So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and he delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua delivered it to the Elders; and the Elders delivered it to the Prophets; and the Prophets delivered it to the men of the Great Synagogue. These men said three things: `Be deliberate in judgment’; `Raise up many disciples’; and `Make a fence around the Torah.'” (Pirque Aboth 1:1)
Although Moses seems to have gotten “lost in the translation” in this first-century rabbinic text, this quotation from The Sayings of the Fathers does show that Paul has drawn on his rabbinic vocabulary of tradition transmission when he exhorts the Colossians, “As you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue walk in him.” Paul is an official teacher, showing the Colossians how they should walk. But instead of putting a fence around the Law (that is, adding 365 lesser commandments), Paul exhorts them to “live in Christ.”
The Greek verb paralambanõ, translated here “received,” corresponds to the rabbinic kibbel min (“receive what is transmitted”). In a similar way Paul uses the language of transmitting and receiving precious tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3: “The gospel I preached to you which you received (paralambanõ). . . for what I received (paralambanõ) I passed on (paradidõmi) to you.” Paradidõmi, translated here “passed on,” answers to the rabbinic massar le (“deliver, transmit to,” from which the Massoretes–“transmitters” of the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition–received their title). Paul uses both of these tradition-terms again in 1 Corinthians 11:23, concerning the Lord’s supper: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.”
Paul can also use this vocabulary to describe the experience of coming to faith. Of his own great calling and change of direction, the saving and commissioning revelation of Jesus Christ, he says he received (paralambanõ) this calling neither from or by man but from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12); and what Paul received by direct revelation becomes the transforming word that he authoritatively transmits, a word that changes the lives of countless pagan Gentiles. Thus Paul thanks God for the Thessalonians who, “when you received the word of God from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). Similarly, concerning the Romans (and this seems always to be the great subject of thanksgiving for Paul!) he says: “. . . thanks be to God that though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted–literally, “transmissioned” (paredoth_te, aorist passive of paradidõmi).
And so it is with the Colossians. It is interesting that for Paul, only apostles transmit the Gospel. He never exhorts the church to transmit (paradidõmi) the Gospel. Her role is not to produce an inspired Christian Talmud where revelation is both continued, but at the same time hopelessly relativised. Her role is apparently not that of a “traditioning community,” which, according to Form Criticism, actually creates and develops the Gospel tradition. Her role is rather to receive and to guard what has been transmitted once-and-for-all to her. This is what Paul asks of the Colossians. As they had received Christ, i.e., the Gospel that Paul had passed on, so they should walk in him.
Here, however, there seems to be something of a problem. It seems it is possible to receive Christ Jesus the Lord but not walk in him. Does this text bring comfort to those who say that one may receive Christ as Savior and then learn in the Christian life to receive him as Lord? Well, not exactly. The reception of the Gospel in the past, at the beginning of faith, is a reception of Christ Jesus the Lord. In the Gospel he can only ever appear as Lord, as the Lord of creation and the Lord of redemption, the Lord of resurrection victory over death and evil. The problem seems rather to be one of woeful but, alas, so easily-adopted inconsistency.
How Can Disconnection Happen?
Paul’s Gospel had surely been clear on this subject. The Thessalonians had already received what Paul had transmitted to them on how to walk: “. . . we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living” (1 Thess. 4:1). How to walk was manifestly part of the original Gospel message, as Paul clearly indicates also in Colossians 2:7, immediately following our text: “. . . as you were taught”. So how do Christians, then and now, get off track?
Curtiss Strange, the golfer, got off track. Winner of two consecutive United States Opens, last year Strange could not even have beaten R. C. Sproul! He began to mess around with new swing theories. But he went back. He got reconnected with his old teacher, Jimmy Ballard, whose own theory is summed up in the phrase, “Stay connected”–keep the “ligaments and sinews held together, connected with one another,” if you want to hit the golf ball relatively long and down the middle.
Paul gives an example of a “disconnected” believer in this very chapter, in verses 16-23–one is involved in “shadows” (v. 17), having missed the point; who is going through the motions, not the real thing. Still attached to the way of thinking of the world (v. 20), this so-called believer has lost connection with the head (v.19). Instead of being rooted and grounded and held together with the rest of the growing body of Christ, this person is puffed up with idle notions about new moons and feasts. This is not your temptation (although recently coming from France to the U.S., I have been struck with the numerous way-out Biblical interpretations, especially in eschatology, over which people become exceedingly excited and personally involved). The great danger in all of this is the threat of losing touch with the essentials of our present walk with Christ.
The danger for most of us, I suspect, is not egotistical speculations of a quasi-heretical nature. Rather, it is the growing cold of our love for Christ. Walking in him becomes a drudgery, and giving thanks the last thing on our mind, for our emotional center has relocated itself elsewhere. Such a spiritual state can develop imperceptibly, as we begin to face difficult or threatening situations in life where we are pushed to the extreme, and our capacities and abilities tested to their limit. And then, in the off-moments of leisure and needed relaxation, in it comes via the TV screen: “The good, the rich, the beautiful, the intelligent, the tall, the famous and the fascinating, who make it to the pages of People magazine, are those who succeed. If you are not like that, you’d better start worrying.” Beyond that, a certain version of the American work-success ethic can haunt us as things become unstuck.
