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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Colossians

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( 1:1–2 ) Greeting

Prior to his break with Antioch (Gal 2:11–14; Acts 13:1–3 ) Paul had been secure in his ecclesial identity (cf. 1–2 Thessalonians). Subsequently he did not represent any church ( 1:25 ), and had to identify himself as a Christ-commissioned missionary. The formula used here is a simplification of that which he adopted in Gal 1:1 . The selection of Timothy from among the many with Paul (Col. 4:7–14 ) for mention in the address suggests that he was co-author of the letter (Murphy-O'Connor 1995a : 16–34).

Rather than address the church as such (cf. 1–2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1–2 Corinthians) Paul writes to its members as fellow-believers (cf. Rom 1:7; Phil 1:1 ). ‘Saints’ does not imply personal holiness. It reflects the usage of OT where the ‘holy’ is that which is ‘set apart for God’ (Lev 11:44 ). Exceptionally, ‘saints’ is interpreted (the kai is explicative; BDF §442(9)) by ‘loyal’, because some at Colossae, e.g. Archippus (cf. COL 4:17 ), had been led astray by false teaching ( 2:8 ).

The opening greeting of the Pauline letters normally mentions a double source of divine benefactions, ‘from God our/the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. The absence of the second element here may be due to the mention of ‘in Christ’ in the first part of the verse (Aletti 1993: 46).

( 1:3–8 ) Thanksgiving

In all Pauline letters, with the exception of Galatians, 1 Timothy, and Titus, the address is followed by a report on how Paul has thanked God for the recipients. When the formula ‘I give thanks to the gods’ appears in contemporary letters it is never a banal convention and always evokes what is upmost in the writer's mind (Schubert 1939: 173). Similarly in Paul. The thanksgiving is designed to win the favour of the readers—and so parallels the rhetorical exordium—but the compliments carefully reflect Paul's assessment of the state of the community, and reveal his concerns (Murphy-O'Connor 1995a : 55–64).

The length of the thanksgiving here is disputed, but even those who extend it to 1:14 (Moule 1968: 47), or even 1:23 (Aletti 1993: 49), consider 1:3–8 a subsection in which Paul notes the reasons for his gratitude (Lohse 1968: 40; O'Brien 1982: 7).

Paul's knowledge of the believers at Colossae depends on the report of Epaphras ( 1:4, 8 ), who had been deputed by Paul to evangelize the Lycus valley ( 1:7 ). The NRSV reading ‘on your behalf’ is to be rejected (cf. RSV, NJB). While the quality of its witnesses might seem worthy of confidence, the reading is excluded by the titles given to Epaphras (Abbott 1897: 200). In particular ‘servant of Christ’ suggests a duly authorized missionary (cf. 2 Cor 11:25; Phil 1:1 ). Note that Tychicus is given the same titles ( 4:7 ), and he is certainly Paul's representative. The fact that Epaphras was imprisoned ( 4:12–13; Philem 23 ), whereas Epaphroditus of Philippi was not (Phil 2:25 ), indicates that the authorities understood Epaphras to be Paul's agent.

Among the virtues of the Colossians Paul singles out their Christian confidence, and their love which reaches out to all (Philem 5 ), virtues which are inspired by their hope of a guaranteed heavenly reward (1 Thess 1:3 ). The Colossians had been made aware of their assured future by the preaching of Epaphras ( 1:6–7 ), which was anterior to the false teaching. The qualification of the gospel as ‘the word of truth’ ( 1:5; cf. Gal 2:5, 14 ) is intended to underline its reliability (Ps 119:43 ) by contrast with the ‘empty deceit’ ( 2:8 ) of the false teaching. The sterility and parochialism of the latter is indirectly stigmatized by the universal creativity of the word of God (1 Thess 2:13; 1 Cor 1:18; Rom 1:16; cf. Isa 55:10–11 ), a dynamic force changing the world as it is transforming the Colossians ( 3:16 ). Their experience corroborates the true understanding of the message; the ‘grace of God’ is not merely a favourable attitude on the part of the divinity but tangible benefaction. It is typical of Paul that he evokes love a second time ( 1:8 ); the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22 ), it is the very being of the believer (1 Cor 13:2 ). This is the only mention of the Holy Spirit in Colossians.

( 1:9–11 ) Prayer for the Future

Having complimented the Colossians, Paul now reveals his attitude towards them (cf. 2:1 ). They have been the object of his constant concern, but his status as a prisoner ( 4:10 ) has meant that he can only pray for them. He begs God that they may know his will, that they may do good works, and that they may persevere. It is the responsibility of believers to discern what God demands of them (Phil 1:9–10 ). There is no longer a law to dictate their actions. The emphasis on ‘wisdom,’ ‘understanding’, and ‘knowledge’ as divine gifts with a purpose beyond themselves is designed to counter the false teachers' insistence on ascetical practices as prerequisites ( 2:16, 21–3 ) for visions which were an end in themselves ( 2:18 ). Paul does not exclude contemplative knowledge of God ( 1:10c ), but it must be accompanied by fruitfulness in ‘good works’ ( 1:10b ; cf. Eph 2:10; Jn 15:16 ). A permanent lifestyle, different from that of those who belong to the world ( 2:20; 2 Cor 4:7–11; Phil 2:14–16 ), and resistant to cowardice and a desire for vengeance, is made possible only by the power of God. His ‘glory’ is his visibility in history ( 1:27 ), which can only be a display of ‘might’ ( 1:11; cf. Eph 1:19 ).

