COLOSSIANS - AN EXHORTATION FOR UNITY IN LOVE (1)
INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
“Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Col 3:14,15)
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Colosse was “ … a city in the upper part of the basin of the Maender, on one of its affluents, named the Lycus. Hierapolis and Laodicea were in it’s immediate neighbourhood (Col 2:1, 4:13,15,16; see Rev 1:11, 3:14)”. The inhabitants of that place, being but pagan idolaters, indulged in many practices which are abominable in the sight of God, as we learn from Paul’s inspired description of the believers in their unenlightened state: “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness which is idolatry … in the which ye also walked sometime, when ye lived in them” (3:7). And in speaking of their position before the Most High God whilst indulging in this kind of behaviour, he described them as “you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works” (1:21).
But it was to such alienated and wicked men, who were yet dead in their sins (2:13) that the seed of the “word of the truth of the Gospel” was sown by Epaphras (Col 1:7), the founding member of the Ecclesia (4:2). If he were a native of the area, Epaphras would probably have received the word himself from the preaching of Paul in Phrygia (Acts 16:6, 18:23), and brought it back to his hometown for the benefit of those who had ears to hear. Alternatively, he may have been a disciple himself preaching the Word in that area, and upon seeing the response, settled there to strengthen and edify the new ecclesia. But be that as it may, once sown, the seed found good ground in the hearts of those who heard and understood it (Mat 13:23), where it readily germinated and flourished. Whole households were convinced of the Truth – husbands, wives and their children (3:18-21), with masters and their servants (3:22-4:1). The seed quickly took root in them, for the Apostle described how it: “bringeth forth fruit … since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth” (Col 1:6, cp Luke 8:15). So it was, that the Ecclesia at Colosse was comprised of a cross-section of society embracing young and old, male and female, bondslaves and freemen yet all united in a common zeal and enthusiasm for the Truth of the Gospel – all “one in Christ Jesus” (cp Gal 3:28).
THE ECCLESIA IN PHILEMON’S HOUSE?
There is evidence to suggest that these brethren and sisters were those referred to by Paul to Philemon as “the ecclesia in thy house” (Philemon 1:2). The epistle to Philemon was also addressed to a disciple called Archippus (Phil 1:2), who was a member of Colosse Ecclesia (Col 4:17) – but in addition to this, the epistle to Philemon deals with the return of Onesimus, a runaway slave – who also became a member of the Colossians (Col 4:9). And it is significant that in the latter part of Colossians, Paul was inspired to give specific guidance to both slaves and their masters, and how they ought to behave towards one another. Thus it would appear, that the Epistle to Philemon was written to exhort Onesimus’ master to receive him back – now as a brother – and Colossians follows on from this, providing further guidance when the runaway slave had been reconciled to Philemon, and moreover had been accepted into the Ecclesia, which met in his house.
FAITH AND LOVE
The pre-eminent characteristics of the saints at Colosse which gave rise to so much joy for the Apostle, were faith and love: “We give thanks to God and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints” (1:4). These 2 unifying principles of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) are those qualities which bind the many members into a single, united body. Having received the word of Truth, the believers “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect (complete) man” (Eph 4:13). And “speaking the Truth in Love”, this “complete man” may “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph 4:15,16 RSV).
As we show in another article, it is faith in the revealed Truth of God, that draws men from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances to be gathered together in a common hope. But it is when the individual members have love towards each other, that these believers become tightly bound together, as a single conglomerate whole Body. So it is, that the apostle exhorted the Colossians: “above all these things put on charity (love), which is the bond of perfectness” (Col 3:14), or as the RSV has it, “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”. Love is the common “bond” (“a joint tie, i.e. ligament, uniting principle” – Strong) which harmonises everything, uniting all members, as ligaments holding the body together, in a mutual appreciation of things Divine. Thus it is, that the first Chapter of Colossians is devoted to the theme of what we might call, “the united body of Christ” – how the believers have been “delivered … from the power of darkness, and … translated into the kingdom of his dear son” in prospect (Col 1:14, cp Rom 4:17),to become united as a single body, in which ultimately, the fullness of God might dwell (Eph 3:19).
