An Introduction to the Study of an Epistle

Interpretation of Scripture

(recommend "How To Study The Bible For All Itís Worth", Fee & Stuart, and cf. pp. 15-17)

Whether we like it or not, it is not possible to simply "read the Bible" without interpreting it. Every reader is, simultaneously, an interpreter. What we must set out to do is to make sure we are interpreting the right way for the right reasons.

The right reason to interpret is simple. The goal of any interpretation is to get at the plain meaning of the text. And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Teachers and students alike are too often prone to dig into a text first and then to look later - thereby covering up the plain meaning of the text - which often lies on the surface. THE AIM OF GOOD INTERPRETATION IS NOT UNIQUENESS OR AESTHETICS! We are not attempting to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at and focuses on being unique can usually be attributed to pride, a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deep truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a particular viewpoint or opinion.) Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time.

We are often confronted with people who have novel or trendy ways of looking at Scripture - clever analogies or hidden meanings in the text. More often than not, these will prove to be completely inaccurate - however entertaining or thought-provoking they may be.

It is my belief that the overwhelming majority of Scripture has been read, interpreted and understood correctly my millions of Christians throughout history. It is also my belief that the opposite condition has existed as well. In this class we will seek to find the plain meaning of the text - and seek to apply this meaning in our lives.

A Few Guidelines For Good Interpretation

Good interpretation begins with exegesis. We all do exegesis. We have all said, "In those days, this meant..." or the like. Exegesis is simply the process of trying to determine what the text meant to the people to whom it was spoken or written.

The first mistake people often make with exegesis is to use selective exegesis - to only apply the rules of exegesis when the text is difficult or troublesome. However, every text should be approached first on the meaning that it had to those to whom it was originally written or spoken.

The second mistake people make with exegesis is consulting so-called experts who are not experts at all. One popular example is the text in Mark 10:23. In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells his disciples that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." How many of you have heard the explanation that there was a gate in the city of Jerusalem called "the Needleís Eye" through which camels passed by crawling on their knees? The point of the interpretation is that camels could actually get through - though with some difficulty. The only trouble is that no such gate ever existed! The story originated in the 11th century in a commentary written by a Greek churchman named Theophylact. He was struggling with this passage just as people today do. But the plain meaning of the text is simply that a man cannot get into the kingdom of heaven - period! Only with God is this possible (hence the following verse).

Rules In Our Study:

After exegesis comes hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the process of taking the text (with its original intent understood) and applying the message in a modern context. (Technically, hermeneutics covers the whole process of interpretation - including exegesis, but for our purposes, weíll just use it to refer to applying the text in a modern context). Keep in mind the following:

Interpreting the Epistles

Remember that these are occasional letters. By this we mean that they were written to a specific people at a specific time for a specific reason. Much of the problems we have in our interpretations of the epistles stem from the fact that we fail to remember this and donít understand the reasons for the writing of the letters. Many of the things written in these epistles deal with specific situations that are so completely conditioned by their first-century setting that all recognize they have little or no personal application today - except perhaps for deriving some principle from them (e.g., bringing Paulís cloak from Carpusí home in Troas in 1 Corinthians). Other specifics may be conditioned for the first-century, but have obvious modern implications for us.

A Timeline of Paulís Ministry

(all dates approximate, based on F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, page 475.)



Public ministry of Jesus



Conversion of Paul (Ac 9:1-19)



Paul visits Jerusalem to see Peter (Gal 1:18)



Paul in Cilicia and Syria (Gal 1:21; Ac 9:30)



Paul visits Jerusalem to clarify the mission to the Gentiles (Gal 2:1-10)



Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus and Galatia (Ac 13-14)



Letter to the Galatians



Council at Jerusalem (Ac 15)



Paul and Silas travel from Antioch to Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia (Ac 16-17)



Letters to the Thessalonians



Paul in Corinth (Ac 18:1-18)



Paul visits Jerusalem



Paul in Ephesus (Ac 19)



Letters to the Corinthians



Paul travels to Macedonia, Dalmatia, and Achaia (Ac 20)

early 57


Letter to the Romans

May, 57


Paul to Jerusalem (Ac 21:1-23:22)



Paul imprisoned in Caesarea (Ac 23:23-26:32)



Paul sent to house arrest in Rome (Ac 27:1-28:31)



Letters to Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon



Letters to Timothy and Titus



Paul executed in Rome


A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Man - Overview of Colossians; 1:1-12

(Distribute and discuss handouts on An Overview of Colossians and An Overview of Paulís Ministry.)

