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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through Colossians

The Address ( 1, 1–14 )

The address includes not only the usual greeting ( 1, 1–2 ) and thanksgiving ( 1, 3–8 ) but also a prayer for the continued progress of the Colossians ( 1, 9–14 ). Both the address and conclusion ( 4, 7–18 ) contain greetings and personal references that are typical of Paul.

The Body of the Letter ( 1, 15–4, 6 )

Colossians' main message is correct teaching and warnings against false teachings ( 1, 15–2, 23 ). This is followed by exhortations to exercise fundamental beliefs in daily Christian living ( 3, 1–4, 6 ).

Instruction about Christ and False Teaching ( 1, 15–2, 23 )

Paul is confident that Epaphras has given the community a solid foundation. He reminds the Colossians that by Christ's saving death, “[God] delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” ( 1, 13 ). This transference from the realm of sin and error into that of grace and truth is effected in baptism and must be lived out in the daily lives of Christians. The doctrinal presentation of the first major part of Colossians falls into three sections: the Christological hymn and its implications ( 1, 15–23 ), Paul's own ministry and example ( 1, 24–2, 3 ), and warnings against false teachers and their teaching ( 2, 4–23 ).

The Christological Hymn ( 1, 15–23 ). In order to teach a correct Christology and clarify errors, Paul quotes a liturgical hymn apparently familiar to the Colossians ( 1, 15–20; see also Phil 2, 6–11 ). Many interpreters believe that this hymn predates Paul and was already in use by the early Christian communities. The poetic rhythm and language suggest that it was a hymn and that it was at home in the liturgy. Since Paul generally writes in prose, the insertion of a hymn here is easily discerned in the Greek. In this hymn Christians profess and celebrate the authority of Christ in whom all “the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him.” Paul stresses the redemption and peace won for us through Christ. He does not badger or scold the Colossians for their errors, but presents Christ's role of reconciling the world to God as the basis of common faith among all believers. The text adapts a variety of traditions about the figure of Wisdom and a cosmic savior to the person of Christ, who begins, as in the prologue of John's Gospel, in the heavenly realm. But he is also the head of the church and firstborn from the dead, so that his saving action works in our history.

Paul's Ministry and Example ( 1, 24–2, 3 ). Emphasis on his own example is a remarkable trait of Paul's letters, one expected of a great teacher in his day (see further 1 Thes 1, 6; 2 Cor 11–12 ). It is also significant that upon reviewing Christ's work of redemption, Paul immediately attaches his own example as a model for the Colossians to emulate. At first this advice may strike us as surprising and almost shocking. How can Paul claim to be a model for all to imitate (see 1 Cor 11, 1; Phil 4, 8 )? It springs from the apostle's humility and transparent confidence. Paul is so firmly rooted in God that he dares to advise his addressees to follow his example. By studying Paul's life, others may know the power of God and be converted. Paul always reveals the source of his confidence, which is not self‐reliance but hope in God. This hope is best expressed in Christ's gift of salvation evidenced in the life of the apostle. The apostle glories in his vocation and fidelity while also accentuating his sufferings in the service of the gospel.

In describing his own ministry, Paul adapts categories important to the Colossians and to the false teachers who are disturbing them. They are emphasizing “wisdom” and “perfection,” so Paul speaks about the “knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” ( 2, 2–3 ). Paul identifies the goal of his mission to “present everyone perfect in Christ” ( 1, 28 ). For this he labors and struggles in accord with God's power “working within me” ( 1, 29 ).

Warnings against False Teachings ( 2, 4–23 ). Paul encourages the Colossians in their faith, reminding them of their identity in Christ. He observes the “good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” He celebrates this fidelity and encourages the Colossians to be grateful, with a thanksgiving rooted in faith. Finally, he warns against the seduction of false teaching that is according to mere human tradition and not grounded in Christ. The false teaching was probably a combination of Jewish and pagan philosophies and pagan ideals. Paul denounces the “circumcision administered by human hands” and the ascetical practices regarding “food and drink” alleged to be required at certain times and days ( 2, 16 ). Some teachers flaunted their visions and self‐abasement, and were involved in complicated devotions to angelic beings. Paul labeled all these as transitory fads, “shadows of things to come” and “things destined to perish.” By contrast, in Christ dwells the fullness of God. All are members of Christ, who is the head of the body, the church. Here and in Ephesians, this specific role of Christ within the church is introduced. Christians are united in one church under one Lord who is Christ. Their common task is the reconciliation of the world to God under Christ.

Ethics Characterizing the True Christian ( 3, 1–4, 6 )

Paul does not really present a new, uniquely Christian ethical system but draws from several existing systems. Often Paul lists vices or virtues similar to lists found in Stoic or other Greek philosophers. The “household rules” found in Colossians (see Eph 5, 21–6, 9; Ti 2, 1–3, 8; 1 Pt 2, 11–3, 7 ) have parallels in contemporary Greco‐Roman literature where elements of household management are discussed. The submission of wives, children, and slaves to the male household head was an expected part of the social order. A fundamental difference for Paul is the motivation and the empowerment to fulfill these ethical principles. The church as the body of Christ distinguishes itself from the outside world in that the love command operates to create a new way for Christians to relate to one another. Paul says that the Colossians once conducted themselves as pagans who practiced immorality, greed, and passion (see 3, 5–7 ). Now they have “put on the new self, which is being renewed…in the image of its creator” ( 3, 10 ). In Christ the usual sexual, social, and ethnic distinctions do not exist, “but Christ is all and in all” ( 3, 11 ).

Conclusion ( 4, 7–18 )

Tychicus is the messenger entrusted with the letter to the Colossians. Many think that the Onesimus mentioned as his companion ( 4, 9 ) is the former slave who returned to Colossae with the letter from Paul to Philemon (see Reading Guide to Philemon). The other companions mentioned at the end of Colossians are well‐known Christians named in other Pauline letters except for Nympha ( 4, 15 ), a woman who hosts a house church. This list of personal references reminds us about the common Christian teaching upon which Paul depends and to which he urges the Colossians to hold firm.

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