to walk worthily of the Lord, pleasing him in all respects

Monday, March 05, 2012

Lent, Day 11: the whole fullness of deity

[My intent was to post a fresh translation from Colossians on Saturday for the 10th day of Lent but a foot of snow and a power outage prevented me from doing so.]

Paul’s response to those selling the Stairway to Heaven, and the many more buying it, is Jesus. Yep, I know. Kind of cliché. Yet, give him a break because it wasn’t so much a cliché when the faith was young. And, he actually meant it. Our task is not to take what has become cliché for granted. And one of the reasons why I am drawn to Colossians is because its picture of Jesus is so robust that it not only shines through the cliché but challenges all our efforts to domesticate the message about him.

A good example of how Paul responds to the Colossian problems with his emphasis on Jesus is 2:8-10.

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority (RSV).

First, notice how he re-interprets the troublemakers’ own ideas. What they call ‘philosophy’ he calls ‘empty deceit’; he calls ‘human tradition’ what they call ‘cosmic elemental forces.’ He, in fact, does this throughout the letter. For example, he says that their most lofty, other worldly worship experiences are the product of a ‘fleshly mind’ (2:18) and then he says their denial of the body actually just indulges the flesh (2:23).

When it comes to the troublemakers’ language, Paul also can take over that language and rework it to his benefit. Later, I’ll discuss Col 3:1-4 where Paul says to “Seek the things above,” which sounds to me like what the troublemakers would say. In the passage above, many have wondered if ‘fullness’ (πληρόω/plēroō) is a Colossian term appropriated by Paul. (Compare 1:19, the noun πλήρωμα/plērōma in the phrase “all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell.) In later Gnostic writings, plērōma refers to the true heavenly realm from where the human soul originated (not the pseudo-heaven of the “Israelite god”). To return to this Fullness was to achieve the full restoration of one’s spiritual being. While I do not believe the Colossian troublemakers were full blown Gnostics, I do think it plausible they were referring to the goal at the end of the Stairway as “fulfillment”/”fullness”.

In Col 2:8 Paul says the Colossians should beware of being taken captive by empty deceit and human traditions and not according to Christ. The stoicheia tou kosmou were mere posers next to Christ, in whom God’s fullness dwelt bodily. Paul is saying that the true way to attain divine fullness is in Christ. And we must not overlook that last word, bodily (σωματικῶς/sōmatik­ōs) - a term that, when associated with divine fullness, would have caused most Greeks and Romans to flinch. God is too good for the body, they’d say. Certainly the troublemakers thought the body something to deny and to escape, not something to carry the Plērōma. Yet it is not Christ in the abstract that matters to Paul, or some simply spiritual Christ, but Christ as Jesus of Nazareth; it is the human Jesus who is Lord and Savior.

For Paul, the human (flesh and blood) Jesus is the one who stands over the rulers and authorities, and more importantly, the one who imparts to us his own fullness, and is this and does this not in spite of his flesh but because of it.

To understand how Paul can make this claim, we’ll need to examine Colossians 1:12-23, and especially vv.15-20–one of the greatest statements about Jesus ever made. We’ll begin that study tomorrow.

For now, pinch yourself. Not only are you not dreaming but in such flesh and blood does God come to exist and through such does he bring us into his fullness. The mind reels.

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