Guard the good treasure entrusted to you (2 Tim 1; Pentecost 17C)

This week, the lectionary takes us to the second letter addressed to Timothy (2 Timothy). This letter, one of three known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles, comes closest in form to the authentic letters of Paul amongst those three letters.

2 Timothy has an opening address (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–7) and closing greetings (4:19– 21) and benediction (4:22) which follow the pattern found in the letters that are widely accepted as authentic to the historical Paul. The body of the letter (1:8–4:18) contains exhortations to Timothy to follow the example of Paul (1:8–14; 3:10–4:5) and to carry out his role as a teacher (2:1–13), and warnings regarding false teachers (2:14–3:9).

There are personal notes from Paul (1:15–18; 3:10–11; 4:9–18), including a most notable mediation on his achievements and expression of hope regarding his future beyond death (4:6–8). These sections give the letter much more of an “authentic” feel than 1 Timothy and Titus, although there is debate about their origin and purpose.

Some scholars claim they were fragments of earlier authentic letters inserted into this framework late in the first century; others assert that they prove that Paul himself wrote this letter. See

Some features give the letter the quality of a “farewell testament”, in which the life and achievements of Paul are summarised for his followers. Compared with the other two “pastoral” letters, there are no instructions regarding church order, a greater frequency of personal comments, and a more personal tone throughout the letter.

The opening section of this letter, which forms the second reading in next Sunday’s lectionary offerings (1:1–14), exhorts Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:13), and “guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (1:14). Sound teaching refers back to the reference in the earlier letter to Timothy, “the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:Tim 1:10–11; also 4:6), as well as to “the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” that Titus is told will ensure “sound doctrine” (Tit 1:9).

Those other two letters advocate such “sound teaching” in polemical contexts. In 1 Timothy, it is to counter the influence of “the lawless and disobedient, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane” (1 Tim 1:9); in Titus, it is to contradict “many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision” (Tit 1:9). In 2 Timothy, those being combatted by “sound teaching” are “those in Asia [who] have turned away from from me” (2 Tim 1:15), including two specifically named, Phygelus and Hermogenes; later in the letter, there is mention of “people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who “oppose the truth” (3:8).

Each letter indicates that churches were involved in entrenched contested and argumentative situations; the need for “sound teaching” is clear in such situations. The articulation of formulaic statements, as well as the development of a more structured leadership, makes sense in these times.

It points to the way that the church will develop in the future, with more clearly defined leadership and authority structures, as well as clearly-articulated statements of doctrine which mark “what is right” and can then be used to exclude “those who are wrong”—what scholars have called the development of “ early Catholicism”.

So it is that the initial inclusive community ethos that Paul reflects (“all are one in Christ”) shifts to communities with increasingly demarcated boundaries. This is evidenced throughout 2 Timothy: “guard the good treasure” (1:14); “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies” (2:23); beware of those who “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” and thus “oppose the truth” (3:7–8); shun those with “itching ears [who] will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires” (4:3).

So knowing who is inside, and thus who is outside, becomes increasingly important—in contrast to Paul’s own encouragement to his converts to engage with outsiders at every opportunity (1 Thess 4:9–12; 1 Cor 14:20–25; Col 4:5–6).

See also

On godliness, dignity, and purity: the life of faith in 1 Timothy (Epiphany 16C)

This Sunday we are offered an excerpt from the final chapter of the first letter to Timothy (1 Tim 6:6–19). The letter is attributed by tradition to Paul, but more likely, I believe, it was written by a student of Paul some decades after his life. The author draws on the authority of Paul to lend weight to the teachings that he provides in this letter.

We have seen that the central concern of this letter appears to be to ensure obedience and pass on the essential teachings of the faith in order to refute the false teachers. This ideal is very different from the one Paul reflected in 2 Cor 11: the dangers of life, the centrality of suffering. Paul lived in the tension between this world and the next, full of expectation that Jesus will return soon (1 Thess 1:9–10; 1 Cor 7:26–31; Rom 8:18–25).

Here, however, the belief in an imminent return of Jesus has passed (6:14–15); the demands for unqualified and unquestioning adherence to “the truth” are based in obedience to the resplendent figure of Jesus, in the heavenly realm, who “alone has immortality, and dwells in unapproachable light” (6:15–16).

Paul had enthusiastically testified to the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus; but this letter asserts, “no one has ever seen or can see” him (6:16).

This picture of Jesus offers a pointer to how the theology of the early church was developing. The groundwork for disputes over correct doctrine and heresy was here being laid for the debates of the early church councils in subsequent centuries.