( 1:12–14 ) Conversion

There is in fact no break in the sentence, but the importance of the contents merits a special heading. In order to motivate the thanksgiving of the Colossians Paul describes the crucial change in their existence in terms and images drawn from the liturgy of baptism (Käsemann 1964: 160). The key sentence is 1:12 , which is then explained in 1:13–14 (cf. Acts 28:16 ). The combination of two virtual synonyms, ‘the share of the portion’, is common in the Essene hymns (Kuhn 1968: 117), which also attest a use of ‘saints’ encompassing both angels and believers (1QS 11:7–8; Benoit 1982 ). The Colossians have already been empowered to live in the realm of light where God's holiness is experienced. The implication is that the ascetic practices and visions advocated by the false teachers are unnecessary. 1:12–14 is the key to understanding 2:13–15 (Sappington 1991: 203).

In 1 Thess 5:5 Paul contrasted the past and present of believers in terms of ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ (cf. Rom 13:12 ). His use of ‘power’ here in conjunction with ‘darkness’ is meant to evoke the societal constraints which promote the inauthentic behaviour of non-believers; all are ‘under the power of sin’ (Rom 3:9 ). Deliverance is the transferral to an alternative environment identified as ‘the kingdom of the son of God's love’ ( 1:13; cf. 1 Cor 15:23–8 ). The genitive of quality is a Semitism (‘beloved’; cf. BDF §165), but Paul chose the expression (contrast 1:7; 4:7, 9, 14 ) in order to give prominence to ‘love’, which stands at the beginning of the process of salvation (Rom 5:8 ). In the form displayed by Christ it is the basic characteristic of the believing community ( 2:2; 3:11–14; cf. Gal 3:27–8:1 Cor 13:2 ). The vague ‘redemption’ is clarified by ‘the forgiveness of sins’. The formula is found in Paul only here (cf. 2:13; 3:13 ), and has a liturgical ring. By incorporation into Christ (‘in him’) in baptism (cf. Acts 2:38 ) the structures of the world are replaced by new values.

( 1:15–20 ) The Christological Hymn

Note the change in the layout of the Greek text in Nestle-Aland, 27th edn. ( 1993 ). It is generally recognized that Paul here offers a corrected version of a hymn in circulation at Colossae ( 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19 ). Many efforts have been made to recreate the original form of this hymn, but none has won significant support (Schmauch 1964: 48–52; Benoit 1975 ). The multiplicity of hypotheses, however, underlines the reality of the problem, not the futility of the quest. No serious exegesis is possible without a decision regarding tradition and redaction. In my view the ordered repetition of formal features recommends the reconstruction of two four-line strophes:

(v. 15a ) 1 Who is (the) image of the invisible God
(v. 15b ) 2 Firstborn of all creation
(v. 16a ) 3 For in him were created all things
(v. 16f ) 4 All things through him and to him were created.
(v. 18b ) 1 Who is (the) beginning
(v. 18c ) 2 Firstborn from the dead
(v. 19 ) 3 For in him was pleased all the Fullness to dwell
(v. 20a ) 4 And through him to reconcile all things to him.

The first lines of each strophe begin with ‘who is’, and the second lines with ‘firstborn’. The third lines commence with ‘for in him’, which is followed by a verb in the passive (‘were created/was pleased’), whose subject is a universal (‘all things/all the Fullness’). The fourth lines contain three identical expressions, ‘all things’, ‘through him’, and ‘to him’. So many correspondences must be intentional. They are the result of careful planning to achieve perfect balance between the two strophes. No one who had made such an effort would destroy the elegance of his or her creation. In consequence, the elements which break the pattern (vv. 16bcde , 17, 18ad , 20bc ) must have been added by another hand. It is theoretically possible that such redactional activity had taken place before Paul incorporated the hymn into his letter. It is more probable, however, that the additions were made by Paul, because identical retouches appear in the hymn in Phil 2:6–11 (Murphy-O'Connor 1995b ).

The basic theme of this hymn is the mediation of Christ, first in creation, then in reconciliation. The titles in the first two lines of each strophe evoke the figure of Wisdom—‘image’ (Wis 7:26 ), ‘beginning’ and ‘firstborn’ (Prov 8:22; Sir 1:4 )—who was present with God from eternity (Wis 9:4, 9 ), and participant in creation (Prov 3:19; 8:30; Wis 8:5; Sir 1:9; 24:9; Ps 104:24 ). These titles are the reason why Paul could not simply repudiate the hymn; they were rooted in the revelation of his people. The titles are justified by the third and fourth lines of each strophe, which are introduced by ‘because’. All efforts to determine in what precise sense Christ can be said to be both the instrument and the end of all creation have failed. That ambiguity, not clarity, was intended is underlined by the plethora of unsatisfying explanations of the indwelling ‘Fullness’ (v. 19 ). Only in 2:9 do we discover that ‘Fullness’ is a surrogate for God, who is said to ‘dwell in’ both people (T. Zeb. 8:2 ; Jub. 1:17 ; 1 Enoch 49:2–3; cf. 2 Cor 6:16 ) and places (LXX Ps 67:17 ). No Jew would have understood either as meaning intrinsic divinization. It is simply a way of speaking about divine favour. What the Colossians would have understood is an open question, as is the exact manner in which Christ can be both the instrument and end of reconciliation. In what possible sense can all creation, which includes inanimate beings, have offended Christ, thereby creating the need for reconcilation?

