The inmate asked to speak to me. I didn't know if it was to ask about a personal problem, to pose a Biblical question or to ask me to do something for him, like pass a message to someone on the outside which I am explicitly forbidden to do. Instead, he started telling me about a guru he followed and these breathing exercises he practiced. OK, I thought, this sounds like yoga or some Hindu discipline, about which I know more than the average person but less than an actual Hindu. But then what he was saying veered off into an unexpected direction. Suddenly he was talking about the events of 9/11 being a sham. He's a truther, I thought. Then it was FEMA coffins. Extreme right wing paranoia, I surmised. Then it was about the Roman Catholic church controlling the world. Old-style fundamentalist anti-Catholicism, I wondered. Then it was about vaccinations really being an excuse for implanting mind-controlling chips, which led him to refuse the anti-TB vaccination the jail provides. At this point I was doing all I could to hang on during this wild ride through his imagination. And finally it was about aliens from space, of which there are 3 types of bad ones and 1 type of good alien. (X-Files, I ventured.) And he's seen them, which is why they put in in jail to prevent him from spreading the truth. Ah, I should have expected this, seeing as I was in the unit which houses inmates with psychiatric problems. The thing is that in his presentation he had woven together an admirably comprehensive picture of interlocking global conspiracies, leaving out only the Kennedy assassination and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though if I had asked, he might have found a way to incorporate them as well.
In religion, this mixing of bits and pieces of otherwise disparate beliefs is called syncretism. Voodoo, which mixes Catholic saints and African beliefs, is an example. And it was a more elaborate kind of syncretism, on the order of the inmate's system, that Paul was up against in his letter to the Colossians. Biblical scholars have tried to figure out just what the “Colossian heresy” was. From what we can tell from Paul's letter, it apparently encompassed bits of Jewish practice, an elaborate angelology, astrology, Greek philosophy and some proto-Gnosticism. It's the inclusion of Gnosticism that makes some scholars say that this letter couldn't have been written by Paul. It must have been written in the 2nd century, which is when we start finding systematic writings about Gnosticism, they say. The problem with this line of reasoning is that an idea must exist before it's written down and for it to have gotten so developed as a system implies a gestation period. Besides that, the version Paul is addressing has a lot of elements that the 2nd century version has lost. In addition, there are some features of the letter to the Colossians that echoes bits of the letter to the Ephesians, which everybody accepts as an authentic letter of Paul's. Ephesus was just about 100 miles away from Colossae. Perhaps the schools of thought the letters addressed were related.*
The most important aspects of the Colossian heresy that clash with Christianity are the Gnostic ideas. The Gnostics believed that all matter was bad and only spirit was good. So the world could not have been made by God. Instead, God gave off these emanations, each successive one further from him in knowledge and goodness. The one that made the world was so far from God he was ignorant of the true God and actually hostile to him. And they didn't identify this creator with Satan, though, but the God of the Old Testament! And, of course, if matter was evil, Jesus who came from the true God could never have taken on a material body. He only appeared to. Naturally he was never a real human being and so he didn't die for us. He was in effect a hologram. We on the other hand are spirits imprisoned in evil bodies and in an evil world. Salvation was knowledge. (Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge.) Elite Gnostics could give the initiates secret knowledge and passwords that would allow them to travel up the various spiritual levels until they encountered God.
You can see how (a) this could be worked into some form of Judaism and Christianity and (b) the violence it did to the essentials of the faith. According to the Gnostics, God didn't create the world. It was never good and cannot be redeemed. Jesus never lived and died as one of us and thus doesn't have any experience of what our lives are like. Salvation is a wholly intellectual process, which leaves out less educated folks. Salvation is not a matter of God's grace but something we achieve through learning a lot of esoterica. Add in the other elements and the resemblance to Christianity is only superficial. But apparently some in the Colossian church were falling under its sway.
So Paul tackles the controversy of this mishmosh of religious ideas head on, focusing on the way Jesus Christ is depicted.
