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Lesson Plan on Philippians & Colossians

 


The epistles we have read this week and last week were written during a period of Paul's life when he faced harsh conditions. The manual says these epistles were written from a prison cell in Rome, while other scholars in and out of the Church believe he actually wrote these during his third missionary trip in Ephesus. He was imprisoned during this time as well. Either way, Paul was imprisoned frequently (see 2 Corinthians 11:23) and we are not told much about his prison stays, other than his lengthy imprisonment by the Romans in Rome. The prison experiences that Paul often experienced have been reconstructed, to the best of their ability, by Christian historians. One such scholar, not of our faith, describes it in such a way that really reminds me of Joseph Smith's imprisonment in Liberty Jail:

"Imagine Paul in prison... He is probably malnourished and short of sleep. He may well have suffered horrible illness; he will certainly have been beaten up by guards and perhaps by other prisoners. He feels helpless and alone in the dark and damp, with the smell of rot, excrement, and death all around him. Picture him then, either scribbling away on a small sheet of papyrus, squinting for lack of light, or else, hearing at last someone whispering through a slot in the door, talking to a visiting colleague and telling him what to put in a letter to one or more of the central Asian churches. This is a far darker image than the usual portraits of Paul, sitting peacefully at a desk, quill in hand, with a pensive look on his face like Wordsworth writing about daffodils. What Paul experienced in prison was not serenity, but searing hardship, not soothing tranquillity but brokenness and anxiety. So it is all the more remarkable that it is from this tumultuous period of Paul’s career that we get from him, not only the letter to the Philippians, but also the letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the circular letter we call ‘Ephesians’." (N.T. Wright and Michael Bird, The New Testament In Its World, p. 450-451)

I don't know about you, but Paul's epistle to the Philippians in particular comes off as the most hopeful of the writings we have from Paul in the New Testament. To see him write with such optimism and positivity, through Jesus Christ, is worth admiring considering the conditions he wrote them in.

Even further, Paul has differing relationships with the Saints in Philip and Colossae. The Philippian Church was one that Paul founded himself. It was the first church Paul founded on the continent of Europe (Oxford Study Bible, p. 1487). We get a brief recollection of those events in Acts chapter 16. In the epistle, Paul remembers them fondly and doesn't appear to have many negative things to say about them. He admits that they do much to support him financially on his mission trips, which is much different than how Paul associated with the Corinthian Saints. This, again, points to their apparent faithfulness. As for Colossae, Paul did not start that branch and he never visited them in person (as far as we know). He apparently hears about their great faithfulness and then writes an epistle to inspire the Saints there. It appears the branch in Colossae was much smaller than most. It is geographically located in modern-day Turkey, where there isn't much left of the small town.

Paul's Unconventional Take on Suffering

Paul opens the Philippians Epistle with an internal debate about whether he would rather live and preach the gospel of Christ or die in Christ. He considers death to be "gain" (see Philippians 1:21) but insists on living so he can continue to preach the gospel. This internal debate reminds me a lot of the 12 Nephite disciples who probably debated the same thing in their minds when the Savior asked what they desired in 3 Nephi chapter 28. The same thing happens to Peter and John as described in D&C section 7. 

Paul, probably in an effort to explain his conflict, then builds on describing the nature of suffering he and those who follow Christ experience. He speaks of it in ways that might seem foreign to us. The following are examples and, as you read them, pick out the phrases and things that Paul says about suffering:

READ THE FOLLOWING:

Philippians 1:29

"29 For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake;"

Philippians 3:8-10

"8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;"

Philippians 4:12-13

"12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

QUESTION: 

What do we learn here about suffering and our relationship with Christ? What are some of the phrases that jumped out?

Paul says here that discipleship under the tutelage of Christ not only means we accept that He suffered for us, but that we must also suffer for His name's sake. He speaks of the loss of all things as something to be rejoiced in because of Jesus Christ. He says that if we truly know Christ we will be members of "the fellowship of his sufferings." One of Paul's most popular lines of scripture is captured within the context of suffering and/or abundance. He mentions that regardless of our plot, we can do all things through Christ which strengthens us.

The Greek for 'strengthen' (transliterated as endunamounti) shares the root of where the word 'endowment' comes from. Therefore, as Latter-Day Saints we might be able to read more into this than other Christians considering the ordinances we perform in the temple.

QUESTION:

If we can do all things through Christ who endows us with strength, how come we can't stop all suffering? If we can do all things through Christ, how come certain afflictions we face seem so stubborn and just refuse to move? Why must we suffer for His sake if we can do all things through Him?

