Lesson 1
A Clear Voice in a Confused Time
Colossians 1:1-2

What the average man wants, much more than he wants the liberties we prize, is security; and he will support those who can and will give it to him.
—Carl Becker

At a football game I leveled my Leica camera hastily on the broad back of an obviously athletic-type young man passing by the stands. The point of interest photographically was a symbol on that young man’s sports jacket, a closed hand with the index finger pointing up. Two words completed the scene and the symbol: “ONE WAY.”

Jesus the Christ---Still the Focus

You who read this are quite at liberty to make up your own minds concerning whether you like or do not like that particular form of Christian witness. The very fact that this symbol does not need further explanation, for young or old, makes the point. Jesus the Christ is still very much in focus for a great many people in today’s world. Questions are asked about him. Affirmations are made about him. Followers live and, sometimes, die for him. He is an inescapable figure on the current scene.

Two Thousand Years Ago, But Why Now?

Almost two thousand years is a long time for any person to stay “in focus” in human interest and allegiance. But Jesus has done so and with persons of all ages and many different walks of life. To pursue the question of “why” and to ask what fundamentally the Christian faith affirms about him is a worthy and profitable quest.

Following that football game and the photographic episode, several of us went off to a pancake house for a short stack and verbal replay of the game. In the pancake house was a bookrack filled with numerous books, more than one of them specifically about Jesus.

This Fellow Jesus, beckoned one of the titles (from Warner Press, incidentally). Louis Cassels, for many years the senior religion editor with United Press International, authored that one.

Cassels plunged into his book on Jesus with typical reporter tenseness. He recalled how a college student had once said to him: “I would like to believe the things Christians believe about Jesus. But I find the story incredible.”

And here is Cassels’ reply: “Tell me, which detail of the biblical record of Jesus’ life do you find more improbable than the fact that you and I are talking about him, debating who he was and what his life signified two thousand years after he was executed as a criminal in an obscure province of the Roman Empire?”

This may have been a new thought for the student. Cassels reports that the student “agreed, after reflection, that this is indeed the strangest aspect of the Jesus story—the simple, obvious, and indisputable fact that he continues generation after generation to be an object of intense interest to people of all ages, races, nations, cultures, and levels of intelligence.”

The All-Sufficient Christ

The preceding words, or wording of similar import, occur again and again in writings about the letter to the Colossians. In fact, the noted Scotch commentator, William Barclay, has used it as a title for a manual on Colossians. As a title it is hard to improve as a jumping-off place for the consideration of the epistle. That’s what the Colossians letter is all about—the all-sufficiency of Christ. He is portrayed here as Savior and Lord, the agent of creation and the head of the Church, the victor over all principalities and powers.

Colossians does not narrate the life story of Jesus. That is found in the four Gospels. But it does interpret his significance and what was believed about him by early Christians, particularly the Apostle Paul. More than any other portion of the New Testament (with the possible exception of Ephesians) this letter sets out the foundations of Christian belief about Christ—who he was, what he had done, his continued significance. In part, it came into being because of danger that the infant church in Colossae might be swept from its doctrinal moorings by emphases that Paul felt were both heretical and dangerous.

Some Background

The letter begins by identifying Paul as author, (1:1) and this is almost universally accepted by Bible scholars. The date of its writing is not easy to establish because of questions about where it was written. Most commonly, it is thought to have come out of the period of Paul’s captivity (4:10) in Rome. (But it could have been earlier in Caesarea.) If, as seems probable, the letter came from Rome, the date would be A.D. 62 or 63, shortly before Paul’s death.

Two severe dangers appeared to be threatening the church in Colossae, a town in the Lycus Valley a hundred miles from Ephesus. First, a super-spirituality or false piety was being practiced by some members of the community, together with a mixture of borderline and even non-Christian ideas. At the same time, and from a different quarter, there were remnants of paganism with which to contend—tendencies to sensuality and sexual looseness. These conditions are not so much stated in the letter as they are inferred from what Paul appears to be attacking.

Very noticeable in this letter is Paul’s tendency to contrast positive affirmations about Christ and the Christian life, against teachings or trends considered undesirable. In other words, what he affirms here indicated something of what this church, which Paul had not founded or visited, was up against in terms of false teaching and substandard Christian living.