Outline of the Letter

I. Introduction (1:1-14)

A. Greetings (1:1-2)

B. Thanksgiving (1:3-8)

C. Prayer (1:9-14)

II. The Supremacy of Christ (1:15-23)

III. Paulís Labor for the Church (1:24-2:7)

A. A ministry for the sake of the church (1:24-29)

B. A concern for the spiritual welfare of

his readers (2:1-7)

IV. Freedom from Human Regulations through

Life with Christ (2:8-23)

A. Warning to guard against false teachers (2:8-15)

B. Pleas to reject the false teachers (2:16-19)

C. An analysis of the heresy (2:20-23)

V. Rules for Holy Living (3:1-4:6)

A. The old self and the new self (3:1-17)

B. Rules for Christian households (3:18-4:1)

C. Further instructions (4:2-6)

VI. Final Greetings (4:7-18)

Background to the Letter

Church History

The church as Colosse was not planted by Paul, but evidently by Epaphras - who was converted by Paul at Ephesus. The church was composed primarily of Gentiles. Paul himself had never visited the church, but had heard of their faith (1:4). Apparently, the church initially flourished until false teachers came and disrupted the growth and maturation of the church. This false teaching prompted Epaphras to visit Paul to seek his advice and prompt Paulís intervention in the situation. Colosse had been a leading city in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It was located near the Lycus River on the great east-west trade route leading from Ephesus on the Aegean Sea to the Euphrates River. By the first century, AD, Colosse was diminished to a second-rate market town, which had been surpassed long ago in power and importance by the neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis.

Date and Location of the Writing of the Letter

Paul wrote to the church at Colosse from house arrest in Rome.

Purpose of the Letter

The primary thrust of the letter is to refute several heresies in the Colossian church that had been reported to Paul. There are at least six (6) key ideas Paul argues against: (1) ceremonialism - there were "strict rules about the kinds of permissible food and drink, religious festivals (2:16-17) and circumcision (2:11, 3:11)"; (2) asceticism - rules that Paul summarizes as, "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" (2:21) and "harsh treatment of the body" (2:23) were supposed to achieve purity; (3) angel worship - see 2:18; (4) depreciation of Christ - Paul stressed Christís supremacy (1:15-20; 2:2-3,9) against those who taught that Christ was on the level of a created angel; (5) secret knowledge - salvation required not just faith in Christ, but knowledge of certain mysteries (2:3,18); (6) reliance on human wisdom and tradition - see 2:4,8.

Syncretism and Gnosticism in the early church

The heresy discussed in Colossians seems to be drawn from an extreme form of Judaism and from pagan ideas that later became a system called gnosticism. The process of mixing different religions into a synthesis of the two is known as syncretism (from synthesis and creeds). The primary teachings of the Gnostics contained the following four (4) ideas: (1) the material world is either essentially evil or indifferent - therefore physical things are completely unimportant at best or completely evil, at worst; the body must be kept in its place; (2) between God and matter lie a host of fallen (evil) spiritual powers who now rule the world - Jesus was the first of these; he rules alongside other spiritual powers, such as constellations and angels - therefore, he is but one of many ways to God; (3) some human beings possess a "divine spark", an inner self that is different from the soul - this inner self is the true home of such people, which they may reach through a mystical knowledge - a "true" seeing and hearing; (4) redemption is ultimately dependent on the individualís self-understanding - and the resulting freedom it provides, rather than on God - hence the emphasis on knowledge instead of one faith. (For more details, see "Gnosticism" in Eerdmanís Bible Dictionary, pp. 421-423.)

