2 3 Introduction to Bible Month Introduction to Colossians Professor James D. G. Dunn What is ‘Bible Month’? Bible Month invites churches and groups to engage deeply with Scripture through focusing on a single biblical book over a calendar month. Bible Month can involve preachers, small group leaders, and children and youth workers, who can all take part in running Bible Month within the church. The Bible Month resources are designed to work within both group settings – such as a church, a group of churches or a home group – and to be useful for individual study. Focusing on a single biblical book allows participants to gain a greater sense of the importance of context, both literary and historical. It encourages readers to explore how a book develops, and to identify links between different passages. As well as enjoying favourite passages within one book, Bible Month encourages readers to engage with the whole of it. With roots in the Methodist Church, Bible Month is now run as a partnership with the Leaders of Worship and Preachers’ Trust (LWPT). Further information and resources on Bible Month are available at www.preachweb.org/biblemonth. Resourcing Bible Month In 2019, Bible Month focuses on Colossians, a letter that presents a powerful vision of Jesus and his significance. The primary resource for the Bible Month planning group is this Bible Month magazine which contains three key sections. The first section is the Bible Notes, which offer a basic commentary on Colossians and are designed to help preachers engage with the book and prepare sermons on it. The biblical scholar Emeritus Profes- sor James D. G. Dunn has written the Bible Notes for 2019. Professor Dunn has published prolifically on the apostle Paul including writing the books ‘The Theology of Paul the Apostle’ and ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. He is also a Methodist local preacher. At the end of each week’s Bible Notes is the second section, the Small Group Studies. These showcase different ways to engage with Colossians, and can be used in a small group gathering that follows or precedes the Sunday sermon. Rather than providing a detailed outline, these provide ideas that can be incorporated within a small group. The third section is a variety of ideas for helping children and youth engage with Colossians, including mixed-age gatherings. These ideas can be adapted for use in Sunday schools, youth groups and Sunday services. The final pages of the magazine also include gospel readings for Bible Month, further resources and suggested ways to follow up Bible Month within your church. Please note that you can adapt and use the material in whatever way works best! The aim of Bible Month is to encourage and enable people to enjoy one biblical book in much greater depth. This resource is intended as a springboard for deeper understanding of Scripture. Training events for Bible Months are regularly held across the country, and you can see a list of events – as well as a guide for running your own event – at www.preachweb.org/biblemonth. you as a church or group of churches; for example Methodists will need to make sure that they plan ahead sufficiently so that Bible Month can appear in the Circuit Preaching Plan) • check the Bible Month website (www.preachweb.org/biblemonth) for further resources and ideas for running Bible Month, and also to sign up for training events in your region • form a Bible Month Planning Group (to liaise with the leadership of the church to identify preachers, small group leaders, and children and youth leaders who can take the lead on Bible Month in their areas of the church) • run Bible Month! • following Bible Month, meet together as a planning group to discuss what went well and what could be improved. Explore ways you could follow up Bible Month. While we suggest engaging the whole church in Bible Month, feel free to adapt Bible Month in whatever way works best in your context. Groups and individuals wishing to engage in Bible Month can register at www.preachweb.org/biblemonth to receive regular updates and information to resource their Bible Month. • ensure that the leadership of your church and/or circuit is happy to run Bible Month • decide on the date for Bible Month (while many churches have run Bible Month in June, you can choose any month within the year that will work for It is quite hard to get a clear picture of Christianity’s beginnings in Colossae, not least because Colossae is mentioned only once in the NT – in Col. 1:2. So we do not know if Paul himself ever visited Colossae, though in his journeys through the southern part of Asia (western Turkey) recorded in Acts 18:23 and 19:1 he must have been not very far away – Colossae lying on or close to one of the main east-west routes through the region, through the Lycus valley. Alternatively, it is easy to imagine that during his two years in Ephesus (Acts 19:10) he himself or mission teams from Ephesus spread the gospel further inland. This is one of the likely explanations of the growth of the churches written to in Rev. 2-3, though (somewhat surprisingly?) the church in Colossae is not mentioned in Rev. 2-3. The church in Colossae was founded probably in the second half of the 50s CE and probably by Epaphras (Col. 1:6-7), who was himself a native of Colossae (4:12). He could have been converted by