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The Gospel's Goal -- Paul's Mystery in Colossians 1:24-2:3

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Colossians 1:24-2:3

To start the main body of his letter, Paul explains why the Colossian believers should listen to him and not the mystery teachers -- because Paul has shared the only mystery that matters, Christ in us. That was his commission from Jesus, and now his life's mission is for all people to submit themselves to Christ and grow in maturity in Him.

27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Getting Started: Things to Think About


History's Biggest Mysteries

You know that I love history, and you probably know that I love mysteries. The History Channel was made for people like me, people who will get sucked into a program that will take 60 minutes to share 90 seconds worth of credible findings. They had a long-running show called History's Mysteries which covered everything from Marilyn Monroe to Area 51. (They even have a new program called History's Greatest Mysteries (with Lawrence Fishburn!) (although I looked at the episode titles and wasn't terribly impressed).) (You might be more familiar with the network show Unsolved Mysteries which really loved UFOs and ghosts and miracle healings.)


What are some mysteries from history you would love to know the answer to?


When I glanced around Google, I found a few topics that appeared regularly:

  1. What happened to Malaysian Flight MH370?

  2. Who was Jack the Ripper?

  3. What is the Voynich Manuscript?

  4. Where is Jimmy Hoffa?

  5. Was there a second gunman?

  6. Is there anything on Oak Island?

  7. Where is the Ark of the Covenant?

  8. Who built Stonehenge?

Are you interested in any of those? Do you have any theories? And the biggest question: what would it take to "solve the mystery" in the minds of the general public? (Note: one theory has Jimmy Hoffa buried on a gold course in Savannah.)


[Aside: of course I have my own favorites. One of them we talked about last week!

  1. What is dark matter?

  2. How were the pyramids built?

I'm really, really fascinated by the pyramids.]

[Aside 2: and if you don't know about that Voynich Manuscript, it's this document from Renaissance Italy that no one knows what it means. And some of the best codebreakers in the world have worked on it for decades. And it's 240 pages long, so you would think someone would have figured something out. And if you like "code mysteries", the sculpture in front of Langley ("Kryptos") still hasn't been fully solved. Yay mysteries!]


The point: there is really only one mystery that really matters: what happens when you die? The answer to that question changes everything for every person who has ever lived. And if that answer has anything to do with standing before God and accounting for your life, the follow-up mystery is even more important: how can a sinful human be reconciled with a holy God without violating that God's inviolable holiness?


Both of those mysteries are tied up in one (arguably greater) mystery: Jesus Christ. Who is He? How could He possibly be God and human? And how could He be God and die if there is only one God? Mystery upon mystery. And Paul tells us that's the point. It's the greatest mystery in the universe -- and Jesus came to reveal ("solve") it for us.

 

This Week's Big Idea: What People Think Happens When You Die

I believe that "what happens when you die" is the great universally-acknowledged human mystery. As Christians, we have that answer (at least, as far as we can comprehend it!). What do you think the people around you believe?


Shockingly, the last major poll on this issue was 2014 (even this 2018 Lifeway study was using the 2014 numbers), and I'm sure things have changed since then.

So here's a quick take -- fewer people today believe in God and go to church, but just as many Americans (or maybe even a little more) believe in an afterlife (73%). The cynic in me says that's a product of our entitlement culture. The Christian in me says that God's image calls out to all people, warning us that death isn't the end. (Note: atheists and agnostics are very unlikely to believe in an afterlife, so at least that's consistent.)


Could we get more specific than "afterlife: yes"? Not that I could find. My assumption is that if we wanted to know how many people believed you were reincarnated, or became a ghost, or joined the worldspirit, or whatever, we would have to rely on religion demographics. According to this 2020 Pew Research poll, 42% of Americans are Protestant, 21% Catholic, 2% Mormon, 1% Islam, 1% Buddhist, 1% Hindu, 1% Orthodox, 1% Jewish, 2% "other", and 28% unaffiliated. Of course, we all know that people's personal beliefs don't always align with their proclaimed religion.


