1st Reading — Isaiah 43: 16-21
The author of 2nd Isaiah referred to the Babylonian captivity as similar to the exodus event. The exiles were awaiting their release in an alien land. Isaiah is reminding them of how God had saved them in history, and would surely do so again. Thus, through their remembering, God would continue to be present to them, (Birmingham, W&W, p. 170).
Sin is a reflection of humanity’s desire to “be.” That is to replace God, rather than to “become.” Overcoming this resistance to change and being restored to God’s work of creativity is another view of salvation. When Jesus said, “I am the way,” (Or here, the Lord saying, “see, I am doing something new!”) He meant the way of change. To be in Christ, that is to be changing, requires that we give up our fruitless attempts at finding security by trying to establish our being in the past, (RJ McCorry’s Dancing with Change, p. 22).
2nd Reading — Philippians 3: 8-14
Paul was concerned over the philosophies that were threatening to undermine the gospel. Judaizers and Gnostics were coming at the gospel from 2 different threatening positions. Judaizers were trying to impose their old legalisms on the new gentiles: all must be circumcised, all must adhere to strict dietary regulations, etc. Gnostics, on the other hand, believed that a person was perfectly “just” simply because of baptism; baptism was all that was necessary. For Paul, justice is only realized through Jesus and our faith is his saving power. Justice, like an unfinished race, was not yet perfected and is still in process (Birmingham, W&W, p. 171). How are you still in process? How might the extremes in your life be smoothed out in Christ?
Notice that we are not called to perfection…we will never get there in this life. We are called to continue our pursuit in Christ with great hope! As in Thomas Merton’s prayer, “…the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.”
The Gospel — John 8: 1-11:
In the eyes of the Jewish law adultery was a serious crime. Adultery was one of the 3 gravest sins, up there with idolatry and murder. But the Pharisees and scribes are trying to entrap Jesus. Instead of answering their question of what to do with the adulterous woman, Jesus writes in the ground. Why does he doe this? Wm. Barclay has 4 hypotheses:
- He may have wanted to gain time and bring it to God.
- He may have been trying to allow time for the Pharisees and scribes to realize the cruelty behind the action.
- He may have wanted to hide his face because he felt such shame in their request. “It may well be that the leering, lustful look on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, the bleak cruelty in their eyes, the prurient curiosity of the crowd, the shame of the woman, all combined to twist the very heart of Jesus in agony and pity, so that he hid his eyes, “ (Barclay, The Gospel of John Vol. 2, p.3).
- An Armenian manuscript translates this passage this way, “He himself, bowing his head, was writing with his finger on the earth to declare their sins; and they were seeing their several sins on the stones, (p.3).
God uses his authority to love men and women into goodness; to God no person ever becomes a thing. We must use such authority as we have always to understand and always at least to try to mend the person who has made the mistake; as we will never even begin to do that unless we remember that every man and woman is a person, not a thing (p. 6). How does this all pertain to you in your life?
Chapter 3: The Christian Family, Slaves and Masters
To put it simply, Paul is complicated. If someone today were to read only these words from Paul, s/he would think he was sexist and slave-friendly. If someone were to read these words in Paul’s day, they would think he was a good Greek and Jew, bordering on too-nice. After all, women and slaves were property, so there was no reason to avoid bitterness towards them or to treat them just and fairly. We also know Paul worked alongside women in ministry. In Romans 16, he refers to Phoebe as sister and minister, and Prisca as co-worker to her husband Aquila. And the letter to Philemon pleads for the slave Onesimus to be received again as a brother and no longer a slave. So Paul’s actions do not seem to match this “household code”. Perhaps these are conditioned words, or maybe not written by Paul at all. Another question to ask him when we get to heaven!
Paul is speaking of a new ethic, one of mutual obligation and one of being in the Lord. The whole direction of the Christian ethic is not to ask: “What do others owe me?” but, “What do I owe to others?” This is the life lived in Christ. What settles any master and servant relationship is that both are servants of the one Master, Jesus Christ. All work is done for God so that God’s world may go on and God’s men and women have the things they need for life and living, (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 162-165).
Chapter 4: Conclusion
Who are all of these people?
Tychicus: Mentioned in Acts 20 and Ephesians 6, he seems to be a messenger of Paul’s and one that knows him personally enough to share news of him.
