‘HYMN’ WE PROCLAIM: Colossians and Preaching

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               The letter of Paul to the Colossians has long been held as the Everest of Christology in the New Testament. Not many other peaks come close to the summit found in the Christ Hymn of 1:15-20.[1] Many Christians through the centuries have found delight in Paul’s high exaltation of the risen Christ and His ultimate supremacy in all things. However, some may miss the forest among the trees. Aside from merely looking at the content of Colossians, how does Paul use these threads as parts of the tapestry as a whole? What about Paul’s manner and method of Gospel proclamation in Colossians can preachers today learn from? This essay will begin to explore these questions. Time and space don’t allow for a full exploration, but I hope that these few points would be helpful stimulus. Also, we will consider the attitude and posture of the writer—Paul—and thus by extension, us as preachers after Paul’s example. Lastly, we will consider how we can employ Paul’s methodology to our own preaching. To end off, I will include 4 sermon outlines I wrote from Colossians from my studies.


Living at the Colossian Crossroads

               Colossae was at the crossroads of two well-traveled highways connecting Ephesus and Sardis and had a thriving and rich textile industry. However, this main road was moved to pass through Laodicea which caused a decline in Colossae’s importance by Paul’s day.[2] Because of its location there was considerable mixing of different ethnic groups which produced a diverse population of predominantly Gentiles—as indicated in the letter (1:12, 21, 27)—but there were also a substantial number of Jews.[3] Excavation at Colossae has revealed the existence of several cults whose worship involved ascetic practices and self-mutilation, which may have had a natural resonance with Jewish circumcision (2:16-18). Also, the worship of astral bodies and elemental forces might shed some light on the reference to elemental spirits in 2:20.[4] Living at these crossroads meant that the latest ideas, religions and philosophical views probably intermingled. It is this complex diversity of various movements jostling for attention that gives context to the apparently syncretistic religious influence against which Paul was writing.[5]

               The false teaching itself was not proper Gnosticism (which arose as a coherent system in the second century), but was more generally a part of first-century intellectualism and had some sort of Jewish component to it (2:16—17).[6] The way that Paul writes against these opposing teachings suggests that it may have exerted some attraction to these new Christians. In 2:18, the use of θέλων“delighting”—suggests a revelling in these things by those promoting it. Paul also criticized them for their arrogance. These people were perhaps not overtly proselytizing but may have been subverting the Gospel through a smug or prideful superiority in their self-assessed ‘higher wisdom’ and a disdain for those who didn’t follow their program.[7] The Colossians may have been fascinated by the charms of those who were claiming to offer them more. Paul’s concern is that they would be stable in the Gospel and mature in Christ.[8] So he writes to counter this allure away from Christ.

               This makes the letter extremely relevant to our Western context today. We find ourselves in the postmodern world where ideas and philosophies are shared at the speed of a mouse click. Just as in Colossae, Christians today find themselves bombarded with an assortment of novelties which vie for their attention and take their focus off Christ’s sufficiency for both salvation and spiritual maturity. Similarly, many can be enticed toward syncretic tendencies or adding and mixing modern human wisdom, philosophies and traditions to their faith as secular influences from media and a pluralistic culture entice them to compromise. Much of the secular postmodern culture today, which disdains Christian assertion of exclusivity, provides a modern contextual parallel to the situation at Colossae. The question, “is Christ truly enough?” still rings out. How can he be the only way? In a very real way, we live at the Colossian cyber-crossroads. The essence of the Colossian false teaching is that it is “not according to Christ” (2:8) and this is the point of timeless application of its message to us today. Paul’s declaration of the absolute supremacy and lordship of Christ in and over all things speaks as loudly today as it did then. Any teaching which questions the sufficiency of Christ not only for salvation but also continued spiritual growth and eschatological hope is the target of Paul’s Christological critique in Colossians—and likewise should be ours.[9]


Prayer powered preaching

               Paul starts off the letter with a prayer for the Colossians—that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding (1:9), both of which are found in Christ (2:3). This is so that we would walk in a way that is worthy of the Lord (1:10). Far from some mystical concept of secret knowledge of God’s will, Paul quite plainly fleshes it out this way: that they would be both bearing fruit and increasing in the knowledge of God which comes from knowing Christ. Furthermore, Paul here not only gives us the content of Christian proclamation, but also a model for it in his letters. We see from the numerous examples of prayers recorded in his correspondences, that Paul saturates his ministry with prayer as the source of Divine power to enable that to which he is called (1:10). I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of writing out my prayers for people in my correspondences. However, although this practice may have been more commonplace in Paul’s time—it is still worthy to note his inclusion of his prayers as an example to us.