So let's frame it like this: based on conversations you have had, and based on what you see on tv, what do you think people think about life after death?


(By the way, if you want to be discouraged, just read this survey from the UK:

(And if you are looking for biblical input, check out this lesson from Luke:

 

Where We Are in Colossians

Last week, we covered the introduction to Colossians (literally -- last week's passage is labeled as the "introduction" on every outline). So, that means we are now in the "main body":


II. Main Letter

A. Paul's Ministry and Purpose (1:24-2:5)

B. Spiritual Fulness in Christ (2:6-15)

C. Dangers of False Beliefs (2:16-23)

D. The Right Way to Live for Jesus (3:1-17)

E. Rules for Christian Households (3:18-4:1)

F. Be Wise in Christ (4:2-6)


Many scholars agree that the key verse for this letter is found in next week's passage:

6 So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, 7 being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude. (2:6-7)

This echoes what we read last week in the introduction: themes of receiving the gospel and living in it, a life that pleases God as (1) good works, (2) growing in our knowledge of God, (3) being steadfast and patient in our faith, and (4) giving thanks to Him. Paul is covering the basics of the Christian life -- what we should believe and how we should live.


The key to understanding why Paul starts where he does is last week's closing sentence:

This gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become a servant of it. (1:23)

We have to remember that the Christians in Colossae haven't met Paul personally (although they might have heard him preach). And there are other preachers in the area claiming to share secret information about God and the afterlife (the Gnostics I mentioned last week). So, Paul feels like he needs to establish who he is, why he has the ministry he does, and why the Colossians should listen to him.


We've seen this happen in other letters. New preachers show up in a church and they're taller than Paul, better looking than Paul, better orators than Paul, more charismatic than Paul, and the church members start wondering if they should listen to this new guy rather than dreary ol' Paul. And so Paul will defend himself. (Not for his own sake!! But because if they do listen to this new guy, who knows what will happen to them! It's a great side-lesson for us all -- we can be drawn to the new/fancy/exciting/whatever, but what really matters is if the gospel is preached truly and clearly. That's Paul's appeal in this letter.)


I also said that Ephesians closely follows Colossians. Here is the lesson from Ephesians that covers a lot of the same topics as our passage this week:


 

Part 1: Committed as a Messenger (Colossians 1:24-27)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church. 25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

This passage starts with one of the most obscure and confusing phrases in the New Testament and ends with one of the more overwhelming and uplifting phrases in the New Testament. Let's start with the obscure.


"What is lacking in Christ's afflictions." Unfortunately, our word "lacking" immediately makes us think "insufficient", as if Christ hadn't suffered enough, so Paul had to pick up the slack. Indeed, this is partly where the Roman Catholics justified their doctrine of Purgatory -- that Christians still have suffering to do even after what Christ suffered (and later their doctrine of the Treasury of Merit -- that certain Christians who suffered more than they needed to can share their "credit" with God with others who pray to them).


First, let's clarify one thing: Paul is crystal clear that what Jesus accomplished on the cross was complete and perfect (see Col 2:13-15 -- forgiveness is complete, the debt has been paid, the victory has been won). But second, it is also quite clear that Paul is continuing to suffer in the name of Christ (on behalf of the gospel). Why is that? Because Paul is continuing the work of Christ, and the work of Christ always engages suffering.


Does that make sense? Christ is now in heaven. He no longer suffers. His victory is final and complete. But the work on earth continues -- that is His commission to the church. And everywhere the gospel goes, it is resisted by God's enemies. Therefore, God's servants continue to suffer on Christ's behalf, so to speak. It's not that Paul is completing Christ's suffering, he is continuing it.


This idea was very personal to Paul. Remember what Jesus said about Saul to Ananias in Acts 9:

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has authority here from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for this man is my chosen instrument to take my name to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

In other words, Paul sees his suffering as a consequence of his earlier life, one he joyfully accepts.