Associated with this emphasis on right belief is an intensifying of ethical demands on the believers; what is important is to teach moderation, prudence and order. The instruction to Timothy to “keep yourself pure” (5:22; see also 1:5; 4:12) reflects Paul’s criticism of impurity (Rom 1:24; 6:19; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; 1 Thess 4:7) and advocacy of purity (Phil 1:10; 4:8; 1 Thess 2:10). The offering of prayers “so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (2:2) also evokes Paul (compare 1 Thess 4:11).

Yet a number of terms point to significant differences from Paul’s authentic letters: the use of the term “godliness”; the inclusion of numerous moral qualities required of leaders which are either unique to the Pastorals (temperate, sensible, serious, manage, double-tongued) or found only rarely in other Pauline letters (noble, hospitable, above reproach); the emphasis on financial responsibility; the way that “conscience” is used (1 Tim 3:9) and the striking phrase, “fight the good fight” (1:18; 6:12). The letter takes strides beyond the teachings set out in Paul’s authentic letters.

Most controversial of all is the section of this letter instructing women (2:8–15). Almost every element of the passage stands in contradiction to what Paul has stated. The “dress code” (2:9) is not something that would be written by Paul, as is the emphasis on “good works” (2:10). The demand for silence and submission (2:11) is reminiscent of 1 Cor 14:34 (which may well not have been written by Paul) but is counter to the guidelines for women when speaking in worship (1 Cor 11:2–16), as is the directive that women not teach (2:12).

The interpretation of the Genesis narrative (2:13–14) is strikingly different from the way that Paul treats it at 1 Cor 11:8–12 and Rom 5:12–21. The assertion that a woman “will be saved through childbirth” (2:15) is likewise contrary to Paul’s emphasis on faith and grace as the means by which salvation is granted. For more on the difficult passages in letters attributed to Paul where female subjugation appears to be in view, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-2-six-problem-passages/

The passage in 1 Tim 2:8–15 appears to be attacking excesses within the community of faith, but it does so by insisting upon good order, obedience and submission—qualities which are held in high regard throughout this letter.

The author instructs Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (6:11). The list is slightly evocative of the list of “gifts of the Spirit” that Paul provides at Gal 5:22–23, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, although the list in 1 Tim 6 is not linked in any way with the Spirit. That is typical of this and other letters which came from later in the first century, some decades after Paul himself was writing letters.

In Paul’s authentic letters, the Spirit is an important element. Paul retains from his Jewish upbringing a sense of the Spirit as a manifestation of divine energy; the Spirit is God’s gift to believers (Rom 5:5) and thus the source of life and peace (Rom 7:6; 8:2, 5–6). In Hebrew Scripture, the Spirit is seen to breathe over the waters of chaos as God’s primary agent in creation, to gift the elders appointed by Moses, to anoint the prophets and to inspire their pointed words of warning. In Paul’s understanding, the Spirit gifts believers with a multitude of gifts (1 Cor 12:4–11).

Paul also imbues the Spirit with an eschatological role—first, the Spirit acts by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 1:4; 8:11) and then by adopting believers as “children of God” (Rom 8:14–23). The Spirit is a marker of life in the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17). The kingdom, for Paul, remains a future promise, to become a reality within the eschatological timetable (1 Cor 15:23-26).

Paul speaks with passion about how the creation groans in the present time of distress (Rom 8:18–23), as believers hold fast to their hope in the renewal of creation (Rom 8:17, 21, 24–25; see also 1 Cor 7:28–31). The role of the Spirit in this period is to strengthen believers by interceding for them (Rom 8:26–27).

Paul reminds the Romans that they are “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9); this is reminiscent of his guidance to the Galatians to live “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 22–25) and his exposition to the Corinthians of the gifts which are given “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1, 4–11). The understanding of the gifting of believers by the Spirit, articulated in the first letter to the Corinthians, has played a significant role throughout the history of the church over the centuries.

The life of faith, lived “in the Spirit”, is therefore to be characterised by “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul immediately explains that this requires believers to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). After making this bold programmatic statement, Paul devotes significant time (in Rom 12–15) to spelling out some of the ways in which this transformation might take place. The Spirit effects transformation, which then governs the behaviour as well as the words of believers. The dynamic, pervasive role,of the Spirit is evident at many places in Paul’s authentic letters.

In the first letter to Timothy, by contrast, the almost total absence of the Spirit is striking. Only two explicit references to the spirit occur. The first is completely formulaic; the claim that Jesus was “vindicated in spirit” sits second in a series of six clauses which set out some key aspects of “the truth” to which Timothy is to be bound: “the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). The Spirit is not an active, energising force in this formula; rather, the spirit is the static realm in which Jesus was “vindicated”.

This formula is followed immediately by the claim that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith” (4:1). Once again, the context and the terminology drives incessantly towards the affirmation of “the truth”; those revealed as renouncing the faith are condemned for “paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” as well as their teachings that “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (4:1–3). The revelation by the Spirit points away from these doctrines and practices and orients decisively towards “the truth”.

