Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae to fortify them against false teaching. Since Paul doesn’t come right out and state it, the exact nature of the heresy is difficult to determine. Colossae was never excavated so there is no archaeological evidence available to say what kind of local cults and religions may have been present. But examining his refutation of the heresy gives us several clues.
Depreciation of Christ — Early on in the letter, Paul emphasizes the supremacy of Christ with a beautiful poem (1:15-19). Evidently, there were some who thought of Christ merely as a beginning to their spirituality. To go on to maturity, some taught the need to follow certain rules and practices that go beyond what Jesus taught. Perhaps they thought of Christ as a created being less than God. Paul insists that Christ is “the image of God” and the agent of creation (1:15-16). Every created thing owes its existence to him, even the angelic beings, which some in Colossae evidently worshiped (2:18). Paul says that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (1:19; 2:9), that Christ is supreme over all, and that there is no way of ever going beyond him to a higher spirituality. Any “philosophy,” therefore, that depreciates Jesus is “empty” (2:8).
Paganism — Paul also refers to “wisdom,” “knowledge,” (2:3) and “asceticism” (2:23) which may have had Greek roots. He makes a curious reference to the “elemental spirits of the world” (2:8, 20). The “elements” were the ABC’s of a subject. For example, letters are the elements of which words are composed. The “elements” came to mean the ‘stuff’ of which the universe is composed (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). But Paul also uses this phrase to refer to the basic teaching that brought us to faith in Christ found in the Law of Moses (Gal. 4:3, 9; also Heb. 6:1). Whatever this “elemental” teaching was, Paul assures the Colossians it was inferior to faith in Christ.
Judaism — Paul perhaps makes reference to Judaism as well when he writes of “human tradition” (2:8, 22) and food regulations (2:16, 21). The concepts of “circumcision” (2:11; 3:11) and the observance of certain festivals (2:16) are certainly Jewish. There were some Jews during this time who tried to persuade pagan Christians that their position was incomplete (Acts 15:5), a problem Paul labored against his entire ministry. Paul assures the Colossians that they have already been spiritually “circumcised” (2:11) and set free from the claims of Mosaic Law (2:16, 18, 20). If there was a Jewish influence in Colossae, Paul portrays Judaism as just as inferior to Christianity as paganism. Judaism in the Christian age is just another “philosophy” (2:8) and “human tradition” (2:8, 22). To follow the Old Law would be the same for these Gentiles as going back to paganism. Paul says it’s like clinging to the “shadow” when the “substance” (the one casting the shadow) has arrived (2:17).
Syncretism — What may have been going on in Colossae was a kind of syncretism: a blending of various religious ideas, practices, and philosophies. This was popular in the ancient world and enticing to newer, immature converts as it brought the ‘best of both worlds’ into the religious system. This “the-more-the-merrier” approach is still popular today in many so-called Christian traditions. But we don’t develop a religious system and try to fit Christ into it, nor do we use Christ as a mere basis and add to it. Paul’s argument is that Christ is the “head” that ties everything together. To be connected to God, one must be “holding fast to the head” (2:19).
The good news was that the Colossian church had not bought into these lies (1:3-5; 2:5; 3:7). Paul was writing, therefore, only to further ground them in the truth and protect them from error. We might sum up the thrust of the letter like this: Christ + nothing = everything. Paul's letter to the Colossians helps us properly calibrate our faith by regarding Jesus as supreme over all. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by believing otherwise.
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”
It’s been 20 years since the series of four coordinated attacks against our country by the militant Islamist terrorist group al-Queda. Like you, I remember what I was doing that Tuesday morning in September when the news began to break. As a freshman in High School, I watched the TV screens as smoke billowed out of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Then, to everyone’s horror, the south tower was struck and both collapsed.
The principal decided to let the kids leave school early. My brother Pete, who was a senior that year, drove us both home where we continued to watch the news with our family. I was just old enough to know the scale of death I had witnessed but not old enough to understand why it had happened at all. No one knew, save God, the lasting impact these events would have on our world.
Just like that, our country was at war, we were thrown into a recession, and many lived in fear of more attacks to come. The US’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s swift return to power—after deposing them and spending two decades fighting the war on terror on their soil—was a poignant reminder of the instability of the human governments of the world.
As Christians, 9/11 is a reminder that the devil is still hard at work sowing religious confusion, discord, malice, oppression, and violence in the world “because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). Disciples of Jesus know that behind every evil act “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” collude with the twisted hearts of men (Eph. 6:12). But we believe that, in the end light will overtake the darkness, death will be swallowed up by life, and God's glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. We are assured of this ultimate victory not because of some vague wish but because of a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.
While a political and military response may be necessary to restrain evil acts like terrorism (Rom. 13:3-4), Christians know that mere human responses cannot open the eyes of the blind or heal the deep wounds which separate humans from each other and from God. Our Lord came to earth to heal those spiritual wounds, to end the hostility, and to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8).