Anyway, let's continue. Paul wants the church to know that everything he is doing is for them (and all Christians everywhere). (You might ask, "What exactly is Paul doing for them other than sitting in prison?" Patience -- that comes in a few verses.) Specifically, it's about Paul's commission from Jesus to him to share the gospel.


Now, one thing I love about Acts 9 is that we don't have the word-for-word "commission" from Jesus to Saul. All we learn is that as soon as he was able, Saul was telling everybody that "Jesus is the Son of God". Paul later fills in that gap in his testimony in Acts 22:

12 "Someone named Ananias, a devout man according to the law, who had a good reputation with all the Jews living there, 13 came and stood by me and said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight.’ And in that very hour I looked up and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the words from his mouth, 15 since you will be a witness for him to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now, why are you delaying? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’"

It's that simple. Paul is to be a worldwide witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That should easily connect with the Colossians. Remember that Epaphras, who planted the church and first shared the gospel in Colossae, was likely converted during Paul's missionary journey through the region. The church in Colossae exists as a result of Paul fulfilling his commission from Jesus.


But Paul then shifts gears to this idea of mystery. In the Ephesians notes, I go into more detail about Greek "mystery cults" used that idea to pump themselves up as super-special and super-secret. It's very likely that these false teachers in town were using words like "mystery" to appeal to the young Christians. Well, Paul takes that word and removes all of the mystery from it.


To Paul, the mystery is no longer a mystery because God has revealed it in Jesus. The greatest mystery can be summarized in three words: Christ in you.


Below, I hit the details about the word "mystery" and how Paul used it. But let's camp out here: when you hear "Christ in you", what do you think it means? Why do you think Paul considered it the great mystery of God?


Some scholars have tried to interpret this as "Christ among you", but that loses the power of what Jesus said in John 15:

5 I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.

That might help explain Paul's phrase. Jesus says that He will be "in you", His words will be "in you", His love will be "in you", and His joy will be "in you". All of those concepts intersect in the gospel of salvation, which Paul summarizes in the next phrase, "the hope of glory".


(We take this for granted today, but don't gloss over the globe-rattling implications of the fact that God intended His gospel to be for all peoples.)


As we say every Advent season, "hope" is not wishful thinking, it is joyous expectation. And while Paul often uses "glory" to mean "honor" or "magnificence", he also uses it of God's character like as to God's presence. Consider:

  • Rom 3:23 -- For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

  • Rom 5:2 -- We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

  • 2 Cor 4:6 -- For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

  • Col 3:4 -- When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

  • 1 Thess 2:12 -- we encouraged, comforted, and implored each one of you to walk worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

  • 2 Thess 2:14 -- He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • 1 Tim 3:16 -- And most certainly, the mystery of godliness is great: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

No matter what, it's all about salvation, or in this case, the result of salvation, which is that we get to dwell in the presence of God (and share His glory) forever.


And there is no other mystery that can compete with it.


(Note: there is a huge discussion out there as to what it means that Christ is "in" us. I personally believe this refers to how Christ dwells in us by His Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit is not "second best" or a consolation prize), but I understand why some people want to interpret this to mean that Jesus Himself mysteriously lives in us. In my opinion, once we start getting in to matters of the Trinity, we just need to tread lightly.)

 

Aside: "Mystery"

This is the Greek word mysterion, which doesn't have a simple English equivalent. Culturally, Greeks most often encountered this word in "mystery cults/religions" -- a mysterion was a cult that demanded secrecy on the part of its participants. Only those people who were full members could participate in the special rites/rituals which promised powerful religious experience. These often included special meals, special greetings, and other, uh, interactions. (As an aside: an important consequence of the rise of mystery religions is taking religion out of the public sphere and making it personal. That actually made it easier for Christianity to make inroads in otherwise closed areas.)

