This blog is the seventh in a series of posts on questions that I get asked all the time in my role as a New Testament professor. This series was originally scheduled to run through the summer of 2017, but throughout the process of writing this series, I have received some great feedback and I feel like I need to extend it by two more posts. The first post on “Judgment, Paul, and Jesus” can be read HERE.
At Charleston Southern University I am blessed and humbled to be able to teach New Testament Survey every semester, and I get a constant stream of questions about the gospel, the Bible, and Christian practice. I am excited to get to share some of those questions and answers with you.
FAQ #7: How is This Relevant to Me?
Back in the fourth article in this series, I attempted to give some practical advice on how a modern-day Christian should go about interpreting an ancient letter. The key to this enterprise is to recognize that while the New Testament letters were written a long time ago to a very different group of people, they were also written very much to you, the church in later generations. They aren’t just personal correspondence, though they are that to some degree. The New Testament epistles are consciously written to be open letters to all the churches everywhere. They are also theological treatises, and since God doesn’t change, their contents will always be God’s Word to you about Himself.
When I give that answer in class, I think students understand it well enough, but their questions don’t end there. Often when we get to Paul’s letter to the Colossians the question of relevance resurfaces, and I feel like I have to say more.
In the letter to the Colossians, Paul is writing to a church that he has never met. He is in prison, so his prospects of meeting them in person in the near future are poor. Paul is worried about the churches there, and because he hasn’t been able to be with them, to teach them the gospel himself, he is afraid that they will be overcome by all of the persuasive voices around them that are screaming for their attention and their ascent. Paul warns the Colossians against many different kinds of challenges they will face in the culture around them: Jewish mysticism, Gnosticism and neo-platonic philosophy, mystery religions, asceticism, and others.
When I teach Colossians to my students, I have to spend a large chunk of time explaining what those challenges are, so they will understand how Paul militates against them. The problem is that, for the most part, those ideas, which were so prevalent and persuasive in Paul’s day, have been almost entirely discarded by the judgments of history. It is difficult for my students to read these passages and see any relevance to them—“Great! So now if I ever have to face off against a practitioner of Mithraism, I know just what to say!” In these situations, I give my students two more pieces of advice.
(1) Never forget that there is nothing new under the sun. God knows that and so did Paul.
It is true that large chunks of the New Testament deal with false teachers that simply don’t exist anymore—the “antichrists” of 1 John, the Gnostics of the Gospel of John, the opponents of Jude and 2 Peter, the Judaizers of Galatians, and the various groups mentioned in Colossians. Often, we know so little about the nature of the false teachers, they are impossible to identify historically (e.g. the opponents in Jude), and my guess is that we have probably misidentified some of the other groups already. Check out any scholarly commentary on Colossians for a history of all the debates about the nature of the “Colossian heresy,” and you’ll see what I mean. But while the villains in Colossae are long gone, some of their ideas come back again and again in other forms and from other sources. Sure, it is highly doubtful that you will run into a first-century style Jewish mystic, but ideas like the worship of heavenly beings and bodies and legalism are still around. It is highly unlikely that you will try to share the gospel with an ascetic practitioner of an ancient Roman mystery religion, but the idea that if we deny our physical bodies we will somehow be made more spiritual is still around and doing quite well for itself in the world. All of the ideas and false teachings the New Testament challenges with the true gospel of Jesus are still around in some form or other. They have been mostly rejected by our modern way of thinking, but they are still out there lurking about. Thus, the New Testament will never lose its relevance to speak to false teachings of all kinds.
(2) Never miss the structure of the argument in a New Testament epistle. You’ll be surprised at what God’s Word is trying to teach you.
The New Testament never simply attacks a false teaching without also teaching us, the readers, why the idea is destructive and what is true about Christ that contradicts that false teaching. Colossians is a perfect example of this. Paul doesn’t get to his refutation of the false teachings until chapter 2. But what does he do for most of the first chapter? He is teaching us sound doctrine about Christ. Paul knows that he can’t be with the Colossians. He wishes he could. Paul, like all pastorally minded people, wishes he could be with all of his church members all the time, so that when one of these ideas that are contrary to Christ crops up, he can say, “That’s not true. Don’t believe that.” But that is not practical for any pastor to do, and it is impossible for a missionary like Paul who is currently in prison. So what does Paul do instead? He teaches them how to think for themselves. Paul spends almost an entire chapter teaching them deep, rich theological truths about Christ, so that in chapter 2, when they encounter the shallow, thin false teachings, they will recognize them immediately for what they are. Paul isn’t just informing some people in Asia Minor two thousand years ago what to think about Gnosticism. He is creating a structured theology of discipleship that is good for all God’s people, in all times, in all locations, and up against all types of false teachings. Pay attention to that and you will see the powerful relevance of Colossians, 1 John, 2 Peter, Jude, Galatians, and much else in the New Testament.
It is also important to remember that the challenge we face in interpreting Colossians is actually a powerful testament to the truth of the gospel. When Paul wrote Colossians, the ideas he mentions there—Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, Jewish mysticism, asceticism, etc.—were considered the pinnacle of human thinking. They were the best ideas that Western Civilization could produce. Any right-minded person who wanted to be on the right side of history knew those ideas were true and that only a fool would doubt them. And yet now my university students have never even heard of most of them. What was at the time considered the pinnacle of human thought has, in large part, been relegated the ash heap of history, and yet Colossians remains. We are still reading it all over the world. We are still finding it to be a powerfully relevant word from God to us about his Son.
Keep that in mind when the world today screams at you for your attention and your ascent just like it screamed for the Colossians’ two thousand years ago. These ideas around you today that everyone believes are the best, the right side of history, and the pinnacle of human thought may very well end up on the ash heap of history. But God’s Word will always remain.