Dear Colossians

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Colossians 1:1-2

INTRODUCTION: Today we begin our new message series through the book of Colossians. Colossians is an amazing book of the Bible. It is one of Paul’s shortest letters – just 95 verses spread across four chapters – but it really packs a punch. Paul is writing to a church that he has never personally visited, and yet he takes a very personal interest in their life and well-being. Paul is particularly concerned about a certain set of false teachings that have arisen at the church, and he largely writes this letter to counteract this teaching and help the Colossians keep their focus on Christ.

We are calling this message series “Living the Christ-Centered Life” because that is what the book of Colossians is all about. Colossians presents a big, bold beautiful picture of the Christian life with Christ at the absolute center. Because that is really what the Christian life is all about. Whether you are dealing with the same problems the Colossians faced or not, the answer is still the same: keep Christ at the center and everything else will take care of itself. (Read Colossians 1:1-2 and pray.)

What does it mean to live a Christ-centered life? What does it mean to live life with Christ at the center? That is the question we will be exploring today and over the next number of weeks as we work our way through the book of Colossians together. But before we get there, we need to understand a little of the background of this letter. So let me share with you first a little about the city of Colosse and the church that Paul writes to there.

I. The city of Colosse – a small town by the river

Colosse was located about 100 miles east or inland from the city of Ephesus and lay on the southern bank of the Lycus River in modern day Turkey. It was located on the main road from Ephesus to Euphrates and was part of a tri-town area that included the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hieropolis. Laodicea and Hieropolis were both larger cities than Colosse and they both had established churches also. (see Colossians 4:13) As you can see from the map Laodicea was about ten miles to the west of Colosse and Hieropolis about twelve miles to the northwest.

Colosse was located in a fertile valley region with large crops of olives and figs. The whole area was also subject to frequent earthquakes. Four hundred years earlier years earlier Colosse was a much larger and wealthier town with a large and thriving wool trade, but by the time of Paul it had shrunk considerably. The neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hieropolis had grown in importance, and Colosse was now just a small town by the river. (cf. mill towns in Massachusetts) In another 400 years it wouldn’t even exist anymore.

Colosse was a very diverse city with people from lots of different backgrounds with all sorts of teachings and philosophies. There was a mixture of Jews and Greeks and a fairly large Jewish population dating back to the second century B.C. when Antiochus settled two thousand Jewish families in the valley. By Paul’s time there were anywhere from ten- to fifty-thousand Jews in the area.

II. The church at Colosse – threatened by false teaching

So that’s the city of Colosse, let’s talk a little bit about the church at Colosse. One of the interesting things about the church is that Paul had not actually been there. Most of the letters Paul writes are to churches that he planted himself, but he had never even visited this city or church. (Colossians 1:4; 2:1)

The church at Colosse was most likely founded by Epaphras. Epaphras was one of Paul’s fellow workers. He probably came to faith in Christ while Paul was in Ephesus. Paul spent over two years at Ephesus and we read in the book of Acts that during this time “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10) Epaphras is mentioned several times in the letter of Colossians (1:7; 4:12-13) In chapter four Paul tells the Colossians that Epaphras is one of them and so Colosse was probably Epaphras’ home town.

Another person who lived in Colosse was Philemon. You might know his name by the letter in the New Testament that bears his name. In fact it is likely that Paul wrote the letter to Philemon at the same time as the letter of Colossians and sent both letters to Colosse at the same time.

You might wonder why would Paul write a letter to a church he had never met? Paul was in prison at the time, and Epaphras had visited Paul in prison and brought him a report about the Colossian church. It was mostly an encouraging report, but he also shared with Paul about the false teaching that was beginning to infiltrate the church. And so Paul writes to correct the false teaching and to help the Colossians stand firm in Christ.

   A. Three major themes in the false teaching:

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about what this false teaching at Colosse actually was. It’s hard to pin down because we only have the information in Paul’s letter. It’s sort of like hearing only one side of a phone conversation. But even though we can’t know for sure, we can still gather quite a bit about it from Paul’s remarks to the Colossians.

The three major themes in the false teaching were dualism, legalism and mysticism. Let’s talk about each of those briefly.

   1) dualism (creation; incarnation; asceticism)

Dualism is the teaching that spiritual things are good while material or physical things are evil. This causes problems with the doctrine of creation which teaches us that God created all things good. It causes problems with the doctrine of the incarnation which teaches us that Jesus took on an actual physical body. It also creates problems with asceticism when people begin rejecting the good things of God’s creation.

