The Apostle Paul
A late 2nd century writing contains a description of his physical appearance. It describes him as a short guy, stocky, bald-headed and bow-legged with a uni-brow and a big nose (The Acts of Paul and Thecla). Not your most eligible bachelor. Not only was his physical appearance nothing impressive, but it appears that his public speaking ability, his eloquence was equally not so impressive. There were false teachers in the 1st century who tried to use his appearance and lack rhetoric skill to discredit him. In the letter of II Corinthians Paul has to deal with such false teachers. And he refers to something they were saying about him in II Corinthians 10:10, “For they say, [this is what these false teachers were saying about him], “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech is contemptible.” He says in II Corinthians 11:6 still dealing with those same opponents, “Even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things.” So he wasn’t your Martin Luther King Jr. or Winston Churchill kind of orator. He maybe stumbled over his words, maybe regularly made mistakes and had to correct himself. His voice probably wasn’t booming and powerful. It appears he had other disadvantages as well. From the book of Galatians we gather that he came to have some sort of problem with his eyes that gave him poor vision. He speaks of the kind of love the Galatians had for him when he was with them in ch4 and he says that if possible they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him. And then in 6:11 toward the end of the letter he says “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” He didn’t use a scribe to write Galatians. He wrote it with his own hand and he had to use large print. Why? Well, likely because he couldn’t see well.
But the early Christians of the latter of half of the first century were absolutely convinced that this little unimpressively appearing man was a representative of the ruler of all creation. They knew that the risen Lord Jesus was with him and spoke through him.
I have book I brought up here with me called “The Apostolic Fathers in English”. It’s actually a collection of the earliest Christian writings that we have outside of the NT writings. These were written by Christians who lived during the life times of the apostles or in the generation just after the apostles. These writings date from the end of the 1st century through the early 2nd century. Some of these authors actually knew an apostle personally. I want to read to you a few statements these early Christians made about Paul.
- A Christian leader named Ignatius from Antioch (A.D. 35-110) wrote to the church in Ephesus. Ignatius to the Ephesians 12:2 says, “You are fellow initiates of Paul, who was sanctified, who was approved, who is deservedly blessed – may I be found in his footsteps when I reach God! – who in every letter remembers you in Christ Jesus.”
- Another 1st century Christian leader, Clement from Rome (A.D. ? – 101), wrote to the church in Corinth and he said in ch5, “… Paul showed the way to the prize for patient endurance. After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance.” (I Clement 5:5-7).
- Another 1st and 2nd century Christian leader, Polycarp from Smyrna (A.D. 69-155), wrote a letter to the Philippians. Polycarp to the Philippians 3:1-2, “I am writing you these comments about righteousness, brothers, not on my own initiative but because you invited me to do so. For neither I nor anyone like me can keep pace with the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul. When he was with you in the presence of the people of that time, he accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth. And when he was absent he wrote you letters; if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you“.
There was no question in their minds that Paul was a genuine servant and messenger of the Lord.
Let’s read another opinion about Paul. Turn in the NT to II Peter 3:15-16. Here’s something the apostle Peter said about Paul. “and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” So even Peter viewed Paul has a beloved brother, as having been given wisdom from God and that his letters were to be categorized with the Scriptures, they were to be revered as the word of God.
The early Christians had such a view of Paul for several reasons.
The extraordinary miracles that Paul often performed to confirm that God was with him and that his message was truth.
The book of Acts bears testimony to occasions when he instantly healed the sick and the lame, cast out demons, raised Eutychus from the dead, and remained unharmed after being bit by a deadly viper. It says that in Ephesus “handkerchiefs and aprons were even carried from his body to the sick” and the diseases would leave them or, if they had a demon, the demon would depart. And it says he could lay hands on Christians and impart to them the miraculous empowering of the Holy Spirit to prophesy and speak in other languages.
Sometimes in his letters Paul would remind the Christians of the miracles he performed among them to reaffirm their faith in the gospel he preached to them. Like II Corinthians 12:12, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.” That’s an amazing statement. Paul did not just claim he could do miracles. He must have actually done some incredible appealingly supernatural things, because he’s reminding the Corinthians of the signs, wonders and miracles he did among them.
Another thing that confirmed to the early Christians the genuineness of Paul’s apostleship was the fact that…
Usually he would not take money from those he preached to.
