COLOSSIANS recounts one side of a common conflict among Christians, especially the first generation of believers from a pagan, primal context. Imagine the strangeness and shock value of a monotheistic and prophetic faith in a Creator God to a pantheistic world in which many gods and spirits are mingled into the natural order, in a chain of being spanning from earth to heaven. Imagine that this chain is fluid; the links do not stay in place but move around and blend, so that rocks might be deities, a crow might be your deceased uncle, the gods might be your neighbors, or more likely, the royal family, so that even humans span a range of matter-to-spirit, animal-to-divine, on this magical, mysterious chain of being, with the king and your tribe likely considered to be closer to heaven than your enemies and slaves. In such an insecure and mysterious, shape-shifting world you need priests, seers, diviners and others initiated into the secrets of the universe on your side, at least to interpret why you got sick, or your livestock died, and those of your neighbor did not, and what you should do about it. Morality is as much a matter of taboos that make little sense outside of the context, like never looking your father-in-law in the eye, or never sowing seed on a Thursday, as it is about universal principles, like “love your neighbor as yourself.” But the taboos make sense in the context of localized deities and magical forces. Time is cyclical, going nowhere but revolving in place, like a roulette wheel.
Into this world (ancient Colossae) comes the gospel like an Arctic cold front into a steamy Mississippi Delta afternoon, sparking a storm front of change. As a result, the world begins to look predictable, giving rise to the scientific outlook. An ontological distinction opens between the world and God, such that one no longer worships nor fears trees nor rocks, and humanity stands level before the Creator, both king and commoner. Time is going somewhere, towards a judgment and reconciliation that will vindicate the universal morality that we find in the Ten Commandments. Compared to them, tribal taboos and regulations become secondary, even irrelevant. We are freed from the powers of evil, which ironically can operate just as well through rules and regulations, even those of the Hebrew Bible, as they did through license and violence. And we are freed for a fullness, maturity and humanity that not only looks like Christ Jesus, it is Christ Jesus, living in us, that is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).”
But change proceeds in fits and starts. Surviving bits and pieces of pagan and primal world views may insinuate themselves into the monotheistic and prophetic faith in the form of biblical-sounding taboos and regulations, and the effort to justify ourselves to God by them. What does this supreme God want of us? is a superb question. But when we reach for the nearest answer at hand, in left-over primal habits of mind, the answer will look like dietary restrictions, purity regulations and taboos. That is a dead end and a road block on the road to Christ and to maturity in him. Indeed, it will limit Christ to another mere law-giver and tribal deity, as in the case of America’s civil religion today.
Which is what Paul was countering in Colossae. Somewhere along the journey from their primal, pagan worldview towards “the fullness of Christ,” these Christians got stuck in legalism, taboos and traditions, probably with the help of—once again—judaizers who did not trust the work of God’s Spirit without the help of Moses’ law (2: 16-19). Paul sets about to renew their vision and understanding of Christ, his supremacy, his position as God’s complete answer to all of our needs before him. In effect, Paul was treating their spiritual eye ailment (pagan, primal blind spots) with the kind of vision of Jesus you find in Col. 1: 15-20. The result of such a fuller vision of Jesus will be the kinds of lives and loves detailed in Col. 3: 18-25. These are expressions of a full, right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and not requirements for it. Instead of being divided up into identity groups with their unique tribal deities, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
I THESSALONIANS is likely the earliest letter from Paul’s hand in the Bible. It appears to have been written from Corinth not long after the events recorded in Acts 17:1-9, when Paul was “torn away” from the newly planted Thessalonian church. The purposes of this letter include: finishing the teaching that was interrupted; encouraging the believers in the face of persecution; answering accusations by opponents against their motives; explaining his absence; and dealing with the questions around a believer’s death, in light of Christ’s expected return. Is his return so imminent that no believer should die before then? What if one does? Will he or she miss out on the fullness of the kingdom?
The answers to the latter question, which Paul gives in chapter 4, form the basis, to some Bible teachers, of “the rapture,” the sudden snatching away of believers before the Great Tribulation hits the world. If this were the plan of God, God would have to apologize to his saints in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and Hitler’s Europe for the exceedingly great tribulations they suffered.
The passage (4: 13-18) does talk about believers being taken up to greet the Lord in the air when he returns. It does not say when this will happen in the unfolding scheme of history, except that its at the moment of Christ’s triumphal return. Any attempt to align the many and complicated images and events of Bible prophecies in order, and especially to affix a date to them, are just that: attempts. And usually fruitless, even disastrous ones at that. The best explanation I’ve heard for Paul’s words about being “taken up” to meet the Lord in the air at his return is that it simply reflects the common practice at the time, when a conquering hero, returning to his city with his troops, would be met outside the city by welcoming crowds of citizens. They would then accompany the hero back into the city for his festal reception. But let’s not forget the purpose of this passage: “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope,” and that you may “encourage one another with these words.”
PSALM 126 may reflect a post-Exilic date, “When the Lord brought back the captives.” It also compares the grace of God, in returning the captives, to the grace we experience in nature: the growth of grain for food. Israel’s condition was like that of someone sowing grain in tears (as though they were sowing grain they wanted to eat?) only to find a bumper harvest in return. That’s how close Israel came to disappearing.
PSALM 127 is a prayer of blessing for that which counts most in life: relationships, especially family relationships. Any other labor that keeps us up late at night is ultimately not worth the effort. Sleep is God’s gift, and life is meant to be lived in balance, within limits, for the sake of relationships.
PSALM 128, together with Psalm 127, may reflect prayers, songs and liturgies of blessings from the festival for the basic unit or building block of society, then and now: family.
PSALM 129 contains a call and response between verse 1 and 2: (call) let Israel say; (response) “they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me.” Therein lies the meaning of Ps. 129: opposition, suffering and persecution do not necessarily mean defeat. “The LORD is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.” Indeed, judgment, defeat and frustration return on the oppressor and persecutor, in verses 5-8.