Colossians 1:1-12

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

2 To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints -- 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

The theme of this passage is

Thanks, Concern & Encouragement

Paul begins his letter with encouraging words to the Colossians. He first establishes who he is and by whose authority he writes. Next he acknowledges the position of the saints at Colosse - that they are holy and faithful.

Why does Paul start this letter out so positively if the Colossians are having such problems?

Paul is thankful in verse 3, because he has heard of the faith and love the Colossians have in Christ and for the saints. He then says that this faith and love spring from the hope stored for them in heaven and revealed to them in the gospel.

Paul goes on to encourage them by letting them know that the gospel is spreading - that many more are coming to know the Lord.

What reason is Paul referencing in verse 9?

Paul prays that the Colossians will be filled with knowledge, spiritual wisdom and understanding.

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

Our education system today turns out people who are knowledgeable but unwise; trained but poorly educated. We are to be different. Paul then prays that the Colossians will live a worthy life and bear fruit in every good work, growing in knowledge.

What is a worthy life? What fruit are we to bear in our good works?

Note that the phrasing is bearing fruit in every good work. Itís not that our good works are the fruit - but that through our good works, we might bear fruit. Paul also emphasizes knowledge at the outset so that he can contrast the secret knowledge of gnosticism with the real knowledge and understanding God offers.

Who qualifies us to share in the inheritance?

It is not our works or our knowledge or our understanding that places us in the kingdom - it is Godís love. This is in contrast the Gnostic thinking that their secret knowledge would qualify them.


Image Is Everything! - Colossians 1:13-23

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.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 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 -- 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

The theme of this passage is

Understanding Christ As The Center Of All Things

As we discuss the verses above, keep in mind how the Colossians would have heard them. They are struggling with the concepts of early gnosticism. This belief system, as we have discussed, is rooted in secret, mystical knowledge rather than in Godís will. Imagery, visions, secret revelations, etc., all played a part in this belief system. Paul, throughout the letter, uses the terminology of the pre-Gnostic teachers to refute this heresy - just as we take phrases from the world (e.g., "go for the gusto" or "seize the day") and apply them in a Christian context to refute the worldís approach.

Why does Paul use the term image to describe Christís relationship to God?

Imagery has always been a powerful tool in Godís communication to us. Throughout the OT we see God using images to communicate his will to his people - the burn bush, the rainbow, the pillar of flame and the cloud, and on and on. God understands that "a picture is worth a thousand words". He knows that we are visually oriented creatures - and he has always used images to reach us. But Paul sets up Christ as the perfect image. All those images that have gone before - the bush, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle - were to represent some portion of Godís character or will to us. But in Jesus, Paul tells us, Godís complete and perfect revelation is made. There will be no better representation or revelation.

In this passage, what roles does Paul say that Christ plays?

Paul defines Christ in the following ways:

Paul goes on to encourage the Colossians to remember their condition outside of Christ - lost and alienated.

Is it important to be reminded of what we were without Christ?

Our attitude as Christians should be one of gratitude for our salvation. But if we are unaware or forgetful of our condition outside of Christ, it is easy for us to believe we somehow are "good enough" to deserve our salvation.

Paul emphasizes that it is through the sacrifice of Christís physical body that we have redemption.

Why does Paul emphasize this point?

Because the pre-Gnostics taught that the flesh was evil and, therefore, Christ could not have really occupied a physical body, but instead was merely an apparition or image of physical existence. Paul drives this point home more than once in Colossians by emphasizing the "bodily" form of Christ.

Notice also that Paul states that evil behavior caused us to be enemies in our minds. Here Paul is emphasizing the relationship between flesh and spirit. Evil deeds done in the flesh result in a spiritual consequence. The pre-Gnostics were teaching that either one couldnít be responsible for acts done in the flesh - since it was inherently evil and couldnít be controlled - or that acts done in the flesh were irrelevant spiritually anyway - and that performing them had no spiritual impact. But Paul emphasizes the interconnectedness of the physical and spiritual.

How have we lost sight in our society of the relationship between the material and spiritual? How has the church lost sight of this?

