If you haven’t discovered the powerful, ethereal music of Sigur Ros, you are missing out. This Icelandic band debuted with a track on Vanilla Sky. Their concerts, I am told (by my brother), are among the most moving musical experiences to be had. Chuck full with creation-laden imagery (translated from the native icelandic), Sigur Rose lyrics beckon forth the worshipper in the listener. Though their god(s)falls infinitely short of satisfying the rebelliously infinite void in the soul of man, their music sends you searching, worshipping for the God that does.
For those who have wondered where in the world I have been, where in the blogging world I have been, this entry answers that question with a summary of my months-long Masters thesis now days away from being finalized. On Tuesday I defend my thesis, followed by its binding for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s library. WARNING: this is an academic thesis, so it sounds like one. However, there is much practical pay-off for it, some of which is hinted at here.
This study focuses on the creation motifs present in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, an aspect of the letter which has frequently been overlooked. Scholarly discussion regarding the letter has typically hovered around the issues of authorship, poetic structure, and the so-called Colossian philosophy. While these matters are relevant and are briefly addressed in chapter one, discourse has obscured the equally pertinent, if not more significant presence of Paul’s creation theology.
Paul’s creation theology emerges from and expands upon the Jewish creation story. Therefore, chapter two unpacks a narrative approach to interpreting Colossians, recognizing the five primary stories which constitute the larger Story of Scripture: God, Creation, Israel, Jesus, Paul/Christians. With this narrative framework in place, we proceed to identify and exegete echoes of the creation story throughout the letter in chapters three, four, and five. Given the ubiquity of creation in Colossians, we restrict our focus to three main areas: 1) Paul’s use of heaven and earth language, 2) Paul’s creation mandate prayer, and 3) the Christ poem of 1.15-20.
In chapter three, Paul’s heaven and earth language offers an introduction and overview to the creational contours of the letter, conceiving of creation both cosmologically and eschatologically. Thus, Paul’s view of creation is characterized in already-not-yet terms, with the eschatological blessings of heaven breaking into the present earth. This juxtaposition of creation and new creation creates the context for Colossian identity articulated in Paul’s prayer of 1.3-14. The prayer depicts the Colossians in Adamic terms, as a people who are to increase in the knowledge of God and multiply in fruitful works. As they grow in good theology and good works, the Colossians are commanded to engage their culture in Christ-honoring witness and work (Col 3-4), multiplying their fruitfulness and expanding their dominion in all creation. Paul further describes the Colossians as heirs of the inheritance of Israel—all creation. Thus, the Colossians’ redemptive participation in the creation mandate, through fruitful multiplication and expanding dominion is an expression of the in-breaking new creation to create a new Israel. This convergence of the stories of creation and Israel in the story of the Colossians is subsequently explained through the story of Christ.
In chapters four and five the Christ poem forms our exegetical focus. As with the letter as a whole, treatments of the poem frequently overlook the influence the creation story. Instead, most scholars look to the Wisdom tradition as the background for the poem, advocating a Wisdom Christology. However, closer analysis reveals an Adam Christology which not only comports with Paul’s argument, but also hones in on the central theme of the poem—Christ is Lord of all creation. Throughout the poem, Paul selects Christological titles which allude to the creation story and describe Christ as the Agent and Regent of creation and new creation. The result is twofold: Christ is shown as supreme above all things and his creation is honored.
Returning to the Colossian philosophy, whose symptoms include strict dietary codes, ascetic treatment of the body, fear of powers and authorities, and the pursuit of visionary experiences to draw near to God, the purpose for Paul’s robust Christological mediation of creation becomes clear. Paul’s theology of creation serves as a corrective to the Colossians’ Christ-belittling, creation-degrading behaviors, erecting in their place the sovereign and all-sufficient Agent and Regent of creation, Christ the Lord.
Earth is a Place of Injustice
The 20th century was a century of injustice. In fact, it was the bloodiest century of human existence. A special word was coined by R. J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Hawaii for the massive movements of state-sponsored killings that swept the planet earth during the 20th C—democide. Democide ran wild in Russia, China, Europe, Cambodia, Rwanda, Iraq, and the Balkans to name a few. Remember the genocidal attempts by Stalin, Mao, and Milosevic…Hitler’s Holocaust, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, the Hutu-Tutsi massacres? Four times the number of people lost their lives to democide in the 20th C, than the deaths from all the wars, international and domestic, of the 20th C. The total number was approx 170 million.
