Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Four Last Words: Colossians 4

In Summary: We come to the end of Colossians, and we have barely scratched its surface. There is an abundance of useful theology in these four short chapters, but the calendar turns on, and so must we.

As is expected in Paul’s letters, this last chapter includes his personal greetings. Take note, especially, in 4:11 where Paul highlights that very few workers for the kingdom of God have come from the circumcision. This is likely a reference to those who advocated mandatory circumcision for new believers, pushing them to come to obey the Law in place of the Gospel. Legalism is a trap from which few escape with their faith intact: those who escape rule-keeping often abandon all semblance of involvement to avoid being shackled again.

Another point of interest in this chapter is 4:14 and the mention of “Luke, the beloved physician.” It is from this verse that we take the identity and profession of Luke. Archippus is apparently a leader of the church (4:17), and he needs to step up to the line and handle the work. It’s a challenge for any, and he needs to take heed of his responsibility.

4:5 is the key verse, though, as Paul wraps up his content for the Colossian church. He instructs them to conduct themselves with wisdom and to make the most of the opportunity. We see that something has developed here: a separation between the Christians and the “outside” area. This idea exists in some of the other epistles, but is most pronounced here. Paul wants the church to be effective in connections to the wider world, but not to lose their wisdom in dealing with them.

Overall, though, we are wrapping up a letter intended to combat heresy while still commending Christian morality and right belief. It’s a tricky spot to be in.

In Focus:
That tricky spot brings us to our focus point, Paul’s last words to the Colossians. They are “grace be with you.” In Greek, it’s a slightly different four words, because you have a definite article and no verb: “ἡ χαρις μεθʼὑμων.” Literally, like a newbie Greek student, “the grace with you.” What do we take here?

First, we add the verb so that it makes sense in English. Grace be with you, or perhaps it should “May grace be with you,” not unlike a standard farewell statement. There is no reason for unreadable English for the sake of literalness—fidelity in translation is to meaning, not structure. Structure matters as it affects meaning.

Second, we note what Paul wants to leave the church with. Not a proclamation of this truth or a refutation of that lie, but a blessing. The blessing of grace. Whose grace? What grace?

This is where I think the structures helps us with the meaning: “the grace with you.” “The grace.” Look hard at that: what is “the grace?” For Paul, it is the summary of what God has done. It is God’s grace, shown through Christ Jesus, Lord of All. That’s the grace Paul commends and hopes will be with the Colossians. At the end of the controversy and the greetings, the rebukes and the encouragements, there’s one thing to hold onto: grace.

In Practice:
Well, then, what do I do about this?

1. In all controversies among Christians, seek grace. That’s a big deal. Grace is there for all parties—but sometimes grace doesn’t look like we assume it does. It is not grace to shelter abusers and expose people to excessive risks from wolves. That’s not grace: grace allows God to be seen working to restore the fallen as they work through the consequences of their actions. Grace should be shown to those who are hurt by trying to prevent further harm.

2. In all relationships, we show grace. Extend love, time, and forgiveness. Too often we push for an immediate response and then we hit back because a person responded badly to our complaints. What about cutting a few minutes of slack for someone to think through? Try that next time you are arguing with a spouse, or demanding answers from a child.

3. Within our churches, be places of grace. Show grace, be about grace. Dwell on the positives and the good things God has done. We proclaim the truth of His holiness and His grace. If all you focus on in church is how people screw up and not about how God restores, then you might consider the need for a little more grace.

In Nerdiness: Three quick nerd points:

1. Lost letter? Colossians 4:16 brings up the letter from Laodicea, and the need to share this one with Laodicea. We don’t have that one, and it’s likely we don’t have others that Paul wrote. I recommend Randy Richards’ book on Paul and First Century Letter Writing to dig more into it. The other theory is the “everything must connect!” theory. I’m not a fan: this view suggests that we must have the Laodicean letter, so let’s pick another one of the Biblical epistles to be it. It’s based on an assumption that nothing relevant to the Bible isn’t there. A read-through makes it clear that’s not the case.

2. Mark? Colossians 4:10 shows us Mark back on the missionary trail.

3. Onesimus? Colossians 4:9 connects this book to Philemon. Even here, Paul is scuttling the Roman social order by elevating the slave Onesimus to “one of you” and “our faithful brother.”

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