Letters from prison postmarked Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon, dated between AD 61-63. Paul wrote them when either under house arrest or in a Roman prison. These particular two letters complement each other. Ephesians emphasizes the church as the body of Christ while Colossians describes Jesus as the head of all things.
Ephesians can be compared to the book of John due to the same higher spiritual theme. Paul encourages changing the spiritual center of gravity from being in the world to being of the world, as acting as a citizen of the heaven while being in the world. I had a prof once say, “The world around us is at enmity with God and is the tide in which we swim.” The letter’s intended recipients were the Ephesus Church started by Priscilla and Aquila and pastored first by Paul then Timothy.
We have all known of people who are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good. Ephesians takes that on showing that, in obedience (chapters 4-6), we can become more earthly good. To that extreme, many ignore “theology” and instead want only to discuss things that are “practical.” Studying theology can at times take the religion out of you, yet it’s important to know our history and the many layers to it. In Ephesians, Paul argues theology is practical to learn. To live life, in an applied way for God’s will, we must first, however, understand who we are in Christ doctrinally.
Take for example Paul’s message to the unbelieving crowds that prompted voluntary book burning on the topics like magic, resulting in loss of sales of idols when people replaced their former beliefs with Jesus. In his message to them, he redirects them to visualize a soldier’s armor as an alternative for examples in equipping. Each piece of armor provides for us spiritually: prayer, righteousness, salvation, truth, faith, God’s Word, and the Gospel of peace. This armor combats spiritual warfare, the invisible (and visible) war that rages around us. Prayer and petition is the key to unlock the power of this armor (Eph. 6:18). The area of warfare to attack includes the heart, mind, relationships, around the undermining of family values, and pursuing life’s callings. When the conflict arises, metaphorically be reminded to put on this armament to defer the slings and arrows. It is not lost on me that some may say, well magic and praying to idols isn’t any different than this armament. It is if you note the other is temporal and the seven components of armor listed are everlasting. This armor, however, is not one that our personality hides behind, it is one to be used, in our vulnerability.
In this letter, Paul gives specific teachings on how to live in the local church, in the world, and the home. The chapter and verse (Eph. 3:14-19) show Paul’s thesis, presenting itself differently in this letter compared to his others:
“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith ; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
The poem When I Say I am a Christian by civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou is a good definition:
When I say I am a Christian I’m not shouting I’m clean livin’. I’m whispering I was lost; Now I’m found and forgiven.
When I say I am a Christian, I do not speak of this with pride. I’m confessing
that I stumble and need Christ to be my guide.
When I say I am a Christian, I’m not trying to be strong. I’m professing that I’m weak and need His strength to carry on.
When I say I am a Christian, I’m not braggin’ of success. I’m admitting I have failed and need God to clean my mess.
When I say I am a Christian, I’m not claiming to be perfect, my flaws are far too visible but, God believes I am worth it.’
When I say I am a Christian, I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of
heartaches, so I call upon His name.
When I say I am a Christian, I’m not holier than thou; I’m just a simple sinner who received God’s good grace, somehow!
Ephesians defines Jesus as the head of the body (another name for the church) and the Holy Spirit as its lifeblood. Spiritual gifts are also brought up in Ephesians. Paul speaks of the mystery of the church as the “Bride of Christ” with Him being the groom.
He includes a lot of pronouncements: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling”, “Be imitators of God”, or when referring to marriage as the relationship In marriage, he says a husband should love his wife…just as Christ did and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25) or a husband is to love their wife “as their body even as himself” (verses 28, 33). If couples took these verses to heart, I imagine they would enter into marriage altogether differently.
Paul writes to the Colossians at a more intimate level, going deeper to strengthen their maturity in Christ in their faith and hope (Col. 1:28).
This letter’s overall theme is the sufficiency of Christ. Paul mentions their minister Epaphras’s concern for his friends in Colossae (located then in the region of Turkey) in the verse, “He (Epaphras) is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12). This letter’s relevance for today gives witness to the completeness, finality, and adequacy of Jesus and His divine nature incarnate.
Truth: It never goes out of date. There is absolute truth. One of my professor’s standard responses when someone says that is “Oh and is that a truth?” God reveals the truth. It is not constructed or invented or reshaped by individuals or communities. Postmodern theologians who fully embrace contradictory paradox do so at the expense of the law of non-contradiction and thus the very idea of real truth. The law of noncontradiction is a thing cannot at the same time both be and not be of a specified kind. Paradoxes are interesting to think until they morph in “antinomies” (being against the law) then they get scared and it’s a slippery slope to something false. God is omniscient and unchanging. He is never wrong. He cannot be cruel, lie or break his promises. He is sovereign, in control even if we don’t understand. God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), defining human comprehension. If there is no absolute truth then what is mankind’s standard of measure, where does it come from? Douglas Groothuis says, “There is no partial truth (yet) the gradualism in mingling the world’s ideas of today (i.e., the sanctity of life or marriage defined by God) gets negotiated. I shudder to think when I have repeated trite language and phrases uttered today that undermines what is the truth (i.e., ‘It’s all relative.’).” The Apostle Paul knows that when we do not understand our faith, the Gospel is watered down into a thin soup accommodating all the current cultural norms.
