Colossians: Complete in Christ Pt 1 – Introduction & Epaphras

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Begin By Playing Colossians Overview Video:

Christ is sufficient. Christ is preeminent (surpassing all others). Christ is the firstborn of every creature. All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things; in him all things consist. All the fullness of Godhead dwelled in him bodily. All treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in him. He is the head of all principalities and power. Christ is sufficient.

We are in Christ, meaning we are in the one who is preeminent, in the one who was before all things, in the one who has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, etc. We then are complete in Christ and complete only in Christ.

Through Christ Jesus we will be presented perfect before God.

This is why we must abide (remain) in Christ. Yes, our natural man moves around, travels, and works, but our spiritual man should never cease to abide in Christ alone. The danger facing the Colosse church was that false teachers, popular philosophy, and self-made religion were threatening to remove them from finding sufficiency and completion in Christ alone.

A Brief Overview of the Trial and Paul’s Response

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ…

Paul rarely flexes his apostolic authority as a direct messenger of Jesus Christ. The first generation of apostles were those “sent ones” who bore eye witness of Jesus’ resurrection. (Acts 1:21-22) Paul was one who had seen the risen Lord. (1 Cor 9:1) Scripture says that our foundation is built on these apostles and prophets, Christ himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20). A foundation is something that is laid once. It is from direct commission from Jesus where Paul gets his apostolic authority:

[Gal 1:1 KJV] 1 Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;)

[Gal 1:11-12 KJV] 11 But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. 12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught [it], but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

If this is true, we must trust that the words of Paul represent the words of Christ himself.

Paul only references his apostleship when he needs to qualify the message as God-inspired, not Paul-inspired. It is for the sake of the message that he does so, not for the sake of himself. When an emergency arises, one must often dispense with the pleasantries and evoke their authority for the sake of the one needing care. One affiliated with the law might give a command “in the name of the law” without explaining why in order to neutralize a hostile situation. An emergency surgeon will take charge quickly when a life is on the line. Paul is all about glorying the head, which is Christ. And no other book speaks of the fullness and glory of Christ as Colossians does.

The letter’s primary purpose was to provide answers against groups who were pressuring this small church into adding legalistic, philosophical, self-imposed religious rituals to the finished work of Christ. It seemed to be a mix of Judiazers (those saying the law must be followed in addition to faith in Christ) and Greek philosophy—probably the early forms of Gnosticism. So the legalism Paul combats is a blend of Greek and Jewish popular practices at the time. The philosophy attempts to combine Christian, Greek and Jewish thought and results in nothing but a sophisticated heresy. It may have also sprung from an attempt to merge popular Greek thought with the gospel in order to make Christianity relevant to the culture[1], or “popular” if you will. This involved:

  • Circumcision (2:11)
  • Dietary restriction
  • New moons and feasts
  • Holydays
  • The worship of angels/visions
  • Special knowledge/revelation
  • Extreme Asceticism as a way of controlling the desires of the flesh (Col 2:23) (see 1 Tim 4:1-4)
    • “Asceticism A voluntary abstention from the satisfaction of bodily and social needs, including food, drink, sexual activity, sleep, clothes, wealth, and social interaction”[2]
    • “This can be motivated either by a praiseworthy desire to dedicate oneself completely to God, or by an erroneous belief that the physical body is evil.”[3]
  • Self-made religion (Col 2:23) – Which is a result of all the above
  • I may mention a little more from the notes in the end of this paper, particularly the part about special knowledge, a “password”.

The details of the heresy will be discussed over the remainder of the book. But what’s beautiful (and part of the reason why it’s difficult to completely define and label the heresy), is that Paul spends little time systematically refuting each point of the heresy (the letter itself is somewhat short), but spends the majority of the time building up the 1) Fullness and preeminence of Christ, and 2) the sufficiency of Christ. We are presented with some of the most wonderful scriptures and songs/prayers on the deity of Christ.

Understanding who Christ is and what he did equates to him being all we need. I’m complete in him. My faith is no longer in my good works—whether from the Torah or New Age Ascetism—but in the finished work of Christ on the cross which works in me under the law of Christ and the law of liberty.

“The primary Christological passages (1:14-23; 2:9-15) present Christ as absolutely preeminent and perfectly adequate for the Christian. The Christian life, Paul explained, flows naturally out of this revelation. The Christian life is really the life of the indwelling Christ that God manifests through the believer.”[4]

The most dangerous attacks against the truth are not ones that openly oppose the body of Christ. Those typically take the form of persecution, which often makes the church thrive, or at the least displays a clear dividing line between righteousness and unrighteousness. No, the deadliest attacks are those who uphold a partial Biblical view of Christ, but detract or add on a few things regarding his deity or humanity. This is like a deadly poison that seeps into the body and spreads little by little. The effects may seem minute as there is very little outward change initially, yet left untreated, the results are the death of bodily members.