We know that nations, kings, and governments will come and go, but we find confidence in the fact that “the Most High rules the kingdoms of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:25). We rejoice in being part of a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). We rest under the just, peaceful, and eternal government of Jesus (Isa. 9:6-7). Our instruments of war have been beaten into tools for cultivation. We have ascended the mountain of the Lord and given our complete allegiance to King (Isa. 2:1-5). And we publish the good news that our God reigns (Isa. 52:7) in Jesus.
He defeated sin in his death on the cross. He defeated death in his resurrection from the grave. And he will return to set the world right. In Christ, God’s love for sinners and justice against sin came together to offer hope and victory to everyone.
We are those who recognize and share in that victory because we have bowed the knee and confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). God's offer of grace goes out into the world through us now. We look back at 9/11 and see the reason for Christ's first coming, but we also confidently look forward to Christ's second coming when his victory over evil will be complete.
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
Who was the smallest Christian? We may think of Zacchaeus, who was “small in stature” (Lk. 19:1-10), but Paul claims he was the smallest. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul described the “mystery” made known to him (Eph. 3:1-6) and then the “ministry” entrusted to him (Eph. 3:7-13), which was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Paul considered this commission an enormous privilege. “This grace,” as he called it, was given to him by God despite the fact that he was “the very least of all the saints.”
This is a striking expression. What did Paul mean by it? First of all, in Paul’s writing, “saint” (one who is holy or consecrated) is a title for every one of the Lord’s people. All Christians are “saints,” being consecrated by God in Christ and having redemption through his blood (Eph. 1:7). Paul was certainly a “saint” but he categorized himself as “less than the least of all the saints” (NET).
Paul was stretching the Greek language for his purposes. He used the superlative “least” or “smallest” (elachistos) and turned it into a comparative “leaster” or “less than the least” (elachistoteros). This may have been a deliberate play on his name. When Paul’s mission brought him into primarily Gentile territory Luke ceased referring to him by his Hebrew name (“Saul” i.e. Shaul = desired) and began referring to him exclusively by his Roman name, “Paul,” which is Latin for ‘little’ or ‘small.’ Tradition says (take this with a grain of salt!) Paul was little in stature as well. Perhaps Paul is saying, “I am little in every way: little in name, in stature, and spiritually littler than the littlest of all Christians.”
But the apostle was not groveling in self-deprecation or indulging in false modesty. He truly meant what he wrote. In other places, he describes, with excruciating sincerity, his deep awareness of his unworthiness even to be saved let alone be chosen as the Lord’s apostle. Taking three of Paul’s self-descriptions in chronological order is instructive:
- First, Paul said he was “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because” he “persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor. 15:9, ~ AD 55).
- Next, as we have already noted, he said he was “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8, ~ AD 60).
- Later in his life, he said God had appointed him to service “though formerly” he “was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. But he “received mercy because” he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for” him “with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:13-17, ~ early AD 60’s)
As he progressed in his faith, Paul’s view of himself diminished while his view of God increased. This personal humility, however, never hindered him from executing his mission as Christ’s apostle. On the contrary, God's overflowing grace and mercy filled his ministry with divine strength. He “worked harder than any” of the rest of the apostles, though it was not him, but rather God’s grace at work in him (1 Cor. 15:10). When his apostleship was questioned by false apostles he vigorously defended it (2 Cor. 10-11). He appealed to—even commanded—Christians on the basis of his apostolic authority (2 Thess. 3:6). While minimizing himself and magnifying his office, Paul, the ‘littlest’ one, was glorifying his Lord.
“By your endurance you will gain your lives.”
Louis Zamperini was an Italian-American World War II officer who was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. But that was just the beginning of his trials. On his life raft, he was attacked by sharks, threatened with starvation, and fired at by Japanese aircraft. He was adrift forty-seven days before his boat reached land after a 2,000 mile-long journey, the longest ever recorded, when, instead of salvation, he was captured and tortured in a brutal prisoner of war camp. His story is told in Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, & Redemption (2010).
The Greek word hupomonē is sometimes translated “patience,” “endurance,” “resilience”, or “perseverance” because there is no single English word that fully captures its rich meaning. In secular Greek literature it was used to describe one who was forced into labor against his will but worked on, one who suffered the sting of grief but continued on, a soldier who fought a losing battle but fought on, or a plant growing in an inhospitable environment.
