It has again been a good while since my last post in this series, so let’s recall where we’re at in our discussion. In Colossians 1:24-2:5, Paul introduces his readers to the mystery of Christ. He also further introduces himself as someone very concerned with stewarding that mystery, that revelation.
Stewarding that mystery is an ambidextrous undertaking. On the one hand, we saw Paul’s concern for individuals – warning everyONE and teaching everyONE, so he could present everyONE complete in Christ. And the vehicle for that was the message. When Paul messages the mystery, he proclaims Christ – a person, not a proposition.
That brings us to the other hand, on which rests Paul’s deep concern for the churches, for whom he suffers. And in this passage, it’s specifically the city-churches in the cities where he has never been that he is most concerned for. That deserves some unpacking.
First, it’s the churches at Colossae, at Laodicea, and all who have not seen him face to face. These are city churches – churches subdivided from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church on the basis of geography. Some might say that they were city churches then only because cities were more important than they are now, and because the groups were so small that there was only one in each city. The former is hard to speak to, since how do you compare cities then with cities now? But the latter is just patently not true. Every city church we know of was comprised of household churches that orbited central believing families. Culturally and socioeconomically heterogenous city churches were comprised of more homogeneous household churches – poor groups, rich groups, Jewish groups, Greek groups, Roman groups. Think of the church at Philippi, which was founded in Lydia’s house, and in the house of a Roman jailor. Two ethnically and socioeconomically different groups – one church. The idea of a homogenous, idyllic primitive church is a myth. And so is the idea of several churches in a city. Very different groups were expected to get along as one big family. Subgroups were, of course, natural. But if identification with a subgroup trumped your identification with the whole, it was never considered normal. There will be more on this in later posts.
The second remarkable thing is how concerned Paul is with churches he did not plant. One could say he planted them by extension, through people he trained in Ephesus. That would be true. But he shows a similar concern for the church at Rome, which he had no hand in planting. Part of Paul’s apostolic DNA is a concern for the church – the whole church everywhere.
Now, what exactly is he concerned about? What is it that he says he wants for the church at Colossae, and the church at Laodicea, and the church in your city? He is deeply concerned “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance and understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Let’s unpack this, too.
He wants their hearts to be knit together in love. Not an intellectual nod toward unity. And not unity with those you agree with, worship like, look like, earn like, farm like, school like, or just like. All the saints in your city. Hearts, not just Habitat for Humanity projects or coin drives, but hearts knit together in love. In love. Real love. Knit together so that the saints come to totally identify with one another, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL SAINTS.
This knitting together in love makes something possible. This practiced, heart-level unity makes it possible “to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
It’s unity that makes understanding possible. In the West, we think it goes: 1) Know stuff about Jesus, 2) Leverage that to get to know Jesus (maybe), and 3) Assume that will lead to some kind of practiced unity with those who are also getting more and more accurate in their knowing-about Jesus. But that’s not what we see here. Here, the saints’ hearts are knit together in love, creating a net that can catch the mystery. We together can know Christ in ways no one of us can alone, and in ways no preferential subgroup will ever be able to pry out of him. And reflection on how he reveals himself to us together leads to a knowing that is both knowing and knowledge.
We see the same order in Paul’s insistence to Timothy that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. It’s not that the truth is the pillar and ground of the church. The church is what makes the truth knowable, it’s what the truth stands on.
An even clearer rendering is found in Ephesians 4. In verse 13 we attain to a unity that makes possible a deep communal knowing of the Son of God, which is what protects us in verse 14 from false teaching and false teachers. It’s not doctrinal accuracy that paves the way for unity. It’s unity that makes a robust, Christ-present-in-real-time-and-not-just-postulated-about kind of doctrinal accuracy possible. I know some of you want the text to say accuracy and fearful guarding of truths trumps unity, but that’s not what the Bible actually says. It says that unity leads to robust knowing of Christ, and robust rightness about him.
To put it another way, the knowledge that is from God is found in a living Person, and that Person is uniquely experienced when the saints live lovingly as one. When the saints live and love together as one, we catch the Mystery, and He is beautiful in our midst, and not just in our memories. He is present to be experienced, not just explained. He is there personally, not just propositionally. And we can know him there, and the world can see him once again.
Tactically, this makes endeavors toward unity really, really important. I will talk lots about this later, but for now, let me say a few things.
If you want to experience more of Christ, get into deep relationship with some people who want to chase him. Try to ensure the group is comprised of people who are not all alike.
If you are a spiritual leader in a city, I entreat you to look beyond the walls of your congregation. If you want the people you serve to experience more of Christ, move toward spiritual leaders of different stripes and ethnicities in your city. And work to move your people toward their people. Let the awkwardness disciple you, and let the apparent waste of time humble you. And let the demons see and fear, because the one holy catholic church is getting her feet again. And let the public see, and let them believe the gospel is actually the answer for a fractured and fracturing world.
Keep teaching, but know that more cognition won’t move the people you serve toward deeper experience of Christ. Some cognition is needed, but they’ve likely had plenty. Move them toward practicing unity with all the saints, and see where that gets you.
Until next time, may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our paths together when possible, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as I do for you, so that he may establish our hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.