So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letter to the Philippians and the personal letter to Philemon, like the letters to Ephesians and Colossians, were probably written around AD60 to 61 while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. He received visitors during that time; people who kept him informed of all that was going on in the churches in Greece and Asia Minor. It is worth remembering that these letters are often only one side of a conversation or a reaction to a problem. As you read ask yourself what may have prompted the responses you are reading.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.
Thoughts about Ephesians and Colossians
These two letters were probably written at the same time. It is likely that the letter to Philemon was written and sent by the same courier, Tychicus. Certainly he is the one who is charged with filling in the gaps for both the Ephesian and the Colossian letter. There is also a hint that there may have been a fourth letter in the mailbag, to the church at Laodicea (see Colossians 40;16). The churches in Ephesus, Laodicea and Colosse were not so very far apart and whatever Paul wrote to one was intended to be shared with the other.
The two letters under consideration here are quite different in presentation and yet there are distinct similarities in some of the content. The opening sentences of Ephesians depart from Paul’s normal greetings which followed a pattern common in letter writing of that time. The more impersonal opening may indicate that the letter was intended to for a number of audiences in the area. Paul was well acquainted with the area having spent three years there. In this letter he does not address any specific issues but concentrates on teaching which was intended to build up the church in Christ. To this end the overarching of theme of unity in the Spirit threads its way through the letter.
The letter begins with an affirmation of the supremacy of Christ and the privileged position which belongs to his followers because of their relationship with him. This was all planned beforehand. Several times in this letter Paul alludes to our being chosen through pre-destined plans. He makes no attempt to address directly the conflict this causes with the notion of free-will and the choice to follow or turn away.
Instead he prays for wisdom and enlightenment for his readers. The ability to understanding the riches of God’s gifts and deal with the tensions which arise out of the many different interpretations we put on the scriptures require an enlightened attitude which church history reveals has been sadly lacking. We are heirs to the kingdom through being part of the body but Paul is concerned that the body should hold together.
Our journey from sin to salvation is emphasised in both letters. Because of the Cross we are no longer separated from God. It is not of our doing but we are the beneficiaries of God’s plan and action through Jesus and then the Holy Spirit. The majestic language at the end of Ephesians 2 describes a process which has been set in motion; a process which defines our purpose and the nature of our inheritance.
Rooted in the love which surpasses all knowledge (Eph 3:19) we are to reflect what has taken place inn our relationship with God by adopting a new relationship with one another. Love is the key to unity. In love all the other ‘ones’ of Ephesians 4 hold together. Love is the power which creates our light and it is in love (Eph 4:29) that we are charged to build one another up.
Often we have struggled with the reference in Ephesians 5 to different relationships, particularly the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22 & Col 3:18).For such tensions we require his prayer for wisdom and enlightenment (Eph 1:17-18). We need to contrast the times in which he wrote with the nature of today’s world where we have hopefully made some progress along the road to better relationships that God wants from us. The fact that we are still struggling after nearly two thousand years with many of the issues which Paul highlights should underline the need for the cautionary words of chapter 6 about wearing the full armour of God, and persisting in the faith. Paul closes with an exhortation to pray – another thing which these two letters have in common.
Where the letter to the Colossians differs is that there is a specific problem of which Paul had been made aware of through Epaphras, one of the founder members of the church in Colosse. It is not entirely clear what the ‘heresy’ was but as we read Paul’s words we gain some idea of what concerned him most. Because of the strong Greek influence in the area there was much academic debate and a heavy emphasis on the power of human thought and knowledge. As in the letter to the Ephesians Paul wants to emphasise Christ’s supremacy and the sufficiency of his actions for us. ‘See that no-one takes you captive..’ (Col 2:8)
What follows in the Colossians letter is similar in emphasis to the principles laid out in Ephesians butin shorter form. There is also reference to the way the Colossians have already expressed their faith in baptism (Col 2:12) and how they should understand the importance of this. In many ways Paul’s message is that they should keep their observance simple. He recognises the need for laws for living but insists that these should be for the good of the individual in community. Living in harmony is the underlying message in chapter 3 with the need for breaking down barriers reiterated.
Because Colossians follows the more conventional pattern, it ends with messages to and from individuals. Some of these names crop up again elsewhere so keep an eye out for them…