Who Jesus is, reveals a radical concept of salvation by grace apart from works. To help them with the transition of faith, the then Jewish Christian held onto practices of orthopraxy adding requirements to this new faith. Unfortunately, these added things were worldly. The examples of good deeds, occultism, and horoscopes do not show us God’s ways. Paul emphasizes that Jesus paves the way for absolute standards. It is sad we cannot look at Christianity as a family, a way of life, and a relationship. The latest research shows thirty-three thousand denominations in 238 countries, and that’s just Christianity. This reflects the soul-searching of humanity to fill their spiritual yearnings. God wants this relationship with us. Relationships cannot happen when we go off by ourselves, doing our spiritual thing while on a hike or seeing a sunset. This relationship with God also involves the relationships with others. It’s not a solo trip.
Often, we don’t approach truth objectively without first wanting to know what’s in it for me. A consumerist mentality allows each person to choose his or her brand of truth just as he or she might choose a particular make of car or toothpaste, according to preferences and perceived needs. Each person then acts by that standard. The world tells us one religion is as good as another. If seeking out spirituality leads into the wilderness (of our mind) to face dangers most would rather avoid then it isn’t a route many would volunteer to take.
The late comedian Bob Hope joked, “I do (charity/entertainment) benefits for all religions—I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.” Is that what we are doing spiritually?
Spiritualists compare the different faiths to be represented by a rainbow; all have love in common with each other, a quaint sentiment not true particularly when violence is evoked in the name of religion. All religions do have one thing in common when it comes down to it; they are manmade with only one based on the worship of the true God. There are many inspirational spiritualists (many of whom are quoted in this book); but there is only one faith that claims God, who is eternal, creator of all things, lives outside the cosmos, transcendent yet immanent in His relationship with believers proving He is not some myth. Mythical gods do not continually communicate throughout time with those in creation. Ironically, paradoxical writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) points out if there were no God, there would be no atheists ( in essence, they recognized the God that they ignore, to undergird what their belief).
Biblically speaking, religion and spirituality should be united, with the results leading to prayer and works for the glory of God. True religion is godly; empty religion only has “a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2Tim. 3:5). A definition of spirituality can be sorted out in Scripture. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, given God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Build a log fire, and inevitably one of the log’s embers rolls away from the source of the flame. When isolated, it loses its spark and dies out. Put the ember back into the fire, and it is restored.
Similarly, this happens when not in fellowship with a church. We are not called to be a lone-ranger believer, a DIY (do-it-yourself) Christian machine. Self-prescribed spirituality has been around whenever people have sought out ways to be self-evolved and independent. I had an encounter on this topic when a teenage friend of my son’s asked why we should attend church. I shared the analogy above in a little more detail, but I am afraid it fell on deaf ears. I think he felt he was his own source of combustion to get things done and his spiritual pilgrimage did not include fellowshipping with like-minded individuals or someone who might be able to teach him more about God.
Frederick Buechner says, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”
I see being privately spiritual but not involved in a religious setting as a slippery slope. Without realizing it, we could comfortably slip into the self-centered American cultural norm, smack dab in the bland of people who find ancient religions dull meanwhile finding themselves utterly fascinating. The slope gets slippier when there is no accountability (found in a worship community) to God’s truth. There are limits to a self-made religion.
I’m partial to religious tradition. It seems to follow along with my pleasure for antiques, particularly when they stand the test of time. The newest appliance or technology intrigues me, but in the end, it is antiques, second-hand furniture, physical books that give me comfort and I give a fair share of to my physical space. When singing from hymnals, I look at the credits at the bottom of the page to discover when the music and lyrics were written. It encourages me that this song has been sung throughout the ages. I love the beauty in taking communion (that mystical symbolism of Jesus) of the wafer and common cup with the thought I am drinking from the same common cup as the saints gone by and in hopes am sharing this cup with my children, transcendently when we are not together.
Pastor and author Paul David Tripp reminds us that community worship is designed to jog your memory that there are more important matters in life than your plan, pain, or pleasure: it is instead for the glory of God. Corporate worship is designed to take our eyes off our self by filling them with the beauty of the grace and glory of God (through the ages). I have had dry spells, not attending church or Bible study group. I have found when left to my own devices; there is a limit to my spiritual judgment and discernment that seeks to meet my needs first. Meanwhile, I avoid the greater thing of hearing alternate views that may not conform to what I want to hear when devoid of the challenge or dialogue. Going solo leads to spiritual self-deception. It leads to pride and self-righteousness. It is not holy when so self-absorbed gazing into your belly button. God engaged in and was with the community.
The church community is not perfect because people are not perfect, but there is more right than wrong when approached with grace and mercy.