COLOSSIANS 1 : 1 – 14
Are you a church goer or a Christian? If you are a Christian, are you a mature Christian? What does that mean? Thanks to Paul’s letters in the New Testament, we have guidance and advice. Nearly all serious Christians throughout the ages describe the Christian life as a journey. What stage of this journey are you at? Can you look back and see how you have changed? Have you changed? Has the Lord worked His Grace on you? Are you better than you once were? Is your desire for God stronger than ever? Or do you not consider yourself to be on a spiritual journey at all? Are you the same person as you were decades ago? Have you learned nothing? Has the Lord been unable to teach you anything? Are you filled with hope for the future? Is your faith strong? Can you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord?
Maturity in human life is not easily won. It doesn’t just happen. In every walk of life there is scope for personal development. Hardly any of us would want to repeat the mistakes of youth and inexperience. Even footballers grow into maturity and are then at their best. Artistic people’s early works don’t usually compare that well with their later achievements. Some politicians grow in wisdom even if that is not very visible. Personal relationships develop and grow into something different from young love. So it can be no surprise that to be a Christian can lead to spiritual maturity. In Church life, Christian maturity is not always reached. Indeed, church meetings are often characterised by infantile or juvenile attitudes and behaviour. Disagreements and fall outs occur about the most trivial issues – believe it or not – such as tea towels. People use discussions about issues to promote their own undeclared agendas. Church life can reflect a shallow Christianity – sometimes a seemingly non-existent Christianity. People take offence quickly and disappear. Rather like the seed in Jesus’ parable that falls on stony ground, springs up and then quickly withers and dies because it has no root.
Christian maturity is not something that can easily be taught or caught. It is best forged through experience; sometimes this experience is difficult and even painful; sometimes it is by way of disappointment, depression, hurt and loss. The great paradigm of spiritual maturity in the Old Testament is the life of Job. He is prosperous and well respected but he is also devout. He makes special sacrifices to atone for the sins his youthful children might be doing. He does not take God for granted. He is however in charge and thinks he understands well. He is tested to the point of loss of everything, nearly to the point of loss of life. He remains devout though and does not become bitter and does not turn away from God. When his time of testing is over, he is a different person. He says… “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’”
The city of Colossae was in what we know as western Turkey. It was wealthy. There were good areas of rich pasture land with great flocks of sheep. Dyeing of cloth was a major industry. Even so, Colossae was not a politically prominent place. If you think of towns like Blairgowrie for example – they are wealthy enough but not powerful in any other sense. Dumfries is thought to be one of the best places to live in the whole United Kingdom, but it is not at the heart and centre of national affairs. You can’t visit Colossae today because unlike the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, there are no ruins extant. No-one has found them. One scholar suggests that Colossae was the most unimportant town that Paul ever wrote a letter to.
In that area also there was a large Jewish population. Jews have always gravitated towards prosperity and have contributed to prosperity. In 62 BC a Roman governor called Flaccus decided that he wanted to stop these Jews sending their tithe of gold and silver back to the Temple at Jerusalem. This was a similar attitude to that of Henry VIII in England who resented money flowing to Rome. I believe that some of the Scottish Roman Catholic dioceses bank their funds in Dublin. And there’s hardly a congregational board in the Church of Scotland that does not express some resentment at the amount of money that has to be sent to 121 George Street. The amount of money Flaccus confiscated suggests a Jewish population of 50,000 in that area – a little bit less than the population of Livingston. Jewish presence always meant missionary opportunity for Paul but it also resulted in persecution.
Nevertheless, the church at Colossae was created mostly from gentile converts. And there was trouble in the early life of this Christian fellowship. It came in the form of the threat of heresy. There were ideas being circulated which challenged the adequacy and unique supremacy of Jesus Christ. There were also more common ideas that Jesus had not been fully human. The culture was comparable to what we know as New Age and astrology was prominent. There was a latent spiritualism everywhere. These educated gentiles were not wholly convinced that Jesus was great enough to solve and answer all these issues. That is interesting because today we live in a society and nation where Christianity is discarded as a means of solving lots of recognised problems. And yet substitute alternatives are offered in place of what Christianity once afforded to all. So the children at the nursery school of little Mikaeel were offered counselling – not the Gospel of eternal life. So-called relationship experts are always in the media telling people how to live – although they themselves are often serial failures in relationships. The latest academic findings suggest that people need local family and community relationships to help with life. Talk about re-inventing the wheel! So in Colossae there was a bit of intellectual and spiritual snobbery. Greek learning did not take so easily to the good news of God’s incarnation in a Jew in Palestine. Evangelical Christianity is looked down on within the Church of Scotland. There is a worldly condescension towards piety, taking the Bible seriously and to faithful living out of the Christian life.
What an impressive beginning to this letter. If you received this with your morning mail – you’d stop and take note. ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father’. There you have Christianity in a nutshell. It is incarnational. Paul through Jesus is a called apostle by the initiative of God’s will in personal relationship. Grace and peace from God our Father. Not holy war, not jihad, not reincarnation, not impersonal meditation, not a multiplicity of deities, not a distant God. A Father, a Son and one to one relationships for Paul and Timothy. Reconciliation between heaven and earth. Proactive grace operating is a saving personal way. The Gospel. The Good news. Unsurpassed. Unique.
Paul calls Timothy his brother although he really thought of him as a substitute son, a spiritual son. This gave Timothy equality of status and authority. Paul was thinking of the future and promoting Timothy for his own vocation to come. But Christianity is about equality of status before God. We are saved sinners, all of us. An Anglican missionary called Father Brown worked in Calcutta for a time. He treated everyone the same. He was friends with the rickshaw drivers, the carters, the tram conductors, the servants of others of greater wealth and hundreds of street children with nothing. His example made some of them become Christians. Paul had apostolic authority but he used it on the basis of equality of status and treatment for others.
Paulo describes the congregation at Colossae as holy and faithful. They stood out in that decadent polytheistic and spiritualistic culture as shining lights; they had different morals and decent lifestyles. They were faithful to their baptismal promises and to the Living Lord Jesus. A Christian called Epaphras had been their missionary and had taught them well by example and learning. This Epaphras had visited Paul while he was in prison in Rome and had told Paul of the quality of the Christian lives in the Church at Colossae. Paul recognised the spiritual growth that was taking place and reminded his readers that Christianity was spreading across the whole known world. They were not alone. How are we seen as a congregation by others? It is hard to tell. In recent years congregations in this part of West Lothian have had a succession of disputes, fallouts and troubles. It doesn’t do much for the Gospel. Things seem to have settled down. There is a sense of recovery and blessing here and there. Congregations have an amazing capacity for renewal. But that is as it should be – our Lord rose from the very dead after all. Revival, renewal and resurrection are central to Christian witness.
The Colossian Christians were the real deal. They were a loving and devout people. Paul was so thankful to acknowledge and recognise this. So Paul tells them he prays for them all the time. He says, ‘We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience’. Christian maturity says Paul, is having the knowledge of God’s will, the wisdom to put it into practice, understanding how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, living the good life, doing visibly good works for others, becoming strong in faith and Christian presence and having the capacity to keep going, having endurance and patience to trust God even if circumstances are difficult.
Christian maturity produces thankfulness for salvation, for Christ’s presence in our lives, for answered prayers and for hope for the future. It is Christ’s victory that we share. We have been saved. In God’s love for his Son Jesus we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Are you a church goer? Are you a Christian? Are you a mature Christian? It’s there in Colossians chapter 1. You can read for yourself.