One of the reasons we watch the evening news on television, or read a daily newspaper, is that we want to try to see what’s going on in this world we live in. Further, one reason we read books is we want to understand how people are interpreting the world we live in. I’ve been part of a book reading group for nearly 30 years, and I noticed that in next year’s choices all the books were written within the last 7 years. They are, in other words, about the contemporary world.
Why would anyone read Plato’s Republic? It was written in the 4th century B.C. Did Plato really speak about issues that are still on the docket? Sure, he spoke about government and the integrity of government, but he visualized poets being the heads of society, a plan that hasn’t worked too well in history.
The long ago question affects us as Christians. Our source of knowledge about God is the Bible. I read it nearly every day and have since the time I became a Christian. I not only read it, but I study it carefully. You know that the oldest historical parts were written about a world of 3,400 years ago when Moses set down the books of the Pentateuch. Jesus’ story, which brought new hope into a fragmented world, is about the world of 2,000 years ago. This is not what happened yesterday. This is not what was written in the past 7 years. The world has changed since that time, and, frankly, it is sometimes hard to relate to events of 2,000 years ago. We’re not good historians.
But during those past 2,000 years there has been a wind that has blown across people’s lives. There are people like Paul whose life was changed from being like everyone else to walking a new road in life. That wind is the living Holy Spirit. We can’t see him, though there are times we can feel his presence. We can hear the stories of people we know who are being changed by a message that is not like Plato’s Dialogues nor Aristophanes plays.
Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter to the Christians in Colossae. He had been in Colossae, but it was a friend of Paul’s, a man named Ephapras, who had evangelized the people there. From prison Paul kept up on what was happening in the churches in Asia Minor. There wasn’t much text messaging in those days, no cell phones, but Christians from Asia Minor would visit Paul in his prison in Rome, and relate to him what God was doing in the newly founded churches. In the 1st century Colossae was on the Roman highway that connected Ephesus in the West with the Euphrates Valley. Colossae was just a few miles from Laodecia and Hierapolis. As those two cities would increase in importance, Colossae declined. In the 12th century the church there and most of the city was destroyed by Muslim armies. Today it looks no different from the barren country around it, with a few stones and some fragments of columns left.
Now when we look at Colossians 1, we ask 3 questions: what does it say? What does it mean? And, how does it apply to us? Eugene Peterson can help us immensely with what it says. He uses the translation principle of the Bible Societies when he created “The Message”. It’s called “dynamic equivalence”, which means, he translates the images and the words of a time long ago into their equivalent meaning for our day. That makes it easier for people today to grasp what Paul is saying. I was in tension for a long time between a dynamic equivalent translation and a literal translation, but I have come to believe it’s more important to have an accessible Bible than a scholarly exact one that common people can’t easily understand. We still need Greek and Hebrew knowledge, but lay people don’t.
1. In Peterson’s translation, here is what God is saying:
I, Paul, have been sent on special assignment by Christ as part of God's master plan. Together with my friend Timothy, I greet the Christians and stalwart followers of Christ who live in Colosse. May everything good from God our Father be yours!
Our prayers for you are always spilling over into thanksgivings. We can't quit thanking God our Father and Jesus our Messiah for you! We keep getting reports on your steady faith in Christ, our Jesus, and the love you continuously extend to all Christians. The lines of purpose in your lives never grow slack, tightly tied as they are to your future in heaven, kept taut by hope.
The Message is as true among you today as when you first heard it. It doesn't diminish or weaken over time. It's the same all over the world. The Message bears fruit and gets larger and stronger, just as it has in you. From the very first day you heard and recognized the truth of what God is doing, you've been hungry for more. It's as vigorous in you now as when you learned it from our friend and close associate Epaphras. He is one reliable worker for Christ! I could always depend on him. He's the one who told us how thoroughly love had been worked into your lives by the Spirit.
Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven't stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. We pray that you'll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you'll have the strength to stick it out over the long haulnot the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.
God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He's set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.