For discussion: What do you make of the discussion above, setting out the differences between the authentic letters of Paul, and the first letter to Timothy? Do you think that there was a different author for this letter?

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See also

No longer as a slave: Paul, to Philemon, about Onesimus (Pentecost 13C)

There can be no doubt that Paul functioned in a leadership role within many of the early communities of faith. He presented himself—and was accepted and recognised by others—as a father-figure within that movement.

In his shortest letter, addressed to Philemon—which is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday—he explicitly styles himself as “father” of the runaway slave, Onesimus (Phlm 10). This is obviously not a physical claim; rather, Paul is laying claim to the role that he played in converting Onesimus; and perhaps also to the role which he wishes to play, in guiding the community of faith which meets in the house of Philemon and Apphia.

This letter reveals something of the cultural context in which Paul operates; and something of his own expectations regarding his role within the Jesus movement. It is Paul’s shortest letter; it largely follows the pattern of a first-century letter in most respects. There is an opening set of greetings, encompassing Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the church gathered in their house (Phlm 1–3), followed by an expression of thanksgiving for the love and faith of this group of believers (4– 7).

The letter omits the traditional conveying of news in order to come straight to the point with Paul’s central petition: “for this reason…I appeal to you… welcome him” (8–22). Paul is sending the slave Onesimus with an expectation that he will be received by Philemon and company in the spirit of the gospel: “not as a slave, but as a beloved brother” (15–16).

The letter does not address the structural issues inherent in a society in which slavery is a reality. Paul simply accepts that Onesimus is, and will remain, a slave; but he exhorts Philemon to treat him with equity, as a brother. Modern sensibilities about the injustice of one human being “owning” another human being, as a piece of property, are far from the awareness of Paul, Philemon, and all slave-owning people in the society of that day.

The letter ends in typical style, with Paul’s farewell by the sending of greeting from others with him, and pronouncement of a blessing upon those who hear the letter read to them (23–25).

The situation of writing appears to overlap with Paul’s situation as portrayed in Col 4:7–18. Paul himself is a prisoner (Phlm 1, 9, 23; Col 4:18) in the company of Epaphras (Phlm 23; Col 4:12); the precise location of his imprisonment is not revealed. Close by are Mark and Aristarchus (Phlm 24; Col 4:10) as well as Demas and Luke (Phlm 24; Col 4:14). Onesimus and Tychicus are Paul’s emissaries to Colossae (Col 4:7–9); this appears to place Philemon and his fellow believers in or very near to that city, as Paul sends Onesimus to them (Phlm 12).

The letter functions as a personal commendation of Onesimus. Paul sends him to Philemon with his strong support; he is “my child” (10), “my own heart” (12), “a beloved brother” (16). When he arrives, Paul exhorts Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (17). Paul undergirds these words with the declaration that he will personally rectify any wrong caused or repay any debt owed to Philemon by Onesimus (18). The stance he takes is that of a benefactor, acting to ensure the best interests of Onesimus.

This is just a short letter, and it lends itself really well to an exercise in reading (that I used each time I taught Paul) that exposes the way that the presuppositions we bring to a text can really influence the way that we understand that text.

First, read the the letter as the character of Philemon. How do you receive the letter? What are the most important things that Paul says in this letter? What does it inspire you to want to do?

Now read the letter as the character of Onesimus. How do you receive the letter? What are the most important things that Paul says in this letter? If you were the runaway slave, what would you do?

Then, compare how you responded to the letter as each character. What, in the light of all of this, do you want to say back to Paul?

Making (some) sense of the death of Jesus (Colossians 2; Pentecost 7C)

The section of the letter to the Colossians that appears in the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Col 2:6–15) contains some intriguing phrases. It offers a portrayal of Jesus that stretches beyond what we find in the earlier, authentic letters of Paul. There, Jesus is a Jewish man, chosen by God, designated as God’s Son, raised from the dead, and designated as Lord (see, for instance, Gal 4:4 and Rom 1:1–4).

In this letter, Jesus becomes the one “in whom the fullness of deity dwells” (2:9; also 1:19). There is no evident sense of the humanity of Jesus; he is swept up into the mystical-philosophical world of “elemental spirits” (2:8) and deals with the “rulers and authorities” of that dimension (2:15). Indeed, in the previous chapter, the writer of this letter (whom I don’t believe was Paul) praises Jesus in full blown terms: “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15–16).

(For my thoughts on the authorship of this letter, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/07/08/the-word-of-truth-according-to-colossians-1-pentecost-5c/)

In contrast to the expressions that Paul provides about the community of believers being “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27), in this letter, the mystical speculation grows; “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17); and indeed, rather than the whole body being Christ, here Christ is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (1:18).