Paul saw the hymn as a perfect example of ‘beguiling, persuasive speech’ ( 2:4 ). Formal perfection clothes an abstract vision of a cosmic Christ. The phrases are redolent of profundity, but yield no unambiguous understanding of Christ's person and mission. The hymn could be sung or recited by all Colossian Christians in the belief that they were articulating a mystery beyond their comprehension. Initiates, on the other hand, could debate endlessly the questions that still test the ingenuity of exegetes, or develop an interpretation only remotely related to the letter of the text, e.g. the creative power of God, once thought of as Wisdom, is now thought of as Christ (see Dunn 1980: 187–94).

In addition to the truth of the titles given to Christ, Paul had a second reason to retain the hymn. It could be turned against the false teachers. By inserting v. 16be Paul restricts the meaning of ‘all things’ (v. 16a ) to intelligent beings, and makes it explicit that the angelic powers are inferior to Christ who, according to the premiss of the hymn, brought them into existence and to whom they are ordered. The ineffable names of the spirit powers are drawn at random from Jewish tradition (details in Schlier 1961 ). There is no intention to describe grades of the celestial hierarchy (Lightfoot 1904: 150). Paul further diminishes the attractiveness to the Colossians of such powers by inserting 1:20c . Like humans ( 1:21; 2:13; 3:7, 13 ), angels also need reconciliation; ‘some of the angels of heaven transgressed the word of the Lord, and behold they commit sin and transgress the law’ (1 Enoch 106:13–14 ; cf. 2 Apoc. Bar. 56:11–13 ). Manifestly only good angels can be effective mediators with God, but how are mere terrestrials to know which is which? Paul allows the Colossians to draw their own conclusion regarding the futility of the exercise.

Parallel to the addition of ‘death on a cross’ in Phil 2:8c , Paul here insists on the brutal modality of Christ's achievement by inserting, ‘making peace by the blood of his cross’ (v. 20b ). Whereas the traditional teaching that Paul received mentioned only the death of Christ (Rom 1:3–4; 4:25; 8:34; 10:8–9; 1 Cor 15:2–7; Gal 1:3–4; 1 Thess 1:10 ), he typically stresses the ‘blood’ of Christ (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:25, 27 ). With the exception of the gospels and Heb 6:6; 12:2; Rev 11:8 , he alone in the NT uses ‘cross’ and ‘crucify’ (cf. 2:14 ).

Paul's choice of the verb ‘to make peace’ probably has less to do with any supposed animosity between heavenly beings, or between celestials and terrestrials, than with the internal situation of the Colossian church, whose unity had been compromised (cf. 2:2; 3:15 ). The theme of unity is fundamental to the additions in vv. 17 and 18a . The former sums up the first strophe, by parodying it. ‘He is before all things’ echoes the ambiguity of ‘firstborn’ (temporal? qualitative?). The assertion that ‘all things hold together’ in a human being (v. 17b ) gives an impression of unity whose precise meaning evaporates on inspection. Lightfoot (1904: 154) perfectly catches the spurious profundity of the expression by commenting ‘He impresses upon creation that unity and solidarity which makes it a cosmos instead of a chaos’. How exactly is this achieved? ‘The action of gravitation … is an expression of His mind’!

Paul becomes completely serious in his introduction to the second strophe. The church must be characterized by the organic unity of a living ‘body’ (v. 18a ). The insight is but an extension and clarification of ‘you are all one person in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28 = Col 3:11 ). The distinction between ‘head’ and ‘body’ does not appear in 1 Cor 12:12–27 or Rom 12:4–5 because the supremacy of Christ was not questioned at Rome or Corinth. In this instance ‘head’ would appear to mean both ‘superior’ ( 2:10 ) and ‘source’ ( 2:19 ). The cosmic dimension of the original hymn has been reduced to ecclesiology.

( 1:21–3 ) The Thesis of the Letter

These verses both sum up what has been said, and enunciate the major themes of the letter in inverse order. Thus they function as the rhetorical partitio (Aletti 1993: 120). vv. 21–2 evoke the past, present, and future of the Colossians. The passive voice ‘having been alienated’ must be taken seriously (v. 21; cf. 1:13; Phil 2:15 ); the Gentiles had inherited their polytheism and their acceptance of the false values of a corrupt society. To extricate them from this situation divine intervention was necessary, but it was not an act of glorious triumph (v. 22 ). ‘Body of flesh’ distinguishes the individual Jesus from incorporeal beings, but also hints that his death was the result of something happening to his body, the violence of the crucifixion (v. 20b ). Reconciliation is presented as a past achievement, but this does not imply a realized eschatology, since its conditional aspect is immediately made clear (‘provided that’, v. 23 ).

