I’ve been preaching through Ephesians and stressing a movement in the letter between chapters 3 & 4. In the first three chapters Paul dwells on the believers understanding of God. He describes God. He describes God’s vision for the church. He reminds the disciples what God, through Christ, has done for them.
In chapter 4 the letter transitions to discussing more practical issues for the church to implement. In the first part of the chapter the emphasis is on unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But unity doesn’t mean uniformity and the chapter moves to describing differences among members of the body.
Verse 11 contains a list of apparent roles or positions within the church:
- Pastors; and
We need to clearly grasp that this verse doesn’t describe a career path. Too often I feel there’s an expectation that people work their way up this ladder and that becoming an elder or deacon is a perk of congregational longevity. Rather, Paul here outlines the functions the early church needed to become mature. The gifts and roles listed here are not comprehensive and all served a function in equipping the church and promoting unity and peace.
Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection: since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. Pastors looked after the young churches ; teachers developed and trained the understanding of the first churches.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004, p49)
The images of unity in Ephesians 4 explain why at Lawson Rd we make a big deal when people place membership in the local congregation. It’s exciting when people respond to the calling of Christ in baptism and a commitment to live for God, but Scripture consistently describes new converts participating in local congregations committed to each other. It’s possible that God’s given someone the gift of teaching described here, but when people don’t commit to the other Christians they worship with, they leave uncertainty about their commitment to unity.
Or on the other side, placing membership in a local church lets the elders, deacons, pastors and teachers know the person wants to be equipped by them. It’s difficult to challenge people to grow in Godly maturity when the leaders don’t know clearly who they’re leading. In 1 Peter 5:2 elders are told, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Who is the flock under their care? It’s not defined, but membership is way of knowing whether a person is under the care of Lawson Rd elders, or leaders at another local congregation.
While there’s nothing specific in this passage distinguishing between the local church and the universal church, we need to remember that this letter is written to a local congregation, so the teaching it contains is to be applied in that context unless otherwise noted. The call for unity applies to the Ephesian church and the various tensions they experience to divide. The spiritual gifts and leadership roles listed here apply to the local church. Life as a Christian is not about having the right birth certificate, being baptised in the right way, at the right place or by the right person. It’s about living as healthy part of the body of Christ.
While some church leaders (such as Paul) traveled from congregation to congregation, in general, the leaders at one congregation did not have responsibility for the Godly growth of another congregation. Their task of equipping God’s people for works of service relates to those who are part of that church family.
My last blog post asked, “Who benefits from your faith?” or “Who were you saved for?” This week the text builds on that thought. God has gifted you for the work of equipping others so that the unified body of Christ may be built up. Are you exercising your gifts and talents for the benefit of others?
The commentaries I referenced all seem to agree that Colossians 1:15-20 is a song, a hymn, or a piece of poetry. Yet many of the major English Bible translations don’t acknowledge this presence.
There’s something different about Colossians 1:15-20. Is it the vocabulary? Is it the metre, or rhythm of the text? Is it prose, or is it poetry?
Most scholars I can find agree that this paragraph is something different from Paul’s typical writing. There’s quite a discussion in academic circles concerning whether Paul wrote the hymn personally, or if he quoted it because it fit his message. A third path seeks to determine if Paul edited and existing work to make it fit his letter.
Mostly, these verse are referred to as a hymn, but not a Fanny Crosby style hymn. It’s not possible to know if this “hymn” was ever sung. Maybe it was chanted. Perhaps it simply existed as a poem one particular church. Maybe they recited it in unison to start their worship, or a gifted individual may have simply shared it with the apostle.
Interestingly, many of the major English Bible translations simply include this hymn in the standard paragraph format. This layout decision conceals the presence of the hymnic material. Even some of the translations that acknowledge the presence of a poetic section do a terrible job of displaying it. For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible gives the entire piece a single straight left margin. I’m no poet, but I can tell this layout doesn’t add any illumination to the poem.
That’s my criticism. Now for my solution.
I have very little talent or appreciation for poetry. I’ve never really graduated beyond rhymes. But with a little help from my reference books and NT Wright in particular, I hope I can shine a light for you on the beauty of this hymn.
I know it’s a bit clunky, but for the sake of layout I’ve used powerpoint and will insert and discuss the slides below.
To begin I’ll share a format for the whole hymn that I believe works well. It has two stanzas with a bridge in between.
The first stanza celebrates Jesus’ role in creation and describes his total supremacy. “In him all things were created.” The second stanza explicitly declares Jesus’ supremacy. It also focuses upon Jesus humanity and ultimately his death. The bridge makes the transition from praising Jesus in the cosmic sphere to acknowledging his Lordship of the church. He holds the universe together and unifies and directs the church.
On a broad scale I like this symmetry. The verses maintain a common theme, albeit with a separate application and the bridge manages the transition well.
The hymn also uses lots of repetition to emphasise its points. The technical term for this is parallelism as different pairs of lines say the same thing using different words. Verse 16 provides a great example:
- For in him all things were created:
- things in heaven and on earth,
- visible and invisible,
- whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
- all things have been created through him and for him.