2. So, let’s consider briefly the meaning of what Paul is saying. We can’t tackle everything in this passage, but we need to consider what Paul believes will help the Colossian Christians in the tension they live with in their world. In many ways that tension is similar to the tension between us and our world, for we live in a secular, pluralistic world, yet in America, the culture is not yet so hostile to Christianity as that of the Colossians.
Paul says, I am praying for you. People in hard situations need prayer, but we need to consider the sorts of things Paul prays for them. In vs. 3, “We can’t quit thanking God our Father and Jesus our Messiah for you!” In vs. 9 he adds, “Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will….” So our prayers should be consistent, but there is also content. What do we pray for?
A month ago the small group Bible Study Nancy and I are part of were working on a passage in John’s Gospel. We considered the question, why is it that we pray for things, or pray that people get things, or jobs, or healing?
Notice what Paul prays for: He prays thankfully to God for the faith of the Colossians. In vs. 9 he asks that God would give them wise minds and spirits that are attuned to his will. In vs. 10 he prays that they would live well for Jesus and that they will have the strength to stick it out in living for Jesus over the long haul. Do you pray for people like that? It is not praying for things or jobs or healing; and yet the Colossians had far less than we and more problems. They were living in a situation more like Christians in Iraq or in Pakistan or Zimbabwe than anything we experience. Paul does not pray that their lives would be easier or richer or that they would have some of the things they need. Paul prays that they would have the mind set and the stick-to-it-iveness to live well for Jesus.
Philip Yancey in his recent book on prayer asks some of those difficult questions about prayer that someone needs to ask. He asks, “Does prayer have any real impact in the outer world or is it merely a private conversation with God?” He sets a scene with a tourist at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, which is one part of the ancient temple. The tourist sees a Jew praying at the Wailing Wall and he asks this Jewish man if these prayers of his are effective. The Jewish man answers, “It’s like talking to a wall.”
On the other hand, Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, says that when you pray that is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
And the Colossians certainly lived in a disordered world. There were a growing number of Christians in Colossae. What Christians did in their lives newly structured by Jesus affected the culture and the commerce around them. It meant fewer people would buy food offered to idols. There would be no more purchase of golden idols or magic potions.
The question for Christians always is, how do we get an understanding of the way God works and what he wants of us? How do we develop this wisdom Paul prays in vs. 9 we should have? There are tensions in our society over certain issues, like there were for the Colossians. For us it is issues like protecting the environment, homosexuality, divorce, abortion, what national political elections mean, how to improve our public schools, and how to help the poor. Paul prays for the Colossians who struggled with issues like worshipping angels and other things, that they would have wise minds. Of course, a wise mind doesn’t mean a mind that agrees with you about everything. It means a mind that longs to know God’s ways. But how does that happen?
Well, over a period of time, and with the help of other Christians. During any given week I may meet with a half a dozen or more people. In one recent group we talked about church history. One man a doctor said, “I have never read anything about the history of the church. In med school and in my early practice I didn’t have time to do that. And now I’ve found this great book,” and he showed the small group of us the book. Now I did my doctoral work in church history, but I didn’t know this book. It was about a particular part of the church I had never thought much about. God uses both the Scriptures and other thoughtful Christians to provide us with wisdom.
I joke with these men that our coffee times are always dangerous. After we’re done I go to Barnes and Noble and buy 25-30 dollars worth of the books we’ve talked about. Reading these books is one of the ways wisdom can come. But notice what Paul adds to that.
Vs. 9, “and spirits attuned to his will.” Now see, it’s okay to read, but then we’ve got to do something about what we discover as we read. The beginning of that is how the Spirit translates what we read into God’s will in our lives. All of this comes out of prayer.
What gave rise to the prayer is that these Colossians, in vs. 5, have heard the Message. And Paul says, you were excited in your lives about it then, but the point is, it’s still true. And here’s their understanding, “they recognized the truth of what God is doing,” and this is the crucial issue in understanding what Paul wrote, “you’ve been hungry for more.”