The Colossians have been given the opportunity ( 1:12; cf. Gal 5:1 ) to appear guiltless at the final judgement. How precisely they must comport themselves is outlined in 3:1–4:1 . More fundamentally, however, they must remain committed to the salvific vision conveyed by the gospel they initially accepted ( 1:5–6 ). The alternative against which they are warned is the theme of 2:6–23 . The hyperbole of ‘preached to every creature under heaven’ (v. 23b ) echoes that of 1 Thess 1:8 , and the lack of the definite article before ‘servant’ underlines that Paul is not the sole apostle. 1:24–2:5 develops Paul's own understanding of his service of the mystery.

( 1:24–2:5 ) Servant of the Mystery

The NRSV offers a widespread mistranslation of 1:24b , which has given rise to a series of false problems to which a variety of answers have been proposed, some of which are used to deny Pauline authorship of Colossians (Kremer 1956 ). A literal translation, which respects the order of the words, simplifies the matter considerably (Aletti 1993: 135): ‘I complete what is lacking in the sufferings-of-Christ-in-my-flesh’ (cf. Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 4:10–11 ). There is no reference to the individual Jesus Christ. Paul's sufferings are those of Christ because Paul is a member of the body of Christ (cf. Phil 3:10 ), and because Paul's sufferings reveal the present reality of grace as those of Christ did (2 Cor 4:10–11 ). Paul has no choice but to struggle on until all have heard the gospel (cf. Rom 15:19; 2 Tim 4:17 ). He is a minister of the church ( 1:25 ), not in virtue of a human commission ( 1:1; cf. Gal 1:1 ), but in virtue of the stewardship entrusted to him by God in order to further the economy of salvation (1 Cor 4:1; 9:17 ). The ‘word of God’, which Paul preaches in word and deed, is now described as ‘the mystery’ ( 1:26; cf. Eph 3:1–9 ). Divinely ordained future events (for the background see Brown 1968 ), which for the false teachers were still a secret to be penetrated laboriously, in fact have already been made plain, not merely to a group of initiates, but to all believers. ‘Glory’, the brilliance of God's action in history, is the antithesis of secrecy. The content of the mystery is Christ precisely as present among the believers, no longer in Jerusalem, to which they must trek (Isa 60:1–7 ), but where they are (Aletti 1993: 143). Hence all attention must be focused on him as the source of authentic, certain knowledge ( 2:3 ). The acquisition of such knowledge is not a matter of asceticism. They must be ‘instructed by love’ (against NRSV; cf. Spicq 1958–9: ii.202–8) in order to penetrate the riches of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ ( 2:2 ), who ‘loved me, that is, gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:20 ; BDF §442(9); cf. 1:22 ).

( 2:6–23 ) Warning against Errors

The original commitment of the Colossians was to the Christ as Jesus the Lord ( 2:6; Lightfoot 1904: 174). Jesus is the truth of Christ (Eph 4:21 ). His historicity is fundamental to salvation. The believers must not permit themselves to be returned to the domain of darkness (cf. 1:13 ) by accepting merely human speculation which, despite the claims made for it, in fact regresses to the basic religious perspectives common to (fallen) humanity (‘elements of the world’, 2:8 ), e.g. the need for asceticism in order to advance in religious knowledge (v. 20; GAL 4:3 ); see Sappington (1991: 169).

‘Elementary teaching’ (Heb 5:12 ) appears to be the best sense in this context of a term, stoicheion (element), which has a wide variety of meanings according to the framework in which it is used (for a survey see Bandstra 1964: 5–30). Many scholars, however, prefer to understand ‘elements of the world’ as the basic components of the material universe—earth, water, air, and fire. This is certainly the best-documented meaning in contemporary literature, but to make sense here it has to be understood metaphorically of (1) the basic factors in human existence, which for Paul were Law, Sin, Death, flesh, or (2) the planets which exercise control over humans and determine the calendar; such astral beings are associated with angels. Neither of these usages is attested at the time of Paul.

The function of the genitive ‘of deity’ (v. 9 ) is to explain ‘Fullness’, which 1:19 had left unspecified (Lohse 1968: 150; BDF §§165, 167). As in 1:19 , ‘indwelling’ here does not mean divinization. ‘Bodily’ has been interpreted in at least five different ways (Moule 1968: 92–3). The two most probable are ‘really’ (as opposed to seemingly; cf. v. 17 ) and ‘in physical form’. The two are not incompatible. Divine favour and salvific action are concentrated exclusively in the humanity of Christ. Necessarily, therefore, he is the sole source of fulfilment, and he has authority over all spirit forces (v. 10; Grudem 1985 ).

