Solving the Great Mystery
Paul writes this part of Colossians about three issues. Since they are all issues we still ponder in our world, what Paul can do is help us see them from God’s point of view. That’s always the value of the Bible.
1. Suffering of Christians. How do we deal with that?
2. The mystery of God. This is completely different from The DaVinci Code, but what is it?
3. Spiritual maturity. How do we measure this? And how are we becoming mature as Christians?
1. Vs. 25, “There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world.” Now Paul doesn’t mean a toothache. He talks about being in jail. He says what it is hard to understand, “I’m glad it’s me sitting here in this jail and not you.” Probably none of us would like the idea of being in jail. We might think of Christians in Muslim or Hindu countries where they are jailed or killed specifically because, as Christians, they are separate from the culture. But there are other examples. I was talking with a Christian from Bethlehem in Israel last year at the Larsen Student Center at Messiah College. He had come through U.S. customs a couple of days before we talked. He had been held for 4 hours, even though he was a Christian, not a Muslim. 4 hours! His being a Christian probably never entered the minds of the people who held him so long. He came from a turbulent part of the world and was treated with suspicion. People who don’t fit in don’t always have it easy.
I get a monthly magazine which has two pages each month describing the jailing and beating and killing of Christians in different parts of the world. Usually these people are recent converts who are attacked by their families. The Mosque their family had been part of or Islamic people in the small town they come from see them separating from the past. Paul was in prison because he was falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple in Jerusalem. In other settings he was wrongly accused of disrupting normal practices in a town. No wonder Paul says in vs. 25, “There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world.”
I would need to think more than I have about what Paul means in vs. 25, “I experienced this suffering as a sheer gift.” Paul’s suffering isn’t like that of Jesus’. It doesn’t have anything to do with saving us from sins; but the way Paul accepts his imprisonment can be a model for believers, which is what Paul is saying. In Anabaptist history and the BIC are Anabaptists with roots in the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Switzerland there were many people killed because they did not fit into the culture nor the Christian religion of the towns or the Cantons where they lived. Martyrs Mirror and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tell some of the stories of people martyred by hostile Christians!
For us, by and large, we live free from such hostility. Whatever comes in the future we must deal with when that comes. Revelation paints a picture of great persecution by anti-God forces to come in the future. We can learn from Paul when that comes. There are other places where we can learn. Greg Mortensen wrote a book, Three Cups of Tea. It is an interesting description of an American whose parents had been missionaries in Africa, and who met the culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the tribal areas. What Mortensen did was to help set up schools for girls and others. He was accepted there, but at one point he was also captured and jailed by the Taliban. Paul talks about suffering.
2. Paul also talks about mystery, not in the Dan Brown sense, but in the long historical sense of the Scriptures. Here is what Paul is saying about “mystery”, a word that could be translated “secret.” In the Bible that word usually means the private counsel of God, that is, what his thoughts and plans are that have been hidden from human reason. So Paul is saying in vs. 26, “This mystery has been kept dark for a long time,” and then he adds, “but now it’s out in the open.” In vs. 27, “The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you.”
It is exactly here that it will help us to know a little history of the Colossians. They were Gentiles, not Jews. The great Old Testament promise had been, God chose the Jewish people. He redeemed them from Egypt. He named kings to rule them. He sent prophets to speak his words to them. The people in the nations around them were pagans, as indeed Abraham had been at one time. God’s promise to these Jews had been, a Messiah is coming to save God’s people. And Jesus comes and then a great unexpected secret is made known: God’s salvation in Jesus comes for all people and not only for Jews.
In the Bible there are two trends of thought that stand together often, God’s plan and God’s mystery. The mystery is not like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. The secret is not knowledge for the few, like the Gnostics claimed. The secret is something Paul says the Colossians know because they are among those most effected by it. The Gentiles are included in God’s plan, so Jews and Gentiles are now, in Christ, part of one body. These Colossian Christians can be encouraged by God’s care for his chosen people in history since they are now included among the chosen people.
One of the other clear places Paul writes about this is in vss. 4 - 6 of Ephesians 3: “You’ll be able to see for yourselves into the mystery of Christ. None of our ancestors understood this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s Spirit…. The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives… stand on the same ground before God.” See, it is not only Jews. And that is good news for us!