As you probably expected, this popular verse is a poor translation. A better translation of the verses from chapter 4 verses 12-13 are as follows:

"12 I know how to do without, and I know how to cope with plenty. In every possible situation I've learned the hidden secret of being full and hungry, of having plenty and going without, and it's this;

13 I have strength for everything in the one who gives me power." (The Kingdom New Testament, N.T. Wright, p. 407)

This comes back to the "fellowship of Christ's suffering" and points to how many obviously misread Philippians 4:13. The 'all things' in Greek (panta) is a word that never means "all things" or "the whole world" when it is used elsewhere in the New Testament. The translation I provided above captures its more plain meaning. Christ is not a vending machine that turns us into Superheroes, but He is "acquainted with grief" and invites us to take up our cross and follow Him. He endows us with the grace needed to make it through every circumstance our fallen condition can throw at us.

Former counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency, Sister Linda S. Reeves, once gave her opinion on this subject of trials and suffering:

"I do not know why we have the many trials that we have, but it is my personal feeling that the reward is so great, so eternal and everlasting, so joyful and beyond our understanding that in that day of reward, we may feel to say to our merciful, loving Father, “Was that all that was required?”... What will it matter, dear sisters, what we suffered here if, in the end, those trials are the very things which qualify us for eternal life and exaltation in the kingdom of God with our Father and Savior?" (1)

QUESTION:

How might we react to suffering if we understood it as a disciple's covenantal tie with the Savior? How might it change how we react to each other's suffering when we realize we are all members of the same suffering fellowship (see 3:10)?

We often speak of trials and suffering as something to endure well to be able to escape in "the next life." While that is true for many kinds of sufferings we experience in mortality, it isn't the full picture.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said:

"The [bitter] cup and the throne [are] inextricably linked and [can] not be given separately... I am asking... “If we are Christ’s and he is ours, are we willing to stand firm forever? Are we in this church for keeps, for the duration, until it’s over? Are we in it through the bitter cup, the bloody baptism, and all?”... I am asking about the purity of your heart. How cherished are our covenants? Have we—perhaps beginning our life in the Church as a result of parental insistence or geographic happenstance—have we yet thought about a life that is ultimately to be tempted and tried and purified by fire? Have we cared about our convictions enough and are we regularly reinforcing them in a way that will help us do the right thing at the right time for the right reason, especially when it is unpopular or unprofitable or nearly unbearable to do so?

... Surely our sometimes clich├ęd expressions of testimony and latter-day privilege don’t amount to much until we have had open invitation to test them in the heat of battle and have in such spiritual combat found ourselves to be faithful. We may speak glibly in those Sunday services of having the truth or even of knowing the truth, but only one who is confronting error and conquering it, however painfully or however slowly, can properly speak of loving the truth. And I believe Christ intends us someday to truly, honestly love him—the way, the truth, and the life." (2)

Jesus Christ gives our suffering purpose. Love, in its purest sense, is inseparable from suffering. 

For me personally, when we understand that suffering isn't something we escape within celestial realms, but something we are expected to understand and minister to in celestial realms, all the sudden suffering becomes more about becoming "acquainted with grief" so we can experience the God who weeps (see Moses 7:28-58). How else are we to learn to be like the Savior and our Father in Heaven unless we had suffering that allowed us to mourn with those that mourn? Latter-Day Saint scholar, Fiona Givens, points out that to mourn, comfort, and witness (all three things we covenant to do at baptism according to Mosiah 18) are also names and/or attributes of the members of the Godhead. That might suggest that at least ministering to suffering "is the very fiber of which an exalted life in the celestial kingdom is made." (3)

Paul, elsewhere, in Romans chapter 8 gives another interesting take on suffering. We also find a similar theme in Moses 7 where creation, God, and Enoch all groan in pain because of their suffering and the suffering of others. Insightful scholar, N.T. Wright points out that these groanings and sufferings are really "labor pains" for the new heaven and new earth made possible by the atonement of Jesus Christ. (4) To minister to suffering and undergo suffering allows us to experience suffering consecrated by covenants with Christ. To minister to suffering and undergo suffering is to introduce power into the world by which a new heaven and new earth will be made. You have no atonement for all creation without suffering.

Paul's use of Poetry

Within both epistles, Philippians & Colossians, we get a poem about Christ that is the heart and center of both epistles. We do not know if Paul wrote them or if they were some kind of hymns sung in the ancient Christian Church. Admittedly, the KJV we have makes no effort to make this poetry visible to us. Before we read them, I want to prepare our minds with the following thought from Biblical Scholar, Robert Altar:

"99% of divine speech in the Bible is presented as poetry; when God talks to the prophets, he talks in poetry." (5)

Faithful scholars of our faith tradition point out the same thing in our restoration scriptures. (6) Again, virtually every time we have Heavenly Father talking in scripture it is in poetry.

QUESTION:

Why does Heavenly Father talk this way? Why is poetry such an effective form of communication?