So when we see the figure of Christ placed into this mystical-speculative-philosophical context, we know that we have moved quite a way from the thoughts about Jesus that the apostle Paul dictated in his letters; we have entered a world that scholars call proto-Gnosticism. Gnostics were those who—to put it very simply—believed that salvation came, not through faith, but by means of knowledge. The one who knows is the one who is saved.

Thus, in this letter written to “the saints and faithful ones in Colossae” (1:1), knowledge is emphasised (1:9–10; 2:2–3; 3:10). The author sends this letter to the Colossians to encourage and strengthen them in their knowledge. Paul, by contrast, commends those to whom he writes for their faith (Rom 1:5, 8; Phil 1:25; 1 Thess 1:2–3).

To be sure, the anonymous writer of this letter, drawing from Paul’s practices, does commend the Colossians for their faith (Col 1:4), but it is his prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9), that they may “grow in the knowledge of God” (1:10), that they may “have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2–3).

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So, this letter is somewhat different from the style and theology of the seven letters authentically written by Paul. Another way in which is is different from the thoughts set out in those letters, can be seen in verses 3–15 of chapter 2.

First, let’s note that the verses immediately before this do seem to correlate with Paul’s way of thinking. The notion of “spiritual circumcision” (2:11) bears similarities with the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 2:3), or “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Although, Paul does also dismiss circumcision as being “nothing” (1 Cor 7:19), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal 6:15). Perhaps in those verses he is dismissing physical circumcision as it gets in the way of “spiritual circumcision” ?

And the description of being “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Col 2:12) does seem similar to the statements that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … we have been buried with him by baptism into death … we have been united with him in a death like his” (Rom 6: 3–5).

Although, once again, it has to be noted that the sequence in Romans 6 looks to a future union with Christ in his resurrection, whereas in Colossians that union is now present, having been achieved by a (perhaps recent) past event: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). So there is a subtle difference; a development in thinking beyond that of the authentic Paul.

It is in what follows, however, that a striking difference emerges. In verses 13–15 the letter writer considers exactly what was achieved by Jesus when he was crucified. In Paul’s authentic letters, he draws on what many consider to be a very early, pre-existing formulation which seeks to convey just what Jesus did when he submitted to death on the cross, when he gave up his life.

In those letters, Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).

This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.

But not in the letter to the Colossians. A different understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus is offered. A different way to explain how God forgives us our sins, how we have atonement made for our transgressions, how we are reconciled with God. The language used, and the concepts referenced, are quite different. And this opens the door to a different way of understanding and appreciating the death of Jesus.

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This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?

One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.

Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.

Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth such a fully-developed theory of atonement. In true systematic theology style, verses have been plucked from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts.

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The explanation in Col 2:13–15 is quite different. Here, the author sees the scene of the crucifixion in his mind’s eye; but rather than relating what was happening there to the Jewish sacrificial system, the vision of the author draws on other imagery. The scene envisaged is much more like a triumphal procession, as seen in the Roman Empire, when captured slaves were paraded through the city streets as captives, and the people celebrated another great victory of the Empire.

The cross, the place where Jesus was nailed and hung until he died (most usually from suffocation), is not envisaged as similar to the place in the Temple where the sacrificial animals were burnt, or even where the blood of the slain animals was smeared (the language of Rom 3:25 draws on on this quite explicitly). It is seen as a public place where “legal demands” (dogmata, 2:14) are nailed for all to see; a public place where those “legal demands” are erased. The language here is about “stripping bare” so that the inequity of those demands is revealed for all to see.

As a result of this, what Jesus is doing on the cross is “disarm[ing] the rulers and authorities”, removing their power, rendering them ineffective (2:15). The Greek word translated as “make a public example of” in this verse, points to a scene of public shaming. The only other place it is used in the New Testament is Matt 1:19, where it refers to the “public disgrace” of Mary being revealed as pregnant without a husband. It would be a moment of intense shaming for her, such that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her” in this way was planning to “dismiss her quietly”, in accordance with custom—until an angel of the Lord intervened!

So the “legal demands” have been “disarmed” or (in another possibility) “divested”, in a process of “making a public example”. As a consequence, what the author sees as Jesus hangs, naked, whipped, gasping for water, dying on the cross, is nothing other than a celebratory triumphal match (“he made a public example … triumphing over them” (2:15).

Who does Jesus triumph over? The “rulers and authorities”—most likely the same as the “thrones, dominions, rulers, powers” referred to earlier (1:16), or the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:10). The crucifixion has been the location for God’s cosmic battle— remembering that Hod is the subject of the whole clause of 2:13–15.