Onesimus: He was the runaway slave of Philemon that helped Paul deliver letters while he was in prison. They became close, Paul says brothers.
Aristarchus: Doing ministry with Paul so that he is in prison too. Mentioned in Acts 19, 20, 27.
Mark: Whom “the Gospel of” is attributed. Mark and Paul have an on-again, off-again relationship. Mark had accompanied Paul on his 1st missionary journey but then quit when things got tough. Barnabus wanted Mark to come again on the 2nd missionary journey but Paul said no (harming their relationship). But they seem to have made amends.
Barnabus: He was sent by the apostles to check on Saul-now-Paul and heard the conversion story. He vouched for him to the other apostles. He is a good guy to have in your corner!
Jesus/Justus: We don’t know anything.
Epaphras: He seems to be the leader of the church in Colossae, maybe the other adjoining towns too.
Luke: Whom “the Gospel of” is attributed. We learn here that he is a doctor.
Demas: Not much is said here about him, but in Philemon 24 he is grouped as a co-worker and in 2 Timothy 4 he is said to have deserted Paul. So perhaps this is an example of waning faith, or there was a falling out?
Archippus: We know little. In Philemon 1:2, we learn he is a fellow soldier.
For any of these men mentioned, it may bring insight if you picture yourself in the story. Of whom do you identify? How does it play out?
4:16 mentions a letter to the Laodiceans. Where is this? It may be lost, it might actually be the letter to Ephesians or Philemon, or it could be a letter that is not considered to be authentic by Jerome but is included in the Codex Fuldensis (a Latin New Testament dated in the 6th century), (p. 173).
- How do we season our speech with salt?
- What is it to be watchful in our prayer?
- Consider vs. 5…who are outsiders to us and how do we make the most of opportunity with them?
- Why does Paul want us to remember his chains?
- How might this letter have an impact on your life?
Flesh and Spirit
N.T. Wright says, “Paul is using letters to teach his churches not just what to think, but how to think,” (Paul, A Biography, p. 274). And so we are being taught too!
Flesh: Paul is referring to the Greek word sarx, not soma. Soma simply means body, but sarx is the whole person. Even more so, it is the whole person that is the little (or partial) self: trapped, insecure, wounded, broken and attention-seeking.
Spirit: The Greek word is pneuma, or God’s power in itself, and as he shares it with those who believe. At the same time, spirit is our true self, knowing and trusting in God’s love. As we empty and open ourselves to spirit, we become more whole, more connected to God and more of who God intends for us to be.
In baptism, we die to the little self (flesh, like circumcision) so we may rise to spirit and live in Christ (Christ-ening). This is so evident in this section of Paul’s letter.
This makes it sound like flesh is bad and spirit is good, but there is more here. Realistically, we can’t get out of our flesh. Richard Rohr connects sarx with ego. He says, “Sarx or ego is the self that tries to define itself autonomously, apart from spirit, apart from the Big Self in God. It’s the tiny self that you think you are, who takes yourself far too seriously, and who is always needy and wanting something else. It’s the self that is characterized by scarcity and fragility—and well it should be, because it’s finally an illusion and passing away. It changes month by month. It is exactly what will die when you die. Flesh is not bad, it is just inadequate to the final and full task, while posing as the real thing. Don’t hate your training wheels once you take them off your bicycle. You should thank them for getting you started on your cycling journey!” (www.cac.org from 4/6/18). He ends his reflection saying, “The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” Our faith journey is a fluid movement from flesh to spirit. But it is messy!
“The relationship of Jesus to the Spirit is central to Paul’s thought. The Spirit is, for Paul, simply the power of the risen Jesus, as he establishes his lordship in and through Christians. This lordship is itself a gift – in fact, it is THE gift. The power of Jesus takes over and assumes control in such a way that the individual becomes the one through whom the lordship of Jesus Christ is extended throughout the world, “ (J. Dwyer, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 78).
So what does this mean for us? We become robots and just succumb to whatever God’s will is? No, it is a partnership. We must say yes to it. We participate in the relationship.
Margaret Silf talks about a way of participating in Inner Compass. “When I move inward toward the center of myself, I move closer to the person I most truly am before God,”. It is there we grow our Godseed. “Discovering the Godseed in our hearts, noticing the golden threads of meaning in our own life’s journey, and becoming increasingly aware of God’s continuing presence in our lives and in everything and everyone we encounter are just a few of the possibilities for opening ourselves up more and more to this unconditional love, even as we stand face-to-face with the nature and extent of our own fallenness and the fallenness of all creation,”.