The Blessing (and Duty) of Spiritual Leaders – Epaphras & Paul

The church in Colossians finds themselves under a sly and cunning attack that to the untrained eye might not even look like an attack. This vulnerable church is fortunate that God has placed it under the care of genuine shepherds who care for her as their own children. One such overseer is a man named Epaphras.

Last Sunday we were reminded of the importance of praying for all leaders and those in authority—in the church and especially in the world. As we enter into the study of Colossians we can start by looking at the heart of Epaphras and Paul. This shows the value and necessity of leaders praying for their followers. This is an appropriate and timely topic that will serve as in important devotional and practical topic to the book. Paul loves the people of God. Epaphras loves the people of God. And both will need to lovingly warn—and in some case correct—certain church members. God our father warns and corrects those he loves (). God only sends a message of warning when there is still hope (Compare Sodom and Gomora to Nineveh). God is love. A church leader has no business correcting others if he or she is not exercising the heart of Christ by interceding in prayer on their behalf as a lifestyle, reflecting how Jesus the Chief Shepherd intercedes and prays for the church.

We’ll briefly go through the first 8 verses which introduces us to Epaphras:

[Col 1:1-2 KJV] 1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus [our] brother, 2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace [be] unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul affirms that in spite of the presence of false doctrines in the city, much of the church has remained faithful: “saints and faithful” = faithful saints. Paul’s standard greeting of grace and peace (the latter of which can only ever be had by the former) from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The grace and peace comes from the Father and Christ, showing the equality of Christ with the Father. Paul uses “in Christ” 64 times (“in Christ,” “in Him,” “in the Beloved”).[5] As an Apostle to all different types of Gentiles and Jews, to be “in Christ” is what transcended culture, race, gender, social status and traditions, both secular and religious. By the time we are through with the first two chapter of Colossians my prayer is that we will be strengthened in a fuller and more wonderful understanding of what it means to be “in Christ”!

[Col 1:3-8 KJV] 3 We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, 4 Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love [which ye have] to all the saints, 5 For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; 6 Which is come unto you, as [it is] in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as [it doth] also in you, since the day ye heard [of it], and knew the grace of God in truth: 7 As ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellowservant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ; 8 Who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit.

Paul and Timothy pray with thankfulness for a church they had almost certainly never met. No greater encouragement could the imprisoned Paul receive than to hear that the faithful believers are walking in love towards one another.  This message from Epaphras (vs 8) would have been like a drink of cool water to Paul. The aged and wise Apostle John said in his twilight years that, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” This should be the pastoral heart of every one of Jesus’ under-shepherds. Both John and Paul experienced difficult ends according to church history, yet their circumstance meant little in determining their joy. The anticipation of being with the Lord kept them looking towards heaven, the joy of seeing their spiritual children in the faith kept them enduring on earth. In this case, the gospel delivered is bearing fruit, and this fruit is evidence that the Gospel was received and took hold in their lives.

The rest of this wonderful letter (which would go on to be read by other assemblies besides the Colossians) is based on Epaphras’ report. It’s not certain where Paul was imprisoned during this writing, but evidence and tradition both present Rome as the most likely option. This means Epaphras would have traveled 1200 miles to bring his report to the Apostle. More information is given us regarding this leader and possibly founder of the church in Colossae in Paul’s closing remarks.

[Col 4:12-13 KJV] 12 Epaphras, who is [one] of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. 13 For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and them [that are] in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis.

Epaphras was likely involved with founding or leading of these three churches, yet Paul calls him a “servant of Christ”, no doubt the most valuable title he could hold. Epaphras didn’t just mention the Colossians in his prayers. He “labored fervently”, this Greek word meaning to “compete, fight, struggle, with an emphasis on effort”[6] The same word is used in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith”[7] Epaphras warred on behalf of his Christian family by struggling and wresting for them in prayer. We can learn so much about a leader’s heart from Epaphras.

For his fellow believers to stand perfect and complete in God’s will is the prize Epaphras fights for. This burden is a gift from Jesus given to his body. Both the apostolic gift (Paul) and the evangelist gift (Epaphras) are gifts given by Jesus when he ascended for the building up of the body of Christ until we “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: That we [henceforth] be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, [and] cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;”[8]

There are those in every Christian assembly who will have this burden and it will shape their lives; some may be ordained and some not. Look at the fruit of Epaphras’ burden. He was humble enough to go to Paul to seek guidance for the church. While there he refreshed Paul with the good report and today we have the books of Colossians and Philemon which have strengthened and encouraged the body of Christ for years.

Let’s take this example and use it to evaluate the burdens God has given us. Do we have a care for the believers God has placed in our lives that cause us to wrestle in prayer on behalf of another? Do we rejoice when we see others maturing and Christ, even if our surroundings might seem dismal (Paul – Prison, Epaphras – A great distance from home).

