Chapter 5     The Mystery of the Church

Colossians 1:18-20

A characteristic of our present age is the huge number of good people who believe in Jesus, read devotional books and pray, but who have no time for church going. This is not a new approach. In Colossae two thousand years ago many had been persuaded to pursue illumination and work for their own perfection on their own. As a contrast to this kind of individualism Paul gives a vision of God's purpose for the church as the body of Christ.  The vision he sets out is called "The mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed" (Colossians 1:26, Ephesians 1:9, 3:3-4, 9).

The mystery that was made visible in New Testament times was a plan for the cosmic reconciliation of all things in and through the Messiah (1:20). The first step after the day of Pentecost involved congregations of Jews being animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31, 5:3, 8:14-17) The second stage was bringing Jews and Greeks into table fellowship with each other in these early church congregations (3:11, Ephesians 2:14-15, 3:6). Before this could happen other nations, and eventually Jews themselves, had to be freed from the Jewish kosher food laws (Acts 10:9-16, 34, 11:2-12). It was precisely these new-found freedoms which the false teachers were trying to overturn in the church of Colossae (2:16-17, 20-23)

The next step involved a freedom for people of other nations (3:11) to be full members of the new churches of the Holy Spirit without circumcision and obedience to Jewish festivals, rituals, and other laws (Acts 15:1, 5) To make it easier for Jews to be comfortable with eating with people from other nations, Greeks and other converts were asked to abstain from three things which were particularly upsetting to Jewish Christians (Acts 15:19-20, 28-29). This kind of accommodation to the feelings of others has been necessary wherever people from different tribes or cultures first become part of the same church congregations.

Church history records the huge changes that occurred when churches were planted in Europe. As a result of Christian missions in the last three hundred years the people of India have largely abandoned the Hindu caste system. And in the last hundred years Christian churches have begun to undermine fierce tribal rivalries in many parts of the world. The more recent Hutu and Tutsi massacres of Ruanda were regrettable examples of a counter attack based on ancient tribal hostilities, but the general direction of change in the millions of local churches in Africa is in the right direction.

Meanwhile huge reconciliation was taking place in the relationships between men and women. When Jesus welcomed women to baptism and instruction in the law (a practice that was continued in Acts 5:14, see 8:3, 9:2) the very basis of patriarchal male domination was undermined. By the time Paul wrote to the Corinthian church he was setting out an unheard of tenfold total mutuality between husbands and wives (1 Corinthians 7:1-16, see "in the same way", 1 Peter 3:7).

Among the Greeks the word for children was the neuter word tekna, and they were relegated to being minded by slaves till they became adults. Among Jews children were not viewed as members of a synagogue till the equivalent of the modern bar mitzvah. In many nations children were loved, but they were not recognized as having a function in God's purposes. The prophet Joel had looked forward to a time when "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Joel 2:28). Children found a special welcome with Jesus ( Mark 9:37, 10:13), and this had important implications for Christian church life.

Slaves were also welcomed to church membership and shared in communion with slave owners (3:22-4:1, Philemon 10, 16). In the next chapter we will see the vast implications of the social changes that occurred. In each city the church that Paul planted (Romans 15:19) became like a pilot project for the perfection of heaven.

That was why Paul was able to say, as a result of this kind of renewal and reconciliation among national and social groupings, "there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free" (3:11).

It is often assumed that our division into innumerable denominations is a denial of the unity of the church as the body of Christ. But the Messiah's garden needs many different kinds of flower for its perfection. And each needs its own soil, mix of sun and shade, and distinctive individuality. A helpful New Testament model is the idea of only one church in each city. In large cities like Rome and Ephesus there were many house churches and other kinds of groupings (e.g. Romans 16:1-16), but these together constituted only one church body. Similarly in any of our modern cities Christians are able to enjoy with a rich variety of styles of music and worship (Colossians 3:16) and learning opportunities. The fact that each particular style of expression is supported by a denomination with a different name is similar to flowers in a garden each growing with their own characteristics as roses, tulips, flox, marigolds, and chrysanthemums.