These “rulers and authorities” are most likely the same entities referred to in Colossian’s companion letter, Ephesians; “all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21), “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10); “the rulers … the authorities … the cosmic powers of this present darkness … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), that are best combatted by “tak[ing] up the whole armour of God” (Eph 6:13–17).

Almost a century ago, a theologian named Gustav Aulen wrote a hugely-influential book, Christos Victor, in which he put forward a theory of atonement quite different from the sacrificial-victim, ransom-theory, penal-substitutionary-atonement line of thought. This passage fuelled his argument. The crucifixion, Aulen proposed, declared the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sinfulness and death; it was the way that God declared victory over demonic forces.

Later, an American biblical scholar named Walter Wink took this theory, re-engaged with the relevant biblical texts, and proposed that the victory won by God was not simply over spiritual beings in a heavenly realm, but actually a gritty, this-earthly battle with the systems and forces within society that embedded sinfulness in our very way of living. Wink wrote an influential series, Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999), in which he wrote about the myth of “redemptive violence”.

So this short passage in Colossians is very important. It opens the door to a different way of thinking about the crucifixion. It invites us to take seriously our earthly context, and to consider how we are engaged, along with Jesus, in executing the work of God, to disarm the rulers and authorities, publically expose them, and triumph over their evil force.

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For more discussion of the atonement and the way that the New Testament writers understood this, see

The ‘word of truth’, according to Colossians 1 (Pentecost 5C)

This coming Sunday, we turn from a letter written in the name of Paul, which few interpreters doubt is an authentic letter of Paul, to a slightly shorter letter which also claims to be written by Paul—but about which there is quite some debate as to whether Paul did write it. We will hear the opening section of the letter this Sunday (Col 1:1–14).

The letter begins with a clear claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2). Despite this claim, there are signs that Paul may not be the author.

A more complex grammatical structure at some points, and some unusual vocabulary when compared with the vocabulary of the authentic letters of Paul, suggest a different hand in the creation of this letter. Some theological motifs are developed further than is found in the authentic letters of Paul, while the situation addressed appears to be different from—and probably later than—any situation envisaged in the lifetime of Paul.

(On the authorship of the various letters attributed to Paul, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/)

It is typical of Paul’s letters that the opening “prayer of thanksgiving” sets out some of the key contenders which will be addressed in the body of the letter. (This is the case in many other letters from the time that survive to today; whether Christian, or Jewish, or pagan, letters invariably flag key issues in the opening sentences.) Here, the key concerns seem to be about “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” which will enable the readers and hearers of this letter to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “be prepared to endure everything with patience”.

The letter refers to Onesimus (Col 4:9), the slave about whom Paul wrote to Philemon (Phlm 10), as well as one of the addressees of that letter, Archippus (Col 4:17; Phlm 1). The greetings at the end of the letter contain a number of names also found in the greetings of Philemon 23–24: Epaphras (Col 4:12), Mark and Aristarchus (Col 4:10), and Demas and Luke (Col 4:14).

This suggests that the two letters might have originated at the same time in the ministry of Paul—when he was in prison (Col 4:3, 8; Phlm 10, 13), perhaps in Rome towards the end of his life. However, there is little else to connect Colossians with Philemon. The content of each letter is quite different.

Alternatively, the Colossian references to Paul’s imprisonment might link the letter with Philippians, written similarly during an imprisonment (Phil 1:7, 12– 14, 17). This would be so if Epaphroditus in Philippians (2:25; 4:18) was the same person as Paul’s associate, Epaphras, noted in Colossians (1:7–8; 4:12– 13). That possibility suggests a common origin; but no further links between these letters are evident.

A more fruitful connection is found between Colossians and Ephesians, where there are a number of similarities in theological development as well as a significant overlap of text. Eph 6:21b–22 replicates almost exactly the underlined phrases in Col 4:7–9. The most persuasive theory is that Ephesians, written well after the death of Paul by a follower of Paul’s teachings, drew on that section of Colossians, believing it to be the words of Paul.

Returning to Colossians itself, we note that it follows the traditional form of a letter, with opening greetings (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–8) leading into a further prayer for the Colossians (1:9–14) before the body of the letter (1:15–2:23) and a series of exhortations (3:1–4:6). The closing greetings (4:7–17) and grace (4:18) bring the letter to a close in conventional fashion.

There are a number of indications of the distinctive situation to which the letter is addressed, although these insights are mediated through the perspective of the writer of the letter. The Colossians, although believers in Christ, continue to recognise the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8, 20). They are “deceived with plausible arguments” (2:4) and thus are captive to a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) which is contradictory to Christian belief. They take part in “festivals … new moons … sabbaths” (2:16), engage in “self-abasement and worship of angels” (2:18) and adhere to strict regulations (2:20–22).

