What would it be like to travel forward in time and discover that some letters you sent to your friend were widely published, translated into hundreds of different languages, studied to the deepest possible level, and (strangest of all) bound in a book found in hotel room drawers around the world?
I would feel a tad uncomfortable.
What if you found out that your letters were hugely polarizing? Some people based their lives, their religion, their very spiritual existence on this ancient correspondence. Others count them as poppycock and fodder, written by an imposter or a hack or a huckster to control the masses. Some people think you’re amazing and others think you’re full of it. That is.. if you even exist in the first place and if you wrote this and not one of your devotees who wanted to create homage.
Bookstores, libraries, homes, glove boxes, pockets, coffee mugs, oven mitts, inspirational posters, and iPhones — all of them contain, in part, your very words. Even your customary salutations and sign-offs.
“Have you read so and so’s word in the letter to…?”
“Read? Ha! I wrote it!” (But did I even bother to proofread it?)
After the initial shock wore off, which doesn’t take long because, after all, you’re accustomed to traveling through time, you start to read commentaries on your letters. Some guy named Karl thought you meant something, but that’s not quite how you remember it. Calvin has already decided what you said, not that you could’ve said any different. And Rob Bell’s take on your stuff does what he does to everyone: makes your eyebrow raise (for a variety of reasons).
I’m pretending, I know. We’re pretending together! We’re pretending that the Apostle Paul, a.k.a. Saul of Tarsus, a.k.a. Marty McFly, has traveled through time to our present day and has beheld our New Testament canon. No doubt this little puppet show has its flaws, most obviously being the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And yes, Paul did write these letters for an audience, often a church, and intended them to move along from place to place. He was a broadcaster and a blogger without the technology we know today. If he had a YouTube channel, his backdrop would be a very real looking prison wall, and the chains on him would be so good you’d swear they weren’t CGI. Most noticeable would be his tenacity, the grizzled look in his eyes, the telltale marks of a bruised martyr to be. In a sea of endless talking heads, there’s something real about this guy, like he’s seen something or knows something we don’t but can, according to him. And he doesn’t talk about himself, but he talks about Jesus all the time. It’s like a never-ending story with him. He’s almost a fanatic. And the weirdest thing is that if he’d just shut his mouth he’d probably live the rest of his life a free man. Prison to prison, beating after beating, a shipwreck or two… give it up, man! Go back to tent making videos! His walkthrough of interlocking skins to canvas has a bunch of thumbs up. The interweb loves handmade, organic, indigenous, buying local, and all that.
It’s like something bit this guy. A venomous spider or a fire ant or a praying mantis. The last one makes the least and the most sense.
Colossians is one of those letters bound and distributed by the millions and around the globe. My guess is that Paul would be a bit surprised, maybe, at the reach of his letters, but for him to take credit or enjoy the fame would be very uncharacteristic of him. Instead he would drop to his knees and shout “See!?! It’s Jesus! What else could it be but Him?”
Paul is like Jesus in that he’s either out of his mind or spot on, or maybe some kinda halfzies where we have to pick and choose which one is true and which one is to be politely ignored. Hard to do that with Paul. Very hard to do that with Jesus. They were, shall we say, committed to the end. The Jesus ending we know well because we celebrate it every Good Friday. It turns out to be an ironic setup for His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Paul died the gruesome death of the faithful, too, but we see it differently than we do the death of Christ. In fact, it’s because of Jesus Christ that we interpret the death of Paul in a completely different light. That tradition carries on today whenever a follower of Christ dies. Dead? No. But that’s mysterious and glorious and complicated and simple.
Paul’s words have been preserved, not because we believe he himself wrote them but because we believe the Holy Spirit wrote through him. It’s Paul’s handwriting and personality, but the words themselves are from God. The Church Fathers debated widely about this — we call these argument gatherings “councils” — and after much, much, much, we have the canon of the Bible: 66 books that are inspired and preserved for the edification of believers. Paul’s letters are in there. Not just his, but a fairly massive portion of the New Testament has his name on it. In fact, one section, written by a guy named Luke, tells the story of how Paul came to be a follower of Jesus. It’s surreal.
Though the human author Paul isn’t with us when we read, limited primary by the lack of time machine, the Spiritual author is with us: the Holy Spirit. Third member of the Holy Trinity, the Breath of God, part of the blessed Three in One. The Spirit who inspired these words is the same Spirit who is sitting with us, near us, in us.
Colossians is a letter written to a church. And we, the church, read it as such. Though we are not the initial recipients, we still receive this Word as authoritative, clear, instructional, and living.
We’ll start by simply saying that “the Colossians” are people who were part of a church plant in the city of Colosse…