We no longer fast, meditate, spend time in silence, etc. - firstly because we are afraid of the excesses and abuses of Catholicism - but also because these are difficult. However, without proper discipline, we cannot be disciples. Many churches are packed with Christians who are not disciples. Discipleship is a difficult road. It is not adherence to a moral code. That is legalism. It is the submission to Godís will for your life - and seeking to know him by the sacrifice of self. Without spiritual disciplines, we are not conforming to the scriptural method of discipleship. Prayer, fasting, worship, meditation, celebration, fellowship, service, reading, study. These are all disciplines that we must submit to in order to be re-made in the image of Christ. Godís perfect image.

There are two aspects of gnosticism we need to mention here. First is the concept of docetism which held that Christ never had a physical body, but simply had a manifestation of a physical existence. Secondly is the concept of Cerinthianism which held that the divine Christ merged with the man Jesus at his baptism. These views were devised to support the dualism of spirit/matter within gnosticism.



Struggles and Mysteries - Colossians 1:24-2:3

24 Now I rejoice in what was suffered 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. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness -- 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

28 We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. 29 To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.

1 I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. 2 My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

The theme of this passage is

Hard Work For The Church

Verse 24 starts off this section of the letter describing how Paul seeks to, in his own body, live up to the suffering that Christ endured. The emphasis in this verse - and the preceding verses - is on the physical. Paul is re-emphasizing the point that the flesh matters. We are intimately tied to our physical existence. Paul uses his labor for the church as an example of what it means to be a Christian - it requires physical action. This contradicts the Gnostic idea that our physical existence doesnít matter. Remember the passage earlier where Paul links their evil behavior with the separation from God in their minds.

When you hear the word "mystery" what do you think of? How did Paul use it here? Why did he use it?

Paul defines what this mystery is twice in this passage. First he says it is "Christ in you". There are two aspects to this definition: (1) Christ joining with humankind personally and directly - no other priest, no veil, no tabernacle - this is revolutionary thinking to the Jew and the Pagan; (2) Christ joining and accepting gentiles - this is completely against the thinking of the Jews at that time.

Paul uses the term mystery for a couple of reasons. First, because this concept is new and unheard of to the listeners. Second, because mystery - as in hidden, secret knowledge - was a basic teaching of the Gnostics. Paul here expresses that the mystery of God is no longer secret or hidden, but has been "proclaimed to all creation". This refutes the idea that only a certain few can attain this knowledge. Paul also defines the mystery later in this passage by saying the mystery is simply Christ. Weíll discuss this a little later.

What does Paul mean by saying he will present us "perfect" in Christ?

The term perfect is another term used by the Gnostics referring to those who would be saved by this secret knowledge or enlightenment. Here Paul makes it clear that whatever perfection we attain will be found only in Christ - and not through ourselves. He even attributes the energy that he, Paul, has in Godís service, as coming from God - and not from himself.

Paul tells us his goals in his ministry: (1) to encourage in heart and (2) to unite in love.

What does Paul say the result of these things will be?

Paul says that he works for these things so that they may have complete understanding and that through this complete understanding, they may know the mystery of God, which is Christ.

What is complete understanding?

Paul uses this terminology here, again, to emphasize that the Gnostic idea of a secret or hidden knowledge is wrong.

How does Paul say youíll achieve this complete understanding?

Itís not by study or intelligence - its by encourage, love and unity. All wisdom and knowledge worth having are found in the person of Christ. Through these things come the complete understanding of God. Again, the emphasis is taken away from our abilities and is focused on Godís ability - which works so powerfully within us. He continues to lift up Christ as the source of all things - creator, sustainer, redeemer, lord, completer.