An Overview of the Letter

Paul’s letters commonly begin with some form of personal greeting, usually followed by a series of doctrinal affirmations, then a section of application of the doctrinal emphasis to Christian life and work, and then another brief and personal closing section. This is the way the Colossians letter develops:

1. Personal Greetings and Comments (1:1–8)

2. Doctrinal Emphases and Affirmations (1:9–2:23)

3. Concerns for Christian Living (3:1–4:6)

4. Closing Personal Remarks (4:7–18)

For convenience in spanning one quarter, the text material has been divided into thirteen portions. They could not all be exactly the same length or weight. Feel free to adapt the pace, putting greater emphasis where the interest lies. Remember, keep watching for parallels to present-day problems of the Church in both doctrine and life.

Notes on the Biblical Text

1:1 From Paul. To learn about Paul, read key passages such as Acts 7:58; 8:1–3; 9:1–27; 22; 24–28. Fragments of autobiography appear in his letters, such as Galatians 1:15–2:5 and Philippians 3:4–6. By God’s will … an apostle. Paul asserts that his authority is derived from God rather than humans. An apostle is “one who is sent,” a messenger. Paul typically began his letters this way. See Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; and so forth. This statement of apostolic credentials may have been especially needed for this letter since Paul had not personally visited this church.

Our brother Timothy. See 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19–23. Note how greatly Timothy had assisted Paul in his ministry. In the light of Colossians 4:18, Timothy might well have been the actual scribe or secretary for the writing of this letter. Notice “our” brother; even Christians who have not yet met face to face are linked in the bonds of unity in Christ.

1:2. To God’s people. Literally, the “saints,” those who belong to God. The Church is people who have been set apart for God’s purposes. In Colossae … in union with Christ. The Colossian Christians were in a city where dangers lurked. There was much sin and moral looseness, some of it encouraged by Greek and Romans religious practices. But they were also in a place of safety—“in Christ.” Grace and peace. These were favorite Pauline terms. A study of them is rewarding.

Some Study Approaches

For this beginning session, the purpose might be primarily to become aware of some remarkable parallels between the situation to which the Colossians letter was originally addressed and our own times—a time of religious confusion but yet sincere search for certainty and direction, a time of trends toward the occult and the practices of mystical rites, a time of exploration concerning the meaning of Jesus for the Christian.

A possible way to get at the study would be a quick overview of the four chapters of the letter, asking: What is going on here and how does it parallel our own times? (Each of four small groups might explore one chapter quickly and bring their finding to the whole group.)

Some attention needs to be given to at least brief orientation concerning such matters as the author of this letter, the persons to whom it is addressed, some of the key persons mentioned, the overall theme. Notes on the Biblical Text will help here. Give specific attention to the clues found in chapter 1, verses 1–2.

Lesson 2
“When We Pray for You” Colossians 1:3-12

For this beginning session, the purpose might be primarily to become aware of some remarkable parallels between the situation to which the Colossians letter was originally addressed and our own times—a time of religious confusion but yet sincere search for certainty and direction, a time of trends toward the occult and the practices of mystical rites, a time of exploration concerning the meaning of Jesus for the Christian.

A possible way to get at the study would be a quick overview of the four chapters of the letter, asking: What is going on here and how does it parallel our own times? (Each of four small groups might explore one chapter quickly and bring their finding to the whole group.)

Some attention needs to be given to at least brief orientation concerning such matters as the author of this letter, the persons to whom it is addressed, some of the key persons mentioned, the overall theme. Notes on the Biblical Text will help here. Give specific attention to the clues found in chapter 1, verses 1–2.

The Church in Our World

In the Church, it’s true; the traditional teaching of enmity with the world has often been pretty strong. (“This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through,” we used to sing.) Still, the culture becomes so much a part of us that we fail to recognize the nature of our “alienness.”

Many people speak today of “traditional American values,” in fact, as if they were synonymous with Christianity. We may now acknowledge that some of the practices we once identified as “worldly” and inappropriate for Christians were not necessarily so. But we also may suspect that some practices we readily adopt are not at all in keeping with a Christian life-style. Someone has said that asking people to analyze their own culture is like asking a fish to describe the nature of water.

Isn’t it true, however, that the problem of which Bonhoeffer speaks is the most urgent for any age? After all, to every person who has ever lived, his or her own age has been the “modern” one. As we look back to the church at Colossae, we find that their problems were not so different from our own.

The Church in the Colossian World

The Colossian converts to Christianity, most of them Greek or Roman, may have recognized more readily than we that a contrast existed between the way they lived and the way they were called to live. And yet, identifying the distinctives was by no means easy. Among their problems were these:

1. The true gospel was being distorted by teachings that sounded pious but might eventually bring great harm to the church.