These terms seem to be describing people who are Gentiles (elemental spirits) who have adopted some Jewish practices (new moons, sabbaths, worship of angels) yet have an ascetic flavour (self-a basement) with rhetorical interests (plausible arguments) mediated through their philosophical interests. That’s quite a thick description of the presumed recipients, and not like others who received authentic letters from Paul.

Along with clear evidence for syncretism amongst the Colossians, there is a thought that the believers in Colossae were proto-Gnostics—that is, precursors of the kind of Christianity that emerged fully in the second century onwards, and which we know about most directly through the documents collected in the Nag Hammadi library (discovered in Egypt in 1945). See http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html

Over against this cluster of beliefs, the letter-writer advocates the gospel, which is described as “the word of truth” (1:5) and “the faith” (1:23; 2:7), and exhorts the readers to be “mature in Christ” (1:28; 4:12). The opening thanksgiving (1:9–10) contains key terms which express the writer’s hopes for the readers: understanding (2:2) and growth (2:19), and especially wisdom (1:28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5) and knowledge (2:2, 3; 3:10). These last terms, particularly, point in the direction of the developing Gnostic movement which held sway in some parts of the developing Jesus movement.

Some of these terms do appear in Paul’s authentic letters; some others appear less frequently, if at all. They do appear, however, in the Pastoral Epistles (written “in the name of Paul” some decades after his death) and then in various documents, not part of the New Testament, which demonstrate the growing Gnostic and speculative-philosophical tendencies in some parts of Christianity in the late first century and on into the second and third centuries.

The positive qualities which are highlighted in this letter, noted above, are especially related to Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells” (2:9–10), a doctrine which sits at the core of a distinctive hymn in which Christ is portrayed as an all-encompassing cosmic figure (1:15–20). This is one key point where the letter moves beyond what is found in Paul’s authentic letters to the formulation of a post-Pauline doctrine. This, it seems, is central to “the word of truth” that is highlighted from the start of the letter.

My own conclusion is that Colossians was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.

For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians, Pentecost 2C, 3C, 4C)

As the epistle is the lectionary for this Sunday and the following two Sundays comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, here is an Introduction to Galatians.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes.

Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians (1:6–9). In quick succession, he criticizes their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads. What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Graeco-Roman society—which would have included Paul.  

So Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught the Christians there things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings that apparently had been so effective amongst them.

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatians 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas: he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. (There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter: “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited.)

The key themes of this letter relate to the Law, freedom, and unity.

The gospel that Paul proclaims makes believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions: as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28).

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that these other teachers want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes, they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13).

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Philippans 3:5 (a fact that he omits when he rehearses his past at Galatians 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts.

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage that lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law.

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, that secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law.

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2) and to “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel, which brings liberation in community (3:28), will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom that it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

A new creation: the promise articulated by Paul (2 Cor 5; Pentecost 6B)

This Sunday, the epistle reading comes from 2 Corinthians. As indicated last week, this is actually Paul’s fourth letter to the believers in Corinth, even though we label it as 2 Corinthians (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/05/we-do-not-lose-hope-2-corinthians-pentecost-3b-6b/)

The passage offered by the lectionary contains one of Paul’s best-loved and well-known sayings: “so whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). In this blog, I want to set that verse in its context within the flow of the letter.

The first section of 2 Corinthians (1:1–7:16) is really a letter in its own right. In this letter, Paul offers the believers in Corinth consolation through a message of hope. Instead of a thanksgiving section, this letter opens with a traditional Jewish-style blessing, in which God is praised for being “the God of all consolation” (1:3). In the five verses of this blessing, the terms “consolation” or “console” appear ten times, whilst “suffering” and “affliction” combined appear seven times.

The same terms cluster towards the end of this section of 2 Corinthians: in 7:2–16, we find “consolation” or “console” seven times (including twice in 7:13), “affliction” twice, and the term “grief” is also used seven times. The orientation of the letter is very clear; Paul’s hope for the Corinthians is that they might attain consolation (1:3–7; 7:2–4).

At the start of the letter, then, Paul has provided a strong identification between himself and the Corinthians; rather than calling the Corinthians to imitate him (as in 1 Corinthians), in this letter Paul wishes to empathise with them in order to strengthen their sense of identity with him. He affirms that “the one who raised the Lord Jesus…will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake” (4:14–15) and concludes, “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (7:3). 

The central similarity between his situation and that of the Corinthians is that they suffer, like he suffers (1:6). And this suffering, in turn, he relates to the passion of Christ (1:5; 4:10–12). So the theological insights which Paul offers in this section of the letter emerge out of the tension, struggle, and difficulty of his own situation, as well as his awareness of the pain being experienced by the Corinthians. (This has always been the way that good theology is developed—thrashing out the issues in honest, robust debate ensures that the heart of God is unveiled in the process.)

