We had a really great discussion at our manuscript Bible study at church last night. In looking at Colossians 1:15-23 in it's historical context, we come to understand that when Paul refers to Jesus using words of authority...kingdom, thrones, dominion, rulers, powers...it is in fact a not so subtle reference to the authority of Caesar and the ruling authority of Rome over the Colossians.
If you lived under Roman authority, you were a part of the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. But this peace came at the point of a sword. You see, while the Roman Empire did in fact bring an aura of peace to the lands over which it claimed ownership, that peace was achieved by eliminating any dissenters, which is why we hear stories of Christians being thrown to the lions, or used as human torches along roadways, or nailed to crosses.
So when the Colossians received this letter from Paul who was in a jail cell in Rome, claiming that Christ was in fact the true authority, the authentic ruler of all things, it was nothing short of sedition. Furthermore, Paul posits that the cross of Christ, which Jesus took upon himself willingly as a sacrifice for all is far more powerful than the Roman cross of torture. And how is sacrificial death on a cross more powerful than the enforced cross of Rome? Well, if you were living under the Pax Romana in AD 60, which peace would be more appealing to you...an external peace through the aggressive power of Rome or internal peace through the transformational kingdom of God?
It's an easy question to answer in an historical context, but what happens when we ask that question today? What are the powers today that keep us enslaved, that we feel threatened by if we don't follow them? How about...
Business - As the engine that drives our economy, big business has the right to expand regardless of the human or environmental destruction it leaves behind.
Progress - It is imperative that mankind continue moving forward. Technology is our panacea.
Fear - There are evil forces out there who want to do terrible things to you, your children, and your way of life. You need to go to war if necessary to fight them.
Money - Make sure you have enough. Hoard what you have. Save for a rainy day. Don't give it away because you never know when you'll need it.
Success - If you are successful, you should have the biggest and best of everything.
Greed - I need more. I want more. I deserve more.
Perfection - I need to look perpetually young. Perpetually beautiful/handsome. Failure is not in my vocabulary. There is nothing wrong in my world.
My Kingdom - In the end, life is all about me. My needs, my wants, my comfort. I don't have time to help someone in need or to consider someone else's suffering.
These are just a few examples. I'm sure you can think of others. The point, however, is that we are enslaved to these powers in so many ways. How many of the above list can you identify in your own life? I know I easily fall prey to the power of Money and Perfectionism.
So how do we overcome our enslavement to the powers and give our allegiance wholeheartedly to the kingdom of God? I believe the answer can be found in Romans 6 wherein Paul, writing about our enslavement to sin, says :
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Romans 6:5-10)
Jesus submitted to death, and in doing so, he overcame the power of death. As it says in verse ten, death no longer has mastery over him. In submitting, Christ became more powerful than death. This brings to mind Matthew 5:38-42:
You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.
How does an aggressor have power over you if you offer him the left cheek after he has just slapped you across the right? Or how does a soldier enforce his power over you if you offer to carry his gear twice as far as he's commanded? In willfully submitting to the authority of the power, you are in fact undermining the authority of that power, therefore the power no longer has authority over you just as Christ now has power over death by submitting to death in the first place.
To further illustrate the point, if you watch a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat, you scratch your head in amazement at his 'power' to perform a great illusion. But once you know how that illusion is performed, it no longer has the power to amaze you. In fact, the magician is no longer a remarkable performer, but just a guy with a vermin problem. The power of the magician is gone.
It's a difficult concept to wrap our heads around, especially in a culture that tells you that the most important person in the world is you, but if we have already "died with Christ" as it says in Romans 6:8, then the authority of the powers has been undermined and we no longer have to be slaves to them.
Even here, the power of perfectionism grabs hold of me saying, "if you have died with Christ, then why are you still a slave to me?" I need to keep in mind that while I have died with Christ, I am still on my journey home. I am still looking toward the day when I'll see him face to face and the authority of the powers will be broken once and for all. Until then I continue striving to see the powers for who and what they really are: every bit as much an illusion as the magician and the rabbit. As I continue to realize that the powers no longer have authority over me, I am able to recognize their enmeshing strategies and say "no, I have died with Christ. I belong to him now, therefore you no longer have the ability to threaten or manipulate me, because I belong to the kingdom of God. A kingdom over which your authority has been broken."
And when it comes right down to it, I'll choose a kingdom of love and light over a kingdom of power and darkness anytime. I hope you will too.