Are you presently so concerned about grade point averages, ministerial skills, and having people recognize them, so consumed with worries about your career or future spouse, that, despite your words and outward confession, in the deep inner self you are disconnected from the Head, Christ? Have you fallen imperceptibly into a fundamentally pagan way of living and thinking, even as you pursue theological studies, a mindset in which, having begun with grace, you end with works, in which justification is all of grace but for sanctification you are on your own? But you know deep down that you cannot go on this way. Sooner or later the crack will come. You’ll develop ulcers, languish into depression, fall dramatically into sin, perhaps even give up the ministry.
How Can You Get Reconnected?
Curtiss Strange went back to Jimmy Ballard, but how does the Christian get back to sanity? Are there spiritual teaching pros on how to improve your serve, Christian gurus for a quick fix at a small fee? Actually there are, but here Paul proposes a good dose of spiritual Gospel realism, free of charge, and totally trustworthy. “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why do you act as though you still belonged to it?” (Col. 2:20). The principle of living and judging which crushes the individual under the merciless criteria of this world’s beautiful people no longer apply! “God made you alive with Christ, forgiving us all our sins. . . nailing the accusation against us to the cross in a great public spectacle” (vv. 13-15). It is this great public headline that changes everything for you, not your face in People magazine!
What, then, is the principle that keeps us connected to Jesus? “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” In this sentence the protasis, beginning with hõs (“as”), really does presuppose a houtõs (“so”) at the beginning of the apodosis, even if the Greek text does not have it. One may assume it to be elliptical, which is the way the New International Version translates it, by sneaking in a houtõs (“So then”) at the beginning of the verse. These adverbs typically express Pauline logic. Not walking in Christ is inconceivable, a contradiction in terms, folly. It is as Jesus said: “He who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like the foolish man who failed to build his house on a rock” (Matt. 7:26). For Paul the rock on which the Christian life is founded, on which the Christian is “built up,” is Christ himself. For spiritual sanity and maturity, Paul is not proposing some minor refinements to an already complex eschatological schema. He is saying what Francis Schaeffer often said: at the end of the day, after the great philosophical debates and arguments, it is the simple declaration of the Gospel that saves. And Paul’s point is that it is also the simple Gospel that keeps us connected to Christ. For the manner in which you received Christ is the manner in which you should walk. Did you come to Christ in your BMW with your diplomas and your big toothy grin, congratulating the Lord on the excellency of his choice?
You are probably a little tired of hearing the hymn “Just As I Am” at the end of all Billy Graham meetings, but this hymn is profoundly true: “without one plea but one, that thy blood was shed for me.” Augustus Toplady, the eighteenth-century hymn-writer said it with even more depth: “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress, helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.” (2) You came to Christ on your knees, in the dust, warts and all, seeking his mercy, weeping over your failures and regretting your weakness; and like Sarah, God’s unexpected provision of undeserved grace made you break out in laughter and joy.
And God, if one may be permitted to say it, will also have the last laugh. You see, you stay connected with the Head, Jesus Christ the Lord, by beginning off each day the way that first one began, when the Lord established himself as your head. All golfers know how humbling their sport can be. Each time you stand over the ball, no matter how many times you’ve hit it before, you know that anything can happen, and often does, and that going back to basics is the only thing that will help. Similarly, Christians always must go back to the basics and start each day from the foot of the cross, confessing all their failures and receiving from his hand all their successes. For even as we grow in grace, the divine humor of it all (an excellent antidote for our puffed up, self-deluding pretensions of spiritual progress and prowess) is that in a sense we never get further than that first day! Every day we need that same cleft Rock of God’s gracious protection. Every day we need God’s gracious protection from his holy wrath and our own sinful proclivities. And every day we need that gracious protection for it allows us, as it did Moses, to draw close to our Lord, to be deeply connected to him in communion and service.
Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians is at the very opposite extreme from moralism. We walk in the undeserved, freeing power of the Gospel, not in the exhilaration of our own moral fortitude. Here there is cause for profound optimism. Go forward, he says, walking in him who is your head. Healed from this-worldly myopia, we can see at last that the sky is literally the limit. In Christ, connected to him, you can walk with a good connected swing in your step, for in him you can do all things. This is not “zippity-do-dah” cock-eyed Pollyanna-ism. Paul’s exhortation is quite precise: Walk in him, with the realistic optimism and salutary humility of the sinner saved by grace, always overflowing with thanksgiving.
Walk today, and tomorrow, and the next day, one day at a time, and for the rest of your life in time and eternity, while you “draw this fleeting breath” and when you “soar to realms unknown” and “see him on his judgment throne.” Walk in the realism of your own sinful unworthiness, but also in the reality of the amazing power of the Spirit who deemed you sufficiently significant, not because of your merits but because of his grace, to graft you into a deep connectedness with none other than Christ, the head of all things, for the eternal glory of his name.