This kind of resilience is something all Christians need (Heb. 10:32-39). In fact, this word is used in the New Testament many times to describe Christians. It is connected with suffering (Rom. 5:3). Our commitment to Christ is tested when we encounter pain (2 Cor. 6:4) and persecution (2 Thess. 1:4). It is what we must have if we are to remain faithful unto death (Rev. 1:9; 3:10; 13:10). It is also connected with faith. When our faith is tested it produces “steadfastness” (Jas. 1:3). In a cyclical pattern, endurance perfects and strengthens our faith to endure difficulties in the future. This all leads to hope. Endurance produces character which produces “hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Hope for a brighter future is what fuels endurance (Rom. 15:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:3). Endurance also brings joy. Beyond just hoping for a better future, we can live with joy and gratitude in the present despite the circumstances (Col. 1:11-12).
How can a person be joyful, possess such hope, and endure such trials with such faith? Because the most common use of hupomonē in the New Testament is in connection with the goal of glory. For the Christian, the greatest things are to come after this life (Rom. 2:7; Heb. 10:36; 12:1; 2 Tim. 2:10,12; Jas. 1:12; 5:11; etc.).
Jesus, preparing his followers for the destruction of Jerusalem, said, “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Lk. 21:19). But this endurance was no passive waiting or idle patience. Hard times provide the occasion to faithfully bear witness to the truth (Lk. 21:13; cf. 8:15; 18:1-8). Persecution can lead to the death of the body, but not the cessation of one’s life (Lk. 12:4-5), because at the heart of Christian resilience is the hope of resurrection.
Perseverance is not simply the patience which waits passively for the storm to pass. It is the spirit which stares down the storm. It is the spirit which bears difficulty, not with resignation, but with blazing hope because it knows glory is coming. Perseverance is not the grim patience that waits for the end but the radiant patience that hopes for a new beginning. It is the background upon which courage and glory are painted. It is what keeps one’s stubbornly, joyfully plodding on against the wind. It is what transforms the hardest trials into quests for victory.
Perseverance is that grit and determination within Christians in the first century that enabled them to publicly deny Caesar as Lord and affirm Jesus as Lord. It enabled Paul and Silas to not just endure being beaten with the absence of murmuring but to explode in songs of praise in the darkness of their jail cell (Acts 16:22-25). It is what empowered the apostles after being flogged for speaking in the name of Jesus to rejoice “that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name.” (Acts 5:40-42) You must persevere!
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
Job lost almost everything — his wealth, children, health, and public honor. His friends commiserated with him in silence for an entire week. Then Job broke the silence, beginning a cycle in which his friends respond to his complaints with the prevailing, but mistaken, wisdom of the day: the innocent prosper and the wicked are punished. If Job would only repent, they reasoned, God would restore him. But Job maintained his innocence.
In the process of working through his pain, Job began to wonder about God’s character. He saw God as being out of touch with human suffering, even unmoved by it. Job wanted someone to explain God to him and him to God (9:33; cf. Jn. 1:18).
In the end, God broke the cycle of empty human wisdom by giving two speeches. First, God asked Job whether he understood how creation was governed (38:1-40:2), to which Job pleaded ignorance and pledged his silence (40:3-5). Then, God contrasted his power with the most terrible creatures in the ancient world (40:6-41:34). Again, Job was humbled (42:1-6).
Instead of answers to Job’s questions, God gave him something more valuable: perspective. God is the king of the universe. He has perfect knowledge and hidden purposes which are above us. Job knew he was out of his depth and changed his attitude (42:6).
And through his suffering, something beautiful occurred. Job was not beat down into the dirt of discouragement. Just the opposite. He was lifted up to new heights. He had seen God in a new light. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5). In his pain, he felt entitled to question God, to bring him down to his own level as if God were answerable to him. But after coming face to face with the Almighty, he had a deeper understanding of God. But this was an understanding he would never have known had he not experienced such loss.
God makes a habit out of meeting people in their pain. Jesus came to share in and take on our pain. He became that “arbiter” that Job prayed for in Job 9:33. Through Jesus, we can not only endure suffering but be transformed by it (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:31-39; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Heb. 12:5-11; Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-9; Rev. 2:10; etc.). James encourages patience in suffering and points to Job and the good “purpose of the Lord” as motivation (Jas. 5:11).
When our pain seems too much to bear, the cross reminds us of God’s power and wisdom. In Christ, even when we suffer we know that his divine compassion and mercy have not failed (Lam. 3:23). Job had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. He had no understanding of God’s purpose for his affliction (Job 1:6-2:7) nor its outcome (42:10-17). Many times, neither do we. But what sustains us through the furnace of affliction is God’s control to cause all things to work together for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). The happy ending in Job is just a shadow of what we will receive if we remain “steadfast under trial” (Jas. 1:12).
Hezekiah was sick unto death (Isa. 38:1) but endured his sickness by faith. He said, “Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back” (Isa. 38:17). Hezekiah had discovered a new appreciation for God’s love but he did so through “great bitterness.” So it will be for us when we confront the evil and bitterness of this world with faithful endurance.
Now, we “see in a mirror dimly.” God’s image is obscure. But as we persevere by faith our spiritual perception of him will continue to sharpen until we finally see him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:8).