Friday, March 2, 2018

Bible in a Year: Philippians and Colossians

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

I'm studying Philippians and Colossians. After this one, I've only one more post in this series.

Philippians is one of the “Prison Epistles” along with Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon, because of the way Paul identifies his situation. Unlike Colossians and Ephesians, there is no question about Paul’s authorship. In his Theology of the New Testament, the great New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann called Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon the "undoubtedly genuine letters of Paul" (vol 1, p. 190). Paul’s ministry in Philippi is narrated in Acts 16:12-40, and it was a church dear to his heart. My old Bible’s introduction indicates that “joy” and “rejoice” are used fourteen times in the comparatively short leter, and it is full of gratitude and love, starting with the opening prayer and thanksgiving (1:3-11).

Paul is glad that, although he is imprisoned, the Gospel has spread among the guards. He senses that his life may be nearing an end, but he is torn between wanting to be with Christ or (if it is up to him) living longer so that he could continue to minister to people as dear as the Phiippians. He sings Christ’s praises (2:1-11), and reminds them to conduct themselves in a good manner.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (2:12-13).

Although very proud of his Jewish heritage, nothing is as great to him as gaining Christ (3:8-16). Again--he is is not dismissing Judaism, only affirming that even his identity and heritage, the most important things to him, cannot be held onto if he thereby loses Christ:

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead (3:8-11).

Once I had a student proudly ask me in class, "Dr. Stroble, did you know that 'shit' is in the Bible?" Fortunately I'm hard to rattle, and I did know the answer! The word "rubbish" above is a strong word that means, if not "shit", something to discard as garbage. He uses this forceful language to contrast all our dearest things in comparison to the worth of Jesus Christ.

He continues in this beloved passage:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you (3:12-14).

Other beloved passages include 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

And 4:8-9:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

A long-time Baptist minister in my hometown, Dr. Archie Brown, had a column in our local paper, which he always concluded, THINK ON THESE THINGS.

4:10-13 is another wonderful passage:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

Although it may not be one of Paul's final letters, Philippians has a very valedictory tone.

Colossians, which is in Asia Minor, is another of the four prison epistles. He writes to counter some kind of Gnosticism that did not have a “high” enough view of Christ. As my old Study Bible introduction has it: “Formulated in a Jewish framework [this Gnosticism] deprived Jesus Christ of his unique status as the Son of God and Savior, and reduced him to only one, albeit in an exalted place, of a series of created divine beings emanating in a graduated scale from the Godhead.” He also wrote to counter the Gnostic rites and ascetic practices that went along with this philosophy.

Thus Colossians is very concerned with a high theology of Christ and his place only in the Godhead but also in the Cosmos.

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (1:15-20).

Thus Christ is sufficient for these Gentile believers who needn’t convert to Judaism, embrace an unsound doctrine, or practice rites and festivals characteristic of the "mystery religions" of the time. But what a passage on which to meditate: not only in light of Old Testament passages about the cosmos (Gen. 1, Psalm 19, 104, Job 38-41, and others) but possibly about religion and science as well. (I say this as a VERY pro-science person.)

Other notable verses:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (2:6-7).

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (3:1-4).

"Your life is hidden with Christ in God" is one of my favorite Bible verses. How wonderful to think of being safeguarded in Christ--of knowing that Christ's love protects us. It is a wonderful complement to Romans 8:38-39.

Here is another Colossians passage:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (3:12-17).

He also urges a model of the Christian family: wives should be subject to husbands, husbands should love their wives, children should obey their parents, fathers should not provoke their children, slaves should be obedient as well, and slave owners should treat their slaves fairly (3:18-4:1).

The Greco-Roman hierarchical family structure of the time is not the family structure of our own time--and not only because of slavery. My wife is a university president, and if I started to insist that she be subject to my instructions, she'd rightly laugh at me. People will say things like "Every word of the Bible is true" without stopping to think about the passages that reflect the culture of the writers.  Recognizing this, and interpreting the Bible for our own time, are not only necessary, but exciting and enjoyable!


In chapter 8 of his book Comparing Judaism and Christianity, E. P. Sanders notes that many scholars have called Colossians pseudonymous; but most of the non-Pauline elements are in the first two chapters, and the whole letter does show literary dependence of the letter upon Paul's genuine letters.

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