Sometimes when we don’t understand the desires God has given us we may mistake it for weaknesses or flaws in our personalities. For example, some of us get livid when we perceive that a doctrine has seemingly been taught incorrectly or someone’s theology is off-base in the church; it could be as small as taking a scripture out of context. I’ve felt similar feelings over the years and occasionally I’ve been right and occasionally I’ve been wrong in my views. But beyond that, what is causing me to even care? Is it just an arrogant desire to be right? Or deep down inside of many of us, is there a love for one another that causes us to care so much that we actually subconsciously get upset when we feel something could potentially threaten the well-being of our brothers and sisters? I believe for many of us it is the latter. There are two essential things that I see that will keep our hearts soft enough for one another to discern the difference between the Holy Spirit and our own emotions.

  1. The burden must drive us to pray for those in our care. Husbands, it will drive you to pray for your wives and children. Wives, the same. Community Group leaders, you will have difficulty sleeping if you haven’t prayed by name for each of your members. Children’s church teachers, deacons, pastoral staff, I could go on and on. The spiritual maturation of others and the fruit of the gospel in their lives must be what brings us joy. Satan will try to get in and make us focus on the business, the sacrifice, the politics, the bad attitudes, etc. But when we are laboring fervently in prayer for other believers by name, the Devil’s attacks will be like throwing a pebble against the gates of Heaven
  2. Leaders must be consistently praying and communicating with other leaders. This was the whole purpose of separating Godly men in Acts 6. The had two jobs 1) Pray 2) Minister the word. The second would not be fruitful without the first. If Epaphras, Paul, Timothy, Luke and Tychicus were not all on one accord and consistently communicating and praying together, it’s not them who would have suffered the most, it would have been the saints in Colosse.

Identifying Your Burden: For reflection and personal meditation:

  1. Has God given you a burden for particular people or a group in the body of Christ?

If the answer is not immediate, here are some questions to ask and steps to take:

  • Who do I often think about even when I don’t mean to?
    • Step: Start praying for that person and seeing if you can fulfill a need in their life, even if you don’t like them
  • What situations stir up a deep compassion in you?
    • Step: It’s OK to admit that some things that move others just don’t move you as much. God designed us all different for a purpose. Begin praying about how you can minster within that God-given compassion.
  1. If you’re not already, labor fervently in prayer for everyone in our inner circle who God has placed close to you, including job, neighbors, extended family, sports, school, etc.
    • Jesus devoted intense prayer specifically to the 12, and spend extended time in prayer with 3 out of the 12. Make a list of who God has placed you in close proximity with, knowing that God has reasons for everything.
  1. What would Paul say if he had to write a ‘progress report’ about your local Church? Could he report on its ‘love in the Spirit’, as Epaphras could about the Church at Colosse (v. 8)?[9]

 

Misc. Gnosticism Notes:

  1. Some stated tenets of Valentinian and Cerinthian Gnosticism of the second century
  2. Matter and spirit were co-eternal (an ontological dualism). Matter is evil, spirit is good. God, who is spirit, cannot be directly involved with molding evil matter.
  3. There are emanations (eons or angelic levels) between God and matter. The last or lowest one was YHWH of the Old Testament who formed the universe (kosmos).
  4. Jesus was an emanation like YHWH but higher on the scale, closer to the true God. Some put Him as the highest but still less than God and certainly not incarnate deity, (cf. John 1:14). Since matter is evil, Jesus could not have a human body and still be divine. He just appeared human, but was really a spirit (cf. 1 John 1:1–3; 4:1–6).
  5. Salvation was obtained through faith in Jesus plus special knowledge, which is only known by special persons. Knowledge (passwords) was needed to pass through heavenly spheres. Jewish legalism was also required to reach God.
  6. The gnostic false teachers advocated two opposite ethical systems:
  7. For some, lifestyle was totally unrelated to salvation. For them, salvation and spirituality were encapsulated into secret knowledge (passwords) through the angelic spheres (eons).
  8. For others, lifestyle was crucial to salvation. In this book, the false teachers emphasized an ascetic lifestyle as an evidence of true spirituality (cf. 2:16–23).[10]

 

[1] Robert James Utley, Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, Then Later, Philippians), vol. Volume 8, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 1997), 2.

[2] Mathias Nygaard, “Asceticism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[3] Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

[4] Thomas L. Constable. Notes on Colossians. 2016 Edition

[5] Utley, 11.

[6] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[7] 1 Tim 6:12.

[8] Eph 4:13-14 KJV

[9] Ian S McNaughton, Opening up Colossians and Philemon, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2006), 26.

[10] Robert James Utley, Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, Then Later, Philippians), vol. Volume 8, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 1997), 6.