Colossians

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Introduction

Relevance

Colossians is a letter exalting Christ. The early Anabaptists gravitated to the Gospels because they are about Jesus, and his life and teachings were considered of prime importance. However, Colossians needs to be set right alongside the Gospels to discern the Christology of the New Testament. In times when Jesus is marginalized and not given the center place in theology and ethics, Colossians becomes particularly relevant. Colossians does not deal with theology in an academic way, but presents God’s action in Christ with respect to the universe, the powers, the church, servants in the kingdom, and individual Christians. Colossians is packed with down-to-earth teachings on how Christ needs to be seen and followed as central in a wide variety of life and community issues.

Date, Setting, and Author

Colossians was sent to a church in Colossae, located in the Lycus Valley of the Roman province of Asia (now western Turkey), about 100 miles east of Ephesus. It was on a major east-west route,with the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis nearby. A major earthquake destroyed Laodicea in 60-61 C.E, and possibly also devastated Colossae and Hierapolis. Both Laodicea and Hierapolis were soon rebuilt, but apparently Colossae was not. Uninhabited remains were discovered in 1835. Thus this letter needs to be dated before that quake. A likely reconstruction is that Epaphras introduced the gospel to Colossae during the time Paul was in Ephesus for three years, 53-56 C.E.

This letter indicates that the church in Colossae was predominantly of Gentile background. The faith issues surfacing in this letter suggest that Roman, Greek, and eastern religious views and practices were part of the scene. The excellence of the gospel of Christ stands out in contrast, and thus provides help in other times and circumstances for followers of Christ to keep on track amidst competing philosophies.

This commentary accepts Pauline authorship. That view has been challenged. One argument used was that the vocabulary of Colossians has 34 words not found elsewhere in the NT, but failing to note that Galatians (undisputed Pauline) has 31 words not found elsewhere in the NT. Vocabulary and style are shaped by the issues addressed. Current scholarly opinion is moving toward accepting Paul as author. Opinions vary as to Paul's location and circumstances when composing this letter. Several texts indicate he was in custody. But where? A defensible position is that Paul was imprisoned in Rome before the Lycus Valley quake, which means a date of 59-60 C.E. These debatable details do not affect the message of this special letter.

Form and Style

Colossians is in the form of a letter, as are a number of other books of the NT canon. The salutation is in the common style of that time: From (with descriptive words) .... To (with descriptive words).....Blessing. The exchange of greetings at the end of the letter provides names and relationships helpful to readers. The content is not in the form of a theological discourse, but is a pastoral communication. The author is deeply concerned about the spiritual welfare and progress of the recipients. Although specific warnings and critiques are included, the approach is primarily that of accentuating the positive – what Christ and his gospel provide, and affirming what the recipients are already experiencing. In the trilogy in 3:15-17 it is as if Paul is telling them, the resources of Christ are there (the engine is running), it is for you to apply them (to shift from neutral to drive). This letter provides a model for a pastoral strategy in any age for helping people whose spiritual health is threatened by religious allurements.

Readers and students do well to pay close attention to the literary and grammatical details. One example is the literary structure of 2:6-23 , and particularly 2:13-15. By using a formal correspondence translation rather than dynamic equivalence or paraphrase of these three verses, noting the main verbs and adjoining participles, and the nouns and pronouns, the profound affirmation of this text stands out in ways that would be missed otherwise. (NASB with emphases added.)

13a. When you were dead in you our transgressions
and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
b. HE MADE YOU ALIVE TOGETHER WITH HIM,
c. having forgiven us all our transgressions.


14a. having canceled out the certificate of debt
consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us,
b. HE HAS TAKEN IT OUT OF THE WAY,
c. having nailed it to the cross.


15a. When he had disarmed the rulers and authorities,
b. HE MADE A PUBLIC DISPLAY OF THEM,
c. having triumphed over them through him.

Outline with Comment

Getting the Letter Started 1:1-2

Paul identifies himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus, and includes Timothy in the salutation. The recipients, set part and faithful, are in the dual reality of being in-Christ and in-Colossae.

Praying: Giving Thanks 1:3-8

Paul begins, not with a corrective, but with thanks for evidence of their solid experience in Christ, confirming the message of the gospel. The apostle’s prayers challenge believers today to higher levels of prayer.

Praying: Interceding 1:9-14

The intercessory part of Paul’s prayer stems from good reports he has received. He prays for the faith community in Colossae to grow in knowledge, strength, and fruitfulness in their life in Christ.

Exalting Christ as Supreme 1:15-20

This poetic “Christ-Hymn” may have had a separate origin, but reads as an integral part of its context. It is a core teaching about Christ, standing with other major Christological passages such as John 1:1-18, Philippians 2:5-11, and Hebrews 1:1-4. It does not say all that can be said about Christ , but goes a long way. Among the pertinent assertions are these: the image of God, the agent of creation, before all, the sustainer of all, the head of the church, the fulness of God, and the means of reconciling all.

Experiencing Christ 1:21-23

As is characteristic of Paul’s integrated theology, he moves immediately from the doctrine of Christ to experiencing Christ. Expressed in personal terms , “you,” he puts it in before and after contrast, including both change of status and of quality of life. This informs evangelism and mission.