2. Converts from raw paganism were clinging to their old styles of life rather than growing in a Christian lifestyle.

3. Jesus was being regarded as one of many intermediaries between God and human beings but not essentially unique in his person (a teaching known as Gnosticism).

4. Some persons felt they were the “spiritually elite,” superior in experience to the rest of the congregation.

5. The temptation existed to exchange salvation by grace for salvation by observance of specific rituals and rules.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? How would you identify the chief dangers facing the Church today?

As you read Colossians 1:3–12, note where Paul begins in his concern for the welfare of the Christians in Colossae.

Some Thoughts About Colossians 1:3-12

Paul’s first reaction to the news of problems and dangers in this church was to let the people know that he was praying for them (v. 3). He begins with prayer and thanksgiving and an enumeration of some of their strengths rather than a tirade against their weaknesses. Not all the news had been bad because the Colossians demonstrated faith in Christ and love for the people of God (v. 4). Is this not usually the way things are in our congregations—a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, of things commendable and things questionable? The whole picture requires seeing both. To dwell on weaknesses only is to bring discouragement and hopelessness or even resentment; to refuse to see or admit that some weaknesses are present is to permit deterioration, possibly beyond the point of recovery.

Paul reminds these Christians that they have received the “true message” and that it has brought “hope” to them (v. 5). In fact, the faith they hold and the love they manifest are grounded in a hope that reaches beyond this time-bound world. The gospel is growing and spreading, wherever it gets a hearing, just as it did among them (v. 6).

Now Epaphras is mentioned (v. 7). Notice how he is described. He is evidently the person chiefly responsible for the raising up of this Christian congregation in Colossae. Can anyone remember who the most significant person or persons were in the birth and development of the congregation in which you now worship? Epaphras has reported to Paul how this congregation is getting along (v. 8). From emphases later on in the letter it is quite evident that not all the news was good, but note how Paul stresses the positive side of the report in this opening portion of his letter.

The next verses (9–12) indicate specifically Paul’s prayer burden for this church, including his hopes and aspirations for them.

Finding a Life-Style

Note again the brief quotation at the beginning of this session: “The most urgent problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?” Those are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian leader in Germany at the time of World War II. He himself was imprisoned and finally hanged for the “crime” of opposing the Hitlerian regime and its policies. He felt acutely the clash between Christian conscience and the pressures of both government and society.

Paul evidently sensed this same problem in the Colossian situation. (Maybe we really should say that it is a fresh dilemma in every time for those who take the Christian way seriously.) Early in his letter he focused his prayer and concern and hopes in the phrases found in verses 9–11 of this first chapter. A three-fold formula for a Christian life-style emerges (in verse 10):

1. To lead a life worthy of the Lord (RSV). This says something about basic intention. When the decisions and directions of life are governed by intention to be worthy of the name “Christian” and the claim to be a follower of Christ, a life different from and superior to society’s norms will appear.

2. Fully pleasing to him (RSV). We all experience pressures to “conform” to the society around us. Christians seek first of all to please their Master. Many people spend their lives trying to please certain “others.” And we are all urged in our culture to please ourselves. “You deserve a break today!” we are told. But pleasing ourselves, or even others, as unselfish as that may sound, is not the order for the Christian. All our energies are to be given to pleasing God.

3. Bearing fruit in every good work (RSV). A Christian life-style brings forth more than just piety of belief and negative withdrawal from society. Full obedience leads to fruit bearing.

Notes on the Biblical Text

1:3. We always give thanks. Another common characteristic of the early portions of Paul’s letters. For other examples, see 1 Corinthians 1:4–7; Philippians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:3. In each case, serious problems were on the horizon but Paul begins with thanksgiving. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Again and again the New Testament affirms special relationship between Father and Son—note Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 11:31; Ephesians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3.

1:4. We have heard. They heard from Epaphras. (See 4:12.)

1:5. Faith … love … hope. This trilogy frequently appears in the New Testament-1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8; Romans 5:1–5; Galatians 5:5–6; Ephesians 4:2–5; Hebrews 6:10–12; 10:22–24; 1 Peter 1:3–8, 21–22. Paul will build upon the good that already exists.

1:6. Bringing blessings and … spreading. The gospel is fruitful when heard, accepted, and acted upon. Note Matthew 13:18–23.

1:7. From Epaphras. Back of the beginnings of any congregation there is usually some faithful and persistent witness. Faithful worker. His report to Paul (v. 8) occasioned this letter.

