Feb. 3, 2013
Background Scripture: Colossians 1:15-20
Devotional Reading: Ephesians 1:17-23
Fifteen years ago I made a mistake of some regret, but probably of no consequence. My wife, Valere, and I took a group of 20 people to Turkey to visit first century A.D. Christian sites, ancient Greek ruins and historic Turkish locations.
We spent a whole day in Ephesus before traveling about 100 miles southeast to the historic Phyrgian valley of the Meander/Lycus River and its star attractions: the spectacular “frozen” calcium wonders of Pamukkale and the ancient thermal waters of Hierapolis.
While in Pamukkale, I saw a small sign post that read “COLOSSAE.” I have forgotten the kilometers separating Pamukkale and Colossae, but the distance was minimal. Assuming correctly this was the city of the church to which Paul addressed his Epistle to the Colossians, I inquired of our guide why we had not included Colossae on our itinerary.
“Because,” he replied, “there’s almost nothing to see there. The ancient theatre is gone, the Church of St. Michael was destroyed in the 12th century, the city was abandoned and it became a quarry; there are no excavations there.”
Now, in hindsight, I wish I had paid a visit to Colossae, even if there was little or nothing to see. Perhaps I failed to take that opportunity because I regarded Colossae as “a failed church.”
Yet, I realize congregations and denominations are not necessarily meant to last forever. The good news of Jesus Christ, yes; the means of propagating that Good News, no.
What is success?
While still a seminary student, I was assigned to be pastor of Bolich’s Church, a tiny congregation nestled at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains near Hamburg, Pa. Recently, someone sent me a newspaper photograph of Bolich’s.
There is no congregation there any longer. The building is propped up with long poles to keep it from falling down. No one wants the ruin and no one will agree to tear it down. Was that church a “failure?”
Today, I realize a church that faithfully served its members and witnessed for Christ can close, but not have failed. The church at Colossae, though it no longer exists, is immortalized by the letter Paul wrote.
It is unlikely he ever visited Colossae, for most of the gospel work in Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis was performed by Epaphras, (Col 1:07; 4:12) who informed Paul of the progress of the gospel in those locations. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he is referred to as “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ” (1:23).
Both Philemon and Onesimus, the runaway slave, were part of the Colossian congregation. Paul’s reference to Epaphras as “my fellow prisoner” means Paul was in prison and Epaphras both ministered to him there and maintained contact for the Apostle with these congregations.
What was the purpose of his letter to the Colossians? The area in which Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis are located is what Dwight Stevenson calls a “polyglot population in the midst of a pandemonium of faiths and philosophies.” Most of the religious influences were an attempt to manipulate or pacify the divine forces.
Among intellectuals, the Gnostic philosophy was popular and implied salvation came through the “correct” knowledge of the mysteries of existence, an understanding limited to the chosen intellectual few. Many of the Gnostic beliefs undermined the gospel.
Today’s version of the Gnostic teaching takes the form of: “I know the secrets of life and God – and I’m sorry you do not!”
All the fullness
Instead of attacking, one by one, the pagan practices and beliefs of Gnosticism, Paul focused on the supremacy and uniqueness of Jesus Christ, who basically and simply calls us to follow him. We do not have to construct elaborate theories and doctrines about this Jesus, for to encounter him is to experience God – as far as it is possible for mortals to do so.
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority” (2:10). The consequence of this is, “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross” (2:13,14).
All too often, Christianity is presented in terms of what or whom we think we ought to oppose. Whenever we can, we ought to present the Good News of Jesus Christ in positive, rather than negative, terms. Our witness is always more attractive when we are defined in terms of what we are for, rather than what we are against.
Even when we must be negative, it is important to stress that which is constructive. It is not enough to be against evil; we must be for good. All too often, the positive influence of the gospel is for many “the road not taken.”
So, Paul responds to the threat of both paganism and Gnosticism by focusing on the centrality and superiority of Christ, for “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15).
That is the road for us to take.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.