The New Testament authors, however, weren't dependent on Greek culture for their words. They also had the Old Testament, and in Daniel, the equivalent word for "mystery" was a secret that had been revealed (see Dan 2). When Paul uses the word "mystery", it's always about a secret that has been revealed. Between Colossians and Ephesians, he uses the word 10 times. Here are the contexts:

  • Eph 1:9 -- how God has dealt with the world

  • Eph 3:3-9 -- salvation extends to the Gentiles

  • Eph 5:22 -- the union of Christ and the church

  • Eph 6:19 -- the mystery is the gospel itself

  • Col 1:26-27 -- Christ now dwells in His people

  • Col 2:2 -- the mystery is Christ Himself

  • Col 4:3 -- the mystery is the gospel of Christ

In other words, for Paul, the ultimate mystery is God's plan for salvation, hidden in the past, hinted in prophets, fully revealed in Jesus, and fully experienced in those who trust Jesus for salvation.


So, why did Paul use a word that would be associated with mystery cults? Probably because they were so widespread and there were so many technical overlaps between the truth of the gospel that Paul was preaching and the doctrines of the mystery cults (the promise of salvation, revealed divine truth, ritual meals). If you've ever been approached by Mormon or JW missionaries, you know how they do this in reverse -- taking Christian words and beliefs and building bridges to their own twisted version of truth. By focusing on this word, Paul was trying to "take the wind out of the sails" of these false teachers -- "They have promised you the answer to a mystery? Well, God has already revealed to you the greatest mystery of all! You don't need them."

 

Part 2: Focused on Maturity (Col 1:28-29)

28 We proclaim him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 I labor for this, striving with his strength that works powerfully in me.

I tend to breeze through these verses (probably because I spend so much time thinking about the previous verses), but I don't want to shortchange what Paul is saying. This is ultimately how he distinguishes his message from that of these false teachers in the area: their "mystery" is about beliefs and rituals; Paul's mystery is "a living and glorious Person who is the fulfillment of the deepest hopes of mankind and the source of new life for all his people" (Vaughan). That's the heart of the uniqueness of Christianity.


Further, their "mystery" is restricted to the lucky few who are initiated into the cult. Paul's mystery is for everyone.


"Present" means to be brought into someone's presence. Present to whom? To God. This ties into how Paul used the word "glory". Because Christ is in us, we can go into the presence of God (again, another reference to salvation). That's why Paul wants us to be "mature" in Christ (maybe "full" or "complete" would be easier to understand; some versions say "perfect" here, which is a mischaracterization of the meaning).


Paul's mission is for all people to hear this message, believe it, and then stand before God in glory and the end of all things and live. The word for "strive" is where we get "agonize"; it's the most intense kind of exertion. And this is amplified by the fact that Paul is not doing this in his own strength but in Christ's ("Christ in Paul" ☺)


So, let's talk about the process of becoming mature in Christ. According to Paul, it involves warning and teaching. If you're a parent, think about your interactions with your kids:

  • How much of your time is spent warning? What do those warnings sound like?

  • How much of your time is spent teaching? What does that sound like?

  • Which do you prefer to do? Which do your kids prefer to hear?

It would be great if you could share examples of both with your group. Hopefully, you will realize that both take all kinds of forms, and there's a lot of overlap.


Then, put yourself into "kid mode":

  • What kinds of warning do you remember growing up?

  • What kinds of teachings?

  • What has stuck with you the most?

Personally, some of those warnings got seared into my mind moreso than the teachings. Yes, I found out later in life that some such warnings were overblown, but they still stuck with me.


Now, let's get to the point. How committed are you to your growth in maturity in Jesus Christ? In church and Sunday School, we hear warnings and we hear teachings. What do you pay the most attention to? What do you ignore? What do you want to hear? What do you not want to hear?


In my experience, a number of church members would rather not hear any warnings; they would rather be told that they can live their own life their own way with impunity. Is that a healthy way to "grow up"? How well does that approach to parenting work out for those kids? And if we recognize that children need to be taught and warned (because they don't have all the knowledge they need for safe and healthy growth), why do we think we can ignore the life lessons God has for us in His Word? Is ignorance desirable?


God knows better than we do. About everything. We should desire to learn from Him.