               The high calling of ‘walking worthy of the Lord’ is one we are totally insufficient to accomplish apart from the power which works in us through Christ. The minister may incorrectly jump to expounding 1:15-20 without noticing this all-important fact, that Paul begins here in prayer. Spurgeon is said to have remarked that he’d rather teach one man to pray than ten men to preach.[10] Of this we must be convinced—a preacher is no more effective than his prayer life. Likewise, for us, the Gospel minister must recognize their desperate need and utter inability to accomplish that to which they’ve been called. Prayer is simply the expression of this forsaking of self-sufficiency to throw oneself on God’s sustenance and supply for any profitable work in ministry. We should feel a sense of desperation in approaching the pulpit or any sort of gospel ministry—that we don’t have what it takes to accomplish the task! We must be convinced of John 15:5—that apart from Him, it is not just that we can do some small things, or perhaps aren’t optimally effective, but rather that apart from Him we are totally ineffective—we can do nothing. This should mark ministers with a radical desperate dependence on His Spirit’s work which is seen in their prayer life.

               Paul later on will remark that his sufferings are filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the Church (1:24).[11] This theme of suffering in the Christian minister’s life is another aspect which shapes Paul’s concept of ministry and is seen repeatedly throughout his letters. Dr. Knowles commenting on Second Corinthians states:

“Paul’s view is that leaders may exceed their congregations neither in dignity, nor charisma, nor material blessings, but only in tribulation, and only in the degree to which they are thereby constrained to rely utterly on the resurrecting power of God. It is this experience that gives them voice, informs their theology, and grants their preaching the authenticity of a lived spiritual reality.”[12]

Christian ministry, and in particular—preaching—is cruciform. That is, it is shaped by the Cross—both in content and in character. We followed a crucified Messiah, and likewise, our call is to take up our cross and follow after him. This is further impetuous for our ministry to be prayer saturated—for did not Christ himself pray with unrivaled intensity at Gethsemane?

               What is further of interest to note is that Paul prays pre-emptively about what he will go on to expound in his ‘preaching’ in the rest of this letter. Paul will expound to the Colossians what it is to be filled (2:10), and this fullness language permeates this letter. He will also address spiritual wisdom and understanding (2:2-4), what it means to walk pleasingly and bear fruit (3:5-17), the knowledge of God, the implications of being qualified by God (2:16-23) and where true power for Christian living comes from (3:1-4). It is as if Paul is giving over the ultimate accomplishment of these things to the Lord through prayer and we would do well to be his imitators here.


‘Hymn’ we proclaim—preaching from a heart that sings

               Paul then briefly introduces to us the Saving Christ (1:13-14). The Father has transferred us from the domain of darkness to His Son’s Kingdom. This leads us to ask the question, “who then is this Son into whose Kingdom we’ve been transferred? And perhaps after contemplating who is this Son, Paul’s mind is ignited to erupt in praise in what is sometimes referred to as the Christ Hymn of Colossians. Though we cannot read too far into the tone of his writing, it would be unlikely to believe that Paul can write these words dispassionately. As such, the preacher cannot listlessly deliver Gospel truth. Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “If your heart is not as much engaged as your head in these matters, your theology is defective. . . not only that you are in a dangerous spiritual state yourself, but also that to that extent you will be a poor preacher.”[13]

               Paul finds himself wrapped up into the very content of his message, not just as a proclaimer but also as a participant. As such, spontaneous exulting in praise should be normative for us—both in the study as we unearth treasures in the Word and in the pulpit as we expound them, like excited beggars telling other beggars where we’ve found bread. Lloyd-Jones said that preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.[14] The most dangerous habit a preacher can fall into is to read the Bible simply to find texts for sermons.[15] Preachers must be weary of becoming ‘professionals.’ Preaching Christ is to be the overflow from the heart of the preacher who has come to delight in these things themselves.


The exegesis of God

               Answering the question of the knowledge of God, Paul sets forth Christ as εἰκὼν—the image. An image is something which is supposed to represent something else. The ancient world was used to visible images of their Pagan gods in their temples. However, Jesus is the image of τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου—the imperceptible God (1:15). Perhaps ironically, the Jews and Christians of the first century were sometimes ridiculed as ‘atheists’ by the Romans because their God was invisible. If this God is imperceptible to the natural senses, how then can one know Him? It is only through Jesus, who, as the image of God, Christ is an exact, as well as a visible, representation of God, illuminating God’s essence.”[16] John 1:18 says literally that Jesus ‘has exegeted’ [ἐξηγήσατο] the Father. He has made Him known. Christ is the living representation of God; in Him God opens His heart to us; in Him the mind of God becomes a spoken word; in Him the will of God is unresistingly personified.”[17] Therefore, to increase in the knowledge of God is to increase in the knowledge of this Son who images Him. Likewise, Arthur M. Ramsey made the point that, “the importance of the confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not only that Jesus is divine, but that God is Christlike.”[18] While other created things may secondarily give some knowledge of God, it is only the Son who perfectly images God—and thus, why we must be given to the task, as Paul is, of making this Son more fully known through the Word (2:25).


