We are striving to speed read several volumes of the Bible every month. The main consideration is to help some brothers and sisters who aren’t able to read further when they reach Exodus in the Old Testament, and Romans in the New Testament. This will help those new ones to have a rough understanding on the contents of some books in the Bible. We started to speed read the Old Testament, from the first book up to the Book of Ruth. Meanwhile, we have done the opposite in the New Testament. We began to speed read from the Book of Revelation up to Colossians. Although it’s just a passing glance, it might help some of our brothers and sisters who have never read the Bible from cover to cover.
This time, the inspiration that I got after speed reading Colossians is how Paul dealt with carnal Christians in the church at Colossae. Originally, we arranged a speed reading of 3 letters: the letters to the Colossians, and First and Second Thessalonians. But because of the rich content of Colossians (one meeting will take up most of the time), we will have one Bible study session on both First and Second Thessalonians later.
I had an inspiration after I read Colossians and First and Second Thessalonians. In Colossians, it was dealing more with carnality in the church. While in First and Second Thessalonians, it was dealing more with Christians who are easily deceived in church. As Paul mentioned in Colossians, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (NIV, Colossians, 3:2), and advised Christians in the church at Colossae to forgive each other. In First and Second Thessalonians, it talks a lot about the lessons of the Antichrist which led people to be deceived.
What does this mean? Even when people are long time church goers, we find that many Christians may actually possess the knowledge and truths of the Bible, but when something really happens, they still can’t overcome their own flesh. For example, we know that God isn’t happy with the divisions in the church and hopes that all of us can get along with each other, but when something happens, we will still form sects and factions. This is a common situation in churches today.
Another situation we find in today’s church is people who don’t have much biblical knowledge and haven’t meditated on the truths of the Bible. They may not have strong fleshly desires but they are easily led astray by wrong teachings leading to greater losses. Both of these situations are ubiquitous in the church.
Today, let’s talk about Colossians. First of all, we have to clarify that there are fleshly or other problems in the church at Colossae but it isn’t entirely a bad thing. For example, in the church at Corinth, there were also a lot of problems that existed. Thus, Paul wrote two letters to them, revealing many truths about Christ.
There’s background information behind every letter. Similarly, Colossians has a special background. Paul wrote four letters in prison – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. There’s very important historical background behind these letters. I asked a Christian who attended our Bible study, to imagine that he was Paul, he was in prison, he only had a little time left and the conditions were poor, but he has to say something important right from his heart to write these letters. Of course, after writing the letters, it has a lasting significance, letting the churches benefit from them for thousands of years after. But often, there is a latent cause in writing them initially. For example, when I mentioned the chaos in the church at Corinth, including the man who had married the stepmother, it leaves Paul with no choice but to write a long letter to them.
What is the background of Colossians here? There are many things in the Bible that are not accounted for, but it doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen.
I shared a story I personally heard. Soon after I received salvation, a brother told me of a situation that had happened in the church. There was a man who had been in the church for a long time and his car was accidentally hit by a newcomer causing minor damage. This man insisted on filing an insurance claim to let the newcomer compensate. Someone tried to persuade him to give a little grace to this newcomer, let him compensate just a little money, but the man refused. Naturally, in the end, the newcomer stumbled. The person, who told me the story, said that the man whose car had minor damage didn’t have enough grace. He lacked real Christian love. He regarded his own car as more important than the newcomer’s stumbling.
Of course here in the United States when we encounter such things, there is no reason not to file an insurance claim. The point that the person telling the story was trying to make is that we should look less at the circumstance and have more grace toward the person to avoid having them stumble.
I don’t know whether a situation like this is a common occurrence in the church, but as far as my own experience is concerned, there are indeed many similar situations. On the one hand, we are Christians. On the other hand, we are human beings. Humans have fleshly desires. When we talk about the love of Christ, we may speak clearly and logically, but when our interests are involved, the flesh often speaks louder than the spirit and we lose.
After sharing this story in the meeting, I asked everyone “Is there a similar situation in the church at Colossae that Paul is concerned about?” As stated in Colossians 1:7, the church in Colossae was taught by Epaphras, and he also reported the situation of the church to Paul and others. Is there a possibility that after Epaphras told Paul about the grace of God to the Colossian church, he also told Paul about the situation in which some brothers and sisters become competitive, irreconcilable and unforgiving when they are in the flesh? And that these brethren are actually those whom Paul knew, even loved, or personally brought to be saved or trained? Is it possible that the two parties are both loved by Paul, but are incompatible, leading Paul to worry in prison and to write a letter to the Colossians to mediate them? Both are Paul’s love, so Paul can’t blame one, and hold the other in high regard. He must be very careful in dealing with this subtle situation.
