By Amy Peeler
Colossians is an extreme book. It paints a picture of Paul, who is extreme as well as the exemplary start of the Colossians in the faith. Because this is also God’s Word to us, this letter asks that we be extreme too, leading lives worthy of none less than the Lord.
We came to see that the only way we can do that is because God is extreme. God became human to bridge the gap between us, between holiness and sinfulness, to do in us what we could not do in and of ourselves. And Paul says to the Colossians as the Holy Spirit says to us in Colossians 1:22: “Now God has reconciled you in the body of his flesh through death to present you holy and spotless and blameless before him.”
That is the encouraging news of the first chapter of Colossians. The next chapter gets a bit more complicated, more practical, and therefore even more encouraging.
As we keep reading, we see that all is not perfect in Colossae. They have been faithful, but Paul also sees signs that concern him. He desires that they be presented as holy and spotless and blameless, but this will be true only as they remain in faith as those who have been grounded, who are steadfast, who do not shift from the hope of the gospel that they have heard.
That makes sense. If they do not stay rooted in the One who makes them holy, they cannot be holy on their own. They have to stay in him. And Paul tells them how to do so.
Colossians 2:6 is a key verse. “Just as you received the Lord Jesus Christ, so walk in him.”
The path ahead is no different than the beginning. It is not the case that Jesus gets you started and then you have to take over. I think we know that is poor theology, but this would be a good verse to memorize if you struggle with that idea.
Verse seven adds even more color: taking root and being built up in him, being confirmed in faith. He concludes that we should be abounding in thankfulness, eucharistia. You can’t be proud of what you are doing — I’m just amazing at the Christian life — because you aren’t doing it.
Instead, you are thankful for what he is doing in and through you. You can be excited; you don’t have to pretend like good things aren’t happening. But your excitement is expressed in gratefulness for how God created you and is working through you so that you are able to keep walking in him.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. The point is that just as we were redeemed in him, so we stay rooted and grounded and do not shift from him.
Sounds good. But how? Colossians teaches us how to discern when we are shifting away from him, and how to return.
Let’s begin by considering the Colossians. They can be a mirror to help us more clearly see ourselves. We find several clues in chapters 2 and 3 that indicate how they might have begun to drift away from true faith.
At 2:4, he is writing to them so that they won’t be deceived by arguments that seem trustworthy. Other teachers have come into the community, and their ideas don’t sound crazy; they sound plausible. Being tempted to move away from Christ wouldn’t be tempting if it sounded ridiculous.
At 2:8, with even more intensity, he says that he is writing so that they won’t be taken prisoner by philosophy.
This does not mean that one of the most venerated majors on college campuses is evil. People have thought that. I knew a pastor once who boasted that he only read the Bible and never books written by humans because he didn’t want to be taken captive by philosophy. How sad.
We know that Paul was conversant with the prominent writings and ideas of his day, as have been church leaders throughout the centuries. God’s truth is present in all places; we need discernment to weed out good ideas from the bad, but we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. How much of God’s glory would we miss out on if we don’t engage the deep thinkers of the world.
No, Paul specifies here that he has in mind empty deceit, the traditions of human culture, the authorities of the world that are radically and fully opposed to the truth of Christ. The problem is that Paul is worried they might be taken captive by these philosophies, buying these traditions hook, line, and sinker in such a way that then draws them away from Christ. Again, they probably don’t realize they’ve bit until they come to realize how far away they’ve been pulled.
At 2:16, he gets even more specific. Don’t let anyone judge you with regard to food or drink or festivals, including new moon and sabbath.
At 2:20, he asks why they are submitting to regulations that limit what they can touch taste and handle.
It seems that some teachers have urged the Colossians to practice certain laws: “You really want to be good, to be religious, to be perfect? Don’t eat certain things, discipline your body, observe certain festivals.”
Several of these rules seem connected to first-century Judaism, but asceticism, the denial of the body for the advancement of the soul, was present in Greek and Roman culture as well, so many interpreters think the influence of teachers could have been multidimensional, from several different systems of thought, but unified in a common message: perform. Keep the rules. Submit to these systems, these authorities. Paul mentions Moses, angels, the elements of the world, all of which are being presented to the Colossians in distinction from, apart from Christ.
And Paul calls them out for what they are: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence; they don’t do any good with regard to the desire for the flesh to fill itself up.”
These practices, these rules, these authorities, don’t deal with the innate struggle with sin.
In fact, they probably only encourage it.
We don’t really struggle with the temptation to show our piety by keeping kosher — Jewish food regulations, or festivals, or Greco-Roman philosophical asceticism.
But I daresay we do connect with the temptation toward performance, rule-keeping, submitting to authorities other than Christ.
I wonder if our system of authority isn’t Judaism but evangelicalism. Speak with these phrases, like these things, dislike these others, meet these performative benchmarks, give an appearance of piety.
I think the comparison is particularly apt, because I am not saying evangelicalism is bad. In fact, I think it is lovely and right in many ways. Just as Judaism was not bad, it was in fact God’s commands. The problem, and this is so often the work of the enemy, is to take the good and twist is just slightly, often imperceptibly, away from God’s aim, away from Christ.
How do we know when this happens? How do we know when a good thing is under the influence of the enemy?
Paul gives us several signposts.
First, notice that Paul speaks of these alternative authoritative systems as those which deal with external and temporary things: food and calendars, both of which will pass away.
Paul certainly isn’t opposed to denying oneself. He tells both the Corinthians and the Romans to forgo certain foods and events for the sake of others. It isn’t that the practices are wrong, it is the motivation and the result of the practices that are off. You begin to realize the practice is only about the external and the fleeting if the practice which denies one’s flesh paradoxically fulfills one’s fleshly nature. If the practices don’t put a check on selfishness, they probably aren’t being practiced correctly.
