Have you ever stopped to think about the monumental challenge which was the mission of the Apostle Paul? He was tasked with the responsibility of taking a completely new way of being human into a world that in many ways felt it had reached the zenith of development. His was a task of challenging, confronting and, very often, deconstructing widely held worldviews in order to declare a new view of God, as well as a new point-of-view on the meaning of being human.
When Paul announced God’s newly instituted order to Jewish listeners the conflict was a bit more obvious to us. At least, when considered against the backdrop of the Old Covenant and in light of the interactions of Jewish people with Jesus during his earthly ministry and our understanding of the life of first century Jewish people who were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, the points of contention are more apparent to us. An example of this is seen in Acts 17:1-10. Paul preached in the synagogue. We are told that some of the Jews, a large number of proselytes and not a few prominent Athenian women who had attached themselves to the synagogue were persuaded and joined Paul. This was not well received by some, though. In their jealously they stirred up such a fuss that Paul and company had to leave Thessalonica. We aren’t told what the source of the jealousy was, except that it came fast on the heels of the decision of many to accept the message Paul was preaching. Whatever else is involved, it’s clear that these Jewish leaders were threatened by this message and didn’t take too kindly to continued efforts to win converts in their community.
We have an example of something very similar to this occurring later in this same chapter. It happens when Paul is in Athens, the epicenter of Greek philosophy. Just as Jewish listeners were brought face-to-face with challenging realities when he spoke in their synagogues, his message to the Gentiles was equally confrontational. We sometimes miss this, in my estimation, because we don’t have the same background information in mind when we consider such events.
While Paul waits for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens, the fact that this great city is awash in idols troubles him greatly. In Acts 17:17-19 we read:
17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?”
It is my sense that we Gentiles are expected to grasp the monumental significance of what is happening. The apostle is brought by a group of philosophers into the midst of the best and brightest of Athens in the Areopagus, the quintessential brain-trust of Greco-Roman thought. At this place amongst these people the heart beat of paganism is palpable. From this place the life of pagan idolatry throughout the world is nourished. Here in their midst the apostle confronts their ignorance, calls them to repentance in view of God’s judgment, the certainty of which is proven through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Acts 17:20- says:
20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
There were a number of people who believed Paul’s message. The most prominent of these was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus and a woman named Damaris. And so spread the Gospel amongst Gentiles. Many heard, most scoffed but some believed. Pockets of believers known as ekklesias began to emerge in cities, towns and villages all over the empire. During a fascinating period of the Apostle Paul’s ministry, while he was in Ephesus, one of the leading cities of the empire, he adopted a style very similar to that of the philosophers of this time. He taught daily in the School of Tyrannus for two years. As a result of this unique approach to mission work, “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).
One of the places the word of the Lord reached was a little community in the Lycus Valley named Colossae. This town was not a leading town in the area. The church to who Paul writes is most likely a house church that is meeting in the home of Philemon. Paul’s concern for them is made very clear in chapter 2. He does not want this little faith-community to be taken captive (perhaps again) through “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
In this letter, therefore, he first declared a new system of order. Jesus has supremacy in everything. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is your Lord. In the latter half of Colossians he reminds them that following Christ means they have a new way of living—a new way of being human—that radically impacts every aspect of their lives. His concern is that they would continue to live under the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ, thus refusing to be mastered by anyone or anything else ever again. He wants them to continue to live into this new idea of a new way of being human that they had heard about and believed in when the word of the Lord had come to them.
In short, this is why he wrote this little letter. Because of the possibility that someone might deceive them with fine sounding arguments, they needed to be confronted with an unambiguous reality: If you have been raised up with Christ, it will be evident in the way you live. This is the thrust of the chapters 3 and 4 of Colossians.
Colossians 3:1-4 contains the thesis:
1Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
The personal implications being enumerated in verses 5-17:
5Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16Let 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. 17And 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.
In view of these thoughts and in light of these verses I offer these questions to help us to determine whether or not we get the point:
(1) In view of verses 1-4, what are my spiritual priorities? Is my heart centered in Jesus? Am I living for the moment, or the moment Christ will appear?
(2) Taking verses 5-11 into consideration, how is this ethereal view of life affecting my daily choices? Is my life undergoing transformation? Am I being renewed in knowledge in the image of my Creator?
(3) In light of what verses 12-14 say, how is this ethereal view of life affecting the way I treat people? Is my life a reflection of the way God is treating me? Is my life a reflection of the Good News I am speaking?
(4) Considering the thrust of verses 15-17, how is Christ’s sovereignty being seen in my life? Does Christ’s rule bringing peace to my relationships in the body? Does Christ’s word in my heart ooze out in my substance of my psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Does Christ’s will govern all of my words and deeds?
© Bill Williams, September 24, 2006