Formations 04.12.2015: A Life Transformed

Colossians 1:3-20

Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was America’s largest and most active immigration station. The main building was re-opened in September 1990 as the national museum of immigration.

Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was America’s largest and most active immigration station. The main building was re-opened in September 1990 as the national museum of immigration.

Dorina Baica and her siblings grew up in hardship in Romania. She and her sister remember the difficulties involved even in buying food. “We had the money,” Baica says, “but the stores were empty most of the time. You couldn’t buy fruits.” Furthermore, their father was often beaten and thrown in jail for protesting against the communist regime.

With the fall of communism in Romania, Baica and her family came to America. They settled in Darien, Wisconsin, and her then-husband found work as a tool maker at a local factory. Baica herself was soon employed by the same company. Last month, she celebrated twenty-five years with Tri-Tec Corporation.

Though her road to citizenship was a long one, Baica is grateful for the opportunities America has given her. “We came here and it was like heaven on earth,” she says. “We’d never seen such an abundance of everything.”

What must it be like to have one’s life transformed so radically? Dorina Baica’s story offers us a small glimpse of what Paul describes in Colossians 1:13: “[God] rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” What Baica and her family experienced on a merely material level, Colossians celebrates on a spiritual level.

The affirmation of transformed lives leads Paul to confess the greatness and centrality of Christ, in whom all the fullness of God is found.

Rachelle Baillon, “Woman’s Life Transformed by America, Opportunities at Darien Company,” Fox6now.com, 11 March 2015 http://fox6now.com/2015/03/11/womans-life-transformed-by-america-opportunities-at-darien-company/.

Discussion

• When has your life (or the life of someone in your family) been changed for the better? How did this change come about?
• What keeps us from being truly grateful for the blessings we have received?
• Are the changes God makes in a life “automatic,” or do we have a role to play in manifesting these attributes? Explain.

Reference Shelf

Background and Occasion of Colossians

In the time of Paul, Colossae was a declining city in Phrygia, situated about 100 miles west of Ephesus. The population was mainly Phrygian, but Greeks, Syrians, and Jews had also migrated to the area. The religious climate in Phrygia was quite diverse, with a host of elements coming together from the mystery religions, Iranian worship, Judaism, and Pauline Christianity. Against this background a syncretistic form of worship emerged which brought Christ within its scope but reduced his significance, according to Paul and his followers.

The Epistle is written in light of two problems which called for attention: (1) the theological and ethical issue of the encroaching heresy, which is called a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8); and (2) the personal issue of the circumstances of Onesimus and his owner, who apparently resides in Colossae. The former seems to be much more important in light of the direct way in which Paul attacks the movement in chaps. 1–2. However, the personal problem may have been just as significant to him, but much more difficult to deal with since it required a more subtle approach.

The identity of the Colossian heresy has been greatly debated. Without question, Judaism was involved, e.g., circumcision (2:11-13) and sabbath (2:16). Elements existing outside of Judaism were also present, e.g., “knowledge” (gnosis) (2:3), “philosophy” (2:8), and “severe treatment of the body” (2:23). It seems to be a blending of some form of Jewish Christianity with incipient Gnosticism, influenced by elements of astrology and possibly the pagan mystery religions. The adherents focused on visions (2:18), intermediaries between God and the earth (2:20), and food laws, and days (2:16). The result was a low Christology (cf. 1: 15-20) and an extreme ascetic ethical stance (2:20-23).

The personal issue involves a request which focused on Onesimus, and one must take into consideration the companion Letter to Philemon to see the entire situation. Paul sent Onesimus back to his owner (Col 4:9) asking that he be forgiven and accepted as a brother, and probably requesting his release (Phlm 8-20).

W. Thomas Sawyer, “Colossians, Letter to the,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 163–64.

The Priority and Supremacy of Christ

Colossians 1:15-20 has long stood as a central passage in the New Testament in discussions of Christology. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a New Testament passage where Jesus is placed in a higher position as supreme being and immaculate agent of redemption. This is expressed by Paul so eloquently that scholars frequently treat this as a “pre-formed tradition” that the apostle has inserted into his letter. Certainly this passage has a glorious tone and is comparable in style with other kinds of doctrinal passages throughout the New Testament (e.g., Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 3:16), but it is important to affirm, of primary significance, that it plays a key role in Colossians itself. Paul did not desire to direct attention to the preeminence of Christ per se, but he established this supremacy to teach the Colossians that Christ is ever and always the solution to their fears and perplexities.

In Colossians, Paul is tenaciously emphatic that, whatever the problem, Christ is the solution. In 1:15-20, in particular, Paul sustains this idea at length. First, Paul argues for a supreme Christology. One might also call this an all-ness Christology. Christ is first in rank above all (1:15), he created all (1:16), he is before all (1:17), he is sovereign over the whole church (1:18a), he is victor over death itself (the enemy above all) (1:18a), and he is reconciler of all (1:20).

Why does Paul emphasize this superlative Christology in Colossians? In the course of the letter, Paul responds to a church that, though they have had a strong track record of faithfulness to Christ, have been interested in a problematic teaching (a transcendent-ascetic philosophy) that offers a mystical solution to the problem of dangerous spirits and pernicious cosmic powers- at-large in the world. Supposedly a transcendent experience, offered by this new teaching, was promoted as a form of protection. In 1:13-14, Paul refers to the Colossian church as a body relocated from the authoritative domain of darkness to Christ’s kingdom. Chapter 1, verses 15-20, is a bit of a digression, albeit an important one, in Paul’s wider purpose of reflecting on the new status (“redeemed”) and location (“the Son’s kingdom”) of the Colossians. Transitioning to 1:15-20 from 1:3-14, it is as if Paul were saying, “Do you know how thankful you can be because of all the things God had done for you, in the powerful gospel, in the rescue from darkness and sin, all thanks to God’s own beloved Son? Speaking of him, let me remind you of how central he is to God’s whole plan and rule….”

The second key element of this poem is Paul’s ensomatic Christology. One might call this “incarnational Christology,” but given the significance of the word soma (“body”) in Colossians, the term “ensomatic (in a human body)” seems rather appropriate. It would appear that the transcendent-ascetic philosophy denigrated the physical body, perhaps with a perspective that the body was a particular object of attack from evil powers. Thus, ascetic practices were recommended as a way of transcending the physical body. The transcendent-ascetic philosophy probably did not condemn Christ outright for having a body (or else Paul’s letter may have carried a sharper tone!), but may have simply downgraded or ignored the effectiveness of Christ (precisely because Christ came into bodily form and thus was liable to being harassed by evil forces). It is implicit within Paul’s argument in 1:15-20 that the body of Christ in no way limited him but, in fact, was instrumental to the divine plan of redemption. Christ not only came to protect the mortal (who has a body) but, by sacrificing his own body in death (1:22), was also able to redeem the human body from enslavement (cf. Phil 3:21).

It is important, then, in this regard, not to see Paul countering a low Christology with his own high Christology. It is more accurate to see him as arguing for an exalted, cosmic Christ who rules unchallenged as well as a humble Christ whose body was broken and whose blood was spilt. Keeping both of these dimensions of the identity of Christ together enabled Paul to bridge the distance between mortal and immortal, human and divine, perishable body and life-giving spirit. Placing Christ in a superhuman category only would undoubtedly feed the transcendent inclinations of the Colossian philosophy. The key for Paul was the balancing of Christ’s power and his (self-imposed, voluntary) weakness. In that sense, Colossians 1:15-20 is the mirror image of Philippians 2:5-11.

Nijay K. Gupta, Colossians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 51–52.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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