For the last few months I’ve been studying Ephesians, Philemon, and Colossians, wending my way back and forth between the books in several different settings. I got mired in Colossians in the weeks leading up to and beginning the Advent season, which turns out to have been a fantastic thing!
I’ve been enthusiastic about Colossians for a long time, but this year it’s reinvigorating my awe as Christmas approaches. The description of Christ and our relationship to him given in the first three chapters of Colossians is a striking reminder of just how outrageous the Christmas message is.
I love the Advent and Christmas seasons with their carols, gift-giving, lights, traditions, special foods, and time with family and friends, but sometimes, even if we resist the commercial tide that tries to overwhelm the season from Black Friday onward, the stark shocking reality of what Christmas claims to celebrate can get lost in nostalgia and sentimentality.
Even those mystical words from the gospel of John, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” may begin to sound well-worn and comfortable at this time of year as we encounter them upon Christmas card after Christmas card. And as much as I enjoy the physical, hands-on fun of a nativity scene, the beatifically beaming babe and Mary and Joseph perpetually stuck in that awkwardly pious half-kneeling position may not always help convey the reality of what happened in that stable.
Reading Colossians 1:15-2:3 is helping me get a little closer this year.
One of the resources I’ve been using as I study is The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles by Ben Witherington III (and at the moment I’m a huge fan). Here are a few highlights from what he has to say that shake up what I’m expecting as Christmas approaches:
Commenting on the “Christ hymn” in 1:15-20, he points out:
[Verse] 17 indicates that Christ is the glue, the one in whom all things cohere or are established. His present ongoing role is to sustain all things in their existence. (p. 134)
He translates 2:9-10 like this,
…in [Christ] dwells all the fullness of deity bodily/in person, and you are fulfilled, and you have come to fullness in him who is the head of all sovereignties and powers… (p. 152)
and then provides this commentary on it:
In v. 10 Paul says that as Christ is full of God, so the believer is full of Christ (and need not be filled with anyone or anything else). The perfect passive participle … (“filled”) indicates an ongoing condition that began in the past. The believer has been filled with Christ, and … Christ is where the whole fullness of God dwells… (p. 156)
In part, he sums up what Paul has to say about Christ in this short letter like this:
Christ, as God’s Wisdom before creation, God come in the flesh, the Messiah on the cross, risen from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and coming again in glory is seen as the center of all things, not merely in the church but also in the cosmos…Christ is presented as the key to the universe, or, to put it another way, the now revealed secret of all reality. …Christ is the one who indwells his community and thereby provides for believers the hope of glory, which turns out in the end to mean that they will eventually be made perfectly Christlike.
Peace has been made between God and humankind by the blood of the cross….Believers are new creatures in Christ, as he has wrought a profound inward change in their lives (3.10). … So much is the believers’ future bound up with Christ that their hopes are said to be located in heaven (3.1-4) because that is where Christ currently is. In fact, the believer’s life is said to be Christ (3.4). (pp. 171-172)
And then, to close, he quotes from A.T. Lincoln’s commentary on Colossians from The New Interpreter’s Bible XI:
Christ embodies wisdom; Paul supremely, but also all other believers are recipients and then teachers of wisdom; and Christian living is walking in wisdom. The wisdom christology of the hymn [1:15-20] leads to the cosmic and universal dimensions of the letter’s theology. These in turn color the depiction of the believers’ relation to the exalted Christ. United to this Christ, they have a genuine heavenly orientation that works itself out in their lives on earth.
None of these ideas is new, but they’re trying to settle more deeply into my heart and mind and transform what I’m looking for in Christmas this year.