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)
Are these words really read when these words are read? Is it possible that so many have grown so accustomed to the use of “spiritual” language, that readers 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 not the world of a 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 (people) of the Creator God.
A significant component of this struggle was the integration of the church. Israel was the elect people of the God that had revealed His nature and had made Himself physically manifest in His creation through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To underscore this election, the events of that singularly important life took place in Israel, culminating in Jerusalem. Though Christians twenty centuries removed from these 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 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. In the big scheme of things, 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 one was 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), or perhaps not be afforded a seat at all. Of course, Jesus did say something about the last being first and the first being last, and what He had accomplished in Jerusalem certainly changed things.