Colossians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Foundation of Faith: God's Grace in Christ
By beginning his letter with thanksgiving to God, Paul has encouraged his readers to consider more carefully why they should be thankful as Christians. Most especially, they should be thankful because Epaphras's preaching ministry has introduced them to the truth about God's grace (1:6) and the nature of the fruit that springs from it. What follows in 1:13-23 expands Paul's understanding of God's grace; it is his "confession of faith" adapted from and for his Colossian readers.
Believers have always given various public expressions to their common experience of God's love and confidence in God's redemption. From the beginning, Christian congregations have followed the custom of Jewish synagogues in composing hymns to sing and confessions to recite together for guiding their celebration of a shared faith. From childhood, we learn to recite the Apostles' Creed or sing "O for a Thousand Tongues" to supplement our memorization of Bible verses, all to aid us in remembering and applying the story of God's salvation to our daily lives. And we often bear witness to that faith by including lines from hymns or verses in letters we write to friends.
We should not be surprised, then, to find remnants of similar spiritual resources in Paul's writings. Paul often cites or alludes to Scripture and frequently draws upon traditional hymns and creeds in his written correspondence in order to remind his readers that the gospel they confess together is true. Paul realizes, of course, that it is often more persuasive to use familiar expressions of his audience's faith in making a particular point or dispensing difficult advice. We sometimes refer to this strategy as "seeking the common ground," so important when entering into a conversation with someone we do not know well. Indeed, the phrases found in this portion of Paul's letter represent compressed, even shorthand versions of a confessed and sung faith.
Paul's dependence on hymns and confessions about Christ used by Colossian Christians is especially important since he did not plant this congregation--Epaphras did--and his apostolic authority may well be somewhat tenuous there as a result. By basing his advice on what they themselves confess to be true and celebrate in song, Paul finds a way to align himself with them. His readers would come to recognize that their understanding of Christian faith agrees with Paul's, thereby allowing them to stand more firmly under his apostolic authority. Moreover, if the Colossians learned the truth about God's grace from Epaphras (1:7), it seems likely that Paul constructs this confession of faith to defend the gospel proclaimed first by Epaphras for and to the Colossians.
Paul's confession of faith consists of three parts, each echoing an important biblical typology or type of God's saving grace. Richard Hays has recently argued that Paul's allusions to and citations of Scripture provide his readers with specific clues that clarify his understanding of God and his audience's struggle to trust God in the face of some crisis of faith (Hays 1989). The biblical typologies of God's saving grace form the very bedrock of Paul's own understanding of his faith in Christ. For example, the first part of his confession (1:13-14) echoes the Bible's story of Israel's exodus. In Paul's handling of this saving event, the salvation of Christians is a type of exodus: Christians have experienced an exodus from sin; God's grace has once again delivered them from evil and death, this time by forgiving their sins, and has transformed them into a reconstituted and restored Israel.
The second part of Paul's confession of faith (1:15-20) alludes to God's creation, natural and spiritual, as yet another type of God's saving grace. In this case, believers populate God's new creation, and their celebration of and participation in Christ's lordship over the entire created order show that God's original intentions for humanity, corrupted by the Fall, are now being carried out by God's grace in their congregational life.
The final part of Paul's confession (1:21-23) alludes to the new age of prophetic promise, when God's salvation will be worked out in the life of God's people. Those who live in Christ live already in this promised dispensation, when the Redeemer's intentions for the created order are realized. Together, these three Old Testament types of God's grace--resulting in a new exodus, a new creation, a new age--provide the biblical basis of truth to which Paul will consistently appeal in the rest of the letter, in order to encourage a more mature faith at Colosse and to correct a dangerous false teaching.
Finally, Paul organizes his confession of faith by prophetic typologies found in each of the three sections of his Bible: the "new exodus" derives from Torah, the "new creation" from the Writings, and the "new age" from the Prophets. Thus Paul uses all of his Scripture to reflect upon the eschatological significance of what God has already accomplished for believers who participate with Christ Jesus in the salvation of God.