A tense interpersonal encounter is then noted, which Paul characterises as a “painful visit” (2:1) which appears to lie behind this letter. He writes, not to intensify this pain (2:3–4), but to test the obedience of the Corinthians (2:9). However, he advances his argument always with reference to his own actions in relation to the Corinthians.

Fundamental to his argument throughout this section of the letter is Paul’s attempt to validate his activity as a “minister of a new covenant” (3:6). He describes his activity as being a “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18), which is characterised by numerous afflictions and sufferings (4:7–10; 6:4–10) in order to bring consolation and hope to others. This is the process by which the signs of the “new creation” (5:17) emerge.

Paul also argues that his own life demonstrates how God has been able to work through suffering to bring hope (4:7–12). The afflictions and persecutions which Paul has experienced manifest the death of Jesus in his (Paul’s) own body, “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (4:11). What Paul writes both emerges out of his personal experience, and is consistent with his developed self-understanding as an apostle, called by God, commissioned to serve.

In the course of presenting his self-validation (“are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”, 3:1), Paul launches into a somewhat tortured criticism of his Jewish heritage (3:1–4:15). Can it be that the judaising opponents of chapters 10–13 are already somewhat active in Corinth? As he does in Gal 3:1–5:1, when he wishes to engage seriously with a so-called judaising point of view, he undertakes his own interpretation of Hebrew scripture texts in order to support his more inclusive viewpoint.

Referring to the biblical account of Exodus 34, Paul infers that the letters written on “tablets of stone” (the Law) lead to a “ministry of death” (3:7). He depicts Moses as having undertaken a “ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and declares that he was veiled in order to keep God’s glory from the people of Israel (3:13). Of that people, he says “their minds were hardened” (3:14), “to this very day…that same veil lies over their minds” (3:15), and “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (4:3).

This is difficult language; it is strikingly different from the way that he speaks of his hopes and prayers for Israel in Rom 9:1–11:32, a passage which culminates with the assertion that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) and the declaration that God will be “merciful to all” (Rom 11:32). Had he perhaps been more afflicted in his sufferings than he wanted to admit?

The vehemence of his language in 2 Cor 3–4 sits oddly in his overarching purpose, to bring consolation and hope to the Corinthians. The subtle interplay of suffering and hope which he poses in much of this letter appear to have deserted him at this point; the rhetorical structure of this part of the argument juxtaposition of two apparently opposed entities. So tablets of stone are contrasted with tablets of human hearts; while the letter kills, the Spirit gives life. Moses’ ministry of death and condemnation is contrasted with the ministry of the Spirit and of justification; the veil which lies over the minds of his people can now be removed.

Most strikingly, Paul juxtaposes these two acts: “whenever Moses is read” there is a veiling of understanding; “when one turns to the Lord” (3:15), there is an unveiling. The central problem in this argument is that Paul, a Jew, is contrasting Moses with the Lord, since the widespread Jewish understanding would have been that the Lord (that is, Yahweh) would be present and revealed when the Law of Moses was read. The polemical intention is thus clear.

We can see this rhetorical structure in 1 Cor 1–2 and 1 Cor 15; it was a technique familiar to Paul from his Pharisaic training. Here, the rhetorical structure of contrasting entities appears to be made for the ultimate purpose of drawing a clear distinction between the freedom which he asserts comes through the Spirit (3:17), and the condemnation and death which is a result of the Law of Moses. Can it be that Paul’s rhetorical purpose has led him far from his initial Pharisaic understanding of scripture? Certainly, this scriptural interpretation shows no nuances in the manner that Paul elsewhere conveys.

Within a few verses, he has recaptured his fundamental theological intention, which is to relate present afflictions to the promise of resurrection hope (4:7–12; see also 4:17–18; 5:4; 5:14–15). This hope is most clearly seen in “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6), and is to be lived out by the followers of Jesus through their offering of the ministry of reconciliation (5:16–21). It is this promise, this hope, which is fully manifest in “the new creation” in which “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (5:17).

Although Paul concludes his argument in this letter with an even longer list of his tribulations as a “servant of God” (6:4–10), some additional emotive pleas to the Corinthians (6:11–13; 7:2–4) and a recapitulation of the basic theme of consolation (7:5–16), he finally closes this letter on a note of joy (7:13) and confidence: “I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you” (7:16). In Corinth, he believes, there are those who have become that “new creation” in Christ.

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The above blog was adapted from my contribution to Witness the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, a Festschrift in honour of Dean Drayton (edited by Christopher C. Walker; Mediacom, SA, 2014), pages 112-122).

