I’d like to read to you a letter written from prison written in 2004. From a father to a son ….
“Hi my boy. Thankyou for coming to see me. It made me feel so good to see you that it hurt because I really do miss you. I am proud of you, Nolan. Please be good at school and listen to your mother, Jeremy and your teacher. I can’t wait to hug you again. Work hard at school. Do your best. I will always love you. Hopefully I will see you again before I turn 7. I love you my boy. Dad
In 2014, Nolan said his dad is out of prison and doing great. A letter from prison can mean so much and this is no less true for the Apostle Paul who wrote his letter to the Colossian church from jail.
We’re not sure where Paul was imprisoned—it was probably in Rome or Ephesus. But even in jail, Paul was still the Apostle to the Gentiles, the Lord was still guiding and directing him—he remained confident that his life was hidden in Christ.
We learn from Phil 23 that Epaphras had been a fellow-prisoner with Paul. Upon his release, Paul had sent him on a mission which included the city of Colossae. Indeed, Col 1.7 informs us that Epaphras shared the gospel with the Colossians as a faithful minister of Christ on behalf of Paul and Timothy.
Colossae was a city located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the Lycus Valley (slide). As the map shows, it is near the cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea.
Here’s a couple of photos of Colossae in the present day (slides).
As of last year Colossae had not been excavated by archaeologists. I did read that there is a plan that a team from Australia was to lead an expedition to the site.
Until Colossae is excavated, our knowledge of religions in the city is inferred from what we know about religion in Asia Minor.
In the days of first-century Colossae the old gods of classical Greek culture were still lingering. Gods such as Zeus, Poseidon, Artemis and Hermes were revered and worshipped for the control they exercised in the world.
Images and symbols reminded the people that the gods were in control. For example, Artemis the hunter was inscribed onto a coin. A dramatic presentation of Artemis, the goddess of wild animals and hunting. Here’s Artemis shown on a coin in full flight in her drawn by two deer (slide).
Offend Artemis and you might go hungry.
There were also the mystery religions that claimed to reveal secrets which gave access to higher levels of spirituality. One had to learn the right passwords and codes to enter a secret, higher world.
Then the attraction of the Jewish synagogue. For converts from a pagan background the Jewish law had its own appeal as it offered a clear moral system in an amoral world. The synagogue enticed new Christians to complete their conversion by adhering to Judaism.
And lastly, there was the new religion on the block. The roman Emperor described himself as “Lord”. Colossae was filled with images of the emperor. Images of Caesar were found in the market, the city square, the public baths, in the theatre, the gymnasiums and the temples.
Caesar’s face was on the coins which rattle around in your purse (slide).
No matter where you went, Caesar was watching and he demanded your full allegiance.
Caesar—the old religions—mysticism—the synagogue: life was confusing and there were lots of pressures on new believers. There were images of the gods everywhere which demanded submission and participation in public worship.
Was the wisdom of Christ wisdom enough?
As a Christian, how does one relate to the old religions?
What does it mean to live the Christian life in a secular world? How do we understand the freedom we have in Christ?
These were confusing times in which to be a Christian. One’s livelihood, even one’s life, could be on the line.
So encouragement and instruction is needed which prompted Paul to write his letter to the Colossians. Colossians is as a measured letter which anticipates challenges that may have already began to bother the church. Paul seeks to encourage and help a fledgling, new church find its feet in a complex world.
Religion in Colossae was very much a public affair. Devotion to the gods was everyone’s business. And when these new Christians said, “we are not going to worship your gods anymore”—that’s bad news in the public square. When people say they’re not going to turn up to the processions and make the sacrifices—that’s bad news and we know who to blame when things go wrong.
So Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians to encourage them to be steadfast and patient and hold onto the faith which they possess. He wrote to explain the centrality of Christ and what it means to live with him as King in a testing culture.
Alternative philosophies. Gone is Artemis—gone is the Roman Caesar—the synagogue no longer calls us into Judaism. But we ask the same questions. We have the same first-century challenges.
Is the wisdom of Christ wisdom enough?
How as Christians do we relate to the old way of living?
What does it mean to live the Christian life in a secular world?
How do we exercise the freedom we have in Christ?
Colossians teaches about the relationship between Christ and culture. Our culture is not all bad. But how do we relate to our culture?
We were all practising another religion before we came to Christ. Alternate philosophies held us captive. But when these religions are the normal they are no longer called “religions”. They are just our way of life. Like the Colossians we live in our world filled with images that shape our lives.
