Midweek Reflections

Midweek Reflection 21 October 2020

Colossians Part 4

 

Listen to audio version Part 1

 

Listen to the hymn: O Thou Who Camest From Above

 

Read Colossians 3:18 – 4:1

My last reflection on Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae focussed on the first verses of chapter 3 in which Paul describes the change in character expected of those that are in Christ. He now concludes the chapter with a series of imperatives concerning family relationships. This part of the letter is very similar in content to the longer and more detailed passage of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. At first glance when reading these passages from the perspective of a 21st century, western culture, Paul raises issues that we might find it easier not to have to deal with. The elephants in this particular room are those concerning his instructions that wives submit to their husbands and slaves obey their earthly masters. Should we be questioning Paul’s attitudes to marriage and slavery?

In trying to make sense of this section of Colossians it’s helpful to go back to back to verse 11 of chapter 3. Paul writes ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’ The point he’s making is that the community that exists ‘in Christ’ should not be bound by worldly distinctions. If someone is a Gentile or a Jew, that distinction, in the eyes of the world, determines how different people respond to them. Likewise, if someone by merit of accepted social order, is a wife or husband, slave or master, the world order treats them according to the status it gives to those distinctions. In a community that belongs to Christ however, all are equally loved and valued and there must be no differential in status. Someone who is a slave is a brother or sister of the one who is master. Paul spells this out in his letter to Philemon. Philemon was from Colossae and It is quite possible that the Colossian church met in his home (Philemon 1:2). It is also likely that the letter to him was sent at the same time as the letter to the Colossians was sent to the wider church. Concerning Philemon’s slave Onesimus, Paul appeals in his letter to Philemon in the following way:

‘Perhaps the reason he (Onesimus) was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever; no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.’ (Philemon, verses 15-16).

It is also helpful when thinking through this issue to remember that Paul, in both Ephesians and Colossians, was writing personally, to specific groups of people. Neither was intended as a theological perspective on the concept of slavery. They are pastoral letters to house churches made up of households comprising both slaves and slave owners. Slaves were regarded almost as an extension of the family. This explains why Paul raises the matter of relationship between slaves and their owners in a passage devoted to relationships within households. Whilst slaves then are urged to carry out the duties assigned to them by their masters the onus is on the master to regard them as they would a brother or sister, in a way that is right and fair.

In a similar way, husbands are to respect and honour their wives. Paul puts it this way ‘Husbands then are to love their wives and not be harsh with them.’ In Ephesians, Paul goes further writing, ‘Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.’ Just as wives are to submit to their husbands, so husbands are required to give themselves up for the sake of their wives. Theirs must also be an act of submission, and one that requires them, just as it requires slave owners to refrain from exercising some of the power that society afforded them.

The main issue in this passage then, is that within a household, no-one should exploit the position that they hold, or the power that they have, to take advantage of others. Each person is to respect and care for others, beyond their desire for personal gain.

Reflecting then on these verses, Paul is not condoning the practice of slavery or undermining the status of women and the passages should never be used as a means of justifying either. Regarding slavery, all the apostles including Paul regarded it as part of the worldly order that was passing away. This is implied in the verses we’ve already looked at concerning his ideal that there should be no distinctions for those that are in Christ. There are also hints of it in the analogy that he uses in Romans 8:15-17 and Galatians 4:5-7. Paul uses these verses to illustrate the way in which followers of Jesus are adopted into the family of God. To do so he describes the fairly common practice of his day, in which a slave is adopted into the family of their master, so becoming an heir to the family estate.

In summary Paul’s instructions for households are I think, more a pragmatic way of responding to the culture of his day, rather than an ideal for the wider society. I‘d like to suggest though that in adopting Paul’s instructions, households could be signs of a better society in which all are one ‘in Christ’ and through which, equality and freedom could emerge. Whilst our own context is quite different to that of 1st century Colossae the underlying principles behind Paul’s instructions remain the same. It is about doing what we can in the situation we find ourselves to serve others. It is also about recognising the power that our circumstances give us and exercising restraint in how we use that power.

  • Read the book of Philemon – What does it say to us about power and relationships in Christian households?
  • Today there are more slaves than ever before in history. Listen to the song 27 million and consider the differences between the household slavery of Paul’s day and the slavery that many suffer today.
  • Read Colossians 4:2-18

 

Listen to audio version Part 2

 

Having laid out what life ‘in Christ’ looks like in practice, Paul concludes his letter with some final instructions and some greetings from those in his company to those in the Church.

