We don’t need a spiritual fad diet to start off 2023. Jesus keto-gummies aren’t going to cut it for us. What we need is to get re-centered on our role in God’s grand narrative to reconcile the world to himself by forming a new humanity in Christ.
Colossians 1:24-2:5 is a fitting text for those of us who are taking stock of where we have been in 2022 and where we are heading in 2023. Paul’s frank pastoral encouragement and his transparent description his own ministry difficulties are especially timely. What we need as we head into the new year is real wisdom for life and ministry in the church and for witness to those outside the church.
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From a Profound Poem to Pressing Pastoral Concerns
Colossians 1:23 is a transitional verse—a hinge if you will—connecting Paul’s profound poem about Jesus (1:15-20) to his pressing pastoral concern for the Colossians. The wonderful blessings of Christ’s reconciliation come only to those who persevere in faith:
. . . if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard . . . (ESV)
Paul’s fear for the well-being of the flock at Colossae becomes clear here. It is apparently based on the news he has received from Pastor Epaphras (Col 1:7-8). Paul’s concern becomes more explicit in 2:4 and is unmistakable in 2:8-24. The transition in 1:23 is somewhat abrupt (compare 1 Cor 15:2), coming as a shot across the bow of the good ship Colossae, warning the church that it must steer away from the dangerous reefs of angel worship and legalism (Col 2:18) and get back on the safe course of Christ’s sufficiency.
Paul introduced his apostolic office in Colossians 1:1 and brought it up again at the end of 1:23. Now in 1:24-2:5 he elaborates on the intense suffering and struggle he joyfully endures in order to proclaim the mystery of Christ.
Suffering and Struggling Joyfully
Paul’s pastoral concern is expressed in two paragraphs, 1:24-29 and 2:1-5. Both speak frankly about the rigors Paul experienced in fulfilling his unique calling, and both present a model for life and ministry that we would do well to follow.
• Paul rejoices in suffering (1:24-29)
– As we noted previously, Paul was likely a prisoner in Rome when he wrote to the Colossians (Col 4:3). We seldom speak of joy and suffering in the same breath. Not so with Paul, whose joy was found in obedience, whatever it cost him. Paul’s life was modeled after Jesus’ life. His suffering “fills up the sufferings of Christ” (1:24a). Christian suffering does not fix anything deficient in Jesus’ perfect redemption. Rather it extends Jesus’ redemptive ministry and message. Servants are not greater than their Master. As followers of Jesus suffer, they share in the identity and mission of their Lord. For further reflection, key NT passages about suffering with Jesus are listed below.
– Paul’s suffering is for Christ’s body, the church (1:24b). The “body” is one of Paul’s key ways of speaking about the church. Ephesians and Colossians both emphasize this metaphor for Christ’s Lordship and the church’s mutual dependence on him and need for one another (Eph 1:23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:1-6, 12, 16; 5:23, 30; Col 1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15). The body metaphor is the way in which Paul teaches about unity in diversity in the exercise of spiritual gifts (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12).
– Paul’s suffering is as a steward of the mystery message, that Gentiles are included in the people of God by faith alone (Col 1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3; compare Rom 1:5, 13-17; 11:25-27; 16:25-27; Eph 3:1-13; 6:19). It was not a secret that God loved all humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike. In the OT, willing Gentiles were to be welcomed into the people of God by taking on the yoke of the Torah (Exod 12:48-49; Ruth 1;16; 2:12; Ezek 47:22-23). The amazing news revealed especially though not solely through Paul (see Acts 10-11 and Eph 3:5) was that Gentiles who believed in the Jewish Messiah Jesus received the Spirit just as the Jewish believers did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18). Gentiles sharing in Messiah by faith alone began to fulfill God’s ancient promise to Abraham regarding the role of the Jewish people in the world (Gen 12:1-3; Isa 42:1-6; 49:6).
– Paul’s suffering comes during his proclamation of Jesus to everyone he meets. His vision is to present everyone mature in Christ. Paul saw the grandeur of God’s plan and the greatness of God’s love for the entire world, Jews and Gentiles alike (compare Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Rev 5:9). Paul taught everyone about everything God had revealed to him. This included explaining the true, safe path of messianic fullness and warning those who were straying into dangerous errors that diminished Jesus (compare 2 Tim 3:16-18).
– Paul works hard with the energy that Christ gives him (1:29). He wouldn’t have agreed with the higher life teaching that counsels us to “let go and let God.” For him agonizing effort and divine enablement went hand in hand. As he said elsewhere (e.g. 1 Cor 15:10; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Eph 3:7), Paul’s exhausting ministry was possible only through the divine energy working within him.