The Supreme, Crucified Christ

               Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[19] Next, Paul presents Christ as supreme over all creation and new creation, the agent of creation and the purpose of creation—for by him, through him and to him are all things (1:16).

“Some of the Colossians were toying with the ideas about an endless chain of spiritual intelligences filling the void between God and the world: Paul lists the supposed names of these lords of the spiritual world, without comment—and almost contemptuously—and then roundly declares that Christ is prior to them all, and above them all. If there are such, He made them! ‘You name it, He is above it!’”[20]

The proponents of the false teaching in Colossae “may have believed that these beings were Christ’s rivals or, what is more likely, they may have thought that veneration of these beings provided additional access to the benefits of salvation.”[21] Paul contests their extraordinary emphasis on spiritual beings by responding with Christ’s sovereignty over every spiritual being as their Creator. “Furthermore, he has put them in subjection to him even now by defeating them on the Cross so that they hold no sway over believers.”[22]

               Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize that believers find all they need in Christ alone. Every ‘theoretical’ statement found in the Christ hymn of 1:15-20 is picked up and applied later to affirm the sufficiency of Christ. The key word πλήρωμα—fullness—denotes completeness.[23] The false teaching seems to have been implicitly casting doubt on Christ’s adequacy to fulfil all their spiritual needs.[24] So is the case with many false teachers, who err not always in subtracting from the Gospel but in seeking to add to it.”[25] Today there are a plethora of examples of such detraction from the Gospel, even from within the Church. How often do we seek fullness in other things—even good things? It takes various forms we may not recognize, but we still struggle with the Colossian temptation—cars, money, house, children, success, attraction, sex, popularity, approval of man—our heart is given to seek fullness from what the Bible calls broken cisterns that hold no water. However, Paul’s response, and ours, is that the ‘fullness’ you are seeking is to be found in Christ alone.[26]

               It is through him that all things are reconciled to God, making peace through what would have been considered utter foolishness to his contemporary audience—the Cross (1:20). We would do well to not miss the epic scandal—that this all supreme Christ of 1:15-20 is said to have overcome through the unspeakably shameful lowest degradation humanly possible at the time—crucifixion. Paul’s conclusion in 1:18, so that Christ might have supremacy in everything, “refers to an inaugurated rule which must also be manifested in the world. Christ’s supremacy in the church—God’s new creation—suggests that it is through the church that this supreme rule is revealed and advanced in the world.”[27] It is this Christ in us that is the hope of glory (1:27). This message we also echo today. Foolishness to the millennial, but to us the power and wisdom of God. Preachers and gospel ministers, never stray from this message!


What are our take-aways?

               Paul recognized the threats of the culture of his day to the Gospel and the church, and like a good under-shepherd he guarded the folk to keep them within the Chief Shepherd’s fold. The syncretism which challenged the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ had to be robustly dealt with. The Christ Hymn, as it is used by Paul in Colossians offers a starting point from which Paul will jump into the rest of his letter—and by extension, gives us a ground principle as preachers. Everything which follows in the letter about Christ must be understood in light of the Christology laid in 1:15-20. But what gives us the right to be able to challenge the cultural idols, or to proclaim such a bold message against the challengers? It is the reference to and focus on the one proclaimed rather than the proclaimers which gives the Gospel its universal scope. “Otherwise, the gospel is reduced to little more than a social ideology, which is precisely what makes cultural Christianity so tepid and unappealing in the present day.”[28] Therefore, preaching must be rooted in expounding such a knowledge of this Supreme Christ to our audience—especially in our context where various attacks at the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ assault our congregations.

               We also see in Colossians, as well as Paul’s other letters, the necessity of prayer—not just as a duty, but as indispensable to ministry. We are called to do that which we are totally insufficient to effect. We find ourselves in Ezekiel’s shoes—staring at dry bones, wondering if they may live again. It is only by the Spirit breathed Word of God, empowered by Him, that such a task can be accomplished and the Christian minister not lose heart. Therefore, we must be brought to the point of desperation in prayer. The Christian minister is not a dispassionate or detached observer, nor a distant proclaimer of the Good News—but rather is themselves intimately wrapped up into the mystery of the very Gospel they seek to expound. As such, proclamation should also be marked by an overflow of delight and wonder. The Christian minister’s heart desperately needs these truths every bit as much as does their listeners to enable and effect true change from the inside out. Preaching, rather than performance, is Gospel permeation: permeating to the inner depths of our being and seeping out through our pores and bursting forth from our mouths as am uncontainable fire shut up in our bones.

