The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians points out many ways for which he is thankful to God for the faithfulness of that congregation in the midst of the challenges of living under the shadow of the Roman Empire. Being thankful helps keep us connected to God and is a key to living a joyful life.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Colossians 1:1-14
During this week when we will celebrate Thanksgiving, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on some passages from the book of Colossians, where thanksgiving is a theme that keeps reoccurring through the book.
The passage we just heard sets the tone for this letter that the apostle Paul wrote to to the church in Colossae, around 62 AD, about 10 years after the church was founded.
Before we look at the specific verses that talk about thanksgiving and gratitude, I want to give us some background to Colossians, which will give us some context that will help us better understand and I hope also appreciate the words that the apostle Paul writes in this letter to the church in Colossae.
To start, we can’t understand Colossians and Colossae without knowing about Ephesians and Ephesus, the city where the Ephesian church was located.
It just so happens that I visited Ephesus and the surrounding around back in 2005 during a mini Sabbatical when I was pastoring Phoenix. So this sermon is going to be a little different today—it’s going to be part sermon, part travelogue, part history lesson.
And…you all are going to have a little reflection activity focused on giving thanks as a response to the sermon. So fasten your seat belt and here we go.
Here’s a map of the Roman Empire about 40 years after Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians. It basically occupied all of the land that bordered the Mediterranean Sea.
Look at the bottom half right quadrant- that’s modern-day Turkey, and that city Byzantium was the capital of the Roman Empire. It’s right on the border between Europe and Asia.
Today it is called Istanbul, the capital of Turkey. Does anyone know what it was called after it was Byzantium and before it became Istanbul? Constantinople- named by Emperor Constantine during his reign.
The next slide shows a closeup of what is now Turkey, during New Testament times. Ephesus, Colossae, and all those other cities in that area that had churches are in in what was considered Asia at that time.
So back in 2005 I spent a couple of weeks in Turkey and some of the Greek Islands, ending up in Athens, Greece. I was interested in going to that are because there is so much biblical history in that area.
When people think of going to visit biblical sites, where do they usually go? Israel, “the Holy Land”. Which is where Jesus walked, but if you’re interested in the early church, there’s no better place than this area in Turkey.
Let me show you where I began, which was in Istanbul. What an amazing city it is. I could show you dozens of pictures but I’ll just limit it to a few. Here is Istanbul with the Bosphorus River in the foreground. This river is what separates Europe from Asia.
This is a typical site of Istanbul, because you see a mosque with those towers or minarets sticking up. Everywhere you look in Istanbul you see mosques. Here’s a picture I took of the largest and most famous mosque in Istanbul, called the blue mosque.
Right across from the blue mosque is another incredible building called the Hagia Sofia. It was first a Greek orthodox church, then when the Ottoman Empire took over the area it became a mosque, and then later it became a museum, which it is today.
OK so now down to Ephesus which is down the coast from Istanbul. Actually the city today is called Selcuk. And the old city of Ephesus contains some of the best preserved ruins in the ancient world.
Ephesus was like Washington DC, and Colossae was like Fairfax. Ephesus was the largest and most influential city in the area, and people from the surrounding areas like Colossae traveled to and from Ephesus.
Where is that area? It’s in present-day Turkey, on the coast of the Aegean Sea, where the Greek islands are located.
Why did people travel to Ephesus? It was a port city, which means it was a big trading center and crossroads for the region. A lot of merchants were involved with importing and exporting all kinds of goods.
Also, being on the coast, sailors and military personnel spent time there.
Here’s a library called the Celsus library. I think it was rebuilt at some point, but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless. That’s what I looked like 17 yrs. ago. (have I changed much?)
Here’s the amphitheater in Ephesus. It seems like most cities in the Roman Empire had an amphitheater. And the acoustics are amazing.
You see those people holding umbrellas? That was a tour group from South Korea, mostly women as I recall. The women on the stage started singing “Amazing Grace” and the whole group joined in singing it with them. It was really awesome!
Also, not only is Ephesus a tourist destination now, but it was also a place where a lot of people visited in biblical times. The main tourist attraction at that time was the Temple of the Greek goddess Artemis, or Diana.