If these situations are possible, if you were Paul, how would you deal with it? We don’t know if Paul was facing these things, but we know that in the life of the contemporary church, we often have to face these situations.
We assume that this may be the background behind Paul’s writing. Let’s see how Paul’s letters respond to this situation. Suppose the parties involved are all Paul’s acquaintance, and the two people are still arguing, it will be difficult for Paul to directly judge who is right and who is wrong. And judging right or wrong may not be a good choice because the dispute between right and wrong is often in the realm of the mind, the flesh, or the soul. What Paul needs to do is to help the members of the two factions to break carnal, and spiritual strongholds, enter the mind of Christ in the heavenly, and look at these problems from the eyes and perspective of God. When they can look at these problems from a Heavenly perspective, they can escape from earthly, carnal, and spiritual strongholds and they will be able to forgive, tolerate, and mutually compromise in love.
If you were Paul, how would you start writing this letter? Of course, he wouldn’t begin by blaming the two brothers. Instead, he avoided direct accusation. He started from a very high place – Heaven. Paul’s slant at the beginning of Colossae is very high. Paul began by praising the believers of Colossae, saying he heard the praise of the Colossian believers from Epaphras, which he mentioned in 1:4: “because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.” (NIV)
After praising the Colossian believers, Paul switched the thread of conversation to directly mentioning the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
12 Giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (NIV)
Then Paul used this opportunity to say that, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (NIV, Colossians: 1:15). He added, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (NIV, Colossians: 1:22). From here, we can speculate that what Paul means is we have eliminated all strife on the cross of Christ.
Paul then uses his experience again to testify that, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (NIV, Colossians: 1:24).
Paul mentioned how he was called to complete God’s Word. He revealed the mystery hidden by God over the ages – Christ is our hope of glory. Paul has struggled and worked hard for this. He wants us to maturely dedicate our life to God.
In this chapter, Paul seems to be saying good things. It appears that he doesn’t have any criticism. But in the second chapter, Paul slowly began to raise the obscure issue of the Colossians. Of course, when Paul ended the letter, he never forgot to give encouragement and comfort to the audience of his letters. Some people call this type of writing a “sandwich”. This kind of writing is very common in the Bible. For example, Jesus’ seven letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation are also in the format of a “sandwich.” It praised the faithfulness of each church in the beginning. After which, it criticized the church in the middle. In the end, there were words of encouragement and promise again.
Let’s take a look at how Paul began to put “meat” in this “sandwich” from the second chapter (we will use meat as a metaphor for Paul’s criticism).
In verse 2:4, Paul said that, “ I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” (NIV)
This sentence implies that in the church of Colossae, some people will use flowery words to deceive the Christians in Colossae.
2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ”. (NIV)
This sentence has implicit meaning. In the church in Colossae, there are those who will use philosophy and empty deception according to human teachings rather on Christ, leading the Christians in Colossae astray.
Thus, in the second chapter, Paul especially revealed many of the mysteries of Christ in these two negative situations.
Then at the beginning of the third chapter, Paul immediately encouraged the Christians in Colossae to set their minds on things above and not on earthly things (NIV, Colossians: 3:2). Chapters 3:1-4 are some of my favorite verses:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory”. (NIV)
Paul becomes more and more straightforward in here.
3:5 says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (NIV)
3:8 says, “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” (NIV)
3:9 says, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.” (NIV)
3: 12-15 also say,
“12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (NIV)
I shared my experience and said that when I was starting to learn to serve, I was with a brother who was a little older than me. We had a dispute when we once served together in the Church. Our Elders in the church did not criticize us, but they let us sing Colossians 3:12-15. So at this bible study, my wife and I sang these same verses again to the tune of a hymn.
Why is Paul particularly emphasizing here that as God’s chosen people, we must have compassion, kindness, humbleness, gentleness, patience, and even if there is a discord between people, we must always bear and forgive each other as the Lord forgive us? It is not enough to just forgive, but we must also have love. Love is what binds us all together in perfect unity.
So although these are just speculations, perhaps things such as carnality and strife among people really happened in the church in Colossae. Ultimately, the reason why such things happen is due to the fact that their life is not mature enough to let the life of Christ rule their lives.
So Paul said in 3:16-17 (NIV),
16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
In chapter 4, Paul has hardly any criticism. Instead, he began to comfort, encourage and greet.
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (NIV)
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (NIV)
In conclusion, Paul ended the four short chapters of Colossae with a lot of greetings.
Although our sharing is of a speed reading nature, or a passing glance, we can see that many of the verses in Colossians are written with a delicate touch. Let’s pray and try to fathom the implications of these verses. This will be beneficial to our Christian life because it especially helps us to grow up into Christ, overcome the flesh, and even enter and preserve Christian unity.