Whenever possible he would work hard at tent-making or something to support himself and his assistants and then preach and teach for free. So they knew he was not a conman who just claimed to have a message from God so people would pay him to preach. They knew he was not motivated by money.
They also knew that he was a true apostle of the Lord because of…
His perseverance in his ministry.
Paul’s ministry was the most unhealthy, unprofitable, painful, life-threatening, stressful work he could have possibly done. 5 times because of his ministry Jewish men tied him between two pillars by his hands like this. They stripped him of his garments. And with a leather whip they struck him with all their might 39 times. They were whipping him perhaps for a solid 5 minutes. 2/3 of the blows they would deliver to his back and 1/3 of the blows to his front. According to the Jewish Mishnah that was the procedure of the 39 lashes. On 5 different occasions Paul experienced that. 3 times Romans beat him rods until he was bloody pulp. It was an illegal punishment to do to a Roman citizen as Paul was, but they didn’t even bother to find out if he was a Roman citizen, they so hated him. One time in Lystra a whole bunch of people with rocks in their hands circled around Paul and they hurled rocks at him until they thought they’d killed him. They’d hit him with a few more rocks after he was no longer moving and flinching. They thought he was dead. And they drug his body outside of town and left him for the Christians bury. Read the 2nd half of II Corinthians 11 sometime where, because of what’s going on in Corinth, he feels he has to list the sufferings and hardships he’d had to endure for his ministry. It’s hard to a imagine a one man going through all that’s listed there. What on earth would possess a man to keeping getting up after those experiences and just go on to the next town and do the same thing, preach the same stuff that got him in such trouble at all the previous places? The only explanation that makes any sense why Paul would never quit in his ministry, is that Paul really believed what he claimed, that he’d seen the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus and that the Lord gave him a message to preach that saves the souls of people for eternity and the Lord wanted him to keep on preaching it.
But then the early Christians also knew Paul was a true apostle of Christ, because…
Everywhere he went his ministry resulted in new groups of beautifully transformed people.
For instance the church in Corinth, I Corinthians 6:9-11 tells us that when Paul came to them they were fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers and swindlers. But after a little time with Paul these people were transformed into honest, trustworthy, morally pure, doers of good deeds for other people, worshipers of the true and living God, reflections of Christ.
Over much of the known world where Paul had gone he left this trail of churches that weren’t there before full of beautifully transformed people. And it was especially remarkable because his personal presence was unimpressive. He was unskilled in speech. He had bad eye sight. And I bet his body hurt and ached all the time from the beatings and things he’d been through. How could a weak afflicted challenged little man like that accomplish what he did? It was just one more thing that told the early Christians that the risen Lord Jesus was working in and through that man.
They knew it for other reasons – the transformation of Paul’s own life, the consistency of his teaching with what the other apostles were teaching.
And those evidences that convinced the early Christians about Paul were not just for them. But God has preserved the testimony of those evidences for us so that we too may know that he was truly a representative of our God and of our Lord Jesus and the words of his letters are to be trusted and revered as the words of God and of Jesus.
I say all that because I’d like us to study a letter from Paul in the NT that I don’t think we’ve studied for quite a while, the little 4 chapter letter that Paul wrote to the church in Colossae. We need to understand as we open up a letter from Paul that we’re moving into holy ground so to speak. We’re not just going to hear the words of a man. But we’re going to hear the word of God and the word of Jesus through a man.
Background situation of Colossians
Something else that’s important to understand as we open up a letter from Paul is that it was not written to us. I believe God did have us in mind when He providentially worked to have Paul write these letters and that God has preserved them for us that we might know Him and His will better. God wants us to learn from these letters. But they weren’t written to us. Paul wrote to specific churches or individuals in specific places with specific circumstances and problems and concerns that he was addressing.
And when something is not said to you but to somebody else, it often can be very helpful to understanding the meaning of what was said if you can understand something about to whom it was said and the situation in which it was said.
Like take for example this statement I made to my kids the other day in the backyard. I said, “Don’t pick anymore raspberries.” Now, you could interpret my words a bunch of different ways if you don’t know the situation. You could understand me to be saying that raspberries are not for kids. Or that kids are not suitable raspberry pickers or that raspberries should be left for the birds and the wasps who need to eat too. But if you knew the situation you’d know that’s not what I was saying. The kids had already picked all the ripe raspberries and so they’d gone to picking the hard light colored ones that weren’t ready to be picked yet. So I wasn’t saying kids and raspberries don’t go together. I was just saying let’s let the rest of them grow and ripen up more to where they’re good and tasty and then we’ll pick them.
