|St. Paul and the sword - emblem of his beheading.|
We continue our review of our earlier consideration of the life, times and work of the great Apostle to the Gentiles.
St Paul Writes from Rome I
The chain that secured him to the wall and the constant attention of the Praetorian Guards reminded Paul that he was a prisoner of the Emperor Nero. But the wall was in a house he had rented at his own cost possibly near the Jewish quarter of the City, and the regular stream of visitors reminded him of the relative privilege his Roman Citizenship afforded him. Imprisoned by the authorities in Jerusalem and Caesarea at the behest of the Jews, Paul had used his Roman Citizen’s right to be tried by the Emperor himself to ensure the fulfilment of his long held desire to visit Rome. It seems he arrived there around March AD 61.
Being a prisoner of the increasingly demented Nero was a very insecure position. Nero had ordered the murder of his own mother in circumstances that degenerated into blackest “comedy “in AD 59 and would have his wife murdered in AD 62. What hope could a humble imprisoned preacher hold out for himself?
Only three days after arriving in the City and securing the house, Paul invites the leaders of the Jewish community to visit him, preaches to them and seeks to ensure that they will not persecute him as the Jews in Jerusalem and Caesarea did. They had heard nothing about him from Jerusalem and were not concerned about his work, saying that all they knew about the followers of Christ was that they were everywhere reviled.
Paul’s circumstances, as might be expected, affect the content of his letters. Unlike St. Peter, who as yet, remained free to move about the great City, Paul is not exposed to its glamour and cosmopolitan splendour. St Peter is, and he is greatly concerned, warning his flock to avoid conforming to the dress and manners of the pagans about them. St. Paul’s world is confined physically to his room. But his soaring spirit and classically Jewish trained and powerful mind cannot be so easily confined. His physical immobility gives him for the first time since his retreat in Arabia so many years ago, time to reflect on the totality of his teaching to date.
He perceives that there is room to develop more fully his teaching about the centrality of Christ and about His relationship to His Church, the relationship of Head to mystical body. Indeed St. Paul discloses that this teaching came to him by direct revelation. This intense mental and spiritual reflection during his two years captivity gives rise to a substantial written output. Thirty per cent of all of St Paul’s writings come from this relatively short period.
Three of these “captivity “letters, as they are known, form a group in time- all being delivered by Tychicus(Col. 4:7-9) and (Eph. 6::21) on the same journey. Internal evidence suggests that Colossians was written before Ephesians. Each of the letters is different in type – Colossians is pastoral and monitory, Ephesians is mainly a doctrinal reflection and Philemon is a private letter. The fourth, Philippians was written at a different time.
|Site of ancient Colossae.|
St Paul refers to the founder of the church at Colossae, Epaphras, as his “fellow servant”(Col.1:7). In Monsignor Ronald Knox’s excellent translation this is rendered “bondsman”. However later, in Philemon V 23 Paul refers to him as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus”. So it appears that Epaphras came to Rome to see St Paul, or happened to be in Rome and called on Paul, and told him of his concerns for the church he led in Colossae. which Paul had not visited. It seems that he stayed in Rome too long and came to be imprisoned for his activities and perhaps for his association with Paul, but this is unlikely since Paul seems to have been allowed free visiting privileges. We cannot know precisely.
Heresy seems to have been the problem in Colossae. Specifically, the heresy that later came to be known as Gnosticism. It is referred to as “philosophy “in the Epistle, the very description of some Jewish teaching used by Josephus and Philo.
We are told in V 16:23 that these false teachers wished to introduce the observance of Sabbaths new moons and other such days, and forbad the eating, drinking, tasting, touching of certain things. Worse still they held angels to be equal to or superior to Christ and promoted worship of them. (There were at the time a variety of Jewish sects, including the Essenes, who held bizarre obsessions with “angels” of the stars, of the seasons, months, days of the year, heat, cold etc., etc.)