THE COMPLETENESS OF THE UNITED BODY OF CHRIST
But Chapter 2 continues on this theme, emphasizing the completeness of this united body: “in him (that is, Christ) dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power” (v 9). The fullness, or completeness of God dwells in Christ, who is “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person” (Heb 1:3) and we, being baptized into him (v 12) ought also to be complete in him. Nothing else needs to be added, for any deficiency (and there are many) in the constituent members thereof are forgiven, because of the perfection of their Master with whom they are at one, being “knit together in love” (v 2), in a mutual acceptance of the Gospel of Truth.
But there were those who sought to impose the ordinances of the Law to the Gospel. These Judaisers comprised the Apostasy in Paul’s day, and sought to add to the Gospel, by imposing a burden which neither they, nor previous generations could not bear (Acts 15:10). Thus it was, that as the apostle exhorted the Galatians, the believers were to “stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal 5:1).
THE TRADITIONS OF THE JUDAISERS
Speaking of the doctrines of the Judaisers, the Apostle warned: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (2:8). The fact that what they taught was a “vain deceit”, and “the tradition of men” demonstrated the point that what was being added to the Gospel was not even the Mosaic Law, rather a corrupt system of man’s making, which passed for it. The Lord Jesus spoke similar words, citing the prophecy of Isaiah: “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men, for laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men … full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:6-9). So it was, that these men added to the word of God in two ways, firstly they laid aside and rejected the precepts of the Law, substituting their own traditions in it’s place, then secondly, they sought to add that pseudo-Law to the Gospel of Christ. How much like the Churches of our day this is – to deny fundamental truths of Scripture, and put in their place the vanities of human philosophy.
But Paul’s inspired argument demonstrates that because the Body is Complete in Christ, there is no need for any further addition, whether it be the actual Mosaic Law, or anything else. Being baptized into Christ, the believers are redeemed from the curse which the Law brought, for the Lord has provided a way of forgiveness in, “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (2:14). Thus, the exhortation to the Colossians, equally applicable to our circumstance, was: “as ye have therefore received Christ Jesus our Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught …” (Col 2:7). We must hold fast to the ways of Truth we have been taught, and let no man beguile us into detracting from, or adding to the revealed Gospel message by the vain philosophies of man.
FAITH MUST BE MANIFESTED IN WORKS
But vital though the maintenance of pure doctrine is, to merely acknowledge the principles of the Truth is not in itself good enough. Faith, unless it be manifested in works “is dead, being alone” (Jas 2:17). The Way of Life is comprised, not simply of doctrines to be believed, but also principles to be practised in daily life – principles which are enshrined in those doctrines – and this is the theme of the latter part of the Epistle. When we come to a knowledge of the Truth, that knowledge should so influence our outlook in life, that our whole desire is to do what our Lord requires. That desire finds expression, initially in submitting to Baptism, in enacting our commitment to following the example of our Lord, in crucifying the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof (Gal 5:24). In Baptism, we wholly devote ourselves to the Lord as a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1), offered upon the foundation of what has already been accomplished in the Christ-altar (Heb 13:10,15) for us. But Baptism is just the beginning. For having risen up from the watery grave, all our inclinations must be heavenward, (cp Eccl 4:21) to the things of God. Thus, the Apostle exhorts: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (3:1). And again, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you …” (Col 3:5 RSV).
And whilst this seeking of heavenly things is vital for our individual salvation, it is also essential for the spiritual well being of the whole Body. Unless the various members are joined both in their affections and in their implementation of the principles of Scripture in everyday life, they cannot be truly united. And perhaps the greatest test of whether the individual members are truly at one in this regard, is seen not so much in our behaviour and conduct before the unbelievers (important though that be), but in our relations with each other. This is the main thrust of what the Paul teaches in Chapter 3 – to be truly united in fellowship, the believers must not manifest earthly behaviour towards each other, but rather mirror the character of the one they have embraced in baptism: “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (3:8-10).