Some reasons might include that poetry has a soothing impact on the mind. When translated correctly, it can be easy to understand with its rhythmic prose and style. In other words, it is God talking to our understanding, while also keeping a veil of mystery with multiple layers of meaning in His words. It highlights the creative side of the Father, which is a smaller manifestation of His creative powers.

Paul here chooses to employ poetry to teach of the Savior. Maybe he was quoting hymns these ancient Saints would have known?

READ PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11

"5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

READ COLOSSIANS 1:15-20

"15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.

18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

19 For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;

20 And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven."

QUESTION:

To borrow questions from the manual, what do you learn here about the Savior? How can such truths help us become a different person?

President Russell M. Nelson has said:

"The more we know about the Savior’s ministry and mission—the more we understand His doctrine and what He did for us—the more we know that He can provide the power that we need for our lives... As we invest time in learning about the Savior and His atoning sacrifice, we are drawn to participate in another key element to accessing His power: we choose to have faith in Him and follow Him... There is nothing easy or automatic about becoming such powerful disciples. Our focus must be riveted on the Savior and His gospel. It is mentally rigorous to strive to look unto Him in every thought. But when we do, our doubts and fears flee." (6)

A better translation of "by him all things consist" in Colossians 1:17 is "in him all things hold together." Elder Neal A. Maxwell once pointed out a grand truth in that line:

"No wonder Paul wrote of Christ, “in him all things hold together” (Revised Standard Version, Colossians 1:17). When, collectively or individually, brothers and sisters, things seem to fly apart for us at times, what fitting imagery: “In him all things hold together”! Given the centrality of the doctrine of resurrection, the Restoration has as one of its main purposes to witness not only of Jesus’ resurrection, but that of all mankind." (7)

 Paul's Worry About These Ancient Saints

Another theme heavily in these epistles, and it stands as a witness of the oncoming Great Apostasy, is Paul's warning to these saints to be wary of false ideas and/or philosophies. For example, Philippians chapter 3 is Paul's warning of other Christian missionaries going about who are teaching a more Jewish Christianity and admonishing the Saints to circumcise themselves. Paul uses the strongest of language here in a warning, for he calls these false missionaries "mutilators of the flesh" in verse 2 (a better translation for 'concision'). 

Colossians chapter 2 also brings up this false gospel of circumcision as well as other false "philosophies" that are slowly creeping among the Christians.

READ COLOSSIANS 2:6-9

"6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:

7 Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.

8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily."

QUESTION:

How does "walking in Christ", being "rooted and built up in Him", being "established in the faith", and "abounding with thanksgiving" guard us against false ideas in our day?

Speaking of not necessarily false ideas, but lesser ideas that creep up among members of the Church, President Uchtdorf once said:

"Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas.”" (8)

The takeaway I have is that even "good ideas" can distract us from the Savior.

President Nelson has recently taught us some of the false ideas and philosophies that come at us from outside the Church (maybe even inside the Church at times). His 'cure' is the same as Paul's:

"Labels can lead to judging and animosity. Any abuse or prejudice toward another because of nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender, educational degrees, culture, or other significant identifiers is offensive to our Maker! Such mistreatment causes us to live beneath our stature as His covenant sons and daughters!

There are various labels that may be very important to you, of course. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that other designations and identifiers are not significant. I am simply saying that no identifier should displace, replace, or take priority over these three enduring designations: “child of God,” “child of the covenant,” and “disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Any identifier that is not compatible with these three basic designations will ultimately let you down. Other labels will disappoint you in time because they do not have the power to lead you toward eternal life in the celestial kingdom of God." (9)

Paul provides even further advice in Philippians 4. The basis for our thirteenth article of Faith comes from this chapter.

READ PHILIPPIANS 4:8-9

"8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

9 Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you."

QUESTION:

How is Paul inviting us to think and act? How might "thinking on" and "doing things" that are just, true, lovely, virtuous, etc help us guard against false ideas and keep us centered on Christ?

 For me, this way of thinking underlines the way the new For Strength of Youth Pamphlet wants us to see commandments and "gospel standards". President Henry B. Eyring, before he was even an apostle, once wrote an Ensign article where he teaches a wonderful principle:

"... if my main motive is to please God, I will be sensitive to the Spirit as it warns me away from what would displease him. Once I have decided I want eternal life more than business success [or anything else], I will have crossed the great gulf between wanting to know what God would permit and trying to do what he would prefer." (10)

What a wonderful way to stay rooted in Christ! It might be very helpful when making difficult decisions to ask ourselves the question, "What does God prefer?" instead of constantly worrying about "what will he permit?" Paul's teachings about doing things that are just, true, lovely, virtuous, and pure can help us get into the mindset of "prefer" versus "permit".

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! As a teacher I struggle to organize my thoughts and this was so helpful to me this week.

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    Replies
    1. You are welcome. Thanks for reading! I hope it was helpful at putting Christ at the center.

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