Church Bible study, originally posted on Facebook (2010)
Read Colossians 1 here.
v.1, 2: Paul introduces himself, emphasising that God chose him as an apostle (‘by the will of God’ — his ‘road to Damascus’ encounter). Timothy is also an important character in Paul’s life, he had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father. Paul had him circumcised after he became a Christian so that he could work with the Jews (Acts 16). The early church had problems around the two religions and baptism and/or circumcision. He does not know the Colossians but greets them as ‘fellow believers in Christ’ with his usual greeting ‘grace to you and peace’.
v.3–8: he explicitly describes God as ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’, the description and development of Trinitarian relationships is a key part of his writing. He has heard two things about them: their ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ (using the title Christ first is another characteristic of Paul, unlike the Gospels where Jesus is a figure to be encountered and understood it is absolutely clear who and what Jesus is) and ‘the love you bear towards God’s people’. These are two essential attributes of Christians and fit well with Jesus’ ‘two commandments’. Uniting and unifying faith in Christ defines and sets a boundary around the Christian community and the strong and generous love for other Christians is how faith is expressed (times were hard for the young, small and scattered Christian communities, some of which were house churches, in the face of both, reportedly, Jewish and Gentile/’pagan’ opposition and hostility).
1. Why does Paul highlight love of other believers, rather than of everybody?
The two attributes are rooted in hope (‘stored up for you in heaven’), this hope is ‘the message of the true gospel’. The essence of the Gospel is ‘not yet’, a future illustrated by Jesus’ resurrection but still to come for the rest of us. The hope of Christians is a motivator and a goal, it also means that we are in tension, or have struggle, with the world, although Christians have taken different positions on being rooted in heaven or on earth. ‘Hope’ is one of the things which makes Christians different …
2. Do you have hope? What is your hope?
Concern for the ‘true gospel’ is another one of Paul’s key concerns (or rants!) and in some places he talks about those who preach a ‘false gospel’, optional question:
3. Do you ever worry about false gospels?
But the true gospel is marked by ‘fruit’ (see Galatians 5.22 for the fruit, or harvest, of the Spirit). The true gospel is also all about ‘grace’, another key word for Paul, and describes God’s mercy towards us which, in Paul’s thinking, we do not deserve and have not earned. This emphasis is perhaps a bit different to that of Jesus where God just is merciful all over the place!
v.9–12: What Paul has heard about the Colossians has encouraged him to pray for them and he becomes a little mystical — ‘that you may receive from God full insight into his will, all wisdom and spiritual understanding’. God’s will is probably best understood as ‘what God wants’, i.e. what kind of people God wants us to be, rather than instructions from God about the specific kinds of actions and decisions we should be making about life, career, etc. In fact the next verse (v.10) explains — ‘that your manner of life may be worthy … and entirely pleasing’. The REB translation goes on to talk about ‘active goodness’, Christian goodness is not passive or neutral (but it is not easy and we are weak!). He then asks that they have ‘strength’ in order to have ‘fortitude’ and ‘patience’ in difficult times/all times; and finally to ‘give joyful thanks’ because of God’s adoption of them, another of Paul’s themes — ‘made you fit to share the heritage of God’s people’.
4. What does ‘God’s will’ mean to you? Has anyone told you what ‘God’s will’ is?
The Supremacy of Christ
v.13–20: Paul stresses that God is a rescuing God — ‘he rescued us from the domain of darkness’ and the themes of rescue and darkness are common in his letters (quickly look at Romans 1.18–21 and Romans 5.6–9). And then ‘through whom (Jesus) our release is secured and our sins are forgiven’. This indicates that Jesus was involved in some kind of ‘transaction’ or cosmic battle. Without getting into that, for the moment, the obvious question is:
5. How dark was it before we became Christians, or for ‘non-Christians’?
But what Paul really wants to get into is his understanding (theology) of Christ (or ‘Christology’) — ‘he is the image of the invisible God; his is the primacy over all creation’ (v.15). Now Genesis 1.27 tells us that human beings are in the ‘image of God’, but Paul is telling us something greater (as John the Baptist would say). In a Galilean carpenter, very probably not even a ‘pure’ Jew (though the Gospel birth narratives challenge this), hence the negativity by the religious leaders about his origins in Nazareth, the invisible has been revealed! But a man cannot reveal God! We have to stay with this though because Paul goes further, if Jesus has primacy over all creation he is not actually part of creation. If we then ask Paul, ‘are you sure?’ he goes on to tell us: ‘[in fact] in him everything in heaven and on earth was created’. Jesus is on God’s side of the divine-human encounter (and on ours as well, to make a bit more sense of this read John 1.1 –18 and Philippians 2.5–11). This is a key reason why Christians are defined by their belief in the Trinity (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity).
6. You what? Discuss!
Paul carries on at length adding even more weight to what he says about Jesus, though it took the early church over 400 years to ‘get it straight’, which involved many deaths and oppression of ‘heretics’. The greatest, and most memorable, statement is: ‘in him God in all his fullness chose to dwell’ (v.19). Here Paul is talking about God dwelling in the man Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus is both God and man, making things very complicated and regarded by some as contradictory.
7. Does it make sense that Jesus was/is God and man?
8. How encouraging is it that God fully experienced being human?
Finally, ‘by Christ’s death … God has reconciled you to himself’ (v.22).