“We do not lose hope” (2 Corinthians; Pentecost 3B—6B)

At the moment, the lectionary is offering us selections from the second of two letters included in the New Testament, written from Paul to the believers in Corinth. This week, we have an excerpt that affirms, “we do not lose hope” (2 Cor 4:16), and encourages the Corinthians, “we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor 5:1). Next week, we encounter the affirmation, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).

These words are positive and affirming. Paul is in a good frame of mind about the Corinthians. He offers them phrases which build them up in faith, consistent with his words in his first letter to these believers about what should be done as a community (1 Cor 14:4, 12, 26; and see also Rom 15:2; 1 Thess 5:11).

Paul’s first letter indicates that he concentrated his mission in Corinth on Gentiles, non-Jews (1 Cor 12:2; 16:15–18), and it would seem that he had significant success there (see also Acts 18:1–18). He stayed in Corinth for some time, earning his own living and working with other people in the early Christian movement, such as Peter, Apollos, and the tentmakers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in a general expulsion a few years earlier.

Paul was successful in establishing a new Christian community in Corinth. This undoubtedly caused tension with the local synagogue, as Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, whom Jews were expecting to come (Acts 18:4). This success may have led to his being dragged before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, by the local Jews, charged with heresy.

Gallio dismissed the charge as a matter of concern to the Jews alone; it was not a matter for the Roman authorities to be involved with (Acts 18:12–17). Gallio was proconsul in Corinth in the years 50–51, so this provides the date for Paul’s visit there. Soon afterwards, Paul left Corinth, accompanied by Aquila and Pricilla, bound for Antioch, but on the way they stopped over in Ephesus (Acts 18:18–21).

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After Paul left Corinth, he remained in contact with the community of believers there, as the two letters of Paul to the Corinthians attest. He indicates that he wrote the first one whilst in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). Yet in that letter, Paul refers to his “previous letter” to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9); so it seems that 1 Corinthians was probably the second of his letters to Corinth, and what we know as 2 Corinthians might actually be 3 Corinthians!

But then, our letter of 2 Corinthians refers to a second visit which Paul made to Corinth—the “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1)—followed by another letter from Paul to the Corinthians—the “tearful letter” (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8). So what we know as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians!

Indeed, the integrity of 2 Corinthians as we know it has been questioned, and scholarly scrutiny of the form and contents of the letter even suggests that it may be a composite of two, three, or even four letters which were originally separate communications. So Paul’s fourth letter to Corinth, which we call 2 Corinthians, is comprised of a number of main sections, each of which has its own distinctive focus.

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In the first section of the letter (1:1–7:16), Paul writes to offer consolation and hope to his converts in Corinth. It is clear that members of the community have undergone some difficult times; Paul empathises with them, drawing on his own experiences, as a way of offering a message of hope to the believers in Corinth. The excerpts we heard in worship last Sunday (Pentecost 3), and will hear this Sunday (Pentecost 4), come from this part of the letter—warm, encouraging, affirming.

This first section contains a brief excursus (6:14–7:1), which is of a markedly different character—leading many scholars to the conclusion that Paul himself did not write these verses. (How they came to be included in the final letter, then, poses something of a mystery requiring more detailed attention than we can give it here.)

In a second main section (8:1–9:15), Paul addresses a very practical matter—the collection of money which he was making amongst the churches of Achaia and Macedonia, which he was planning to take to Jerusalem for the benefit of the believers there who had been experiencing difficulties. In this section, Paul focuses on the need for unity among the churches, both Gentile and Jewish, which lies at the heart of this enterprise. The lectionary selects one paragraph from this section for Pentecost 5.

In the third main section (10:1–13:13), Paul’s tone is markedly apologetic, as he writes in severe tones to defend himself in the face of criticisms which have been levelled against him in Corinth. Here, the issue is how to discern true and false teachers amongst the leadership active within the churches. That’s the section that provides one of the readings for Pentecost 6, which ends with Paul’s famous declaration, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

A page from Papyrus 46 (P46) with the text of 1 Cor 12:10–18

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As was the case in a number of churches where Paul was active, a group of traditional Jewish believers had become active and were persuading the Corinthians to adopt beliefs and practices different from those advocated by Paul. The task which Paul undertakes in these chapters is to validate his own authority over and against this other group, and encourage the Corinthians to remain faithful to the good news which he first brought to them.

Paul’s theology of the cross, clearly articulated in 1 Cor 1–4, provides the basis for the approach that he takes in 2 Cor 10–13. He emphasises his frailty (10:10) and reiterates the catalogue of sufferings that he has experienced (11:23–29; 12:10; cf. 6:4–10) but argues that this is the sign of his true calling as an apostle, for “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).

So Paul asserts that his authority comes not from self-validation, but because he bears the Lord’s commendation (10:18), and his sufferings demonstrate that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10), in accordance with the pattern established in the crucifixion of Jesus himself (13:3–4).