We mentioned earlier that while the particular form of heresy the Colossian church was struggling with is not specifically present today, we definitely struggle with similar heretical ideas. The growth of ascetic thought in the Catholic, Amish and Mennonite churches are a testimony to some of these early philosophies working their way through time. On the other hand, we often err to the opposite extreme, as discussed in the last lesson, of making all important things spiritual and ignoring the physical. We have come to see the physical requirements as strictly a set of moral codes to live by - instead of acknowledging the intimate relationship between physical and spiritual as discussed in Scripture. Jesus spent hours at a time in the wilderness on his knees. Paul buffeted his body to bring it into submission. Fasting, meditation, solitude, silence, sexual abstinence were all practiced by the early Christians in order to reconcile the physical and the spiritual.

What role do our bodies and our physical existence play in our Christianity?

While we are not to go the extremes of the ascetics (with the view that flesh is evil) nor to the extremes of the antinomians (with the view that flesh is essentially irrelevant), we are not to ignore the vital relationship between matter and spirit. Our sinful nature leads us to sin. But our flesh is not evil of itself. Our behavior - our desires and lusts and temptations - are learned reactions of our flesh. The disciplines teach us to "unlearn" these learned reactions and to replace them with right, spiritual reactions. This is hard work. It is struggle. But instead, we settle for the frustrating, fruitless, shallow work of living by lists of rules and regulations meant not to change our being, but to curb our desires. God doesnít want us to stop our desire and passion, he wants us to redirect them to him. Only when we submit ourselves to him - in humility understanding


First Things First - Again! - Colossians 2:4-15

4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The theme of this passage is

Staying Focused On What Is Really Important

The most dangerous thing to do as a Christian - and the easiest temptation to succumb to - is that of being distracted from what is really important. Judas, Peter, Barnabas and Paul, Simon the Sorcerer, and on and on. Being distracted is the surest way to fall from grace.

What is a "fine-sounding argument? Why is Paul concerned about it?

The weakness of the Colossians - and us as well - is that we are always ready to think we are greater than we are. We are readily impressed with our own intelligence and talents. We are eager to jump in and sound "enlightened" and "literate".

What does Paul mean by being "orderly"?

Contrasting this with the Corinthian admonition to do "all things decently and in order" we must keep in mind what the listeners would have heard. Paul is encouraging them to avoid division. This is not dealing with the topic of the public assembly.

Paul turns the discussion back to Jesus. He is our origin and our foundation and he is our source and guide of continued growth.

Why are we to be overflowing with thankfulness?

We mentioned earlier in our series that sometimes it is important to remember where we are without God. That we are lost and dying and without hope (as Peter would put it) when we are separated from Christ. Thus, we should not take for granted our salvation. Rather, we should be "overflowing with thankfulness".

Paul again attacks the reliance on human wisdom. When we attempt to reason out our faith - when we trust in our intelligence instead of Godís grace, we are trusting in "hollow and deceptive philosophy".

What are the "basic principles of this world"?

What is human tradition? What role does tradition play in the church?

Tradition is neither good nor bad. Tradition can be a helpful learning tool - a way for one generation to pass on its beliefs about how things should be done and what is important to the next generation. However, when an item of tradition is made into a law or a test of fellowship, we have left the pure gospel and have substituted human wisdom for Godís Word.

Paul offers Christ as an alternative to human tradition and philosophy. He says that in Christ dwells the fullness (completeness) of deity (God). He emphasized here that he dwelt in bodily form. He also asserts that as Christians, we have been given fullness in Christ - no greater fullness will come (as opposed to the Gnostic teaching that through secret knowledge, one might become more like God).

Paul re-emphasizes here that our completeness comes only through Christ - not through anything that we do. Paul, however calls to mind the imagery of circumcision in this text to relate our covenant relationship with God.

What was circumcision for? What did it symbolize?

Circumcision, to the Jew, was the sealing of the covenant vow between God and man. It was an outward symbol of what God had done in the heart of the man. Paul contrasts this with baptism and the Christian.

Did circumcision save the Jew? Does baptism save us?

(As Peter says, it is not the washing of the water, but the pledge of a good conscience.) Baptism does not save us. Godís grace saves us. Nothing else will do.

Is baptism required for one to become a Christian? Was circumcision required for one to become a Jew?

