< July 11, 2010 >

Commentary on Colossians 1:1-14

 

As one of my teachers in seminary once said to me, There's no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid people who ask questions.

Fairness in conversation: I absolutely had it coming. I was asking the kind of question a person asks in order make himself look good. People do this from time to time, and even more frequently we behave this way--asking a question in order to look smart or sensitive or perceptive; living our lives in a certain way in order to justify ourselves, either to ourselves or to someone else. Think of it as the spiritual equivalent of the Socratic Method gone horribly, sinfully wrong.

All of the readings today, in one way or another, are about questions. The punch line of Deuteronomy is a pair of rhetorical questions about an apparently generic "commandment:" Who will go up to heaven for us and get it? and Who will cross beyond the sea for us to get it? Implied in these questions is the closeness and thus simplicity of the commandment, as if Deuteronomy is saying, "There may be no such thing as a stupid question, but that doesn't mean you should ask questions stupidly, trying to make faithful relationship with God more complicated than it is."

Amos has God asking the prophet the obvious question. God shows Amos a lengthy plumb line dangling a shiny brass plumb bob and asks: What's this that I'm holding in my hand? And Amos says, "I want to say ˜Jesus, but this seems like a trick question, so I'll go with ˜a plum bob." Final answer." Implied in this question is the reality that too often the obvious, clear, dangerous faults that we build into our lives go unnoticed or ignored. Amos is saying, "Because of stupid people God sometimes has to ask the obvious question in order to get the point across."

Even the portion of Psalm 25 assigned for the day has something to do with a question. The first ten verses of the psalm are, at least in part, an introduction to another rhetorical question (sadly not a part of the reading): Who are they that fear the LORD? The explicit answer is given immediately, "those who are taught the way they should choose." In other words, "Even stupid people can be taught to choose the right question."

And of course the Luke reading is centered on a lawyer's questions: What must I do to inherit eternal life? and Who is my neighbor?; and a return question from Jesus, "What do you think genius?"*

While Colossians 1:1-14 does not develop around an explicitly stated question it, too, is an introduction of sorts to the implicit question that drives the letter: Will you hold fast to the true word of the Gospel, or will you be seduced by religious fads and philosophical deceits? (Cf. Colossians 1:23; 2:8.)

This first portion of Colossians 1 is full of striking and familiar epistolary vocabulary: faith, love and hope (Colossians 1:4-5; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8 and 1 Corinthians 13:13); patience, joyfulness, and endurance (Colossians 1:11; cf. Galatians 5:22; Romans 2:7; 2 Corinthians 1:6); "the word of the truth, the gospel" (Colossians 1:5; Ephesians 1:13), "spiritual wisdom" (Colossians 1:9 ;1 Corinthians 2:13), "redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:14; Ephesians 1:7), etc.

But two others pieces in this passage struck me as particularly provocative. First, is the idea of bearing fruit. Second, is the way in which Colossians 1:1-14 makes its argument.

Bearing Fruit
Twice in these fourteen verses the verb to "bear fruit" (karpophoreo) is used. There are several kinds of fruit to be borne in the New Testament, fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), of the light (Ephesians 5:9), of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). In Colossians the fruit in question is first the fruit of belief (1:6) and second the fruit of good works which are the result of growing in the knowledge of God (1:10), which one might read simply as another way of describing the fruit "of belief" which apprehends the word of truth, which is the gospel.

While there are numerous fruit-bearing references in the New Testament this particular compound verb is not terribly common, occurring here two times (1:6, 10), twice in Romans (7:4, 5), and in each of the Synoptic Gospels in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:23; Mark 4:20, 28; Luke 8:15). Romans 7 is, like Colossians, a description of the transformative power of the Gospel:
"4you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit (karpophoresomen) for God. 5While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit (karpophoresai) for death."

What is described, proclaimed, in Colossians is not "as may appear at first blush"primarily a call to action or right behavior, but a description of the reality of the life that is enabled (Colossians 1:12) by the gospel. Like Romans, Colossians 1:1-14 envisions, presents, and thus gifts the life of the believer:
"13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Double Secret Reverse Proclamation
What we have in Colossians 1:1-14 is a rhetorical reversal. The gospel is not proclaimed in order to equip and elicit a response, rather, the fruits of the Christian life are declared (not exhorted but declared) in order to proclaim the gospel in reverse. What has already been proclaimed is reclaimed in order to praise the Colossians' faithful living, faithful living which is only possible because faith has been quickened by the word which has already been preached and presumably heard and, by the power of the Spirit, received through faith. This may be confusing. This is something of a mystery. This may well elicit the occasional stupid question or foolish effort. But above all it is "the word of the truth of the gospel." Let those whose ears have heard, hear again.

*A loose rendering of "What does the Law teach you?" and "How do you read and apply this teaching?"