What do you think about calling a person “holy”? To many of us, calling people “holy” sounds wrong. Only God is truly holy, not people, right? If we happen to use the word “holy” about a person, we might be describing them as, “holier than thou,” and we’re not complimenting them. Paul, however, uses “holy” to refer to all of the true Christians in the town of Colosse, and he is complimenting them. So what gives? Let’s talk about that, as we’ll learn something I believe is quite important for Christians to know in our day.
This week I started a series studying the New Testament letter of Colossians. In the previous post I suggest that the Apostle Paul, perhaps assisted by his associate Timothy, writes the letter, but to whom and why? Look at verse 2a, and there we meet the recipients: “The Christians in Colosse.” Colosse is located in modern-day Turkey, and you can still visit the ruins of the city. Of the many cities mentioned in the New Testament, very little archaeology has been done in Colosse. A couple hundred years before Paul, Colosse had been a fairly important city, but in Paul’s day Colosse had declined somewhat. In the vicinity of 5-10 years after Paul wrote this letter, it seems the city suffered a devastating earthquake from which it never recovered.
More importantly for Paul, there is a church in Colosse. Not a building, but a church family. Paul wrote this letter about 25 years after Jesus returned to heaven, so the Christian movement is still quite new, and not accepted in most of the Roman Empire. They didn’t have official status, and thus primarily operated as a somewhat underground or informal movement of friends. Also, Paul did not start this church. In a future post, we’ll learn who did. For now, we need to see Paul writing as a leader who was widely-respected in the Christian movement, and he has heard something about this church family that, as a leader, he needs to address.
What has he heard? There was good news and there was bad news. Pretty typical for any church, even in our day, right? No church is perfect. All churches have room to improve, but we also have many wonderful things about us.
So Paul is writing, as he always did, to address concerns that he heard about the Christians in Colosse, but he starts with encouragement. Look at the three ways he describes the church in verse 2. They are holy, faithful and in Christ.
A better word to describe what Paul is talking about is “saint.” Peek down to verse 4, and you’ll see it there too. In the original language, he uses the same word in both verses. In our day, we use the word “saint” in a formal way, maybe to refer to the 12 Apostles of Jesus, or as in some Christian denominations, to people who achieve sainthood. Paul is not using the word “holy” that way. He is using it to describe all the people in the church. Is Paul describing the Colossian Christians as holy or as saints, such as when we say to someone “Well, aren’t you a saint?”, when they help us out or give generously to a cause? Maybe, but it seems there is more to what Paul intends.
“Holy ones” or “Saints” was a way of talking about all the Christians in the church, though it was not indicating that Paul thought they were perfect or holy like God is holy. Instead God declares that we are holy, because Jesus, through his death and resurrection made it possible for us to put on his holiness. In that sense, we are declared holy, we are saints, in Christ. That doesn’t mean we should get big heads and walk around saying “Hear that, I am holy, I am righteous.” No, the opposite is true. We should be exceedingly humble and grateful that God in his mercy, grace and love, sent Jesus who willingly died for us, to make it possible for us to have his holiness. Otherwise, we would be stuck in our sins, separated from God.
So what should be pouring from us is a joyful gratitude that lives in a perpetual willingness to serve our Lord. For Paul, writing in the Roman empire, this is a very subversive concept, which he talks about constantly in this letter. It is a concept we might need to hear too. Jesus is Lord. Not the Roman Emperor. Not the American President. Not any King or Queen or Prime Minister. Not any coach or teacher or boss. For Christians, Jesus alone is Lord, and we give ourselves, all of ourselves, to serve him. We are in Christ. His ways are what we use to determine our steps and our decisions, and His ways are always be the best ways for us to choose.
Serving him is exactly what Paul means when he describes the Colossian Christians with the word “faithful.” This word could also be translated “believing.” It seems to me that both English words are needed to capture the essence of what Paul likely intends to explain about a person’s relationship with Jesus.
First, “believing” relates to the mind, the facts or propositions, the content of what one considers to be truth. As we might say, “In my heart and mind, I believe that Jesus is God, and that he died for my sin, and rose again from the dead, and that his way is the best way to live.” But as my denomination’s Bishop, Bruce Hill, once said, “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.” What the Bishop meant was that people can say they believe in Jesus, but if their lives are unchanged, by their actions you wouldn’t know they were disciples of Jesus. Whereas true disciples of Jesus show by the actions of their lives that they are true believers.
What Jesus wants is believers who are faithful. Faithfulness is a living, active pattern of following the way of Jesus. It is the regular actions that are the life and outpouring of true belief.
Also, when Paul says that the Colossian disciples are “in Christ,” he has in mind something that goes beyond what I already mentioned, about putting on the righteous clothes of Jesus. Paul’s concept of “in Christ” is wider than that. He is not just referring to the individual Christian who individually puts on Christ’s righteousness, and thus is in Christ. Paul is referring to the whole group. We Christians are, as Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 12 part of the body of Christ, together. We are a family, connected with all those everywhere, across the millennia who are also in Christ. Yes, he is talking to a specific local church in the city of Colosse, but he wants them and us to remember that being “in Christ” is much more broad, to the point where some scholars refer to it as cosmic, meaning there is no place in the universe where Jesus is not Lord. And we are a part of him. We are in Christ. My hope and prayer, as we study Colossians, is that we get to understand Jesus better, that we have an expanding view of being “in Christ”.