               Therefore, this also affects our method of proclamation. The basic method we observe is that Paul will repeatedly expound Christocentric Gospel indicatives—describing who Christ is and what he has done—upon which he then rests the Christian imperatives for Gospel-shaped living. Grace given precedes faith effected and acted out. Colossians makes it clear that Christian living must be rooted in Christ:

“He is the ‘head’ who supplies power to the whole body (2:19). It is by our existence ‘in him,’ the ‘new self,’ or ‘new man,’ that renewal in the image of God takes place (3:10). He is the repository of all wisdom (2:3), the ‘reality’ or ‘substance’ of new covenant truth (2:17). Our very mind-set must be governed by ‘the things above,’ where Christ is and with whom we have been raised to new life (3:1–2).”[29]

It is this high doctrine which must nourish deep devotion and we must think rightly about who Christ is so that we would also give Him rightful place in our lives. Only when He is given rightful place in all things is what we profess Κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς—Jesus Christ is Lord—seen to be true in reality. For, it was Jesus himself who asked, “why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”[30]



Sermon Outlines

To read the sermon outlines, please refer to the PDF for this article.


ENDNOTES

[1] Some scholars have suspected that Col. 1:15-20 is a quotation from an early church hymn.
[2] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 26; DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 690.
[3] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 26—28.
[4] DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 691.
[5] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 49.
[6] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 53. Given the geographical and cultural context, the false teaching may have been some mixture of various elements from different religious and philosophical sources which we cannot easily label.
[7] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 48.
[8] Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 349.
[9] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 60.
[10] As quoted in Bryant, The New Guidebook for Pastors, 49.
[11] I won’t comment on this phrase here, but good commentary on it can be found in the commentaries listed in the bibliography.
[12] Knowles, We Preach Not Ourselves, 186.
[13] Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers, 190.
[14] Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers, 110.
[15] Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers, 184.
[16] Garland, The NIV Application Commentary, 87
[17] White, In Him the Fullness, 40—41
[18] McGrath, Christian Theology, 267. Also, Karl Barth notes that when the Bible speaks of God, it does not let our thoughts wander randomly but rather concentrates our attention to Jesus.
[19] Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” 488.
[20] White, In Him the Fullness, 44
[21] MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 60
[22] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 64—65.
[23] Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians, 99—100. It is repeatedly used in the LXX in phrases such as “the earth and its fullness (e.g., Ps. 24:1 [LXX 23:1]; Jer. 8:16; Ezek. 19:7; 30:12) and also deuterocanonical books such as in Wisdom of Solomon 1:6–7.
[24] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 63.
[25] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 67.
[26] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 132.
[27] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 66.
[28] Knowles, We Preach Not Ourselves, 153.
[29] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 69–70.
[30] White, In Him the Fullness, 52
[31] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 58.
[32] Chandler, The Explicit Gospel, 142-143.
[33] Spurgeon, as quoted in “Preach Christ or Go Home” (blog), August 4, 2010.
[34] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 29.
[35] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 30—31.
[36] Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame, 50. This emphasis on what we are presently in Christ finds an analogy in a story told by Luther of a king who marries a prostitute. When they are married, the prostitute becomes by status, a queen. It was not her queenly behaviour that won her the king’s hand, but when the king made his marriage vow, her status changed and she was simultaneously a harlot and a queen. It is in this security, Luther argued, that the prostitute actually then starts to become queenly at heart.


Bibliography

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Trans. John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954.

Bryant, James W. and Donald McCall Brunson. The New Guidebook for Pastors. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007.

DeSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.

Garland, David E., The NIV Application Commentary: Colossians and Philemon, Terry Muck, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Third edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.

Knowles, Michael P. We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.

Kuyper, Abraham. “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Lewis, C.S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study, New York, NY: Macmillan, 1947.

Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1980.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn, Preaching & Preachers: 40th Anniversary Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

MacDonald, Margaret Y. Colossians and Ephesians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington. Sacra Pagina Series, Volume 17. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000.

McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction. Fifth Edition. West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2011.

Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008.

Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2010.

Reinke, Tony. “Preach Christ or Go Home,” The Gospel Coalition, August 4, 2010,                https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2010/08/04/preach-christ-or-go-home%E2%80%94and-other-classic-spurgeon-quotes-on-christless-preaching/

White, R.E.O. In Him the Fullness: Homiletic Studies in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, London: Pickering & Inglis, 1973.

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