What has already been achieved for the Colossians should be a cause of thanksgiving (v. 7 ). To drive this home Paul employs a series of five vivid, dramatic images (vv. 11–15 ), in which attempts have been made to find traditional material (Lohse 1968: 160; Wengst 1972: 186–94). The results have been inconclusive. Through Christ the whole body of flesh (and not a mere symbolic token), i.e. the entire framework of habits and desires opposed to God, has been removed (v. 11; cf. v. 18 ). This is true only in theory; it must be made real in practice (cf. Gal 5:13–24 ). The active faith of the recipient is necessary for baptism to be a dying and rising with Christ (v. 12; cf. Rom 10:9 ). The realized eschatology of ‘you were coraised’ (cf. 3:1 ) must be read in the perspective of the future eschatology of 1:22, 27; 3:4, 6, 15–16 . It is simply a more graphic version of ‘God made alive’ (v. 13 ). ‘Life’ and ‘death’ are used here in their existential sense of the presence and absence of virtue (cf. 2 Cor 2:16 ; Philo, Fug., 55). With vivid imagination Paul presents humanity as having defaulted after signing an agreement to obey the will of God. The bond thus became an accusation (v. 14 ). God, in his generosity, forgave the fault and cancelled the debt.

The moment when this happened—‘nailing it to the cross’—was the crucifixion of Christ. The image is not totally consistent, and the metaphor must not be pressed too hard. For other interpretative options see O'Brien (1982: 121–6). A new image, whose antithesis appears in 2 Cor 2:14 , is introduced in v. 15 . God (the emperor) awards a Roman triumph to Christ (his victorious general), who, having stripped angelic beings of their power, led them in a procession that normally ended in executions (Hafemann 1986: 18–39). Some explain the sudden appearance of ‘principalities and powers’ by identifying them as the angels who recorded the transgressions of humanity. In this case the ‘handwriting’ would be the book of life (Ps 56:8; Isa 65:6 ; 1 Enoch 81:2–4; Sappington 1991: 208–23). The mention of spirit powers, however, could have been occasioned by the situation at Colossae to which Paul now turns.

The ‘therefore’ introducing v. 16 implies that the direct polemic against the false teachers (vv. 16–23 ) stems from the doctrinal base established in vv. 9–15 . The reality of Christ highlights the insubstantial nature of the proposed alternative (v. 17 ), which was rooted in ‘a quest for higher religious experience through mystical-ascetical piety’ (Carr 1973: 500). In addition to strict observance of the Jewish calendar (v. 16; cf. Isa 1:13–14; Ezek 46:4–11 ), the false teachers demanded fasting and/or the exclusion of certain foods (v. 21 ). They believed that obedience won God's favour, and that asceticism purified the person (v. 23 ). Together these two constituted the ‘humility’ (v. 18 ), i.e. mortification, that was the prerequisite for revelatory experiences (Sappington 1991: 163). The NRSV translation of v. 18a should be abandoned in favour of ‘Let no one condemn you, delighting in humility and the angelic worship [of God], which he has seen upon entering’ (O'Brien 1982: 134). In visions the adept ‘entered’ the heavenly world (Francis and Meeks 1973: 163–207), and participated in the worship offered by the angels assembled around the throne of God (Isa 6; Ezek 1 ; 1 Enoch 14). It was to this other world that the false teachers had relegated Christ.

This claim to religious superiority is brutally dismissed by Paul as overweening conceit rooted in silly ideas concocted by a fleshly intelligence (v. 18b ). This fundamentally egocentric attitude is the antithesis of the sharing that characterizes the Body of Christ and, in consequence, separates those who persist in it from Christ, the only source (‘head’; cf. 1 Cor 11:3 ) of the Body's vitality (v. 19 ). The being of a Christian is to ‘belong’ to Christ (1 Cor 3:23 ).

What the Colossians enjoy (cf. 1:12–14; 2:11–15 ) is not definitive. It can be lost. Through death in Christ (v. 12 ) they have been freed from the religious perspectives of fallen humanity (v. 20; cf. v. 8 ), but they will return to a state of slavery if they again accept the values and standards of society (Gal 4:8–11 ). The emphasis on ascetic practices associated with Judaism (cf. LXX Isa 29:13 ) is due to the situation at Colossae (vv. 21–2 ), but the principle is of wider application (Gal 5:1, 13 ). Such practices might appear to exhibit spiritual strength and superiority, but in fact they indulge the egocentricity of fallen humanity because they are ‘self-imposed’ (v. 23 ).

( 3:1–4:1 ) How the Colossians Ought to Live

Having brought out the implications of dying with Christ ( 2:20–3 ), Paul now spells out the consequences of rising with Christ ( 3:1–4 ). If believers have been raised, then their concern must be with ‘above’ not with ‘below’. The contrast is inspired by the characterization of the practices of the false teachers in 2:23 , and appears to forget that these were only means to reaching ‘the things that are above’ (cf. 2:18 ). For Paul, however, the central figure in heaven is Christ, whose authority is emphasized by his position at God's right hand (Ps 110:1; 1 Cor 15:25 ).