Explaining the Apostle’s Ministry 1:24--2:5

Paul, as a servant of the gospel, elaborates on ministry that fits the gospel. This block reveals the apostle’s motivation for service – his commission, the no longer secret “mystery” of the inclusion of Gentiles, and the strategies of teaching, encouraging, and warning toward the goal of maturity in Christ.

Exposing Warped and Inferior Teachings 2:6-23

Here Paul brings explicit warnings: Don’t let anyone ensnare you; Don’t let anyone control you; and Don’t let anyone disqualify you. As reasons for staying on track, he not only analyzes the hazards, but underscores the positive elements of the gospel with Christ as center– modeling a fruitful pastoral approach. As noted above, this is the context of 2:13-15, the loaded text on what God had provided in Christ.

The comments include considerations of perversions of the gospel at that time. Although the challenges keep changing, Colossians admonishes the church always to remain alert, and provides strategies for recognizing and responding with the gospel of Christ.

Living Oriented to the exalted Christ 3:1-4

The Anabaptist emphasis on keeping doctrine and practice together finds basis in texts such as this one that focuses on the imperatives growing out of the indicatives of the gospel. Put another way, it is “Be what you are” as raised to life in Christ. It calls us to a transformation of values, and to making heaven’s agenda our agenda.

Putting Off and Putting On 3:5-14

The ethical demands of the gospel are put in the radical metaphors of putting to death the old earthly ways, and putting on the clothes of the new self. Ethical teaching does belong with the gospel. The Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship finds its base in these verses. Both the vices and virtues listed have to do with community. The specifics are not dated and are amazingly relevant today. The Christological factor is evident in that the qualities of the new life are all attributed to Jesus and evident in his earthly life.

Incorporating the New Life 3:15-17

The new life does not automatically take place, and it is not a do-it-yourself pursuit. This triad of verses puts the new life in doable terms. The call is to “let” central aspects of the gospel of Christ be intentionally incorporated into life, both communally and individually. Summarizing what is available as the peace of Christ, the word of Christ, and the name (character) of the Lord Jesus, captures what is to be the center. All three are couples with thanksgiving and gratitude. A sermon, maybe three, arise out of the this text.

Applying the Gospel in Domestic Relationships 3:18--4:1

This block deals with the practical matter of how the good news functions when we get it home. This version of the Household Codes is parallel to one in Ephesians, and similar to one in 1 Peter. In the relationships of marriage, family and slavery, it is notable that there are reciprocal duties, that the least powerful are addressed first, and there are six references to the Lord. More on the issue of slavery comes out in the letter to Philemon.

Calling to Prayer and Witness 4:2-6

The concluding admonition to the church in Colossae focuses on their outward mission under two headings: Prayer and Witness. Under Prayer – speaking to God about others – Paul stresses the urgency of prayer, and makes a specific personal request. Under Witness – speaking to people about God – he calls for both a lived witness and verbal witness.

Maintaining Connections 4:7-18

Paul’s inclusion of a number of many named persons, both with him and in the Lycus Valley, sets forth the diverse first-century church as people, not organization or institution. Paul models a way to maintain healthy inter-relationships. The way he identifies and affirms workers reveals much about Paul and views about church that are culturally transferable. This note of inter-connectedness challenges the individualism and congregationalism of the modern churches. The letter ends on the note of grace.

Synthesis

There are few issues faced by Christians-in-community that are not touched on in Colossians. In review of the wide range of topics in this letter, three verities stand out. More than anything else, Colossians is about Christ. The Christology is not presented in an academic way, but in a panorama of action pictures: the preeminent Christ, the cosmic Christ, the redeeming Christ, the triumphing Christ, the reconciling Christ, the revealing Christ, the nourishing Christ, and the adequate Christ.

A note of pastoral care pervades the letter to the Colossians. The syncretic influences threatening the church at that time prompted prayer, teaching, warning, and encouraging. The strategy is that of emphasizing the truth as it is in Jesus, and affirming the life in Christ already being experienced.

The agenda for those under the lordship of Christ goes beyond survival and includes mission. Appreciation of the uniqueness and superiority of Christ and the gospel is a remedy for the lack of enthusiasm for evangelism and mission in any age.

Recommended Essays in the Commentary

Elements of the Universe
Gnosticism
History of Christology
“In Christ”
Kingdom Theology
Literary Structure
Titles for Christ

Bibliography

  • Barclay, William, The All-Sufficient Christ, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1963.
  • _____, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, Daily Study Bible, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1975.
  • Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Colossians, New International Commentary on the NT, Grand Rapids, MI, 1957.
  • Dunn, James D. G.,The Epistles to Colossians and to Philemon, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans. 1996.
  • Lucas, R. C. Fullness and Freedom, the Message of Colossians and Philemon, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1980.
  • Martin, Ralph P., Colossians and Philemon, New Century Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1978.
  • Meeks, Wayne A., The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1983
  • Melick, Richard R., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, New American Commentary, Nashville,TN, Broadman Press, 1991.
  • O’Brien, Peter T., Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary 44, Waco, Texas, 1982. Review and Expositor 70, 1973.
  • Schweitzer, Eduard, The Letter to the Colossians, Tr. by A. Chester, Minneapolis, MN, Augsburg Publishing House, 1982.
  • Wright, Nicholas T., Colossians and Philemon, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Yoder, Perry B., Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, Newton KS, Faith and Life Press, 1987.

Invitation to Comment

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Ernest D. Martin