   2) legalism (circumcision; holy days; Jewish ceremonies)

A second major theme in the false teaching was legalism. Legalism is the teaching that we approach God on the basis of our works rather than by faith in Christ. Legalism shows up in the letter as Paul discusses such things as circumcision, the observing of holy days and various Jewish ceremonies.

   3) mysticism (visions; worship of angels; secret wisdom)

And then the third major theme in the letter has to do with mysticism. Apparently the false teachers at Colosse were putting a lot of stock into visions and the worship of angels and the attaining of secret wisdom through their mystical experiences.

   B. Three major doctrinal errors:

If there were three major themes to the false teaching, we can also identify three major doctrinal errors. And each error corresponds with one of the themes from above.

      1) weak Christology – denial of Christ’s person

First of all, the false teaching presented a very weak Christology. Because of the dualistic nature of the teaching, the false teachers taught that Jesus couldn’t be fully divine and fully human. Once again, this is because they taught that any physical matter was evil, and therefore Jesus couldn’t have had an actual physical body and still have been God. This was a denial of Christ’s person as revealed in Scripture.

      2) works righteousness – denial of Christ’s work

Secondly, because of the legalism they taught a form of works righteousness, that faith in Christ was not enough for salvation, but that your works contributed to your salvation. This was a denial of Christ’s work on the cross.

      3) spiritual elitism – denial of Christ’s body, the church

And then thirdly, they taught a spiritual elitism, that there were normal Christians who might believe in Jesus, but the “real” Christians were the ones who: practiced asceticism, followed the legal code and had these mystical experiences. This was a denial of Christ’s body, the church, where we are all one in Christ together.

Now you might wonder if anyone believes any of these things today. I met a young man outside the church earlier this summer who was talking to me about prayer and mystical experiences and the doors of heaven being opened at midnight and obtaining secret wisdom. I began telling him about Jesus and he told me that Jesus was good but he had moved beyond that to these higher wisdom and teachings. I told him to go home and read the book of Colossians!

You see, anytime someone tries to go beyond Christ, anytime someone tries to add something to what Christ has done for us for our salvation, anytime someone tries to moves Christ from the center – that is when we desperately need the book of Colossians and its bold vision of the Christ-centered life. And that is why we are going to spend some time these next few months studying this amazing letter together.

III. Paul’s letter to the Colossians – Christ is central

So we’ve looked at the city of Colosse – a small town by the river. And we’ve looked at the church at Colosse – a church that was off to a good start but was now threatened by false teaching. By the way that’s something to consider. This was just a small start-up church in a small town by the river, and yet God cared enough about them that he directed an entire book of the Bible to them. It doesn’t matter how large or small your congregation. God cares for the local church.

So finally, let’s take a look at the actual letter to the Colossians. Paul is in prison when he writes this letter. Now Paul was in prison several times because of his witness for Christ. He doesn’t say where he was at this time, but this is most likely when he was a prisoner at Rome that we read about in Acts 28.

Paul writes three letters from prison at the same time: Ephesians, Philemon and Colossians. He gives these letters to his fellow worker Tychicus, who then delivers all three letters to the various recipients. (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7)

   A. Major themes

When you look at the letter of Colossians you see two major themes. The first half of the letter focuses on the person and work of Christ and the second half focuses on the new life of the believer. When you put the parts together you come out with one major theme: Christ is central. He is central to creation, he is central to the church, and he is central to the Christian life.

      1) the person and work of Christ:

The first part of the letter focuses on the person and work of Christ. Chapter one presents Christ as the creator and sustainer of this world (1:15-17), as the head of the church (1:18-19) and as the reconciler of all things (1:20-23). And then chapter two presents Christ as the source of all wisdom and knowledge (2:2-3), as fully human and fully divine (2:9), as the deliverer from sin and evil (2:13-15) and as the fulfillment of the Jewish law (2:16-23).

      2) the new life of the believer:

That’s chapters one and two. Chapters three and four focus on the new life of the believer. Chapter three talks about your new relationship with Christ as a believer (3:1), your new desires (3:2-4), your new practices (3:5-10), your new relationships with other believers (3:11-17) and your new relationships at home (3:18-4:1). This theme continues in chapter four with your new mission in the world (4:2-6) as a believer.

   B. Paul’s introductory remarks (1:1-2)

So that’s an overview of the letter as a whole. We will finish off our time this morning by looking at Paul’s introductory remarks in verses 1-2. In these verses Paul presents his own authority, the church’s identity and then opens with a word of blessing and greeting for the church.