Of course, governments aren’t the only agents of injustice. Five minutes in a daycare and the words “That’s not fair” are sure to be heard. And there’s the person that cut you off this week while you were driving, your company’s failure to give you that well-earned promotion, the way a friend, spouse or stranger treated you this week. Those things weren’t just; they weren’t right. In fact, they were wrong, unjust. Life is filled with injustice, from relationships to governments. Sometimes there is recourse, and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there’s justice and sometimes there isn’t. Is Sadaam on trial? Did Pol Pot die? Were the Nazi’s defeated? Well, yes…but that doesn’t mean justice was served. The trial, death and defeat of dictators and devilish ideologies does not restore life to the countless millions dead. IT does not renew friendships and families severed by the loss. It does not restore the psychological, emotional and physical damage done. Was justice served? Hardly.
Earth is a place of injustice. Heaven seems far away. What are we to do? Take up the sword? Resign ourselves to despair? What does heaven have to do with earth? What does Jesus have to do with injustice?
Should We Seek Heaven?
In our text this morning, Paul tells the Colossians—Christians oppressed by Roman authorities, spiritual powers, and subversive philosophies—that they should seek “things above” and “Set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Are we to conclude that Paul’s solution to the injustices of the Colossians to simply direct their thoughts away from earth to heaven, to ignore injustice and hope for the sweet bye and bye? Perhaps you have known a person like this, a person who incessantly talks about Jesus and Heaven but does very little about the injustices of earth; a person who is so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. [The movie Saved?] Is this the kind of Christianity Paul is advocating when he tells the Colossians to set their minds on things of heaven, not of the earth? Is Christianity no different from other forms of spirituality which talk up private spiritual experience, meditation, prayer and contemplation with little to no influence on the issues and injustices of public life? When Paul says we should desire and think about “things above,” what does he mean? What are these things above? Well, vs. 1 tells us that the things above is a place, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. So, the things above include, at the very least, Christ the Lord. This picture of Jesus seated at the right hand of God is one of authority, of a King upon his throne who rules over his enemies. This language is taken from a psalm written by Israel’s most famous king, King David (a king who fought injustice all his life). The powerful and poetic Psalm 110 describes Jesus as a lord, sitting at the right hand of God, deposing evil kings, ruling over enemies, and exercising justice over all the nations. All who oppose him are against him. Jesus is a king of justice.
But what qualifies Jesus to be the King of justice? How does he get this position? Why is he seated at the right hand of God and given the right to rule over the whole earth? Jesus is the king of justice for at least two reasons—his death and his resurrection.
Jesus and Justice
The death of Jesus deals with the injustice of earth by reconciling everything to God. According to Col 1.20, everything is reconciled to God through the blood of his cross, things in heaven and on earth, all powers and people, governments and dictators. Jesus died to reconcile everything to God and to secure world peace. However, the biggest problem on the earth is not democide or a demeaning comment from an employer, spouse or friend; it’s people, people who have unjustly committed high treason against their good and gracious Creator. Democide and defamation spring from a heart of injustice, a heart that is bent on seeking not heaven, but self. By refusing to trust, cherish, serve, and worship our Creator, we choose to trust, cherish, serve and worship something else. As Bob Dylan sang, “Everybody’s gotta serve somebody.” Whatever we desire most—whatever we trust and cherish—we serve and worship. For dictators it is power. For professionals it is often the promise of success. In the pursuit of success, all things fall second to the endless pursuit of promotions. For others, it is image. Whatever it requires to project a certain image we will pursue it—credit card debt, deceit, dishonesty. And just one more, people. Some of us desire the approval of people (parents, peers, and strangers) more than anything else. So we construct a web of lies to make others like us, saying yes when the answer is no. Yes, I saw that movie, read that book, like that person, know that song, etc. If we are honest, the pursuit of these things don’t really satisfy us. Our devotion to them is demonstration of the greatest injustice of all—treason against our Creator.
