley. His concern was addressing the religious effects of that disorder. That effect was the dangerous teachings and practices which had the potential to shipwreck the faith and practices of the Christians of Colossae. What were these teachings?
Well, I am sure that you will not be surprised when I say that the teachings were as chaotic as the social situation was. You may have read about a so-called Colossian Heresy in some of the commentaries. I have a problem with that terminology; for we really cannot be sure that there was one single organized and orderly “heresy” being taught in Colossae which Paul tried to address. The more likely situation was that people were mixing different ideas from different religions to make up new ones. So the best we can say is that there were Colossian Heresies, rather than a Colossian Heresy.
This was a Bombay Mix of different beliefs. Different preachers preaching different ideas! And different Christians mixing and matched, syncretizing their own ideas of what they wanted to believe. This is what made the situation in Colossae very dangerous. Dangerous because it was difficult to pin it down to one neat and systematic system of doctrines to be dismantled! Paul could not just identify this or that sect, demolish the hollowness of their ideas and present a full defence of the one and true Gospel, and then move to the next sect and do the same. He could do that in Corinth even though there were different shades of deviations. He provide a systematic defence of the Gospel and set out a careful point by point refutation of the dangerous doctrine being taught by the Judaizers to the Galatians not too far away. But for Colossians, the problem was they were “postmodern”; there were as many false teachers as there were false teachings.
The chaos was not just in the socio-ethnic and economic mix. The chaos was also in the kind of philosophies, arguments, mysticisms, practices and beliefs! Christians were in danger of being pulled left and right and centre and deluded with “plausible arguments” (2:4), to be taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8), to be “judged” for eating the wrong food or taking part in this or that festival or holidays (2:16) or even “disqualified” because they had not fasted enough or had no or few visions! It is this sort of cacophony of dangerous words that the brothers and sisters faced in Colossae. Judging by what Paul addresses in Col 2 we may conveniently group these teachings into three categories, namely Jewish, Phrygian and Greek. This, as I say again, is for the sake of convenience because the situation was more complex.
The Jewish Category of Beliefs
We may label the first category of the sources of the teachings it as Jewish, from the Judaism practiced by some in the Diaspora. So Paul for example speaks against the teachings derived from human traditions, dietary and holiday regulations, angel worship, extreme asceticism, requirement for circumcision (2:11) and Jewish mysticism (2:18). These were typically Jewish practices and those familiar with Galatians would recognize that Paul mounts strong arguments against similar teachings taught by the Judaizers. Galatia was not too far away and it will not be unlikely that some of the teachings of the Judaizers had started spreading to the Lycus Valley.
The Phrygian Category of Beliefs
The second was derived from the influence of native Phrygian folk religious beliefs and practices in Colossae. So Paul for example warns against being captivated by “elemental spirits of the world” (2:8) which likely refers to the kind of magical beliefs anchored in astrology. He also talks about Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (2:15) which obviously refers to the demonic powers that were invoked in the folk magic of the Phrygians.
The Greek Category of Ideas
The third category of beliefs likely derived from Greek philosophical speculations of the time. So Paul for example asserts that all knowledge and wisdom being hidden in Christ (2:3), and so the believers should therefore beware that they were not swayed by “plausible arguments” (2:4), or by “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). These three categories of beliefs appear to have been mixed together and the brothers and sisters of Colossae were being pulled in different ways to add bits and pieces of these to their faith in order to beef up their religious confidence.
Colossians and the Challenges of Postmodern Marketplace of Ideas
We will summarize what Paul tells the Colossians in response to this disorderly religious situation in a minute. But before then, let me stop and ask us to briefly reflect whether our world today is not as suffused with similar disorderly mixtures of religious ideas and teachings as it was in Colossae of Paul’s day. In our postmodern world, the primacy of the text is increasingly being replaced by experience in our churches. Yes, the text is read alright, but it seems not to hold the authoritative place that it did for the first Christians. Indeed more and more, the authoritative Word is contested even within the conservative traditions of Church where the inspiration of Scripture is held as our identity marker.
The word “spirituality” has now become the buzz word to replace “discipleship”. Like all things postmodern, it is difficult to pin down what exactly that word “spirituality” means. I attended a conference the other day on Postgraduate Medical Education – nothing to do with religion. But one of the speakers was bandying this word “spirituality” around, as if it is a new scientific word! But that is the point of postmodernity. Postmoderns like to be spiritual without being committed! Of course it is easier to use that word, “spirituality” because it allows people to be tolerant and to mix and match different beliefs and practices. Some of our celebrities and the people who idolize them often speak the language of Buddhism, use eastern symbols as fashions and practice various types of eastern meditations without even recognizing that is what they are doing. The word “choice” is worshipped not only in the NHS, but also in all things in society.
That reflects itself in how religion is practiced. That is why moral relativity is encouraged in our day. I read the other day that almost a quarter to a third of so called born again Christians in the US believe and consult astrology. Remarkable! But I am sure they just don’t get how this is idolatrous! In a postmodern world, the cross is worn as fashion by those who reject the demands of the cross, and that contradiction doesn’t bother the people in anyway. Doesn’t that parallel the Colossian situation? A situation where syncretism was natural and in fact favoured!
As I say, it is easy for believers in such a situation to be swayed from the faith without recognizing it. This is not the place to discuss these things into details. Except to illustrate that Colossians is pertinent to the postmodern world because it addressed the social and religious chaos which postmodernism shares with Colossae of Paul’s time!
The Divine Word that was Proclaimed to the Colossians
So what does Colossians teach us about God’s Word to a Christians living in a Postmodern world? That message is of course, Advancing the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in a Disorderly World and we find it summarized in Col 2:6-8. Let me read again to you Col 2:6-8. To this chaotic world, Paul proclaims “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ”. As I mentioned earlier this passage summarizes the message of Colossians. We can in fact use it to structure the Book.
1. Col 2:6a: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord” corresponds to Col 1:1-2:5 where as we have learnt Paul speaks of the Founding of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Receiving Christ Jesus as Lord, not only in the sense of welcoming Him, but more hailing Him, enthroning Him, worshipping Him as Lord!
2. Col 2:6b-7: “So walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” corresponds to Col 3:1-4:6 where Paul speaks about The Flourishing of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
3. Col 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[a] of the world, and not according to Christ” corresponds to Col 2:8-23 where Paul speaks about The Fortification of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
4. Col 4:7-18: The Fellowship of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
This is what Colossians has on offer to our disorderly postmodern world. It teaches us three things. First that Jesus is Lord overall and we are members of His kingdom. His kingdom is supreme and above all because He is Lord of all. He is sufficient and those who have received Him have all they need. It is from Him and Him alone that we receive our meaning and confidence. Secondly, Colossians teaches us that in a disorderly postmodern world, we must be vigilant. The ideas come in thick and fast from different unsuspecting angles. A Church that nurtures discontenting believers is just preparing them to become preys to false teaching.
Finally, Colossians teaches us to seek our rootedness and advancement in Christ and His kingdom. The way to avoid believers becoming swayed is to ensure that believers are confident and remain resolutely assured of their place in Christ. That is the second lesson of Colossians. Colossians teaches us that we cannot remain still – we must grow and advance and be established and solidified in Christ.
I pray that the Lord will make all of us like the men of Issachar with deep understanding of our times! That He will keep teaching us to know how we ought to walk so as to advance His kingdom in our disorderly world! Especially as we look at the second section of this letter, may He open our eyes and minds to grasp the enormity and the sufficiency of His kingdom and the victory we have in the Lord Jesus!

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