‘Do not set your minds on things that are on earth’ ( 3:2; cf. Phil 3:19 ), if taken literally, would negate the ethical directives which follow. Such imprecision regularly caused confusion in Paul's communities, e.g. his insistence that Christians were totally free of the Mosaic law permitted the Corinthians to conclude that they could do what they liked (cf. 1 Cor 6:12; 10:23 ). Paul's intention here was not to exclude involvement with society (cf. 1 Cor 5:9–10 ), but to prohibit acceptance of its values (cf. Rom 8:5–6 ). Believers no longer ‘belong to the world’ ( 2:20 ). By contrast with the glorious revelation at the parousia ( 3:4 ) of the intimate union between Christ and believers (cf. Gal 2:20; Phil 1:21 ), their new life can be considered ‘hidden’ ( 3:3 ), but this is relative, because the action of grace must be seen if the gospel is to spread ( 1:6; cf. 1 Thess 1:6–8; 4:12; 2 Cor 3:2, 18 ).

‘Whatever in you is earthly’ ( 3:5 ) is literally ‘the members on the earth’. Paul identifies the parts of the body with the sins they commit (cf. Rom 6:13, 19 ; 2 Apoc. Bar. 49:3 ). The admonition does not parallel Mt 5:29–30 . Lists of vices characteristic of unredeemed pagan humanity (Wis 14:22–9 ) have already appeared in 1 Thess 4:3–6; Gal 5:19–21 . The first five mentioned here ( 5:5 ) can be related to sexuality, thought the last-mentioned has a wider extension. The connection between greed, the original sin (Rom 7:7 ), and idolatry is axiomatic in Judaism (cf. T. Judah, 19:1 ). Pagans are simply ‘those who covet’ (Pal. Tg. on Ex 20:17 ; b. Šabb. 146a). The second five vices ( 5:8 ) all involve intemperate speech that makes genuine communication impossible. The social consequences of lying ( 5:9a ) are even more disastrous. Without trust there can be no community.

To the Galatians Paul had said ‘you have put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27; cf. Rom 13:14 ). The image of putting on a person is without parallel in antiquity, and owes its origin to the convert's assumption of a new environment by entering the church, which is the body of Christ. The insight is developed here in a contrast between ‘the old man’ and ‘the new man’ ( 5:9b–10 ). Both are primarily social concepts. The ‘new man’ is the sphere ‘where’ ( 3:11 ) the divisions which characterize society (‘the old man’) no longer exist (Gal 3:28 ). Just as society dictates the behaviour of its members, so the believing community is the source of authentic moral knowledge. The goal of the ongoing renewal of the ‘new man’ is a type of knowledge characterized by creativity. This can only be a knowledge born of love (Phil 1:9–10 ; contrast Rom 2:17–18 ), which empowers the other not only to see but to act. The community, which is Christ ( 3:11 ), exemplifies the ideal of his self-sacrificing love, and enables the members to pattern their lives on his example (2 Cor 5:14–15 ). Instead of the contempt that produced the divisions typical of society—Jews despised pagans, who looked down on barbarians (i.e. anyone who did not speak Greek), who spurned Scythians as the epitome of human degradation (cf. 2 Macc 4:47; 3 Macc 7:5 )—the believers must make Christ present in the world by exhibiting those virtues ‘which reduce or eliminate friction: ready sympathy, a generous spirit, a humble disposition, willingness to make concessions, patience, forbearance’ (Moule 1968: 123). For given by God they must forgive. Loved by God they must love. Unless sheathed in love no virtue can be perfect ( 3:14; cf. Spicq 1958–9: i. 268–75). Love alone excludes pretence. Others (details in Schmauch 1964: 80–2) translate ‘the bond of perfection’ and understand the genitive as purposeful (‘the bond that leads to perfection’) or objective (‘the bond that produces perfection’). These are less satisfactory, because for Paul there is no perfection beyond love (1 Cor 13 ).

Fully aware of the tensions within the church at Colossae, Paul expresses a wish that peace may reign there. In society peace is often no more than an uneasy truce to be abandoned the moment an advantage presents itself. The Colossians should be grateful that they are not in that situation. Authentic peace, which is defined by reference to the self-sacrifice of Christ, is first a subjective attitude which then results in a community of love ( 3:15; cf. 1 Cor 7:15; 14:33 ). In a living body the hand cannot be at war with the foot. According to 1 Cor 6:7 , members who sue one another are in fact suing themselves—a ridiculous situation.

The ideal community is not merely an absence of antagonism. There is a much more positive dimension ( 3:16 ). The expression ‘word of Christ’ is unique, but synthesizes a number of concepts found earlier in the letter; ‘the word of the truth, the gospel’ ( 1:5 ) is ‘the word of God’ ( 1:25 ), which is ‘God's mystery, that is Christ’ ( 2:3 ). Its power within each one ( 1:6, 10 ) must find socially beneficial expression. The emphasis on ‘teaching and admonishing’ was demanded by the presence of false teachers at Colossae, who taught some believers the hymn that Paul quotes in 1:15–20 . In practice ‘yourselves’ means ‘one another’ (NRSV; cf. 3:13 ) but heautous (cf. 1 Cor 6:7 ) was chosen to underline that believers are organically unified in a single ‘body’, and thereby to remind them that their source of life is Christ ( 2:19 ). Theological development is part of the natural evolution of the community. In consequence, it must (a) be homogeneous with the gospel that brought the community into being ( 1:6 ), and (b) take place in a public context. ‘Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ suggest the liturgical assembly, in which inspired insights into the mystery of Christ (1 Cor 14:26 ) were proffered for the consent of the community (1 Cor 14:16; cf. 1 Thess 5:21–2 ). Such community singing must be an expression of gratitude to God ( 3:16c ), but so too must every other human activity ( 3:17 ). It is made possible in, through, and by Christ; thus it must mirror his comportment. But Jesus was sent because of God's fatherly concern for humanity ( 1:12 ), and so in the last analysis gratitude must be directed to God.