If a practice tempts you to show off or makes you snappy at others, if either of these things happens, then maybe this good practice has lost its benefit.
The first signpost is selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and lack of kindness toward others.
The second signpost is when these systems become disconnected from Christ. They are practiced in such a way that it seems like Christ hasn’t come yet. That he hasn’t died and been raised. That the whole universe, the system of sustenance, and even time itself has changed. And more personally, that our lives haven’t already been enveloped by him.
Sabbath is the example Paul mentions here and it may be just as salient for us.
Sabbath-keeping is good, God-designed, hitting at a deep core of who we are. Do we keep our sabbaths with guilt or with a lack of compassion? If we practice sabbath in a way that forgets Christ has come, we might forget that Jesus said the sabbath was created for humanity, not the other way around, and that on it we should do good.
If we keep reading into chapter 3, we see that the Colossians were following asceticism but still had desires that were wrong, including immorality and greed, and they had habits that were wrong toward others, including anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech, lying.
Actually it boils down to this. If you are following a rule that is more about you than Christ, that makes you guilty or self-righteous and overall self-centered, then that rule has become an authority opposed to Christ.
Then comes the more pressing question. If we recognize we are following another authority, how do we return to our steadfastness in Christ, our dependence on him?
Just as Colossians helps us discern the problems, so too it provides several answers.
The first is the most excellent of all Sunday-school answers: Jesus.
I don’t mean to cheapen that answer. Remember, children show us what it is to be in the kingdom of God; they are pretty good at staying dependent. This obvious answer is a good one. When we reflect on who Christ is, really is, we are much less likely to drift from him.
Here are the things Paul reminds the Colossians about Jesus:
He is the mystery of God that has now been disclosed. They can now see how the God of Israel has been working for millennia to be revealed in Jesus the Messiah. But that doesn’t mean that they have it all figured out. For in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. If they are being tempted by smart-sounding philosophies, they need to know that Jesus Christ is the ultimate of all wisdom, and they need to press into him to keep discovering more aspects of his mystery.
But Paul is more specific than just saying Jesus is the answer. He talks intentionally to the Colossians about Jesus’ authority, since that seems to be their struggle, drifting toward other authorities.
He says multiple times that Jesus is preeminent. Verse 9 reiterates what we learned last week: in him dwells all the fullness of deity (the fullness of God) bodily. Because of that, verse 10: In him you are fulfilled, not those other authorities, because he is the head over every ruler and authority.
If there are others who want to be in charge of you, who want to put you under the control of certain rules, know that Jesus is superior to them.
In the hymn about the Son from chapter 1, it says that the Son of God is superior because he created thrones, lordships, rulers, and authorities.
These things vying for their allegiance do not surprise God. In fact, God made them. They too are for his glory. God made the rules that are for his glory, but remember it was the power of the enemy that twisted them.
And then, God in Christ disarmed them.
In verses 13-14: God made you alive together with him, when he graciously forgave us all our trespasses, erasing, wiping clean, the record that stood against us with its demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them with boldness, triumphing over them by the cross.
If the good rules have become corrupted by standing in judgment of you, by condemning you; if authorities are saying you must perform these external things, he has nailed them to the cross by his own death. He has shamed them by the most shameful of all deaths, the death that wiped all judgments against us clean.
He is the authority, through creation and the cross, over all authorities.
How can the Colossians maintain connection to Jesus, who is the answer? Paul gets even more practical.
They can remember.
Paul says in 2:12, when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
Remember when you began with Christ. Remember what God has done.
I love that he mentions baptism here. Since the beginning, Christians have had this very tangible way to help us remember how we began in Christ.
That is no mistake. Water touching our bodies is a reflection of the fact that our God is revealed preeminently in becoming flesh, and God will redeem our flesh.
So the answers are: Stay connected to Jesus by knowing who he is, by remembering what God has done, and finally by looking forward to what God will do.
Colossians 3:1-2: So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Colossians 3:2: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,
Colossians 3:3: for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Colossians 3:4: When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
This is not escapism, pie in the sky by and by, or I don’t care about God’s creation and the millions of people who live in it because I’m going to heaven. That isn’t Christianity. That is a twisting of God’s truth into a lie.
No, instead, to set your minds on things above, not on things on the earth, is to set your mind on Christ, not on the twisted authorities on this earth who are vying for your allegiance.
He who is at the right hand of the Father brings you into the presence of God. He who is at the right hand of the Father is perfectly embodied, a guarantee of the coming restored creation. We can’t see it now, but soon you will see what is already true. Your life is hidden in the resurrected God.
In 3:10, he translates this truth about Christ into a truth about them. You are being clothed with the new. And that renewal happens as you grow into the knowledge of the image of the one who created your new life. The one who made you, in whose image you are, is renewing you even now and will bring you to that perfect end. This is the hope to which we look forward.
You don’t have to remain in him by yourself. He is the head, but he also has a body. See 2:19: there are ligaments and joints that nourish and unite so that all can grow in the growth that comes from God. The body of Christ includes your fellow believers.
Have you gotten pulled off-track? It is so easy to do. If guilt and selfishness are in authority over you, that might be the case. Through the love of God poured out to us in his Spirit, we can get reset. Consider who he is, the ultimate authority, remember what he has done, look forward to what he has promised to do, and be nourished by others who are moving in the same direction. Then, as we stay rooted and grounded in him, we will be presented before our holy God as holy in him.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is associate rector of St. Mark’s, Geneva, Illinois, and associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.