Lines 1 and 5 bookend this verse by painting an image of all things being created in, through and for Jesus. Just in case you forgot who you were praising. Lines 2 and 3 display a parallelism or repetition that provides additional details to the sweeping claims of lines 1 and 5. Then line 5 provides an even deeper level of clarification with four different terms that seem to all describe the same thing.
There are no exceptions to Jesus’ supremacy!
The last feature of this hymn I want to highlight is the correspondence between the stanzas.
Each stanza starts at the beginning and describes Jesus as firstborn. Jesus is both firstborn of the first creation, and firstborn of the new creation. Both origins testify to his supremacy.
This slide is a bit jumbled, but I’ll attempt to clarify it.
1. While the connection between creation and supremacy is obvious, the supremacy of the man Jesus is not as clear. So v19 explains that the human Jesus had the fullness of God living within him. It clarifies how the man Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” (In hindsight, perhaps v19 should have been on the previous slide.)
2. In the first stanza the supreme Jesus creates. In the second stanza the supreme Jesus reconciles.
3. Just as Jesus created all things on heaven and earth, he has also reconciled all things on heaven and earth. The fullness of God dwells in him so that all things are reconciled through and for Jesus.
I really admire the cleverness of this hymn. There are additional links and threads that I haven’t mentioned here. However, the literary skill demonstrated in this passage should not distract from the reason Paul included it in his letter to the church in Colossae. The message is simple:
(For a different perspective on the same passage, I previously blogged on this text HERE.)
FOOTNOTE: After reading this blog a friend referred me to a prayer / hymn apparently written by St. Patrick. Here’s a sample of that work that like Colossians 1 gives uninhibited praise to Christ our Lord.
I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need: the wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward; the Word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me and restore me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me, Christ in the hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.
Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12) really summarises the message of Mark’s Gospel. In the story the farm hands recognise Jesus as the son of the landowner. Their response is to kill him. How do we identify Jesus, and how do we respond?
Mark opens his writing with the statement “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From his opening the other three accounts of Jesus’ life took their title. They were not histories, or biographies, they were Good News written to persuade people to believe and trust the person of Jesus.
As Mark introduces Jesus to the world, he elects to use the title, “Son of God” to describe Him. We find this title not only in 1:1, but also at other key events in the book. Jesus is described as the Son of God at his baptism (1:11),at the transfiguration (9:7), and at the cross the centurion after observing his death observes, “surely this man was the Son of God.” (15:39)
The Gospel of Mark pivots on 8:29. Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and the apostle Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” Finally, someone accepted Jesus’ message about who he is in relationship with God. In a sense, it’s mission accomplished, but Jesus immediately changes the mission. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things… and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (8:31)
Having established his claim to the title of Israel’s promised Messiah, Jesus immediately emphasises humility, service, and death. It’s fascinating to see the apostles response move in the exact opposite direction. Three times Jesus predicts his death and the apostles respond by arguing about who is the greatest among them.
|Mark 8:31-34||“He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…”||Peter arrogantly rebukes Jesus and tells him that he’s wrong.|
|Mark 9:31-35||“The Son of Man… will be killed.”||“…on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”|
|Mark 10:32-41||“The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests… they will condemn him to death…”||James and John ask to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus’ throne in glory. This upset the rest of the disciples.|
The apostles slowly learned that it’s one thing to intellectually recognise the Lordship of Jesus, but another challenge altogether to submit to Him. Finally, in 10:45 Jesus laid it out for them in very plain language, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark is very concerned that people acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, as Messiah, as Lord. The first step is to learn and believe this truth. The second step is to allow that truth to transform our lives. Knowing the truth of the majesty of Jesus makes us servants, not superiors.
So I don’t want this article to just be an interesting intellectual blog post. Let me close by posing three questions:
- Who is Jesus to you? (Go ahead, write it down. It’s harder than just thinking it.)
- Who in your life could you serve in a meaningful way in the next two days?
- Will you?
On an academic note, here’s a brief note of caution by NT Wright on how to understand the title “Son of God”. It’s part of a much longer essay available here.
‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, does not mean ‘the/a divine one’. It is very misleading to use the words as shorthands for the divine name or being of Jesus. It is comparatively easy to argue that Jesus (like several other first-century Jews) believed he was the Messiah (see JVG, ch. 11). It is much harder, and a very different thing, to argue that he thought he was in some sense identified with Israel’s God. In this context, the phrase ‘son of God’ is systematically misleading because in pre- and non-Christian Judaism its primary referent is either Israel or the Messiah, and it retains these meanings in early  Christianity (e.g. Rom. 1:3-4) while also picking up the overtones of Paul’s early, high Christology. It seems to me, in fact, that the title was perceived very early on in Christianity—within the first decade or so at least—as an ideal one for Jesus because it enabled one to say both ‘Messiah’ and ‘the incarnate one’. However, its subsequent use simply for the latter meaning, coupled with its too-ready identification with the virginal conception story, make it in my view difficult to use without constant qualification in contemporary in systematic discussions.
There’s another short and helpful summary of Wright’s understanding of the title “Son of God” here.