Caesar is still watching. Caesar wants to recapture our imaginations and shift our allegiance from Christ. Do you think your faith in Christ asks too much of you? Is it really worth the effort? Is church unfulfilling? Is the Bible too hard to understand? Is the price of following Christ too high?
The world is saying to us, “Come, back. Enjoy yourself. Relax and don’t get to serious about religion. Buy things. Surround yourself with comfort and happiness. Peace and prosperity is found with us. Come. Join us on a journey. Happiness is around the next corner”.
The images around us provide assurance. MacDonald’s (slide), Coca-Cola (slide), Microsoft (slide), Google (slide)—listen to the logos, “Come on a journey with us. Let’s hold hands and together we will go to a new world”.
Colossians brings us in touch with reality by bringing us back to the image that matters. The Lord Jesus Christ is the true image of God. And he calls us to bear his image as an alternative to the images of the empire.
Colossians shows us why we should live with thankfulness. Brian Rosner, an Australian theologian, wrote a book called, “Greed as idolatry”. In his book he argues that to acquire and keep for oneself more money and material things than is necessary, is an attack on God's exclusive right to human love, trust, and obedience.
When we realise and enjoy all that it means to belong to Christ, we will thank God for it and live with thankfulness. Paul consistently takes us back to the supremacy of Christ because as we understand his person, and his achievements, then thankfulness will flow from our hearts.
The Scottish minister Alexander Whyte was known for his uplifting prayers in the pulpit. He always found something for which to be thankful. One Sunday morning the weather was so gloomy that one church member thought to himself, “Certainly the preacher won't think of anything for which to thank the Lord on a wretched day like this”. Much to his surprise, however, Whyte began by praying, “We thank Thee, O God, that it is not always like this”.
As the gospel blossoms in our hearts and minds, we will learn to be thankful. As Colossians invigorates our understanding of Christ we will understand our place in his plans, and our place in this world, and we will learn to be thankful.
A letter to our church. Notice how Paul concludes his letter. He says in Col 4.16, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea”.
Paul wrote Colossians as a circular letter to be read out in different churches. We should therefore not approach this letter as only individuals, it should be read and wrestled with in the context of church community.
Wright says (slide):
But Christian truth is a corporate possession. The church is the context within which we should expect to have wrong ideas gently corrected and right ones gently suggested, and where we in turn may contribute to the same activities. This will mean active membership in a local church and perhaps a variety of Christian groups; it should also involve careful listening to Christians of other backgrounds and periods of history.
So let’s read this letter together. Through the leading of the Spirit we pray that this letter will help us grow in maturity as a church. God made us for his church over which Christ is head, and he calls us to grow together in fellowship with one another.
I’ve recommended two terrific books that you may wish to consider, one at least, as we move through Colossians. They’re printed in your news sheet and I’ll include them in the notes under this talk on our YouTube channel. Books by NT Wright and John Woodhouse.
Let me share with you the heart of Colossians, and it’s the few words that will drive our thoughts over the next few weeks. These words are the take home message from this talk.
Col 3.11, “Christ is all, and is in all”.
These words speak of the supremacy of Christ, the sufficiency of Christ and the achievements of Christ. Christ is our all-sufficient Lord and Saviour; he is all that matters. We are full, we are complete in him.
John MacArthur wrote a book called, “Our Sufficiency in Christ”. This is the great theme of Colossians. Christ is enough. Everything we need is found in Him. We have no need of alternative philosophies and supplementary religious thoughts.
As Wesley wrote, “He demands my soul, my life, my all”.
As Matthew Henry wrote, “Christ is a Christian’s all, his only Lord and Saviour, and all his hope and happiness. And to those who are sanctified … he is all in all, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end: he is all in all things to them”.
God’s forgiveness is found in Christ alone. He bore on his body the burden of our sin and by him we are set free. A mechanic maybe sufficient to fix a car. An engineer maybe sufficient to build a space rocket. An accountant maybe sufficient to do a tax return. Christ sufficient to repair our relationship with God and bring us into his kingdom.
Paul was in jail but Christ was sufficient for Him. Biblical people who followed Christ encountered every kind of obstacle: hostility, loneliness, injustice and failure. And they discovered that Christ is sufficient for all and in any circumstances.
I hope these seven words, “Christ is all, and is in all”, find a new depth in your life as we work through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. As Stuart Townend wrote, “Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me, For I am His and He is mine –Bought with the precious blood of Christ”.