Paul during the latter’s time in Ephesus. The parallels between Col. 4:9-14 and Philemon 23-24 strongly suggest that Philemon also lived in Colossae, and that the two letters were written about the same time. We know that Colossae was almost destroyed by an earthquake in 60 or 61. And the lack of any reference to the earthquake strongly suggests a letter written prior to that. Since the letter was written from prison or house arrest (4:10) the suggestion that the letter was written early in the period of Paul’s house arrest in Rome (60-62) makes best sense. Planning Bible Month The following gives a series of suggested steps for running Bible Month: The Church at Colossae For further information about the Bible Month, visit www.preachweb.org/ biblemonth. Paul and the Colossians The letter introduces itself as written by Paul (1:1). The style, however, seems to be rather different from that of the undisputed Pauline letters. That may not be a decisive consideration since Paul may well have used an amanuensis, that is, someone to write at his dictation. Timothy appears as a co-author (1:1), as in some of Paul’s other letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon), but it is certainly possible to envisage Paul the prisoner (4:10) passing more responsibility to Timothy in this case. The parting greeting in 4:18 ‘in my own hand’ may well confirm the suggestion. This may well help to explain some of the distinctive features of the letter – notably the Christology (what Paul teaches about Christ) (1:15-20), the ‘realized eschatology’ (the idea the future hope expected at the end of history is now a reality.) of 2:11-12 and 3:1, and the ‘household rules’ of 3:18-4:1 – though we can hardly doubt that Paul continued to develop his own understanding and expression of the gospel throughout his ministry. Colossians gives one of the clearest indi- cations of a church composed of Jews and Gentiles. From various historical references we know that there were substantial Jewish communities in the Lycus valley. And several passages in Colossians strongly suggest that the recipients were predominantly Gentiles who – through the gospel – had been given to share in privileges previously only known to Jews, the people of Israel – 1:12, 27; 2:13; 3:11; 4:11. Why Colossians? Why should Paul write or authorize a letter to a fairly minor church which he had never visited? The implication of 1.7-8 is that news had come from Epaphras which occasioned some anxiety. If Onesimus (4:9) was the slave of Philemon (Phlm. 10-16), then he too could have brought news from Colossae. The references to Tychicus and Mark (Col. 4:7-10) also suggest a concern to maintain communi- cation with the Colossian believers. And the warnings in 2:8-23 certainly signal an anxiety for their spiritual wellbeing. So what was the problem or danger envisaged? The implica- tion of 2:8-23 is that the practitioners of an older established ‘philosophy’ had contrasted the ‘captivating’ power of their own beliefs and practice with those of the Colossian believers (2:8), and had ‘passed (negative) judgment’ on the latter’s rituals and festivals (2:16). They had acted as though they them- selves were umpires with the authority (of ancient tradition) to ‘disqualify’ the Christian belief and practice (2:18) as ineffectual and unfit for purpose. What was this ‘philosophy’? The emphasis on ‘wisdom’ (1:9, 28; 2:3, 23), ‘insight’ (1:9; 2:2), and ‘knowledge’ (1:9-10; 2:2-3) suggests a form of Gnosticism which emphasized the importance of gnosis (‘knowledge’). The reference to ‘the elements of the universe’ and the cosmic powers (2:8, 15) likewise suggest a belief that only by establishing a right relationship with such powers could one hope to participate in the divine ‘fullness’ (2:9-10) – language typical of later Gnostic systems which were Christianity’s principal challengers in the first few centuries. There was probably a Jewish element in the mix. Jewish thinkers did not hesitate to commend Judaism as a ‘philosophy’. And talk of ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ was widespread in Second Temple Judaism as well. The some- what puzzling ‘worship of angels’ (2:18) can be readily understood as worship offered by angels, rather than worship offered to angels, which would fit well with one of the great traditions of Jewish visionary apocalypses, as also in the Revelation of John. The repeated reference to circumcision (2:11, 13; 3:11; 4:11) and the reference to ‘matters of food and drink’, ‘festivals, new moons and sab- baths’ (2:16) also suggest that the challenge to the recently established Christian church in Colossae came more from local Jewish synagogues. So Colossians gives us a unique insight into the religious mix of Asia Minor in the second half of the first century. And also into some of the challenges which the first Christian churches experienced as they sought to establish themselves in such contexts. Particularly striking is the theological vision of Christ and of his significance – active in creation (1:15-20), the fullness of deity indwelling him (2:9), the scope of his accomplishments on the cross (2:11-15), dying and living with Christ (3:1-10). Whether the church in Colossae did survive may be uncertain, but the letter they presumably circulated to other churches is a legacy from which we still benefit.