January - February 2015

Letters from Prison. 
Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae.


For 6 weeks between January 11th and Feb 15th we’re going to follow a series called ‘Letters from Prison’.  The series will take us right through the book of Colossians and will help us to unpack some of the uniqueness and wonder of Jesus Christ and our response to him.  In one sense the series is an extended meditation on Christ, designed to develop our trust in Him, and our understanding of who he is and what he has done.  I hope and pray that this then leads on to a renewed and refreshed love for Christ and obedience to his call. 
Jan 11th:  Jesus our Confidence.  Colossians 1:1-14, Matt 7:15-23
Jan 18th:  Jesus our Lord.  Colossians 1:15-23, John 1:1-5, 10-14
Jan 25th:  Jesus our Rock.  Colossians 1:24-2:7, Luke 23:26-43
Feb 1st:  Jesus our Fullness.  Colossians 2:8-23, Matt 23:13-32
Feb 8th:  Jesus our Lifestyle.  Colossians 3:1-4:1, Luke 9:57-62
Feb 15th:  Jesus our Ministry.  Colossians 4:2-18, Matt 10:1-22

House-group notes:

House-group notes will come from a study guide called ‘Colossians – Confident Christianity’ published by The Good Book Company and available at:   the booklet is priced at £2.97.  The sessions in the booklet are exactly the same as the preaching series and so will correspond week by week.
The guide is relatively straightforward and basic, but it should be a good and complete help for leaders who may be pushed for time to prepare sessions.  It includes outlines for complete ‘off-the-shelf’ sessions but can be also be used as a starting point or prompt to create your own sessions. 
Please do ensure that you read and re-read the Letter before house-groups begin in the new year and spend some time prayerfully thinking through the letter, open to the prompting of Gods Spirit.  If you have any particular questions arising from the book please do be in touch and I’ll try to help. 

It may be helpful to introduce Colossians for anyone who is unfamiliar with the book:

Paul wrote to many churches whilst in prison.  It must have been a period of intense difficulty for a man so active and passionate about the ministry to which he had been called.  Never one to waste an opportunity to preach Christ, Paul wrote to many churches whilst his circumstances were limited, encouraging them to hold fast to the teaching of the Gospel. 
It’s likely that Paul wrote Colossians, Philippians and Philemon from the same prison.  Paul had been in prison in numerous places including Rome, Cesarea, and Ephesus.  Traditionally it was held that Paul wrote the above letters from Prison in Rome, but more recently scholars lean towards Ephesus as being the place from which Paul wrote to these fledgling churches. 
Paul didn’t found the church at Colossae, instead a man called Epaphras had gone to preach the good news about Jesus to them – in his opening sentences Paul pays tribute to Epaphras as ‘a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf’ – which seems to indicate that Paul had sent Epaphras on his behalf. 

Why did Paul write?

As was so often the case Paul wrote to churches in an attempt to counter false teaching which would harm the church.  It’s not immediately obvious exactly what the false teaching that he tries to address at Colossae is, but there are some strong themes in Pauls pastoral letter which perhaps give us a clue as to its nature.  In his letter Paul emphasizes:
The supremacy of Jesus Christ – it seems that some of the false teachers had presented Christ as the start of the Christian journey – something/one to begin with but to move on from.  Paul reminds the church that Christ is supreme over all and there is no higher spirituality or path beyond him.
Hollow and deceptive philosophy -  We don’t really know exactly what this was about, it’s likely to be linked to the ‘moving on from Christ’ that we’ve already mentioned.  It may be that the church was being caught up in the popular Hellenistic philosophy of the day, or that it had become overly reliant on ascetic practices, either way, the reliance on and trust in these other systems was countered by Paul. 
Human tradition – The challenges facing the Colossian church we’re not just Greek in origin.  Paul also talks about circumcision, Sabbath observation, angel worship, and food regulations – these may hint that the Jewish converts to Christianity were struggling to let go of the old ways and embrace the new.  It seems the new believers are being warned against the dangers of syncretism. 
And so we find a letter written to encourage believers to hold fast to Christ as Lord, to reject the syncretism that allows us to ‘pick and mix’ teachings and ideas based on whim or preference.  In this way perhaps the book speaks something important to our contemporary culture? Perhaps the modern equivalent of Paul’s warning might be found in a preacher encouraging a congregation to give reading horoscopes or believing in fate, as Christ is more powerful than any astrological factors or forces.

Some Theological / Christological Themes in the letter:

Paul defends a high Christology in his letter to the Colossians.  He calls Christ ‘the image of the invisible God’ noting that he is the one who brought creation about and holds it together, being supreme over everything.  Christ is also ‘the head of the body, the church’ – the one who made peace by the blood that he shed on the cross.  The treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Jesus too This two fold theme of the greatness of Christ and his saving work on the cross runs right through the entire letter. 
Interestingly Paul introduces a way of seeing the atonement that is not found elsewhere in his writings.  He speaks of Jesus as having ‘cancelled the written code that stood against us with its regulations and nailed it to the cross’. 
Perhaps it is true to say that for each successive generation of Christians the temptation to go along with the prevailing philosophy of the day is great.  It is never comfortable to be out of step with the world around or the popular thinking of the day, but when that thinking is out of step with the revelation of God, we must be willing to do so.
What are some of the prevailing attitudes about which we must ask questions?  Perhaps it is the deeply ingrained individualism or consumerism of our times?  Perhaps the attitudes have to do with religious views and identities, the place of faith in the modern world, or the interaction between faiths?  Perhaps they have to do with prevailing cultural attitudes towards ethics? 
We, like the church in every generation, must wrestle with these questions, all the while remaining committed to the lordship and sovereignty of Christ.  

Simon Butler, 09/12/2014