It sheds light on the meaning of words to understand the situation in which they are said.
And often in the NT letters there are clues in the letters themselves that gives us an idea of the background situation and when you put the clues together and get an idea of what was going on with the writer and the readers at the time it often clarifies the meaning of many things in the letter.
So with the rest of our time here I want us to try to get some idea of the situation in which the letter of Colossians was written.
In the last verse of the letter Paul says, “Remember my imprisonment.” Paul is in prison when he writes this, which we can see in other verses as well (4:3). Most scholars believe that he’s in prison in Rome for good reasons that we won’t take the time to get into right now. But it appears it’s the Roman imprisonment that you read about at the end of the book of Acts where he’s under house arrest until he goes to trial before the emperor.
In that confinement Paul is visited by the preacher of the Colossian church, a man named Epaphras. And it appears that it was this visit from Epaphras and the report that Paul heard from Epaphras about the Colossian church that prompted Paul to write this letter. Notice 2 passages in the letter that suggest this to us. Colossians 1:7-8, speaking about the gospel in the context, it says, “just as you learned it [the gospel] from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit.” So Paul was not the one who brought the gospel to these Colossians. It says they learned it from Epaphras. Likely Paul had never met most of these Colossian Christians. Likely they wouldn’t recognize Paul if they saw him on the street. But they’d certainly heard about him. And their preacher Epaphras has come to Rome to visit Paul and informed Paul about the Colossian church. 4:12-13, “Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis.” (which were nearby cities also in the Lycus River Valley as Colossae was.) So notice here Epaphras is deeply concerned about the Christians in Colossae and the nearby areas. Makes you wonder what’s going on that he’s deeply concerned about them? Notice what Epaphras is praying for in their regard. 2 things. #1 that they may stand perfect or mature. He’s praying for their spiritual maturity. And #2 that they may be fully assured in all the will of God. Sounds like full assurance is what the Colossian Christians were lacking. Full assurance is when you know that what you believe and the way you’re living is right and that you have a right relationship with God. It’s being confident that you’re where you want to be spiritually. It appears that these Christians were not so sure that they were okay spiritually. Why were they uncertain?
Well, let’s notice some verses that I think clue us in to what had these Christians shaken up and doubting.
- 2:4, I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument
- 2:8, See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
- 2:16, Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to these certain things.
- 2:18, Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize…
- 2:20, If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!“
So apparently there’s some kind of erroneous teaching, some kind of teaching that is not “according to Christ,” that they’re hearing that has them shaken up and unsure that they’re okay spiritually.
It’s difficult to pin point exactly what all was being taught. It’s hard to put a simple label on the false teaching, like we can for instance with the false teaching dealt with in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It was simply Judaistic teaching. It was telling the Gentiles Christians that unless they’re circumcised and follow the Law of Moses, unless they become Jews as well as Christians, they cannot be saved. But it’s difficult to put a simple label like that on the false teaching dealt with in Colossians. There was definitely a Jewish component to the teaching. But it appears to have also had mixed in it some other ideas from other religions and philosophies. Syncretism is often a word used to refer to the Colossian heresy that was troubling this church. Syncretism is when you combine two or more religious and/or philosophical traditions. Colossae was diverse community. It had a lot of Gentiles but according some ancient writings like those of Josephus (Antiquities 12.3.4) and Cicero (Pro Flacco 28) we know there was a large Jewish population in the city as well. And it was located on an important highway where it got people of all different ethnicities and religions coming through. It would be a place exposed to the latest ideas in the world via travelers. It was a place where many different religious and philosophical viewpoints merged. Likely many of the people of Colossae were syncretistic, following a bit of this religion and that and this philosophy and that. And it appears that the Colossian Christians were being pressured to do that same kind of thing.
Let’s look at some verses in ch2 in which we can see some things they were being told were necessary and that had them unsure that they were okay in just following the gospel of Christ.