Remembering that Paul had not been to Colossae and that Epaphras had come from there and was asking Paul to help correct these false teachers and their errors, conjures up a scene of the anxious Epaphras hovering about as the great Apostle to the Gentiles seeks to devise his address to these strangers in a strange place, occasionally pausing to receive further input from Epaphras or to question him further. The letter as it evolved falls into two parts, the first is doctrinal and polemical, and the second is moral and pastoral.
Paul opens by thanking God for the faith of the Colossians made known to him by Epaphras. He prays that the Colossians may remain steadfast in belief and practice.
He opens his teaching at its very heart: the pre-eminence of Christ God become Man. He is the Creator of all things and creatures in the natural order and in the supernatural order: angels, Thrones, Dominations and Powers. He is the Head of His Church which is His Body. (Here we see Paul clearly enunciating the existence of the one Universal Church of which individual local churches are parts. Christ did not found Churches but only one Church.) And he identifies the role of Christ as reconciler of man to God “through the Blood of His Cross” (1:20).
Paul knows that the majority of Colossians is Gentile - converts of Greek and Phrygian origin (1:26, 27 & 2: 13).There may have been a small number of Jewish converts also, because Josephus (Ant.XII, iii and 4) refers to a scattered Jewish population in the Colossae area. He reminds them that before their conversion they were estranged from God by their evil works. But now, through Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection they are reconciled to God. He affirms his role as Apostle to the Gentiles and his great concern for them and also for the Laodecians because he has been unable to visit them.
Paul urges them to build their faith on Christ as they have been taught and to beware of false teachers whose human traditions are based on the “elements of the world” (see above). He emphasises how they have been brought alive by Baptism and spiritually “circumcised”. He warns against those who preach dietary taboos and new moon festivals, sabbaths and the false practice of worshipping angels (as opposed to legitimate veneration of them and their true role).Disregard mere human teachings, seek and follow what comes from above, he urges them.
“For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life shall appear, then you too will appear with him in glory”.(Col.3 3-4)
Paul urges the Colossians to avoid immorality, uncleanness, lust, evil desire and covetousness which the unbelievers practice, and to avoid “anger, wrath, malice, abusive language and foul-mouthed utterances. Do not lie to one another”. (Col. 3:8-9) They are all one in Christ with no racial or status distinctions. Physical circumcision has no privileged position or value among them.
He urges on them all the practical virtues and they should show forth: mercy, love and forbearance and forgiveness and do and say everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus whilst thanking God the Father through Him.
He counsels these virtues in specific terms within the families of the faithful, with detailed attention to the roles of husbands, wives and children and their relations with one another. He cautions convert slaves to work diligently for the sake of their fidelity to God. As we saw in Foundation for March, Paul had urged Timothy to preach along the same lines. Few things could more certainly bring down the wrath of the Roman state on the infant Church than to be seen by Romans as fomenting rebellion among the slaves.
Paul urges upon the Colossians regularity and consistency in prayer and asks them to pray for him. He exhorts them to consider carefully how they spend their time with or enter into discussion with unbelievers, so that all will work toward their conversion. He explains that Tychicus is carrying the letter and will tell them more about Paul and how he is faring. He is also to be accompanied by Onesimus, himself a Colossian, who has been working with Paul and is now returning to them.
He sends greetings from his “fellow prisoner” Aristarchus (we recall that whilst in Ephesus with Paul, Aristarchus had been set upon by a mob in the theatre) who had sailed from Caesarea with Paul being one of his close co-workers. Greetings also come from Mark, Barnabas’ cousin and of course from Epaphras whom Paul assures the Colossians is ever solicitous for them in his prayers, as he is for Laodicea and Hierapolis.
Finally he sends greetings from “Luke, our most dear physician” (Col. 4:13) and from Demas. He sends his personal greetings to the church in Laodicea and to the church in the house of Nymphas and sends a brief message to Archippus – “Look to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.)
He finishes “in my own hand”: “Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen”.
Copyright. This article first appeared in the April, 2009 issue of FOUNDATION.