• Paul struggles so that believers will be assured in Christ, not deluded by persuasive arguments (2:1-5).
– In the case of the Colossians, Paul’s exhausting labors are for people he has never met personally (2:1; compare Rom 1:13-15; 15:22-29). His joy at their firm faith (Col 2:5) has come from speaking with Epaphras, who has apparently traveled from Colossae to meet with Paul in Rome (Col 1:7-8). He assures them that he is with them in spirit (2:5). Should we capitalize the “s” in spirit? Certainly the Holy Spirit’s work in Paul and the Colossians alike animated their relationship with one another. The unity that Paul speaks of would have been much more difficult in his day than ours, what with no emails, texts, social media, or Zoom meetings! Is it possible that our virtual relationships actually numb us to what is ours through the Spirit?
– Paul struggles so that believers might be encouraged, unified in love, and assured in their understanding of God’s mystery, Christ, in whom all wisdom may be found (Col 2:3). Paul has already alluded to the distinctive teaching revealed to him about the unity of all believers, regardless of their ethnicity (Col 1:26-27). He will mention it again in Colossians 3:9-11, and it’s clear from Colossians 4:10-11 that Paul practiced this unity—he had both Jews and Gentiles on his ministry team.
– Paul struggles so that people will not be deceived by plausible arguments, teaching that is attractively presented yet erroneous (2:4). This anticipates 2:8, 16-19. Paul was not afraid to call out error; that was as important to him as teaching the truth. Sadly today we see many teachers who lack Paul’s balance in proclaiming scriptural truth while refuting heresy.
The Take Away for Life and Ministry in 2023
Paul’s pastoral concern for the Colossians re-centers us for life and ministry in the new year. Paul summons them and us to grasp the amazing revelation of God’s grace in bringing all humanity—Jews and Gentiles alike—into the family of God through Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Steady growth into Christ-like maturity is Paul’s goal for them, and Paul is all in to accomplish that goal no matter how much he suffers or how hard he struggles. Have you given serious thought lately to the sheer grandeur of God’s plan to bring messianic shalom to the whole world? Have you prayerfully reflected on the part God is calling you to play in that plan?
It’s striking that there is no mention in Colossians of their suffering. Apparently they were free for a time to follow Christ without persecution from the worshipers of the Graeco-Roman deities and the cult of emperor-worship. This is an argument from silence, but one would think that Paul would have mentioned their sharing in his suffering for the gospel if it were actually happening (compare Phil 1:27-30; 1 Thess 1:6). Perhaps this is why the Colossians were vulnerable to false teaching about worshiping angels and keeping rules—their cushy circumstances provided them leisure to be distracted from keeping Jesus at the center of their lives. If so, they were like many followers of Jesus in the USA today. We read about other Christians suffering for their faith, but it all seems so far away.
Jesus essentially called his first followers to come and die (Matt 10:16-33; 16:24-28). Scripture and church tradition inform us that, with the possible exception of John, the apostles were all martyred. William McBirnie, Sean McDowell, and others have explored all this in depth. Paul came along later (Acts 9), and he too was martyred by the Emperor Nero probably only a few years after he wrote Colossians (2 Tim 1:8, 17; 2:9-10; 3:11; 4:6-8, 16-18; Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 5:7; Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 12:55; Eusebius, Church History 2.22.3; 2.25.8.
Has our prosperity numbed us to our calling to live in Christ for Christ? Living under Christ’s Lordship means dying with Christ to our own desires and living solely for Christ and his kingdom (Col 3:1-4). For some, this has meant and will mean martyrdom. For the Colossians apparently, and for many of us today, there was no immediate threat of that. Whatever, Paul’s main concern for them, and for us as well, is that we continue on the path of following Jesus laid out by the apostles (Col 2:6). We can’t allow our minds to be distracted by tantalizing teachings about angels or anything else that diminish the complete sufficiency of Jesus. We can’t allow ourselves to be normed by human rules, as if our acceptance with God requires anything more than living in the light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as it is expounded in the Holy Scriptures.
As Paul drew Colossians to a close, he called on them to pray for his ministry and to pay attention to their own:
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
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. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.Colossians 4:2-6, NIV
Paul didn’t ask them to pray that he would be released from imprisonment, or that his ministry difficulties would go away. He simply asked them to pray that he would have opportunities to preach Christ, and that he would preach Christ with clarity. Similarly, he called on them to live wisely (compare 1:9, 28; 2:3, 23; 3:16) and to speak graciously and attractively as they related to those outside the faith. These final words to the Colossians will serve us well in 2023.
Have a truly happy new year in Christ!
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