Our baptism is the "wedding ceremony" between us and God. Without the ceremony, we are not "married" - we may be in love, we may pledge ourselves to be faithful, but without the ceremony - the sealing of the covenant - we are not married. Thus, until we are clothed with Christ in the act of baptism, we have not sealed our vows with God - we are not in that saved relationship with Him.

Paulís concluding remarks in verses 13-15 are almost poetic as he reminds us of our condition outside of Christ and what God did through Christ on the cross. Paul is triumphant as he recounts that Christ and God did not only triumph over the principles of this world, they made a spectacle of them - showing them to be false, hollow, hopeless and empty.

Lessons to remember from this passage:


Of Angels, Shadows, Religion and Other Heresies - Colossians 2:16-23

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19 He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

The theme of this passage is

Understanding The Roles Of Things and Recognizing False Teaching

Paul uses this passage to remind the Colossians that the religion of Christ is not a shadowy, ethereal, ritualistic faith, but it is a real, personal, trustworthy spirituality - grounded not in mystical knowledge and ascetic practices, but in humility, unity and love.

In verse 16, Paul encourages the Colossians to not be judged by those who hold ritualistic beliefs.

Is Paul saying it is wrong to observe New Moon celebrations, Sabbath days or religious festivals?

Paul is not denouncing the practices of those who continued to observe such things. Rather, he is denouncing their attitude of superiority over those who donít join in their observance. The error is not in the festival, but in the binding of the festival observance on others as law.

How are such things a shadow of things to come?

How is Christ the reality?

Do we properly define reality and shadow today?

We often associate reality with the things that we can identify with our physical senses. Paul defines reality here - not as observable rituals or dates on a calendar - but as the person of Christ - whose lives in our hearts. We are to be grounded in the reality of the spiritual - and the illusion of the physical.

C. S. Lewis in his ground-breaking story, The Great Divorce, describes a mythical trip to heaven. Upon arrival, the people exit onto a great grassy plain that lies before a range of snow-capped, cloud-enshrouded mountains. As the travelers begin walking, they cry out in pain as they realize that what looks like soft, lush grass is actually as hard as any stone. Guides from beyond the mountain and tell them that if they wish to enter heaven, they must make the long journey across the grassy plains and ascend the mountains. They tell them that the grass is painful because it is too real - and that they are too shadowy - but as they persevere, they will grow more real, and the grass will cease to hurt.

We live in a world completely confident that we can trust our senses. But our senses only reveal the least important parts of Godís creation. The most important parts, the true reality, lie beyond our hearing and sight and touch, in the realm of the spiritual.

Paul goes on in this train of thought to describe how those who are caught up in the mystical or ritualistic have been disconnected from the Head - which is Christ. While we remain connected to the Head and receive our knowledge and understanding from Him. Again, in this passage, Paul emphasizes how Christ is the sustainer of all things - he forms the ligament and sinew that hold all things together - without the person of Jesus Christ, nothing would be as it is - indeed, nothing would be at all.

Paul associates the basic principles of this world - to which the Christian is to have died - with laws about what to eat or drink. He states that such rules are based on human tradition and are an outgrowth of the basic principles of this world - not of Godís law.

According to Paul, what should the purpose of any restriction be?

Paul states that outward bodily restrictions have an appearance of humility but that they fail to actually restrain sensual indulgence. The purpose of Godís laws - are to change us so that we are more like Him. Godís law accomplishes this by restraining sensual indulgence by providing the intending, godly fruition of desire, instead of sensual, temporal acts of indulgence.

God wants to change us. We often attempt to invent our own ways of changing ourselves into Godís image. Here, Paul is warning us that such attempts may seem fruitful - and may appear very pious and godly - but they will fail to achieve the ultimate goal of changing our desires into godly ones.


A Whole New Self - Colossians 3:1-4:18

1 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.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

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 whatever grievances you may have against one another. 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. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 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.

18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.

1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) 11 Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. 13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. 14 Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

16 After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

17 Tell Archippus: "See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord."

18 I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

The theme of this passage is

Setting Behavior And Relationships Up In The Image Of God

Paul begins this passage with a "since then". In the previous passage, Paul has scolded the Colossians for trusting in human rules and regulations, based on the principles of this world, to change them into what God wants them to be. He rebukes their attempts at making up ways of restraining sensual indulgence and tells them that such attempts - while appearing pious and humble, will not yield the kind of results needed.