Over the past year I have been preaching at the Elizabethtown Church. After the early service one Sunday, as I was talking with a group of people over coffee, a teenager came up and asked a question he said he had been thinking about. A few weeks before he had given a testimony in the morning service about how he had made a commitment to Christ. He asked, “What I don’t understand is, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why couldn’t God have saved us in another way?” What I loved about that question was, this teenager was thinking about the commitment he had made. He was hungry for more. That was showing up in a number of ways in his life.
Then Paul comments in vs. 11, “As you learn more and more how God works and that’s what the Message tells us and why we need to read the Bible you will learn how to do your work.” Even 2,000 years after Paul wrote, what we read is God speaking to us. From our point of view 2,000 years is a long time. From God’s point of view, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever. He hasn’t changed. What God did in Paul’s day is what he is doing today. This is some of what this passage means.
3. Now, thirdly, let us consider how this applies to us. The Message tells people how we need to live. Paul talks about what the Colossians’ problems with living in God’s way are and what they should do about it. As we read the passage the Holy Spirit changes the pronoun “You” to the pronoun “We”. Here is what we need to do. What the next verse says is one of the things Paul prays for these Colossian Christians: vs. 10, “we pray that you’ll (that we will) live well for the Master.” He adds in vs. 12, “We pray that you’ll (that we will) have the strength to stick it out over the long haul.”
Now how do we do these two things?
I’ve been reading a book by Charles Taylor, a recently retired professor from McGill University in Montreal and the 2007 winner of the Templeton Prize, an award whose value is greater than a Nobel Prize. It is awarded to people who are considering what Christianity means in our current cultural setting. Billy Graham received that award, and so did Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade. Taylor himself, besides being a philosopher, ran for prime minister of Canada against Eliot Trudeau and lost the election! In this book, The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor identifies the malaises affecting our current culture. The first is individualism. The effect of individualism has led to a loss of a sense of higher purpose in life. What is there worth dying for today? When people are self-centered, which is prime mark of individualism, they become less aware of others and of the society around them. They do what they want. So we have narcissism, the “me” generation, and a permissive society where parents don’t discipline their children and one in which there are no longer community standards.
But if we as Christians live well for the Master it means that we cannot be individualists in these senses. We are part of a community and need to respect and help others who are part of that community. Paul did that even when he was in prison.
Then what about sticking it out over the long haul? Jonathan Edwards led a great revival in New England in 1740/41. It was called the 2nd Great Awakening. When people would come forward during these meetings to confess their faith in Christ, Edwards wrote when he described the Great Awakening, you need to see where they are in three years to know whether this profession is real.
Once you start along the spiritual life path, you have to learn to keep on obeying God for his sake, not for the pleasure of it. That’s some of what Paul is saying in this part of Colossians 1.
I remember the first all night prayer meeting I took part in. In the dorm I lived in during my years at Fuller Seminary, we were praying for an upcoming Billy Graham crusade. It was 1960, I think. An older woman, who was part of the prayer support ministry for Billy Graham, came to our dorm one night to give us guidance as we prayed. Dick Peace who teaches today at Fuller was part of that group, and Michael Cassidy, my roommate, who founded a trans-African evangelistic ministry, was there, and Ned Hale, who today works with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s ministry to International students was there, and a few others. And we prayed in agony and rejoicing and always guided by this wise woman who obviously had more experience than any of us did in praying. You learn to stick it out over the long haul by practicing.
Here’s another image to help us think about this. You’re hiking the Appalachian Trail. Ah, in the summer the trees cast shadows on the Trail. You have to watch out for roots and stones, but the sun dances through the shadows of the leaves and a slight breeze blows across you, like the Spirit of God himself. As you tread on up into the mountains, you just have to work. If you do, say, 10 miles in 2.5 or 3 hours, which is the pace Nancy and I walk in, you test your abilities. But you don’t give up. You keep on. That’s Paul’s picture of the Christian life. So what will this mean for you?