      1) Paul’s authority (an apostle by the will of God)

First, Paul presents his own authority as an apostle. Look at verse one: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.” (Colossians 1:1) Paul has authority in writing to the Colossians because he is an apostle of Christ Jesus. The word apostle signified an official representative of Christ and especially referred to the original Twelve. The apostles were all witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. They were appointed by Christ, given authority by Christ and entrusted with the message of gospel. Paul saw the resurrected Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus where he received his own commission as an apostle.

Notice Paul says he is an apostle “by the will of God.” Paul did not volunteer for this position. He was called and commissioned by God himself. Paul is battling false teachers and false teaching at Colosse. And so it is important for him to establish his credentials and authority from the very start.

As believers today we also defend the authority of God’s word, but our situation is actually the opposite of Paul’s. The authority of Paul’s message came from his apostleship. Our authority comes from holding to the message that Paul delivered – our adherence to God’s Word.

Paul also mentions Timothy in verse one. Timothy is not a co-author of the letter but is simply sending his greeting along with Paul. Think of it as: “Timothy says hi!” Timothy is a brother in Christ who ministered many years with Paul and he is with him as he writes this letter. Timothy was like a son to Paul, and Paul would eventually write his very last letter to Timothy.

      2) the church’s identity
         – holy and faithful (believers)
         – brothers and sisters (family)
         – in Christ (Christ is central)

In the next verse Paul moves from his authority as an apostle to the church’s identity in Christ. Look at verse two where he addresses the Colossians as “the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse.” (Colossians 1:2a) Not only is Timothy his brother, Paul also considers the Colossians his brothers and sisters. Remember he has never met them before, and yet they are still his brothers and sisters in Christ.

The word “holy” means that they have been set apart. They are God’s chosen people set apart to be holy for God. The word “faithful” means believing, steadfast and loyal. It is all one word in the Greek; all three concepts are interrelated and inseparable.

Notice Paul says that these holy and faithful brothers are “in Christ at Colosse.” They are not the church “in Colosse” – rather they are the church “in Christ at Colosse.” Once again Christ is central. Their identity in Christ is far more important than their location at Colosse. In the same way we are not primarily a church in the city of Plantation. Rather we are a church “in Christ at Plantation.” Christ is central, and it is far more important that we are brothers and sisters in Christ than our geographical location on a map.

And so Paul traces out the identity of the Colossian church for us in his opening remarks. The fact that they are holy and faithful marks them out as believers. The fact that they are brothers and sisters means they are family. And most important of all they are a church that is in Christ. Christ is central.

      3) “Grace and peace to you from God our Father.”

Finally Paul gives his greeting in the form of a blessing: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father.” (Colossians 1:2b) This is Paul’s typical greeting. It combined the common Greek greeting of “grace” with the common Hebrew greeting of “peace” or “shalom.” Notice the grace and peace which Paul extends comes from “God our Father.” He is the source of all true grace and peace.

It’s interesting, Paul usually extends this greeting of grace and peace from God our Father “and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is very unusual for Paul to leave Jesus out of this greeting. In fact the only other letter where Paul does this is 1 Thessalonians where Paul simply says “Grace and peace to you.” In fact it is so unusual that in later manuscripts some over-zealous scribes actually added these words to both of these letters!

So what’s going on here? In 1 Thessalonians Paul had just mentioned God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, so he was probably just avoiding direct repetition. But why does he do it here? Why just “God our Father” and not “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ?”

It seems incomplete, and perhaps that’s just the point. Now this is just speculation here, but Paul is not above using irony in order to make a point and the Holy Spirit seems free to let him (see esp. 2 Corinthians). Perhaps Paul left it out intentionally. Other churches were fighting heresies concerning grace and legalism, but the church at Colosse was fighting a heresy concerning the very person and identity of Jesus Christ. The Colossians would surely have noticed the missing phrase. They would wonder, “Why has Paul left Jesus out?” Which is precisely Paul’s point to them in the letter. “You are leaving Jesus out!” Christ is central.

CONCLUSION: What is central in your life? What comes first? What has priority? What does everything else revolve around? God calls us as believers to the Christ-centered life – where Christ comes first and everything else in our life revolves around him. Jesus Christ is central to the world, he is central to the church, he is central to history, and he should be central to our lives. My prayer is that we study this letter together that you and I will be encouraged and strengthened to live this kind of life, that we may know the joy of living with Christ at the center.

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