I heard from some in my congregation, after the events of this past Wednesday January 6, 2021, the breaching of the US Capitol building by Trump-supporting extremists, that they were really struggling. What is going on in our country? How do we Christians respond? We can feel trapped in our uncertainty about how to respond. What will set us free?
With this post, I start a blog series through the New Testament book of Colossians, and right out of the gate, the message that we will hear is so helpful, I believe, to how we can be set free from the feelings of being trapped by the trauma in today’s world.
Scan through Colossians, and you’ll notice it is fairly short. I said it was a book, but it is actually a letter. Look at verse 1 where the writer introduces himself: Paul. Remember the blog series through the New Testament book of Acts last year? We spent a lot of time getting to know Paul in the book of Acts. Paul, also called Saul, was a Jew who was a member of the Pharisees, that group of religious leaders who constantly confronted Jesus and the earliest Christians. Acts describes Paul as a kind of a super-Pharisee, traveling around Palestine rounding up Christians and throwing them in jail. But one day, Jesus broke into Paul’s life in a miraculous vision that stopped Paul in his tracks. Jesus changed Paul’s life 180 degrees. All the passion and vigor, with which he had previously persecuted Christians, he now marshaled into an energetic life of proclaiming that Jesus was alive, truly risen from the dead as the Christians taught.
This is why Paul describes himself in verse 1 as, “An apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” Jesus did it. Jesus intervened and changed Paul’s life. Now Paul is Jesus’ apostle, which means he is a special messenger for Jesus himself. An apostle is one who goes into new areas to tell the story of Jesus’ good news, an entrepreneur for the Kingdom of God. That was Paul to a T. As we saw in Acts, he traveled, like a missionary, all over the Roman Empire, seeking to tell people about Jesus and start churches.
Note that Paul is not alone, and possibly not writing all by himself. Timothy is also there with him. We met Timothy a few years ago when I preached through 1st Timothy. Here Paul calls him “brother,” but in other places he calls Timothy “son.” Why? Because Paul was instrumental in bringing Timothy to Jesus, and Paul discipled him. Paul, in other words, taught Timothy how to follow Jesus. Timothy would go on to become leader of the church in the city of Ephesus. Who is your Timothy? Who is your Paul? Christians should have both in our lives.
Even though the letter-writer self-identifies as Paul, there is much scholarly discussion, as there is about every book of the Bible, as to who actually wrote the letter to the Colossians. I’d be glad to talk further with anyone who would like to get into the nitty-gritty of the debate, but my conclusion is that it is highly likely that Paul, perhaps with some assistance from Timothy, wrote this letter. Along with the letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon, Colossians is one in a group of Paul’s letters called The Prison Epistles, written in the late 50s first century, when Paul was in prison.
Pause on that detail for a minute. Paul is writing from prison. He is the apostle of Jesus, but now he is under lock and key, incarcerated by the Romans for proclaiming Jesus. Has the mission of the apostle been shut down by the Roman Empire which imprisoned him? Can the empire halt the advancement of the Kingdom? No! The empire cannot stop the Kingdom of God. And yet it appears to be doing just that, with Paul in chains. So what does Paul do? What will set him free?
Perhaps the most enduring facet of Paul’s ministry was his use of communication technology. He traveled by boat, and he wrote letters, two important technologies in the ancient world. He saw technology as a means for advancing the kingdom. Stuck in prison? Paul doesn’t despair. He writes letters. Not only were those letters impactful in his day, they remain so because here we are reading them, studying them, and learning from them! Paul’s example can be very instructive for us. Are there any situations in our world that seem to hold back the Kingdom of God? Are there ways we can think outside the box, creatively, and experimentally to continue to advance the Kingdom? Creativity can set you free.