 

Part 3: Concerned for the Faithful (Colossians 2:1-3)

For I want you to know how greatly I am struggling for you, for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me in person. 2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ. 3 In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

So finally let's get back to that earlier question: what exactly is Paul doing for the Colossians while he is in prison? This "struggle" is the same word as for "strive" -- "agonize". Here, it's time we appreciate the reality of spiritual warfare.


Paul went into much more detail about this in the companion letter of Ephesians:

10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by his vast strength. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.

(See the lesson on Ephesians 6.) Paul prayed for the Colossians, and not just for them but for all Christians in the empire. This was more than our "God, please be with the missionaries" (which is better than nothing, don't get me wrong!) -- this was a Gethsemane-type agonizing over the needs of the Christians, praying for God to intervene against the evil spiritual forces that worked to destroy the young churches.


Yes, Paul's struggle went even beyond that (although that would be enough) -- he learned about the needs of the churches and counseled them so well that his letters became the New Testament(!), he dispatched the best Christian leaders to visit and help those churches, he coordinated special offerings to take care of material needs. So really, Paul was doing a whole lot for the church in Colossae as well as all of the other churches in that area.


Why? Not for selfish reasons, that's for certain! Just as he desired for the Philippians, Paul wanted the Colossians to be encouraged and united. It's that simple. What's the bond (the "glue") that makes that possible? Love (the agape kind, of course).


Why do you think Paul talked about the need for unity in all of these church letters?


Because unity has always been hard to come by when it comes to people. It should be no surprise that we have so much trouble with unity in our churches today! I'm going to say this once because I can imagine how it will go over: Christian unity requires Christian maturity; for a church to be united, its members must be mature in Christ. If a church is not united, that implies that its members are not mature in Christ. (Don't yell at me, and don't yell at Paul. Just stop and think about that for a while.)


There is only one truly valuable source of maturity, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding: Jesus Christ. Today, we have access to that in God's Word, which tells us the gospel of Jesus. Then, once we have salvation in Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells in us to help us further understand and apply God's Word. But it always comes back to God's Word. The mystery cults trumpeted subjective experiences as the "benefit" of membership, but Paul always pointed to truth and knowledge, both objective.


Why is Christianity objective (and not subjective)? Because it's source is outside of us. Christianity is about a Person and what He taught. Yes, we have personal experiences with this Person, but we always submit our personal interpretations to Jesus' explicit teachings. We don't get to remake the terms of salvation or redefine the essence of morality. Jesus has revealed to us what God has always determined, truth that has existed since before the foundation of the world.


Does that make sense? We don't decide for ourselves which "treasures of wisdom" are actually valuable. God has already determined that. We learn from Jesus:

John 1: 14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ... 16 Indeed, we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness, 17 for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.

What a powerful message! The mystery that matters -- what happens to us when we die -- is fully revealed to us in Jesus. And what is more, Jesus made the way for us to possess for ourselves the riches and wealth of this mystery, Christ in us.


Be encouraged this week.

 

Closing Thoughts: "Abide in Christ"

When Shelly and I got married and joined our first Baptist church together, the church took an overnight retreat to study the book Abide in Christ by Andrew Murray, a devotional classic about the difference between knowing about God and living daily in His presence. He wrote that those people who become a Christian so that they can go to heaven when they die miss out on the great blessing that is day-by-day living in the power, joy and fruitfulness of God in Jesus Christ (to use Paul's terms here). Importantly, Murray (who would go to a town after a revival (mid 1800s) and set up a discipleship program for the young people who responded to the revival message) followed Paul's pattern here: the riches of the understanding and knowledge of God were incomplete if it didn't transform the life and desires of the person.


Christianity is about what you know and what you do (i.e. who you are).


In other words, if we just learn the content of the book of Colossians and it has no impact on our life, we have not mined the treasures of God's wisdom. We are not living in Christ. We are not growing in Christ. We must spend time with God every day -- in His Word, in prayer, bearing good fruit. Do you?

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