Isaiah 6:1-8, Colossians 1:15-29
April 18, 2010
We’re taking a break today from the historical Jesus. I do want to come back to that theme, though, as we talk about this time before Pentecost. But for now, I want us to think about the significance of all we’ve been talking about for the past few months. Because that’s what the people at the time were trying to do. In the early days of the Church, Paul and the others were traveling throughout much of the known world, telling people about Jesus, and establishing Churches. And in all that time, the people were trying to figure out what this all meant.
Think about it. This man Jesus had lived among them, he had drawn huge crowds with his teaching and speaking, he had refused the kingly crown of a conqueror, though they would have gladly given it to him. Then he died and all their hopes and dreams were crushed, and they were back to the harsh reality of Rome, and the “Pax Romano.” (Remember that, the “Roman Peace”?) But then, something amazing happened. Jesus was not gone for good! He came back to them! And now there was talk of a new reconciliation with God. Now there was talk of Jesus being in their lives forever.
Now remember, the Jewish people believed they already had reconciliation with God! They had their Day of Atonement. They still do! They call it “Yom Kippur.” They had their system of sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. They knew God’s covenant with them. And they had no reason to think any of that was changed. But now they had come to know this man, Jesus. And what he did and what he said was amazing to them! But they still didn’t understand the business of his atonement or his plan of salvation. For a while, all they knew was that he had come back, and that his wonderful ministry of love and grace was continuing somehow. And now it was spreading. People were now being told about all this in other places.
Remember also, as I often say, they didn’t have two thousand years of Christian thought and teaching. They didn’t even have the New Testament. What did they have? They had the Apostles! That’s what they had! Their source of information was those who had been with Jesus himself. And even that was not without confusion. Because one of the most prominent of the Apostles was Paul. And there was some question about his even being an Apostle! He was not one of those who had been with Jesus. In fact, he was a persecutor of the early church! He was the enemy! And even after his “conversion” was accepted, some people still didn’t quite know what to make of him!
That’s the context of the early Christian world to which this letter was written. And in this case, it was written to a small, almost insignificant town called Colossae. (Which kinda sounds big, doesn’t it? It sounds like the word “Colossal!”)
Well, the people in that young church, like many others, were trying to figure out the significance of Jesus in their lives. And one of the problems they had was that they were hearing from people who were teaching the wrong things. That was happening a lot in those days! And to make it even more confusing, while Paul and the others were traveling around telling the world about Jesus, there were other people traveling around telling people it was all false. Can we even imagine what that was all like?
In a way, we’re really not leaving the “historical Jesus” at all this morning. We’re still trying to get a vision of what he was like, and now what his new faith was like, without all the “institutionalizing” that’s happened over those two thousand years. And again, we know what the church has understood and taught all those years. Those people didn’t. They were not being asked to be a part of something they knew all about and had been firmly established. They were being asked to believe new things in a difficult and controversial time. Sometimes we think it must have been easier and more simple for them understand, living around the time of Jesus. But it was not! And Paul spent a lot of his time dealing with many of the early misunderstandings about the Christian faith.
The Colossian Church was no different. In that church, there seems to have been people who taught that the new Christian religion was all about “asceticism.” In other words, it was about living an austere existence in a separate community removed from society – like the Essenes – or maybe even the community we talked about last week, which grew up around the Apostle John. That seems to have had hints of that kind of existence. But here in Colossae it was worse. There were also those who laid a heavy emphasis on ritualism and legality. They were teaching that, in order to follow the risen Christ, the people had to adhere to rigid beliefs and the strict practices of ritual.
That of all reminds me of the group I once ran into in Kansas City. I think I told you about them once before. We had gone to a Christian music festival, and found these people by the entrance who were protesting the faith of many who came to that concert. When I went over to talk to them, they told me that they believed that if anyone was not living in a communal society, like the ones described in the book of Acts, they were not following Christ as he intended. And, by the way, you also had to believe like they believed! That reminds me of the asceticism that was being preached by the false teachers in the town of Colossae.
So Paul wrote this letter, and the one to the Church in Ephesus, to try to deal with that kind of false teaching about the faith. He tried to convince the people about the “all sufficiency” of Christ and his atonement. He tried to tell them that Christ has freed them to live “in the world,” and be part of society, even though they recognized that they were not “of the world.” They didn’t need to be in a cloistered community to do that. In fact, they couldn’t really reach out to the world if they had shut themselves off from it!
Instead of legalism and ritualism of faith, Paul urged the people to lead a joyful life of “spiritual morality” led by “the power of Christian love.” He tried to tell them that whatever life they lived – in the world – it should reflect the teachings of Jesus and the call to love and grace. And so should we. But too often we forget. Too often we remember the “in the world” part of it, but we forget that part about not being “of the world.” We forget the call to “be like” Christ.
As Paul thought about all of these things, he was led to write this amazing description of Jesus we now have in this first chapter of Colossians. These are some of the most inspirational words ever written about this Jesus we follow. As we wrap this up, I’d like you to hear some of these words again. And as you do, keep in mind those things we’ve said about the historical Jesus. Keep in mind that this was all new to these people. Keep in mind the radical love and grace Jesus demonstrated, and the way he called people to look to the heart and the spirit and to their relationship with god, rather than to religious practices and rituals and legalism.
Paul writes this of Jesus. “He is the visible image of the invisible God…” We could stop right there and ponder that statement for the rest of the morning! But it gets even better. “…he is the first born in all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities. All things were created through him and for him.” That’s classic Paul!!! And so much for Jesus being mere human, huh! Paul establishes that Jesus was one with the creator God. He didn’t just come into existence in those previous few years!
If we’re not sure about that, read on! “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.” Paul is making no bones here about who Jesus was!! He was laying it all out, and telling them the people their faith in him was sure! He said, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, weather on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” What amazing words! God is in Jesus Christ, and he reconciles us to himself through his blood. Can you imagine the people in that time hearing this for the first time?
Then, here’s Paul’s conclusion. “And you, who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.” That’s the purpose of Jesus Christ. That’s where all this hits home to those people and to us. Jesus restores us to a relationship with God. And it’s a joyful relationship! It’s the relationship we were created to be in with God in the first place. It’s not asceticism, though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not ritualism, or legalism, though ritual and doctrine are good things. It’s being in the world, but not of the world. It’s knowing the kingdom of God in our midst! It’s knowing and living the joy of the Lord. It’s the glory of God in us being fully alive! And as Paul concludes, “God chose to make known how great are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Friends, whether you know it or not, God’s purpose in Jesus is to show you the riches of his glory. God chose to make you part of this great mystery, which is Christ in you! That is the hope of glory! That is the understanding of Jesus that was unfolding before these people long ago. It’s sad to me to think of what too many people have turned it into over the last two thousand years. Like those people in Colossae too many have turned it into ritualism and legalism, haven’t they? Let us instead strive to live our lives in the joy of the Lord, seeking his kingdom, making our relationship with him the first thing in our faith, to which all the ritual and doctrine and practice are secondary.
Let us live instead in the joy of that great mystery – Christ in you, the hope of glory!
Holy God, we thank you for the hope of glory we have in Jesus Christ. Help us to know that more all the time. Help us to see past our limited vision to see the glory of your kingdom. And help us to live in that glory! For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.