Generic directives are followed by three pairs of reciprocal admonitions dealing with the relations of wife–husband, child–father, and slave–master ( 3:18–4:1 ). The nature of the socio-religious matrix in which such household codes were formulated has occasioned vigorous debate (Balch 1992 ), whose inconclusiveness is the inevitable consequence of the wide variations within the form. Conscious of a tradition of sensible social management, Paul formulates a series of guidelines designed to persuade the Colossians to leave the mystical world of visions and angels, and to return to the real world where the fabric of daily life was woven from a multitude of interpersonal relations, of which the most basic were the three pairs listed here (Aristotle, Politics, 1.1253b7). The only really distinctive feature is the motivation by reference to the Lord, which here means Christ (Aletti 1993: 249). The social distinctions, which are fundamental to these admonitions, can be reconciled with the abolition of such distinctions in 3:11 only on the assumption that not all members of a family were converted to Christianity.

The literal translation of 3:18 is ‘women be subject to men’, but the context demands limitation to marriage, as some copyists have tried to convey by various additions. The admonition that a Christian woman be submissive to her non- believing husband ( 3:18 ) is to remind her that her new freedom (cf. Gal 5:1 ) does not exempt her from the obligations she undertook in marriage. Such behaviour is ‘fitting’ for a Christian because of its missionary potential (cf. 1 Pet 3:1 ). The obligation to love laid on the husband ( 3:19 ) indicates that the wife is a non-believer, since Christians by definition love one another ( 3:14; cf. 1 Thess 4:9 ). The temptation to treat her harshly might be due to her refusal to convert.

What is said to slaves stands out from the other admonitions both quantitatively and qualitatively ( 3:22–5 ). It is unlikely to have been inspired by the case of Onesimus ( 4:9 ), or by agitation among Christian slaves at Colossae (Aletti 1993: 254). Rather it reflects Paul's habitual attitude towards slaves who accepted Christianity. Within the community he took it for granted that they would show and share the love that was its most characteristic feature, but he made no effort to change the social order. Paul does not demand that Onesimus be manumitted, but that he be received ‘no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother’ (Philem 16 ; cf. 1 COR 7:17–24 ). Paul's sole concern here is that slaves should not obey orders to the letter while their hearts raged, and hate corroded their spirits. The internal tension had to be resolved in order to permit the transforming effect of grace to become visible ( 4:5–6 ). The witness value of the comportment of believers was always a major concern (cf. 1 Thess 1:6–8; 4:12; 2 Cor 4:10–11 ). The warning of a future judgement ( 3:24–5 ) underlines the seriousness of Paul's concern.

Christian masters also have obligations to their slaves (cf. Sir 7:20–1, 31–3 ). They are not required to love them or to free them, but to treat them ‘justly’ and ‘fairly’ ( 4:1 ). The terms are related as ‘knowledge’ and ‘discernment’ in Phil 1:9 . In each case the first deals with the obvious and clear, whereas the second comes into play when a sure feeling for what is appropriate is required.

( 4:2–6 ) Concluding Exhortations

As Paul had given thanks ( 1:3 ) and prayed for the Colossians ( 1:9 ), so now they must do likewise (v. 2 ). The prayer in question is primarily petition (O'Brien 1982: 237) for the glorious return of Christ ( 3:4; cf. 1 Cor 16:22 ). Their incessant awareness of, and orientation to, this goal is the best guarantee of the vigilance required of all believers if they are to persevere ( 1:23 ). Gratitude for what they have already been given ( 1:12–14; 3:11–12 ) should enhance their attentiveness. It is typical of Paul to request prayers for himself (1 Thess 5:25; Philem 22 ). It is a means of participation in the mission of the church ( 3:3; 2 Thess 3:1; Phil 1:19 ). The Colossians must beseech God (a) for Paul's liberation from prison in order to continue his mission (cf. 1 Cor 16:9; 2 Cor 2:12 ), and (b) for his ability to ‘reveal’ the mystery effectively. ‘The divine passive of 1:26 finds its human herald in 4:4 ’ (Aletti 1993: 260). Despite Paul's emphasis on the verbal dimension of such communication, it is likely that he also has in mind the existential aspect, in which his comportment reveals Christ (2 Cor 4:10–11; cf. 1 Cor 2:1–5 ).