1:9. We … prayed for you. Although Paul has never met these persons, he is deeply concerned for their welfare. Concern for our brothers and sisters around the world is the mark of a Christian. Knowledge … wisdom … understanding. “Nothing short of the total of what God can and will give his people satisfied Paul’s inspired desire” (Vaughn). There is danger in being superficial in knowledge and shallow in experience.

1:10. Live … do. Knowledge must result in action and obedience. What pleases him. Our first criterion is pleasing God rather than people. Note Romans 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 2 Corinthians 5:9; Ephesians 5:10.

1:11. Made strong. “God’s commands always imply the means of obedience and the promise of power” (Thomas).

1:12. Give thanks. God has made us acceptable. Gratitude is our appropriate response.

Some Study Approaches

Begin by discussing both advantages and disadvantages of living in a country that is identified as “Christian.” Can a country be “Christian?” You might suggest aspects of North American culture or values that seem to you to be most in conflict with Christian values. Or ask class members to suggest examples of their own.

Quickly review Colossians 1:3–12. Here we get a few clues concerning the Colossian situation and how Paul came to write to this church. (Recall that he was not its founder and had never visited it, but he was concerned because of the report that had been brought to him.)

Identify parallels between problems the Colossians were experiencing and difficulties the church experiences today.

Lesson 3
Affirmations About Christ
Colossians 1:13-20

Paul did not take the negative method of arguing with and contradicting the false teachers; he took the method of stating the Christian gospel in all its splendor.
—William Barclay

A skilled and devout German wanted to crown his work with a statue of Jesus that would convey the full feeling and conviction of Christians about him. His first attempt required several years of hard work. But at last the statue was finished and he decided to test his success by unveiling the statue before a little girl and awaiting her first reaction.

More Than a Great Man?

The sculptor asked the little girl, “Who is this?” Her reply was: “It is certainly a great man.” The sculptor, so the story goes, was so disappointed that he destroyed the first attempt and began his work all over again. He repeated his “test” with the same little girl, but this time she stood quietly a few moments, almost as if in the presence of a living person. Then in obvious awe she murmured: “He is the One who said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me!’ ”

The Christian faith affirms the human reality of Jesus but has always insisted that the fullness of his person cannot be explained in human categories alone. An ancient creedal statement describes him as “truly man and truly God.”

A Matter of Belief

Some years ago a dynamic young evangelist left the pulpit for a secular career in the broadcasting industry. He had been remarkably successful, particularly in his work with young people. It was hard to secure his services for a youth convention because his calendar was so filled with engagements of this kind. His preaching was urgent, winsome, and compelling; many converts to Christ and the Christian way resulted from his ministry.

But suddenly, in the midst of what appeared to be a highly effective career, he dropped out, canceled his long list of waiting engagements, and left both friends and admirers baffled over what had happened. Eventually, in response to press inquiries, he stated his key reason for his decision. “I ceased to believe in the divinity of Christ,” he said.

Leonard Griffith, also a noted minister and a friend of this former evangelist, commented on this situation in a book titled What Is a Christian? Here are his remarks:

If this did actually happen to his thinking, then we have to respect him, because the preacher who ceases to believe in the divinity of Jesus has nothing more to preach. The foundations beneath his Gospel have collapsed; he no longer has a Gospel, and if he wants to be honest with himself, he has no alternative but to leave the ministry and earn his living in some secular profession. In spite of intellectual reservations a man may lead a life controlled by the highest Christian principles, but he is still not a Christian if he rejects that fundamental belief which, unless it is true, turns Jesus himself into a liar, makes fiction of the New Testament and reduces nineteen centuries of Christianity to a colossal hoax (p. 13).

What is your reaction to this decision and Leonard Griffith’s interpretation of it? How important is what we believe about Jesus? Is it not enough to experience him in living relationship? Why do we find it necessary to answer such questions as who Jesus really was, why he came, what his life and death signify? In other words, what is the relationship between doctrine and discipleship? If we feel that one should have priority, can we thereby do without the other?

Some Background on Colossians 1:15-20

A noted Bible scholar has stated that Colossians 1:15–20 “represents a loftier conception of Christ’s Person than is found anywhere else in the writings of Paul” (E. F. Scott). Such sweeping affirmations as are made in this passage about Christ make our minds reel trying to comprehend them. Two background ideas will help before looking specifically at the passage:

1. Scholars believe that some fragments of early Christian “praise” hymns are embedded in portions of the New Testament. Philippians 2:6–11 is an example of this (note how it is arranged as poetry in most current translations and so is Colossians 1:15–20.) In other words, we have the language of praise and adoration here coupled also with doctrinal affirmation. In part, Paul may in this passage have given some doctrinal explanation and affirmation based in part on familiar phraseology of a hymn already known to his hearers.