His final summary reveals the heart of the evangelist. Paul’s unshakeable faith in the way of Jesus as being the way for the world underpins his whole life. It is why he does what he does. It is why he has suffered persecution and hardship. It is, as he reminds his readers, why he is currently in chains. His commitment to the spread of the gospel in the Gentile world arises from his conviction that they need to know it; his conviction that it is the only reliable message of healing for the nations. I wonder if the church in our place and time has lost something of this crucial conviction and calling. Certainly, in a cynical and pluralistic world it is easy to understand how our confidence might have become diminished. Maybe also we have become so preoccupied with sustaining our inherited structures of church that we have lost our focus on Jesus and his gospel. In this respect, our motivation for evangelism can very easily be one of self-preservation rather than the more outward vision for the healing of our world. For Paul, life in Christ is life as it should be, under the righteous and liberating rule of God. Paul was convinced that the gospel could change the world for the better.

His final instructions then are an invitation for the church in Colossae to participate in the spread of the way of Christ.  Paul urges them, ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.’ He has previously stressed the importance of thanksgiving in the spiritual life and he reinforces the same message here. Watchfulness (searching for the promptings of the Holy Spirit and being present to interpret the signs of the times) as well as thanksgiving, must be central to the basis of prayer. With this at the forefront, the Colossians are instructed to be devoted to prayer. That suggests not just an act of prayer but a life of prayerfulness. Prayer of this sort encompasses every aspect of life. It is a powerful and necessary part of the church’s ministry of evangelism and Paul asks that the church pray for him and his companions. They are to pray that in spite of His imprisonment, he may still have the opportunity to make known, with clarity the way of Christ. In this he recognises with humility that his mission is God’s mission and can only be done in God’s power.  

As well as prayer though, Paul encourages the Colossian followers to go further. Being prayerful, they will be aware of opportunities to make Jesus known to others and are encouraged to take those opportunities. They must do so however with wisdom. Too often, Christians, in their eagerness to speak to others about Jesus, do so in a clumsy and harsh way. ‘Be wise’ says Paul and ‘let your conversation be seasoned with salt so that you may know how to answer everyone.’ This resonates with the words of Peter ‘But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15-16). We should remember that wisdom and grace speak louder than well-crafted arguments.

To complete his letter Paul sends greetings. There are a few observations I’d like to make about these, as they tell us I think, something about the nature of mission and ministry. Above all they show us that ministry is relational. Paul knows and loves the people he is writing to, through his commitment to correspondence, if not in person. They also show that his ministry is not a lone ministry. He relies upon on others. This letter will be taken by those that have been with him to Colossae and on to Laodicea. Furthermore, another letter that has already gone to Laodicea will be picked up and read in Colossae. His ministry then is a relational one but it is not plain sailing. Both Paul and Aristarchus are being held prisoners because of it.

I’ll conclude, mainly for interest’s sake, by expanding a little on those that have been with Paul in Rome, and whom he mentions here at the end of this letter. Two are from Colossae; Epaphras (who established the church there having been converted to the faith by Paul in Ephesus) and Onesimus (the slave of Philemon who will be returning to Colossae with Tychicus). It is Tychicus who will deliver the letter, alongside presumably, the one to Philemon. The group also includes two gospel writers. The first is Mark who Paul had refused to take on a previous missionary journey because Mark had deserted him whilst in Pamphylia. The second is Luke, who we learn from 2 Timothy, remained with Paul throughout his imprisonment in Rome. This is in contrast to Demas whom Paul mentions here but who later appears to leave Paul and his ministry for a more worldly life in Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4:10). It is with these greetings then, that Paul concludes his letter and sends it on its way.

Colossians is a letter that deals with many of the central aspects of how the Christian faith is expressed in everyday life. Whilst the letter deals with specific issues related to the context of its recipients there is much that we can take from it too. Paul’s vision of churches existing as signs of Jesus’ kingdom is as important for us as it was to the church in Colossae. Like the churches of Paul’s day, we also live out our lives in an imperfect world and need wisdom to know how best to respond to our surrounding culture.

I hope these reflections over the last few weeks have been helpful to us as we have explored what life looks like when a community is truly ‘in Christ.’

  • Listen to the worship song: Jesus, hope of the nations
  • Pray for the church of our day, that it might be an authentic sign of the kingdom of Jesus and so become a part of the hope for the nations.
  • You may find it helpful to read through again the book of Colossians in its entirety

 

Download a .pdf of the above midweek reflection.