It is to this aspect that Paul now alerts the Colossians. It is not enough to pray. They must also exhibit a presence in society that will prove attractive to non-believers (v. 5; cf. 1 Thess 4:12; Phil 2:14–16 ). Every opportunity to induce them to believe must be availed of. The speech of Christians should be winning and witty, and tailored to the needs of each interlocutor (v. 6 ). They must insinuate not dominate.

( 4:7–18 ) Final Greetings

The two bearers of the letter are introduced in a chiastic pattern (vv. 7–9 ). Paul tactfully remains quiet regarding the personal history of Onesimus, simply noting that he has become a Christian (‘brother’; cf. Philem 10 ), and has Paul's respect and confidence (‘faithful’). The same adjectives are applied to Tychicus, who in addition is called ‘minister’ and ‘fellow-servant in the Lord’, exactly as is Epaphras ( 1:7; 4:12 ). If the latter was an official delegate of Paul to Colossae, Tychicus now enjoys the same status. He can speak for Paul with authority, not only with respect to personal news from Ephesus, but as regards the interpretation of the letter in its impact on the growth of the community ( 2:2 ).

Greetings are sent by six men with Paul, who with one exception also appear in Philemon but in a different order:

Col 4:10–14 Remarks Philem 23–4
Aristarchus <– my fellow-prisoner Aristarchus (3)
Mark <– cousin of Barnabas Mark (2)
Jesus <– called Justus
Epaphras <– one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus my fellow-prisoner –> Epaphras (1)
Luke <– beloved physician Luke (5)
Demas Demas (4)

It is curious that Timothy, the co-author of both letters ( 1:1; Philem 1 ), is not mentioned in either list. Aristarchus of Thessalonica is well known from several references in Acts ( 19:29; 20:4; 27:2 ). Nothing is known of Jesus who, like Paul, had taken a similar-sounding Hellenistic Roman name. It is unlikely that his name appears in Philem 23 (O'Brien 1982: 307). Mark is mentioned in Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37–9 , and in 2 Tim 4:11 . In a poignant note Paul remarks that these three are the only Christians of Jewish origin to have stayed with him ( 3:11 ). Had they come with him from Antioch? The implication is that the following three collaborators are Gentiles. Luke and Demas appear in 2 Tim 4:9, 11 . Despite his imprisonment, Epaphras, the apostle of Colossae ( 1:7 ), remains active on behalf of his converts ( 3:12 ). He prays that they may be stable in their maturity (cf. 1:28–9 ), and be filled with ‘everything willed by God’ (Lightfoot 1904: 238), whose essence is spelt out in 2:2–3, 10 . Paul's independent knowledge of how hard Epaphras had worked to establish the gospel in the Lycus valley (v. 13 ) must have come from Onesimus (v. 9 ). The testimony would have been all the more impressive coming from one who at that stage was a pagan (Philem 10 ). The exclusive concentration on Laodicea in what follows suggests that Epaphras had not been successful in Hierapolis.

Paul sends his personal greetings to believers in Laodicea, and in particular to the believers who assembled in the home of Nympha (v. 15 ). The fact that he singles out a particular individual confirms that he had never visited the Lycus valley (cf. 2:1 ; ROM 16). Nymphan could be the accusative of the feminine name Nympha (O'Brien 1982: 246) or of the masculine name Nymphas (Moule 1968: 28). There is little difficulty in deciding which of the accompanying pronouns, ‘her’ or ‘him’, is original. No copyist would change the masculine into the feminine, because of its implication regarding the status of a woman. The contrary, however, is eminently probable, given the instinctive patriarchal bias of copyists. Women were fully the equal of men in the Pauline communities (cf. 1 Cor 11:2–16 ), and presided over house churches (cf. Rom 16:1–2 ).

For the public reading of the letter at Colossae (v. 16; cf. 1 Thess 5:27 ) the ‘whole’ community (cf. Rom 16:23; 1 Cor 14:23 ) must have been assembled from the various house churches in the city. The exchange of letters with Laodicea implies that the differences between the two churches were significant, otherwise two letters would be pointless. None the less the two communities had enough in common to make the reading of the other's letter worthwhile. The letter sent by Paul to the Laodiceans has been the centre of a vigorous debate. The current consensus refuses to identify it with any known document (Anderson 1992 ). It has been constructed out of Colossians by Boismard (1999 ).

Paul's request that Archippus should be informed of an admonition addressed to him (v. 17 ) implies that Paul knew that he would not be present when the letter was read in public (contrast 2 Thess 3:11–12; Phil 4:2–3 ), even though he was part of the leadership group of a house church (Philem 2 ). The most natural explanation is that Epaphras had informed Paul that Archippus had been won over by the false teachers. The desertion of a leader of his status explains the urgency of the letter. A response could not await the release of Paul or Epaphras. Had Archippus simply moved to Laodicea (Light-foot 1904: 242) the matter would have been dealt with in that letter.

Paul regularly used secretaries (Rom 16:22 ), and thus had to write the last paragraph in his own hand to authenticate the letter ( 4:18; cf. 2 Thess 3:17; Gal 6:11; Philem 19; 1 Cor 16:21; Richards 1991: 173–7).

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