Monday, December 26, 2011
I was reading through Colossians this evening and began to mull over its message in my head. As I reflected these thoughts began to percolate through my mind. I doubt they are that scholarly but perhaps they are going in the right direction what Paul was after - especially in chapter 1 of this rich letter.
The Epistle to the Colossians was written by Paul and Timothy to a group of disciples about 100 miles east of Ephesus. Paul had never been there before, however, a coworker named Epaphras was from there and he started the church in that city. This probably happened while Paul was living and preaching in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19).
This letter was written several years after Paul's ministry in Ephesus for he is in prison awaiting trial (4.3b). His good friend, Epaphras had come to minister to him and inform him of the condition of God's work in the Lycus Valley. The Colossian Christians are doing fairly well but they have taken their eyes off of the center of the Faith. The Christians, or at least some of them, in Colosse are being led astray by what Paul calls a "hallow and deceptive philosophy" (2.8). A great deal of scholarly effort has been spent on this heresy and the nearest equivalent to it today would probably be a "Christianized" form of the New Age Movement pr perhaps an early form of gnosticism.
This teaching did not deny that Jesus was important: Jesus is after all the Message of Christianity. But this "philosophy" did, apparently, deny that Jesus was of SUPREME importance! Jesus was just one of many spirit beings (angels, powers, planets, etc) that we would be "wise" to give each its proper place. Paul confronts this problem on two fronts in our text (which is called the "Christ Hymn"). Jesus is not one among equals, Paul argues, because Jesus created all things including the spirit beings. Second, Jesus defeated the evil powers and brought peace through his death on the Cross. Therefore, says Paul, Christ is the Ultimate and the Supreme that Christians should look to.
SUPREMACY IN CREATION (1.15-16)
"He is the IMAGE of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation. For by
him all things were created: things in heaven and things on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers, whether rulers [principalities] or authorities [powers], all things were created by him and for him."
The first half of the Christ Hymn exalts the center of the Faith, Christ, as the Creator of all things in the universe: physical or spiritual. Paul calls Jesus the "IMAGE of the invisible God." The One True Living God is invisible and cannot be seen with the human eye. But we can see his "image." In the Hebrew Bible God had forbidden the making of images of him. The reason is that Jesus is the Image of God.
Perhaps we could say if we had a photograph of God it would be an image of Jesus. Jesus told Philip in John's Gospel, "if you have seen me you have seen the Father" (14.9ff). Paul is recognizing the true significance of Christ. He is God in the flesh, he is God among us. He is in a category all his own.
Jesus is not just one among the spirit beings but the Image of God himself. Paul continues to undercut the philosophy that would lower Christ's status by saying not only is he the image of God he is the the "Firstborn BEFORE (NIV="over") all creation because in him all things were created . . ." The NIV, and other versions as well, do not make the force of the genitive as clear as should be, Jesus is the firstborn BEFORE creation. The phrase denotes priority as well as supremacy. To say that Jesus is the Firstborn is talk about the eternality of Christ with God. It is to talk of his divine nature or Godhood. It does not mean that Christ was/is a creation: that would contradict both the grammar of the text and the context that says Jesus himself is the Creator not the created. Jesus is ultimate no
matter how you slice it according to Paul.
If it exists in any form then Christ created it (cf. Heb. 1.3ff). The NIV has helped the reader out with its punctuation of vv. 16b through 17. The colon is indicating that what follows is a summary of the things created by Christ. Paul emphasizes whether it is in heaven, an angel, another spirit [principalities and powers are references to the spirit world] Christ created them and is therefore no their equal or to viewed as such.
The church at Colosse had people who believed that the ancient equivalent of horoscopes and astrology could help them out or better - protect them. Now let me make it clear today that Paul does NOT DENY that there is in fact a evil power behind these things. Rather he says Christ is supreme over them and he alone is to be served and worshiped. In the modern world it is the psychic hot lines that Paul is talking about. Christ controls the universe he is supreme over it.
SUPREMACY IN REDEMPTION (1.18b-20)
"He is the beginning and the first born from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross."
If the first half of the Christ Hymn celebrates Christ's role in the First Creation then the second half celebrates his role in the New Creation, especially with regard to redemption and reconciliation. The Supremacy of Christ is again emphasized. He was the beginning of the old order and he is the beginning of the new.
The point of the second half of the Christ Hymn is that Christ has defeated these celestial beings the Colossians are tempted to follow. They, the Christians who were deceived by this philosophy, believed in a hierarchy of powers among which the divine fullness was distributed and these power or beings occupied the "space" between us and God. Each one had to be given its due place in order to get to God. They controlled the flow of communication. They function sort of like toll booths along some interstates. Paul though cuts that by saying that God was pleased to have ALL of the divine fullness to dwell in Christ alone. Christ did not share it with any power – including Satan!
Paul's point is that the divine fullness manifested itself in Christ's work of reconciliation on the Cross. Because God has reconciled the creation to himself through Christ's work, we do not need to pay a "toll" to the spirit beings. Yes, the world is at odds with the Creator but through the Cross peace has been IMPOSED on the powers and authorities. Paul describes the downfall of the powers in powerful language in 2.15: though they certainly did not submit willingly. Christ had to defeat them in a great victory:
"And having DISARMED the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them triumphing over them by the cross."
Why give these spirit beings any glory or "due," if Christ has defeated them at Calvary? Why divide our loyalty to Christ when he has made it possible "by the cross" for us to have peace in our lives again? Or more likely it was not simply to give "glory" to these beings but a sense of FEAR of them that drove the Colossians to these measures. But Christ, says Paul, has defeated them! Christ is Supreme. He is to have "supremacy in everything." Paul does not say some things, but everything. Jesus does not share pride of place with anyone or anything. It is important for us as Christians to remember that.
How do we, even unintentionally, undermine Christ's supremacy at times today? Some Christians still have horoscopes and believe in astrology, mantras and crystal balls. Perhaps we are also driven by fear of the unknown future and we seek "outside" assistance. Every time I consult one of those I am saying Christ did not really gain the victory over the powers. But we know he did. Some Christians want Christ to share pride of place with their pet doctrine or theory. Sometimes they want him to share his glory with the church. It is important to watch our doctrine and the church is certainly magnificent and important. But Christ is supreme even in these matters. Christ is Lord of doctrine and Head of the Church. He is IT'S glory not the other way around. We simply need to be reminded of that from time to time.
We must remember that it was not doctrine that defeated the powers. Rather it was the Suffering of the Son of Man that did that. We must remember that the church did not overcome the principalities (Colossians itself is proof of that). No, it was as Paul says the shedding of his BLOOD that did that. We must remember that the powers are not for us -- they hate us with a passion and that is why Christ had to "subdue" them. We owe it all to the Supreme Savior – Jesus the Christ.
WRAPPING UP LATE NIGHT THOUGHTS
Paul declares that Jesus is the Supreme Savior. He is supreme in creation because he is the Creator. He is supreme in redemption because he disarmed the powers through his great victory at the Cross. Even among the Colossians themselves the victory of the Cross had been manifest. Some of them had been enslaved to the "spirits" of greed which Paul says is idolatry (3.5). Some were enslaved to the "spirit" of anger, malice and slander (3.8). Some were enslaved to the spirit of guilt and fear or impurity. But Christ the Supreme Savior has defeated all of these spirits at the Cross. If the Savior has set us free he should be supreme in our life, he should be supreme in the church, he should be supreme in our worship. Paul says he should be our very life for "he IS your life" (3.4).
May Shalom be the blessing of those who read these words.
P.S. The image above is Colossians 1 in Minuscule 321 - a 12th century mss located in the British Museum