A more difficult question remains. Paul is quite clear that this cosmic renewal took place through the Messiah's death and resurrection. "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross" (1:20, Ephesians 2:16). What kind of peace was made when Jesus died that first Good Friday? The traditional model was that the main result is that we can be forgiven because Jesus made a payment on the cross to satisfy the demands of the wrath of God.

Obviously forgiveness is part of the reconciliation. But the forgiveness is not pictured as a payment made by the Son to the Father. The past is forgiven and forgotten for ever, as a result of our being made alive together with the Son in his resurrection. "God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses" (2:13). And in fact the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts stresses the resurrection from death rather than the actual crucifixion (Acts 2:24, 32-33, 3:15-16, 4:2, 10-12, 4:33, 13:30-35, 17:2, 31-32). And as we have seen, the new converts were baptized into a church that was energized by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Another aspect of the Messiah's death and resurrection was his "erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside nailing it to the cross. He disarmed rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it" (2:14-15). Jews were probably the most religious people in the world, and it was their religious tradition that crucified the only totally perfect person in their history.

That failure of Jewish religious tradition freed people to belong to a church which was not attached to any religious tradition. Once people of any nation are joined to the church of the risen Messiah, they are freed not only from Jewish rules and traditions, but from all the religious rites, norms, and expectations put upon them by their own nation and culture. They voluntarily submit to the laws of the country they live in (Romans 13:1-7), but they are freed for the much higher purpose of His kingdom. That enables not only Jews and Greeks, but people of all nations and social backgrounds to meet together on an equal basis in one church.

Missionaries have often tried to make converts conform to the norms of their sending country, but at their best they have made it possible for people of every caste and tribe to be part of the universal church. Using Paul's language culture and national traditions have all been nailed to the cross (2:14-15). "In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but the Messiah is all and in all (3:11).

Christian faith has often appealed to downtrodden and marginalized people. The rich and powerful think they have it all, and they have too much to lose. But Paul uses a string of images to remind the Colossians of the privileges and status they attained when they began as Christians. And this is what the false teachers are now taking away by persuading then back into Judaism.

They had become the children of the Father with all the rights of that inheritance (1:12, Ephesians 1:5). As opposed to being oppressed as slaves and oppressed people in their present nation, they had become full citizens of the Messiah's kingdom (1:13, Ephesians 2:6). And instead of merely working to earn a living, they found themselves having a function in the body of Christ which was effecting this cosmic renewal and reconciliation (1:17, 2:19, Ephesians 1:23, 3:6, 4:4). How could they go back to a religion that offered nothing but self-effort in the hope of illumination?

1:18-19 - Not only were all things created and held in being by the Messiah Son of God (1:16-17), but within that creation there is special purpose for his body, the church of which he is the head. The church began when he was the first to rise from the dead. As a result he is not only the first member of that body but he has "the first place" in every part of it.

1:18-19 - All functioning members of the organic body of the church are in direct communication with the Messiah who is its head. And as the first to defeat the power of death, and rise with his resurrection body on the other side, he is our forerunner into heaven (see 2:13).

1:20 - The reconciliation of "all things" (as in Ephesians 1:10) does not refer primarily to the rest of the animal, plant, and mineral creation. Paul does suggests that "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). But nature awaits a prior change among humans. "The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (Romans 8:19).

1:26 - God's plan (the mystery as in 1:27, 2:2 and 4:3) for the Church was never known among the Jewish people of the Old Testament or anywhere else among the nations. It has now been revealed to members of the new Christian churches which were springing up all over the Mediterranean through Paul's work. All functioning members of these churches are called saints (as in Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2). The Greek word agioi means 'holy ones,' not in the sense of having pious qualities, but in the Old Testament sense of being set apart for a particular purpose in God's service.

1:27 - Paul uses the words "riches of the glory" to express his astonishment at the incredible wonder of the work of the Messiah through the Church that he is building (Matthew 16:18). The riches are called "the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2:3) as opposed to "the plausible arguments" (2:4) of the false teachers."

Chapter  6  .....