Chapter 3: Mystical Death and Resurrection, Renunciation of Vice
Vs. 15: Paul uses a vivid picture. Literally what he says is, “Let the peace of God be the umpire in your heart.” He uses a verb from the athletic arena; it is the word that is used of the umpire who settled things in any matter of dispute. If the peace of Jesus Christ is the umpire in anyone’s heart, then, when feelings clash and we are pulled in two directions at the same time, the decision of Christ will keep us in the way of love, (Wm. Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 159).
- Why do you think love has the power to bond us in perfect unity? How do we practically do this?
- Vs 16 tells us to admonish one another…a startling word in the midst of all the love language here. Where do you think Paul is going with this? (NLV “counsel”, CEV “instruct”)
- What will our lives look like if we are doing this?
- What impressions do we get from the catalog of things that need to be put to death (v5), eliminated (v8) and discontinued (v9)? Do we want to hang on to any of them? Or do some of them seem to want to hang on to us? Which? Why is that, do we think? What insight does this give us into ourselves?
- Remember that Paul is speaking to a smallish town to a people he doesn’t know, while he is in prison. AND he used to be someone who persecuted what he is describing! Consider Paul’s converted heart to your own.
The Gnostics (Greek gnosis, to know) believed that they possessed a special knowledge that put them a notch above the ordinary person. This knowledge destined them for eternal life. The basis for their philosophy is that matter and creation are bad and the spiritual is good. The Gnostics believed that their souls were sparks of the divine, imprisoned in the flesh and seeking release. Jesus did not have a real body; he just appeared to have one. Therefore, they felt Jesus didn’t suffer (nor would they in death) and didn’t have a physical resurrection, (“Scripture from Scratch”, Jan 2001).
- If God was spirit, then he was altogether good and could not possibly work with this evil matter. Therefore God was not the creator of the world. God put out a series of emanations that were each more and more distant (and more and more ignorant and hostile) until at the end was an emanation that created the world.
- If Jesus couldn’t have a flesh and blood body, then he was some kind of spiritual phantom. They thought he left no footprints. He couldn’t be the savior of humanity. This is why Paul insists on the flesh and blood body of Jesus and a Jesus that saves in the body of his flesh.
- Since our bodies are evil, there are 2 approaches to that. Some Gnostics practices rigid asceticism; others went willy-nilly with their bodies since it didn’t matter.
- The long series of emanations were like a ladder between humanity and God. Man must fight his way up a long ladder to get to God. This includes all kinds of secret knowledge and hidden passwords. There are only a chosen few.
There were likely false teachers of Colossae tinged with Gnostic heresy. They were trying to turn Christianity into a philosophy; if they had been successful, the Christian faith could have been destroyed, (Wm. Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 97-99). But do you think there are still Gnostic notions out there?
Chapter 2: Warnings Against False Teachers
Vs. 1: Paul has a great struggle within himself. When you are far from those you love, are you able to relate to this struggle? Especially in times of trouble?
Vs. 3: What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge? Why does Paul use both to describe what is hidden as a treasure in Christ? Note: The word for hidden here is apokruphos, or hidden from the common gaze. This was also a word the Gnostics used for their books full of secret knowledge necessary for salvation, books that ordinary people couldn’t access. So by using this word, Paul is saying, “You Gnostics have your wisdom hidden from ordinary people; we too have our knowledge, but it is not hidden in unintelligible books; it is hidden in Christ and therefore open to everyone everywhere,” (p. 130-131).
This chapter is difficult because Paul is speaking about the “Colossians Heresy” that no one really knows is about. What is this “empty, seductive philosophy”? What does it have to do with “elemental powers of the world”? It seems there might have been an understanding that Jesus isn’t enough and that more is somehow needed from other avenues. That maybe circumcision of Gentiles was important as well as worshipping angels. But Paul implores, not so. Jesus is enough. Maybe we can relate…maybe we have had moments where we feel our faith is not enough and that we have to do this, this and this in order to receive salvation.
Paul is deeply concerned about anything which would seem to interfere with the unique mediation of Christ. In later Judaism the interest in the angels was a part of the religious attitude which made God more and more remote. In Christ, God came as close to humanity as is conceivable. Paul wished neither the angels nor the cosmic powers to come between us and God, (J. McKenzie’s Light on the Epistles, p. 141).