2. The type of teaching prevalent at that time—and evidently threatening the future life of this congregation—tended to foster viewpoints about Jesus that to Paul were unacceptable. Christ was being regarded as not wholly adequate to salvation, as one among many “saviors,” as one link but not the unique Mediator between God and persons. The reality of his coming “in the flesh” to suffer and die on our behalf was being depreciated. These ideas were part of the early heresy known as Gnosticism. Read the passage with these two background ideas in mind in order to understand overall significance.

Christ and His Relationships

Paul here affirms exalted convictions about the relationships of Christ to God, to creation, and to the Church. Christ is “special” and unique in all these relationships. Each affirmation was intended as an antidote to borderline or less-than-fully-Christian emphases:

1. Relationship to God. Christ is “the visible likeness of the invisible God” (v. 15). Also, “by God’s own decision … the Son has in himself the full nature of God” (v. 19). Christ is more than just a “good” or a “great” or even the “greatest” man. He uniquely manifests and represents God. He is the King in God’s kingdom (v. 13). It is by him that “we are set free … [and] our sins are forgiven” (v. 14)

2. Relationship to Creation. Both in point of time, and in rank, Christ comes first. “Through him God created everything” (v. 16). “Christ existed before all” (v. 17). And, “in him all things hold together” (v. 17, RSV). As Lightfoot has commented, “He is the source of its life, the center of all its developments, the mainspring of all its motions.”

3. Relationship to the Church. “He is the head of his body, the church” (v. 18). It is the head that “guides, directs, enables, moves” the body—and so is Christ in relationship to the church. In Paul’s eyes the welfare of the Church is tied closely to giving Christ his rightful place as its head. He is God’s answer to the spiritual needs of the human family.

What relationship or significance do you see in these affirmations for your life and for the life of the church today?

Notes on the Biblical Text

1:13. He rescued us. Past tense. This took place at conversion. God is the rescuer. Note Ephesians 2:4–6. From the power of darkness. See John 3:19 and Romans 13:12. “‘Darkness’ in Scripture is symbolic of ignorance, falsehood, and sin” (Vaughn). Into the kingdom. Note that the Kingdom is a spiritual reality, already in existence.

1:14. Set free. Redemption comes through the death of Christ. Note Luke 24:21; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19.

1:15. The visible likeness. Christ fully represents God. Note 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3; John 14:9. Paul is not saying that Jesus simply tells us what God is like. He is saying that to look at Jesus is to see God.

1:16. Through him God created. Paul regards Christ as the instrument of God’s creative activity. Also note 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 3:9; John 1:3.

1:17. The Today’s English Version appears a bit weak in translation of the closing part of this verse. Check other translations. For example, “In him all things hold together” (RSV). “He is like the root which makes the innumerable branches and leaves into a living tree” (E. F. Scott).

1:18. The head of his body. The Church, is a spiritual organism, with Christ as its source of life. He guides and governs. Note parallels in Ephesians 1:22–23; 4:15. The church is the whole body of believers. The Book of Common Prayer refers to it as “the blessed company of all faithful people.”

1:19. The full nature of God. “One of the supreme objects of Colossians is to insist that Jesus is not one in a series, one among many, that he is not the partial revelation of God, but that he is utterly unique, and that in him there is the whole of God, the fullness of God” (Barclay).

1:20. God made peace. Here we see the reconciliation theme. See 2 Corinthians 5:19 God takes the initiative in reconciliation.

Some Study Approaches

Note the sections More Than a Great Man? and A Matter of Belief. They can provide a springboard for discussing about how Christians struggle with the matter of belief in relationship to experience. (Both are important. Either one tends to lead to the other. Neglect of either leads to weakness of both.)

Explore quickly the listings under “Jesus Christ” in the topical index of your hymnal. List some of the things affirmed about Jesus in typical hymns and gospel songs. Do you find parallels in the Colossians 1:13–20 passage? (One subheading of the index could be assigned to each of several small groups to make possible a quick composite of these affirmations.)

Consider the three basic areas of Paul’s affirmations about Christ—his relationships to God, to the world, and to the church. The Notes on the Biblical Text section can supplement here. Key questions: What is lost or endangered if we surrender any one of these affirmations? Why would Paul be so concerned about these matters? In what sense are they of consequence for personal Christian life or the life and work of the Church today? (For example, if we came to think of Christ as one among many, “great” but not necessarily unique, what effect would this have on the mission outreach of the church and on personal witness and evangelism?)


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