Paul, again, changes the emphasis from us to Christ. He informs the Colossians that if they wish to restrain sensual indulgence, they must focus on Christ - not on rules and regulations. Only in the person of Christ will they find the strength they need to overcome their sinful nature - to which they have died.

Paul repeatedly emphasizes the old/new, earthly/heavenly, and how as Christians we have put off the old ways and taken up new ways. His purpose is two-fold:

What are the characteristics of the new life as Paul describes here?

Paul emphasizes two additional points in verses 10-14: (1) the rejection of prejudice based on anything other than whether a person is in Christ or not; (2) the requirement for unity among Christians. As Christians, we should be shining examples of racial, social, and economic unity - rejecting all forms of racism, bigotry and prejudice. Additionally, we should seek to get along, forgive and bear each otherís burdens in the church - to the point of sacrifice. Remember that for Christians, Christ is in all and is all - thus, when we reject someone for whatever reason - race, wealth, physical appearance, intellect - we are rejecting nothing less than Christ himself.

Paul closes out his thoughts on this section in verses 15-17.

What is the opposite of peace?

Quarreling, disputes, grudges, hatred, prejudice - these things are the enemies of peace. When Christ dwells in our hearts, there is real peace - and relief from such things. HE goes on the encourage the Colossians to remain true to the teaching of Christ - to share it, to write it on their hearts - to allow it to dwell in them richly. Again - the Word is of Christ - and it dwells in all Christians. Finally, let all be to the glory of God.

The final section of chapter three deals with the different roles we occupy as Christians - father, mother, son, daughter, slave and master. He doesnít deal with how we react to those around us when they donít fulfill their role - he only encourages us to fulfill our roles as we should - as if we were serving God. Too often we attempt to get those around us to act correctly before we will agree to fulfill our role. This is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. I canít change the world, but I can change the world in me.

Paul may have spent more time on the slave/master roles because Onesimus, a slave, is going to accompany Tychicus in the delivery of this letter to the Colossians and also the delivery of the letter to Philemon, Onesimusí master.

Paul concludes the teaching of the letter in the first 6 verses of chapter 4. Here he encourages the Colossians to:


Epilogue to the Study of Colossians

The central theme woven throughout this small letter Paul wrote to the Christians at Colosse is the centrality, adequacy and superiority of Christ over human philosophy, tradition and legalism.

The letter to the Colossians was written primarily to combat dangerous teachings about the person of Christ - who he was, what role he plays in the universe; about angels and their roles; about human rules and regulations; about unity and about Christian living. We found that many of the heresies Paul was concerned about in Colosse are alive and well in modern culture - angel worship, the search for secret, mystical knowledge, ascetic teachings, dualism (the flesh is evil/irrelevant, the spirit is completely good and isnít affected by evil physical behavior). We found that we still struggle with human traditions being made into law by men. We discovered that we are no better at living up to the marks of the new creation than the people living in Colosse were when Paul penned this letter.

The letter to the Colossians should serve as an encouragement to us. It should encourage us to know that we serve a God who knows human beings so well that the words he inspired thousands of years ago and completely relevant to us today. We should be encouraged to know that the religion and faith of Christ brings peace - and that religion that binds, burdens and divides is religion based on the principles of this world - not on Godís law. We should be encouraged to know that it doesnít take a special person or secret knowledge in order to be saved - it only takes a humble, contrite heart, willing to admit our helplessness and ignorance. There is no "higher plane" of understanding. Salvation isnít a pop quiz, itís a celebration. The ignorant, the genius, the wealthy, the poor, the black, white, yellow, red and brown will all be welcomed to the feast. Colossians is ultimately a celebration of the glorious news of the gospel of Jesus Christ - a jubilant shout that no one and nothing can keep the Creator from his creation - that he longs for fellowship with us through his son.