The temple was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, and people would flock from all over to visit it and worship Artemis. This was one of many statues of Artemis that I saw in the archeological museum in Ephesus. Those ball-like things all over her body represent eggs, as she was known as a goddess of fertility.
So people would pray to her for a good agricultural harvest, as well as for bearing children.
This slide shows all that is left of the temple of Artemis today—just a pillar known as a stoma, and a few other debris. Stoma kind of reminds me of the Washington monument!
In the background on the upper left is a building with a flag. That’s the basilica of St. John, built on the spot where St. John lived the second half of his life. This is the same John who wrote the gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation.
John was the bishop of all those churches in the area, and so was even a bigger influence on those churches than Paul was. My hotel was right across the street from the basilica, and you could just walk through the ruins of it.
Of course we know that John and his spiritual leadership was seen as a threat to the Roman Empire, which demanded the worship of the emperor as Lord, so calling Jesus as Lord was a subversive act.
Here’s a bust of one of the emperors that was on display in the museum.
So in order to extinguish John’s influence in the Christian churches, he was sent into exile to the island of Patmos. That’s where he received the vision from God in a cave, which he wrote down and became the book of Revelation.
I spent four incredible nights on Patmos, hoping for my own revelation, which is a story I don’t have time to tell today but can tell you about it another time.
But let’s get back to the mainland. I want to show you a few pictures from a couple of the cities outside of Ephesus.
Here’s what’s left of the city of Hieropolis.
I like this one with the arches.
And then there’s Laodicia- it looks like snow, but it’s actually travertine limestone which is formed from mineral hot springs. It was a “spa town” during Roman times. There’s another picture of what looks like a big snowball of travertine.
Remember in Revelation where John calls a church out for being lukewarm, and wishes that they were either hot or cold? That was Laodicia.
OK so now let’s get back to Colossians. So actually the Apostle Paul likely was never was in the Colossian church. He was likely in prison when he wrote this letter, but he had spent time in Ephesus, where he met this guy named Epaphras, who was from Colossae, and Paul took Epaphras under his wing and mentored him as Epaphras started the church in Colossae and served as its main pastor. We heard about him in the scripture we heard.
And we know that worship of Artemis and other Greek and Roman gods and goddesses was prevalent during that time. And so people in the Colossian church were influenced by others in their community who put their faith in these deities to get them what they wanted and needed and also to ward off evil spirits.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was also an extremist Jewish group in the community that was super legalistic, rigid, and isolated themselves from the world around them.
Their rituals had become more important than the God they claimed to worship.
And so the members of the Colossian church were susceptible to these influences, and false teachings which could lead them to take their focus away from Jesus and question his Lordship in their lives and their allegiance to him.
That’s why early on in Paul’s letter to the Colossians he clearly talks about the supremacy of Jesus, who is above all and through all (1:15-17).
Letter is meant to warn them about false teachers, and also point out the faithfulness he has heard about in the church. And then to encourage the Colossian church, Paul repeatedly thanks God for the ways that they are living out their faith in Jesus, individually and in community.
Let’s go through the thanksgiving passages in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I’m indebted to the ideas of Ernest Martin in the Believer’s Church Bible Commentary on Colossians on his pointing out these thanksgiving passages: First,
Give thanks for people who have shown love to us and to others:
Leslie Francisco article “What if?” Francis Schaefer said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether Christianity is true.”
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints… (Colossians 1:3-4)
Give thanks for the new life that we have received (redemption, forgiveness, joy, strength, etc.) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus:
11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks[d] to the Father, who has qualified you[e] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (1:11-14)
Give thanks for the ways in which we have been growing in our walk as disciples of Jesus and for the people who are encouraging us in our faith:
6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (2:6-7)
3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Give thanks for experiencing God’s peace in our hearts, and also for the peace and harmony we experience in our families and in the community of faith:
15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Give thanks to God in all circumstances, knowing that “all things can work together for good” (Romans 8:28)
17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Paul’s words of giving thanks show us that thanksgiving and gratitude are one of the biggest keys to being faithful, having hope, and experiencing joy in life. Gratitude keeps us connected to God, who is the source of life, and it also leads to positive relationships that build healthy community.
Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.