Still, there was a struggle among the early Christians to accept Gentiles into the faith. We can sense the struggle in Acts 10 and 11, where Peter, unwilling to eat unclean food, is given a God-based vision, and sent by God to Cornelius, a God-fearing man, but a Gentile. And Peter preached to Cornelius and his household and the Holy Spirit fell on them like a second Pentecost. And in 11:1, “The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it heard that the non-Jewish ‘outsiders’ were now ‘in’.” So soon after Jesus death, the ancient patterns are completely changed. Within a generation there would be more Gentiles than Jews in the churches of the Mediterranean world. That’s the mystery! That’s the secret!
Is this secret, this mystery, uncovered first by Paul or are there earlier hints of it? Well, a few days after Jesus is born, his parents take him to the temple and there is a man there named Simeon who takes the baby Jesus into his arms (Lk. 2:31 and 32) and Simeon sings, “With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation… A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations, and of glory for your people Israel.”
The Dan Brown kind of mystery has old roots in a group known as the Gnostics. They were from the 2nd century. A lot of controversy surrounds them. The Jesus Seminar people put the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic work, on a par with the 4 canonical Gospels. Thomas is a second century Gnostic work. Bart Ehrman from the University of North Carolina has studied the various writers dismissed as heretics by the early church and has painted the Gnostics as a failed Christian heresy. The sounder view today, set forth by people like Ed Yamauchi, is that Gnosticism was an independent religion, not a Christian variant. It was a religious form of Greek philosophical ideas. So what did Gnostics believe? That when God sent the Redeemer he brought salvation not in his death on the cross but in a secret gnosis that allowed those who understood that knowledge to escape from the prison of their bodies at death as the Greek philosophers taught. There was for them no bodily resurrection.
But let’s emphasize what Paul emphasizes about the mystery. It is, vs. 27, “Christ in you.” That is, God is in Gentile people, working his goodness and salvation in them. That is the historical stream we stand in.
3. But there is a third matter here. This has to do with the kinds of people the Colossian
Christians are. You know there is a wide range of people in churches. Some are devout, God-seeking men and women. Others are on their way. They have friends or family in the church, so they come to services. They may be people feeling their way into this church thing, or they may have little interest in the life of the church. Notice what Paul points to about the Colossians in vs. 5. Two characteristics mark them: they conduct the matters of their lives in careful and orderly ways. And, secondly, there is a solid substance to their faith in Christ.
How do we live our lives? I think probably all of us would have some sort of answer to the question, “Now what are the things you learned about life from your mom and dad?”
It’s a line often repeated in Louis L’Amour’s western tales, “Now paw, he warn’t no man of book learning, but I learned a mite of wise counsel from him.” We need that sort of learning from our parents and from people in the church. Parents are one set of teachers; adults who teach kids are another; and, friends who are Christians and are working through issues that concern faith, another.
In vs. 28 Paul sets this in an aphorism, “To be mature is to be basic.” What does that mean?
The Canadian philosopher from McGill University, Charles Taylor, wrote a book in 1991, The Ethics of Authenticity. I love books, or people, who help me consider questions I have thought about but don’t yet have a clear view of. Taylor is a guy like that. He talks about how people make choices about values. A lot of people in our day think he/she has a right to develop his own form of life, grounded on his own sense of what is really important. No one else can tell you what you ought do. Today this takes some disturbing forms. People sacrifice their love relationships and the care of their children in order to follow their own careers and they feel called to do this. If I didn’t do it, people say, my life would be wasted. So there is a thickening of the darkness around moral ideas. Taylor calls this idea of feeling called to act on my own behalf with no horizon of a community standard “soft relativism.”
Paul has a different standard and for 2,000 years it has been the standard Christians followed: Here is you life. Conduct it well. Be careful about your decisions. Keep trusting Jesus. When you put your faith in Jesus, he will help you create a boundary standard that will keep you from being self-centered.
Now do you see what Paul is saying? He is delighted hearing about the kind of lives these new Colossian Christians are living. There is no soft relativism here. There is a discipline that is community-wide. In our day there are a lot of forces that come together to affect how we think about issues. Here is Paul’s advice: let the way of Jesus that is shared by other Christians be the primary influence on you!