“He is the image of the invisible God...” Paul is saying that Jesus is not a feeble emanation, a copy of a copy of a copy of God, a faded Xerox of the original. He is the very image of God. The Greek word is eikon, which means a representation of someone like a statue or portrait. It was also used of a section of legal contracts that described the parties involved and their distinguishing characteristics. His point is that when you look at Jesus you see what God is really like. You don't have to go through a series of bad likenesses to slowly get a better idea of what God is. For example in Greek Orthodoxy, they call their icons windows into heaven. We might say looking at Jesus is like Skyping with God.
Paul goes on to call Christ “...the firstborn of creation.” This makes it sound like Christ was merely the first thing created. (Christ is not a creation. See John 1:1-3.) But Paul is really doing 2 things here. He is connecting Jesus with the personified Wisdom of God, spoken of in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is depicted as the personal principle by which and through which God created everything. Wisdom is called the firstborn of creation. In addition, Psalm 89:27 God says, “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.” This was widely seen by rabbis as a description of the Messiah. So firstborn was a Messianic title as well.
But firstborn means something more than birth order in the ancient world. The firstborn was the favored son, the one who inherited the most of his father's property, the father's successor as head of the family. Many pharaohs let their sons act as co-rulers with them. And birth order had nothing to do with it. Abraham had Ishmael before Isaac but Isaac was given the rights and privileges of the firstborn. Jacob takes the birthright and blessing of his older brother Esau and becomes for all intents and purposes Isaac's firstborn. Joseph was the second to last of Jacob's sons but he was the favored one. His long-sleeved coat (“many colors” is a mistranslation) indicated he would be the next head of the clan. You can't do hard physical labor in a long-sleeved tunic. And his 2 sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, are each given a part of the promised land, giving his descendants twice as much as the other tribes. Joseph is for all practical purposes Jacob's firstborn.
So Paul is saying that Jesus is the heir of God, not some subordinate knock-off. He is due the honor and authority that implies. And he is the Messiah, God's Anointed Prophet, Priest and King.
“...for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created...” Paul is now tying creation to Christ. Creation is not the bad product of an evil and ignorant emanation of God. Christ was intimately involved in creation of the world, “things visible and invisible,” as Paul says. So the material creation as well as the spiritual creation originated in Christ. The angels which Judaism contributed to the Colossian heresy were created through him and are therefore inferior to Christ. Why deal with the middle men when you can do business with the boss himself?
All things were created “for him.” He is not only God's agent in creation but its goal. He is, to quote the book of Revelation, “the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end of all things. Creation is not a mistake or an evil thing but was created for Christ, to come to its culmination in him.
“...in him all things hold together.” In Greek philosophy the creation was held together by the Logos, the rhyme and reason of the cosmos, the Word as we translate the term in John. Many Jewish writers in trying to reconcile Greek philosophy with Judaism connected the Logos with the Wisdom of God. Paul is saying in an obvious but less explicit way that Jesus is the Logos, the Word or Wisdom of God that holds all creation together.
So Christ is the living principle that organizes and sustains the universe. He holds it together. Which means that he is not only the start and finish of creation but also what keeps it running in between those 2 ends.
All this makes Jesus very grand but also sounds like he is quite remote from us. How do we humans connect to this image of God, this agent of creation, its goal and the thing that keeps everything from flying apart?
“He is the head of the body, the church...” He is in charge of the church, which is the center of the new creation. And since we are the church, we are directly connected to him like the body's nervous system connects to the brain, so that all muscles and parts of the body carry out its will.
“He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead...” He is obviously the beginning of the church, of the new assembly of God's people, whom he called to himself. And he is the firstborn of the dead, the resurrected one, the one whose death reversed the reign of death. Jesus raised others and then raised himself from the dead. He is the source of new life and new creation. Paul says that he rose “...so that he might come to have first place in everything.” He is the creator of life and the conqueror of death and by virtue of that, is peerless in all creation. How is this possible?
“For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell...” Paul began by telling us that Jesus is the image of God. Here he is saying that Jesus is not a lifeless statue or a flat portrait but fully God. The word translated “fulness” could be rendered “completeness” or even the “full contents” of God. Jesus doesn't just resemble God; he is God. Whatever is found in God is found in Christ.
“...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.” The question of every religion is why are things not as good as they should be if God made them. The Gnostics said, well, besides God not making the world, it is because of ignorance. The answer is knowledge that only we have and which you won't understand unless we teach you.