- What are some things you think might fall under “empty, seductive philosophy”?
- What could be the differences between a circumcision by the hands of men, or a spiritual circumcision by Jesus?
- What does vs. 12 relate baptism to?
- What did Christ nail to the cross? How does this make us alive with Christ?
- Paul is imprisoned while he writes and so Tychicus and Onesimus deliver this letter to Colossae, (R. Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 601).
- Colossae is a small town in western Asia Minor (Turkey). It was a commercial center for textile industries, especially scarlet-dyed wool. Numerous pagan cults and mystery religions with astral deities (sun, moon and stars) practiced there (See 2:8, 20). Paul is writing to Hellenized Jewish settlers. It was a relatively small town with close connections to Laodicea and Hierapolis, all 3 cities being in the Lycus River valley. In 61AD, an earthquake devastated the area, (MA Powell’s Introducing the New Testament, p. 359).
- The waters of the River Lycus and of its tributaries were impregnated with chalk. This chalk gathered and all over the countryside built up the most amazing natural formations. Fatal to vegetation, these incrustations spread like a stony shroud over the ground. The rest of the ground was volcanic and therefore always fertile, making for magnificent pasture land, (W. Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, p. 91-92).
- Did Paul write it? We are not going to explore this at length because there is nothing definitive. Our focus is to explore the truths in this letter. However, if Paul wrote it when imprisoned in Ephesus, it would date the letter 54-56AD. If Paul or Timothy wrote it from Rome, it would date 61-63AD. If it was a scholar or Pauline school writing it from Ephesus, it would date later in the 80sAD, (RB, p. 600). MA Powell writes that the letter may have been written by someone else because, “cosmic perspective transcends the usual contours of what Paul provides in letters that are more confidently attributed to him, (p. 357).
- “Think globally, act locally” could be a motto for this letter because it adopts a cosmic perspective yet is still well grounded in the affairs of daily living (p. 357). Let’s see if that still holds true for us today!
Chapter 1: Address and The Preeminence of Christ
Summary – Paul addresses the people of Colossae who he most likely hasn’t met. Epaphras founded the community there, but he is with Paul now. Paul is so grateful for them and affirms their faith in God; he prays for it to continue. Paul seems to quote an early hymn that establishes Christ as being at the beginning of creation and that we may find fullness of life through Christ. Paul references his own suffering as being a cause of rejoicing, because it is for Christ.
Note this address is different than other letters of Paul. To the Corinthians, Thessalonians and Galatians, he addresses the Church. But here, Romans, Philippians and Ephesians, he is more personal. “the holy one and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae”. Paul’s later letters seem to reflect a change in how he views Church (Barclay, p. 104). What do you think of this?
Vs 13: “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…” Transferred is from the Greek methistemi. In the ancient world, when one empire won a victory over another, it was the custom to take the population of the defeated country and transfer it to the conqueror’s land. Thus the people of the northern kingdom were taken away to Assyria, and the people of the southern kingdom were taken away to Babylon. So Paul says that God has transferred the Christian to his own kingdom. That was not only a transference but a rescue: from darkness to light, slavery to freedom, condemnation to forgiveness, the power of Satan to the power of God, (p. 112).
Compare 15 – 20 with another hymn Paul uses in Philippians 2: 5 – 11.
The firstborn, or prototokos, is a title of honor, a title of the Messiah. Not only is the Son the agent of creation in the beginning and the goal of creation in the end, but it is he who holds the world together between the beginning and the end (during the time as we know it) (p. 120). What does this mean for us?
A lot of the language Paul uses is to offset what a group called the Gnostics were teaching. We will delve into that more next week.
Vs 20 “Through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross [through him], whether those on earth or those in heaven”: We are always reconciled to God, not God to us. God initiates it. Love and salvation is God’s first thought. And that the medium for this reconciliation is Christ’s blood. The Cross is the proof that there is no length to which the love of God will refuse to go in order to win our hearts, (p. 122-123). And note that Paul says ALL things, so not just people but all of creation. What do you make of this? And why is reconciliation necessary in heaven?
Vs. 24-25: If Christ did all that was needed to redeem us, what “lack” might Paul be talking about?
Vs 28: How we do proclaim Christ…in our language, entertainment choices, friendships, actions?