Jesus initiated his program of public justice by dealing with the control center of injustice—the hearts of men. His death rectifies the injustice committed against God—the rebellious refusal in the hearts of men to trust, cherish, serve and worship the infinitely trustworthy and cherishable God. In the greatest act of mercy known to man, Jesus died in our place to satisfy the just penalty of death for our sedition against the Creator. The cross of Christ secures this justice by faith or by force. For those that accept the merciful provision of God’s forgiveness for our high treason, we are reconciled to God by faith. For those that refuse his generous offer of forgiveness and fellowship, they will be reconciled by force upon Christ’s second return. To rework a line from the Wachowski’s recent film V for Vendetta, “Governments shouldn’t be afraid of their people and people shouldn’t be afraid of their governments; governments and people should be afraid of the Jesus of Justice.” When Jesus returns to complete and restore the creation he began, all will bow either by faith or by force.
The second reason Jesus is qualified to be the King of justice is His resurrection. Not only does Jesus defeat injustice at the cross, he also restores all the damages of injustice. His resurrection is the promise of the better world to come. When Jesus was raised from the dead, he walked about in a glorified body, a body that could eat and pass through walls, walk and disappear. His resurrection is the pattern and power for the restoration of all creation. Revelation 20-21, written by John, the apostle who stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus died, informs us that everyone will be resurrected, some for judgment and others for joy. For those who serve and worship Christ, every tear will be wiped away and they will enter the resurrected creation, a new heavens and earth. Jesus death and resurrection secure total justice by dealing with the penalty of injustice and the damages of injustice, for God’s glory and man’s good. So when Paul tells the Colossians to desire and seek the things above, he is not advocating an escapist Christianity that shrinks back from justice. Instead, he is advocating for trust and pleasure in, the service and worship of Jesus Christ the Lord.
By telling the Colossians to seek the things above, Paul means for us to trust and treasure Jesus who will eventually secure global justice and peace. Now, perhaps you are thinking, that’s great but what about injustice now? What about the present?
Heaven on Earth
To this question there are several responses. First, if justice is our ultimate concern, that is justice in our present circumstances, we have missed Paul’s point altogether. The point of seeking the things above—Christ and his new creation—is not to obtain justice but Jesus. Jesus deals with our unjust hearts through his death and resurrection, offering us new life with him. Second, the reason Paul tell us to set our hearts and minds on heaven, not earth, is because he knows that seeking and desiring Jesus inevitably leads to living like Jesus (whose life was filled with acts of justice). Third, the basis for Paul’s command to the Colossians and for justice in the present is our own death and resurrection. He writes: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Jesus isn’t the only one who experiences death and resurrection. Based on this logic, the past tense, present reality of death and resurrection with Jesus is the basis for our living a life of Christ-centered justice. By faith in Jesus our old identity is put to death our new identity is resurrected. As resurrected people, whose resurrection life is double-wrapped in Christ and God, our responsibility, our privilege is to proclaim and perform new creation. Our lives should be an expression of the just rule of King Jesus, resulting in redemptive engagement with governments and people, creation and cultures. Instead of pursuing some kind of vigilante justice by force, we take up the weapons of faith and love in the name of Christ to serve others. We commit to a missional lifestyle of helping the helpless, caring for the poor, strengthening the weak. Whenever we are wronged we forgive, when slighted we bless, because the Jesus of justice will right all wrongs.
God has called his people to be agents of redemptive justice, gospel justice, to pursue heaven on earth. All of us will pursue this imperfectly. That’s okay. Salvation is a project and justice is a community project. The important thing is that we are setting our hearts and minds on things above—on Christ and the new creation—laboring for that eternal justice now, ushering in the new creation through acts and words of gospel love. For those who hope in Christ, the unjust man has been executed and in his place a just man has been resurrected. Live like it. Apart from the renovating, resurrecting work of Christ humanity is bankrupt in resources for ultimate justice, for total restoration. Earth is not heaven…yet. But heaven and earth have met, in Christ and in his people, who are to be a foretaste of the world to come. Seek Christ. Desire new creation. Make Earth Heaven.
Sermon Manuscript from Easter Sunday 2006 at Covenant Chapel