But everyone knows knowledge is not enough. If it were, smart people would never knowingly do wrong. But dumb people didn't cook up the complicated financial instruments that wrecked our economy. A dumb person might shoplift or hold somebody up. But he could never create a credit default swap or a derivative or a sub-prime mortgage. The smarter you are the more damage you can do. The problem isn't knowledge; it's the will to do what's right even when what's wrong benefits you.
So what we need is not more knowledge, it's a new heart. It's a new life with a new outlook. But to do that we have to deal with our old life and what we've done to this creation and to the creatures that came into being through Jesus. In a sense, the reconciliation he does is part of his holding things together. To reconcile is to bring people together. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “...in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself...” The Greek word means to mutually change. But, wait, God doesn't change, does he? No, not who he is or what he desires. But as to how he accomplishes his ends, sure. God is doing something new here and anything new is by definition a change. He becomes one of us in Jesus, he lives as one of us, he is killed by the authorities and he rises again. That's a lot of changes that God was willing to undergo to bring us to him and to fix what we broke. He has more than met us halfway.
And how does he accomplish this? “..making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death...” If our problem is not merely an intellectual one, if we are not spirits imprisoned in bodies but our bodies are part of what once was a good creation, if our problems are not just in our minds but also in the physical world, then an adequate solution must have a physical as well as a spiritual component. A holographic Jesus does us no good. But a flesh and blood Jesus, a Jesus who can do something on the physical plane of existence, so to speak, as well as on the spiritual plane can accomplish something in both the worlds in which we live. What he did was not theoretical. And it did change lives. He physically healed people and they changed their minds and followed him. He healed the mind of the man living in the tombs and he stopped cutting his body with stones. He physically fed people and some realized how nourishing his words were to their spirits. He physically died and physically arose, which was what it took to spiritually change the minds and lives of the Twelve and his other followers. Mind and body and spirit are not hermetically-sealed, compartmentalized aspects of life. They affect one another. I touch you with affection and your mood calms. I say reassuring things and the tension leaves your body. Jesus dies and rises from the dead and, united with him through trust, we live in the now spiritually and in the future in new bodies like his.
Ultimately what Paul is saying is that Jesus is the answer. Not to science or math or plumbing problems, but to the 3 big questions human beings ask: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Who are we? We are God's creations, created in his image, the image we see most clearly in Jesus Christ, God's Son, the reason for, the beginning and the goal of creation.
Why are we here? We are here to know and enjoy God but since we have created barriers to knowing and enjoying him through our sins, Jesus has crossed the barrier from the spiritual to the material to reconcile us to God. By faith we accept his grace and through his Spirit, we become more Christlike and offer his reconciliation to others.
Where are we going? We are going to be with Jesus as part of his new creation, heaven and earth brought together, so that God will dwell with his people, in his kingdom, eternally celebrating the wedding banquet of the Lamb, reclaiming his people in love.
Jesus was not just some guy sent to tell us to be nice to one another or how to get to heaven. He is the whole reason for creation, and the model of how it is held together. Which is by love. He came not to condemn the material world but to redeem it and reconnect it to the spiritual. He gives the Spirit of God form and he gives our material world and our lives meaning and direction. Jesus is the lens through which we are to view everything, seeing this world and the people in it as images of God to be restored and reasons to praise God. Jesus enables us to see in catastrophe the seeds of triumph, in sickness the opportunity for healing, in pain the capacity to feel joy, in death the door to new life. If we gaze into the face of Jesus, we see how everything is related, how we all are connected, how we are to live our lives, both now and eternally.
*Another thing that makes some scholars think Paul didn't write this letter is the language which is unlike his other letters. In this, I have to agree with William Barclay that this perceived language change controversy is due to 2 things. One is a silly idea that Paul's thought and expressions were static, that his great brain could not change over time, that he could not acquire new vocabulary. The second thing that might make him use to new language is a new challenge. If he was encountering a radically different system of thought, he would have to use different language in response. Also we know Paul did not do the actual writing of his letters but dictated them to scribes. A good scribe might suggest language when the person dictating is trying to find the right words, as Paul might in dealing with this new school of thought.