And how much does today’s generation need the wise counsel of the inspired Apostle! Oh that brethren would heed his exhortation today – “forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col 3:13). One often wonders how many ecclesial difficulties and differences might have been healed simply by a little more forbearance, and a little more forgiveness. The common tendancy, in disputes of any kind, is to find fault with the one (or ones) with whom we are at disagreement – and in the case of quarrels between brethren, most commonly over petty matters of minor significance, the natural tendancy is to speak of those faults to others, invoking them to “take sides”, if not in the actual debate, in agreeing with our denigration of the other party. Thus are sown the seeds of discord (Prov 6:19), which fester and grow in men’s hearts, inevitably resulting in divisions and strifes (Jas 4:1), which tear apart the joyful unity previously experienced.
Personal differences of this kind are in an entirely different category to those affronts to the truth caused by the introduction of foreign doctrines and practices being propagated by those who believe another Gospel (Gal 1:6-8). In these cases, the offence is not so much against us, as against the Lord God Himself, His Son, and the Word which they both spake. In this case, the Faith must be earnestly contended for (Jude 3) at all costs.
Any personal differences must take second place, if any place at all in this event, for the contention here is not for self aquittal, or the condemnation of others – but the preservation of the Way of Life. But in all other cases, the wise will exercise discretion, manifesting fervent love among themselves, “for love shall cover the multitude of sins” (1Pet 4:8). For the sake of the unity of the body, unless they are of a fundamentally important nature (where different procedures apply Mat 18:15-17) personal differences must be forgotten, however difficult that might be, for love and forgiveness to be exercised, even as Christ forgave us – and let us never forget that “in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6), for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
We find then, that the Lord’s Epistle through Paul to the Colossians is both highly stuctured, and progressive. It begins with the believer’s acceptance of the Word, exhorting their separation from the “power of darkness”, in pledging allegence to a Kingdom yet future. But then it speaks of the ideal unity of the body of Believers, having figuratively died together in Baptism, that they might also live together, striving together in unity and love, for the glorious Hope which they share. It warns them to be on their guard against the addition of the fables of men to the Gospel of Christ, yet exhorts them to allow their common zeal and love for the holy things of God to find the highest expression in their relationships one with another, as brethren of the One who gave his all for their sakes. But for the Body of believers walking as one man along the way of life, there is something yet remaining – the preaching of the Truth to others, that they also might be called out to journey with them to the coming Kingdom.
This is the final exhortation of Chapter 4, an appeal for the believers to pray for a “door of utterance”, that the Gospel might continue to be preached: “Continue in prayer … praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: That I might make it manifest, as I ought to speak”. Maybe, this is an aspect of our preaching activities which can so easily be neglected. It is not simply the case that we must preach when the occasion happens to arise – we ought to be actively praying for a door of opportunity to be opened. We should pray for the circumstances in which others might hear the words of Truth being spoken – an activity in which all can be engaged. Though some may be severely hampered by physical infirmities, they are still able to pray. Let them, therefore pray for a door of utterance for others more physically active than they. Let them give encouragement and support to others in whatever small way they can, but let them also pray for the Father’s blessing, that the work of their fellowlabourers might bear fruit – those who do this truly reflect the unity of fellowship.
But in these words of the Apostle, we see the spirit of one who wholly gave himself to the service of Christ, and the ministering to the Body. Despite being in times of immense hardship – “in bonds” for Christ’s sake, his central concern was not upon the restrictions placed upon himself, but rather that being imprisoned, the preaching of the Gospel might be hindered. Even in these straitened circumstances, he recognised that he “ought to speak” the word, whenever the occasion arose, and exhorted the Colossians to pray that such an opportunity may come, as it duly did. Though separated by distance, they were to be united in prayers and thoughts – the true spirit of unity in love.
This then, forms the main theme of Paul’s inspired Epistle to the Colossians, an appeal for separation from the world, and harmony amongst the Body, that being so united the believers might seek to draw others into the glorious hope they share. And for all others who also seek to heed this exhortation, there remains the same reward, “the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the Gosel” (Col 1:5). Let us then, having received the seed of the Word, as did the Colossians, allow it to grow in us, to bring forth fruits pleasing to the Lord, that by His Grace, we might have a hope of a future inheritance in the coming Kingdom of God.