We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints. – Colossians 1:4-5 (NET)
Do we really read these words when we read these words? Is it possible that we have grown so accustomed to the use of “spiritual” language, that we miss some of the more radical assertions to be found in what, at first glance (and beyond), appears to be part of a nice greeting from Paul to another body of believers? That may indeed be the case when it comes to the Colossian letter.
Paul’s world was a world not of struggle to maintain a monolithic orthodoxy within the church. It was a world in which the church was struggling to come to terms with what it meant to take shame and suffering upon itself, as those that were faithful to Jesus attempted to view the world through the lens provided by the cross and the empty tomb. There were no Gospels to lead and to guide, providing an accepted and uniform look at the life of Jesus. There were the stories about Jesus and there was the Gospel claim, which was that “Jesus is Lord.” By extension then, and this cannot be overlooked, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. This implied conflict cannot be diminished in the least, especially as the church began appropriating many of the things that were then being said of Caesar, and applying them to Jesus. Most certainly, this was a source of tension for the church of God.
A significant component of this struggle was the integration of the church. Israel was the elect people of the God that had made Himself manifest in Jesus. To underscore this election, the events of that singularly important life took place in Israel, culminating in Jerusalem. Though we, as Christians twenty centuries removed from the events, think of Israel and Jerusalem with a sense of awe and as a place of pilgrimage, with this undergirded by the fact that events in Israel and the peace process are constantly in the news, this could not be said of the land and its capital in the times of Jesus and of Paul. Then, Israel was an insignificant province, and Jerusalem was the often troublesome capital city of an insignificant province. It was a place of little consequence. When compared to the glory of Rome and the other gleaming cities of the Greco-Roman world (Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, Alexandria, etc…), Jerusalem had no place at the table. Speaking of tables, if we were to rate the city on the scale of honor and shame, and seat the cities of the world around a proverbial meal table, Rome and others would occupy the places of honor (the protoklisian), whilst Jerusalem, as far as large cities go in terms of importance, would occupy the lowest place (the eschaton). Of course, Jesus did say something about the last being first and the first being last. What He did in Jerusalem certainly changed things.
So the fact that Jesus’ life was centered on the land and the holy city of the elect people of God led indirectly to the Jew and Gentile struggles of the early church. The church, by and large, rightly saw itself as a continuation of Israel. The church also knew that their commission had been to take the message of the kingdom of God, that had been announced by Jesus, which had somehow sprung into existence at His Resurrection and which was empowered in some strange way with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, into the whole world. Where Caesar was being proclaimed as Lord and Savior and Son of God, the message of Jesus as the Lord and Savior and Son of God, who had conquered the means by which Caesar maintained his power (the cross), was to be announced. The kingdom of God was to extend well beyond the borders of Israel. It was to be a worldwide kingdom. The world was not to stream to Israel, to Jerusalem, and to its Temple as the locus of power and worship in this world. Rather (and consolidating), the new Temple was to stream out into the world, as God would now take up residence among mankind in His people and through His people, with the mark of this fact being their worship of Him through Jesus and their adherence to Jesus as Lord of all.
This spawned issues of tremendous importance, one of which, and perhaps the most important, was how Gentiles were included in the covenant that God had made with Israel. Did the Gentiles need to adopt the Jewish practices of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary laws (the works of the law), that served to identify a person as being a member of God’s covenant people (justified)? Though we view the inclusion of Gentiles as natural and sensible, thinking things like “well of course the message of Jesus and His Gospel was for everybody,” this was not exactly a foregone conclusion. In fact, the free acceptance of Gentiles, along with a seamless integration of the same, as one church and one people for one kingdom was to be developed out of two classes of people that had been kept quite distinct, would require a radical revolution in worldview In the book of Acts, which details the growth of the church in its earliest days, as it moved from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, the “Gentile issue” receives a fair amount of attention. Had it not been an issue of momentous consequence, it would not feature so prominently.
In Acts’ eleventh chapter, after Peter has visited a Gentile named Cornelius, having joined him in his house and eating there, he was questioned. “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.’” (11:2-3) As a bit of a side note, this should remind us of the centrality of the meal table for the earliest of Christians. After Peter explains all that happened, “they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.’” (11:18b)