2:11-12, Paul tells them that in Christ they have been circumcised, but it was a spiritual circumcision. When, in response to the gospel, they repented, when they did away with a body that was just ruled by the fleshly nature, and when, with faith in the working of God, they were buried and raised with Christ in baptism, that was their circumcision. Why does he say? Likely because they’re hearing that they need to be circumcised in order to have a relationship with God. And so Paul is telling them that they have undergone something that means everything that physical circumcision ever meant to a Jew. Thus they don’t need to be circumcised like the Jews.
2:16-17, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” Food, drink, festivals, new moon, Sabbath day – those are all matters addressed in the Law of Moses. And apparently they had people judging them on the basis whether they followed what the Law of Moses says about those things. They had Jewish friends would come up and say to them things like, “Hey, I noticed that you’re eating that fried catfish right there. Don’t you know that the Law of God says that you’re not supposed to eat that? I’d hate to be you if you don’t change your ways.” And so this Christian is thinking “My goodness. Am I wrong for eating this good ol fried catfish? I like catfish, but am I sinning by eating it?” Or they’d say to them, “You know Passover is coming up. What’s your family doing for Passover?” “Well, nothing.” “Nothing? How can you not do anything for Passover and think that you’re going to be okay with God? I mean there’s plain instructions about observing the Passover in the Scriptures.” It was causing these Christians to be unsure of their relationship with God.
But then here’s another thing they were being told was important. v18, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement…” And look v23, “These are matters which have to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” So it appears they had some friends, maybe the same friends, who took pride in asceticism. They’d be real severe on their bodies, maybe eat very little, wear rough uncomfortable clothing and sleep on the ground, and they looked really holy and spiritual. And they’d say to these Christians something like, “You just eat whatever you want, don’t you? And you sure do indulge the flesh wearing those soft clothes. And I bet you sleep on a feather bed, don’t you? You’re a very fleshly person, aren’t you?” And the Christian is thinking, “Wow, you know, maybe I am. Maybe I’m not okay.”
And then here’s another thing they were being told was important. In v18 after self-abasement is mentioned, then it says “and the worship of angels.” From what I read, in this time and culture the worship of angels or appealing to angels for help and protection from evil spirits was a common thing. There have been found many inscriptions and ancient documents that attest to that. A couple examples. In an ancient Roman cemetery in Asia Minor there’s been found a bronze amulet designed to be worn around the neck for protection from evil spirits. And in the inscription on it you’ll recognize some of the names as names of angels mention in the OT. The amulet has this inscribed on it, “Michael, Gabriel, Ouriel, Raphael, protect the one who wears this amulet. Holy, holy, holy…. Evil angel Araaph, flee, O hated one; Solomon pursues you.” Interesting. Another example, 30-40 miles north of Colossae there’s been found a grave inscription that says, “If anyone tries to bury someone else here, he will have to reckon with God and the angel of Roubes.” There’s lots of findings like that. There was a lot of worship of angels and calling on angels for help and protection. So these Christians were maybe being told that “The angels are powerful beings that can really effect the circumstances of our lives here and in the afterlife, and if you want to be alright, you not only need the favor of Christ, but you need the favor of some of the good and powerful angels.”
All of this teaching, when you think about it, implies that adherence to the gospel and having Christ is not enough. It suggests that Christ is insufficient to supply all our spiritual needs, that we need in addition to Christ the help of other spirit beings and whatever credit before God keeping the Law of Moses and asceticism can give us.
What is it that we need ultimately, spiritually, eternally? Who all’s favor do we need? What do we need to do? And what is unnecessary? That’s what the book of Colossians addresses.
So in a way I’m kind of thankful for the false teachers in Colossae, because they brought about the situation that prompted the apostle Paul to write this letter about what we need and what we don’t need, what we need to do and what we don’t need to do, where we want to be spiritually, a letter intended to give Christians full assurance about the will of God and lead them to greater spiritual maturity. What a blessing to have this letter. What a privilege to have it accessible to us, to find the answers to some of those biggest questions of life.
I want to encourage you for the next few weeks to read the book of Colossians each week. It’s only 4 chapters. I’m confident you will be blessed if you do so and you’ll get the most out of our studies when you come already familiar with the text. And when you read it, read it with the understanding that these are the words of a true representative of the God and the King of heaven and earth to Christians who have been shaken up because they’re being told that they’re not okay, that there are other religious practices and rituals and things that they need to do.
– James Williams