Colossians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Defense of His Ministry

The central problem we face in studying this passage is to discern its role within the whole composition. Paul does not often write about himself; when he does, it is usually to defend his apostleship or missionary work against opponents within the church. Less often Paul uses autobiography to establish himself as the community's exemplar of piety and teacher of truth. In either case, his self-references are typically narratives that defend the divine origins of his ministry and are carefully worded to show that he is his readers' exemplar and teacher. In the case of Colossians, Paul's defense of his Gentile mission may have the added function of lending support to his Colossian colleague Epaphras, whose status among the readers has been imperiled for some unknown reason (see introduction, under "The Crisis at Colosse").

Besides its apologetical use, Paul's autobiographical passages may also serve a pastoral role. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example, Paul encourages his readers to imitate him. With that exhortation he concludes a discussion that illustrates his own missionary work. Here, too, Paul's autobiography provides a useful model of mission. Like Paul, we are sent out by God with a message of reconciliation (see 2 Cor 5:20-21). Our various workplaces, our neighborhoods, our schools, our families are all the places where we labor, as Paul did before us, as missionaries for Christ's sake.

Paul locates his self-defense immediately after the triad of his confessions about God's saving grace (1:13-23). The close literary relationship between Paul's confession and his self-defense is indicated by verse 23, where these initial two parts of his letter's main body are carefully integrated. Their literary relationship makes a critical point in Paul's defense: in the physical absence of the now exalted Lord Christ, Paul (and perhaps by implication Epaphras) is the current agent of God's salvation-creating grace among his Colossian (and current) readers.

Of course, there is a close relationship between the message and the messenger in the public's attitude toward any ministry. The highly publicized disclosures of the moral and financial corruption of well-known TV evangelists have caused untold damage to the reputation of God within our society. This same point is made often in Scripture, where God entrusts the word of the Lord to trusted servants--a point that Paul underscores. Logically, then, the truth of the gospel Paul advances among the Gentiles, while resting on the trustworthiness of Christ alone, is nevertheless connected to Paul's own trustworthiness.

While certain details of Paul's autobiographical self-defense continue to trouble interpreters, the general outline of this passage is clear. Already in the final phrase of verse 23 Paul begins to speak in the first person about his commission to advance Christ's church among the Gentiles (vv. 24-29). His appeals follow patterns that were familiar in his time and world: his personal experience of suffering (v. 24), his devotion to the Gentile mission (vv. 24-25), his hard work (v. 29) and especially his divine commission to preach God's "mystery" (vv. 26-28). His strong missionary credentials justify the trust his readers place in his ministry and present advice to them.

By including this autobiographical sketch of his mission, Paul shifts the theological focus of his letter from God's salvation (1:13-23) to the church, and from God's Son, in whom salvation is now possible, to himself, through whom that possibility is now proclaimed among the Gentiles. Any religious authority Paul might claim over the Colossians (1:24-29) or any spiritual obligation he feels toward his readers (2:1-3) is based first of all on his commission from God to continue to proclaim the gospel's truth in Christ's name among the Gentiles (compare Acts 9:15-16)Paul's Suffering (1:23-24)

The last half of verse 23 is transitional, shifting the reader's attention from God to Paul and also from the content of God's message to the character of God's messenger. The phrase the hope held out in the gospel echoes the beginning of Paul's letter, where in 1:4-6 he thanks God for his audience's faith, love and hope--the "fruit" of God's gospel. For rhetorical effect, Paul's echo may well suggest that everything sandwiched in between (especially 1:13-23) is the theological content of the gospel's hope, which the Colossians have heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature. As before, the believer's hope for future perfection is based upon what has already taken place on the cross of Christ (see 1:20). The church's future destiny is tied to Christ's. Not only is the faith community reconciled to God by Christ's bodily death, but believers have confidence in their final vindication by participating together in his bodily resurrection (Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 15). In this sense, the church's future hope is not some theological abstraction; it is justified by past events.

The grammar of this verse demands that we place the next two parallel phrases in subordination to the gospel. It is God's gospel that is heard and that has been proclaimed; and it is the gospel of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Paul does not insist that his apostolic office hold the reader's attention, nor is it he who secures the church's hope in the absence of Jesus; rather, the gospel's message is that the crucified and risen Lord Christ justifies human hope. Paul's boast is in him (compare Rom 5:1-11).

Surely public attacks on Christianity are often routed by way of the messenger. We make easier targets than God's grace, and for most of us the integrity of what is proclaimed is measured by who proclaims it. Still, Paul is careful to locate himself under the gospel, as its servant, and talks about himself only after outlining the content of what and whom he has been called to preach.

The gospel is for every creature under heaven. The word for "creature" (ktisis) refers to every human being and delimits the universal scope of the gospel ministry. In this context, however, it also echoes Paul's earlier claim that the exalted Lord Christ is "firstborn over all creation" (ktisis; 1:15). If the Christ Paul proclaims is Lord of creation, then surely the salvation he has effected on God's behalf is offered to every creature as well.

The plain meaning of Paul's words challenges those who limit God's salvation to only a few. The purpose of Paul's christological statements thus far in the letter is to extend Christ's lordship to include everyone and everything. The missionary implication is that everyone outside of Christ must be confronted with this very truth: that even the lost live under Christ's cosmic lordship and by faith can also be beneficiaries of God's grace in him. His is not an exclusive reign; it intends the reconciliation of every creature to God, to rescue all from "darkness" and to fulfill in each person the Creator's good and perfect intentions.

The idea of Paul's suffering, found in the first part of verse 24, should not be separated too severely from his self-understanding as a servant of the gospel. In fact, in the biblical tradition the two belong together: like Christ and the prophets of God before him, Paul is a "suffering servant." Against the biblical background and the memory of Jesus, Paul interprets his suffering as the cost of his servanthood and provides evidence of his devotion to God's call. This impression is intensified by the emphatic way Paul introduces himself here--ego Paulus, "I, Paul." Moreover, the ministry of the servant who suffers in obedience to God's call will eventually yield the fruit of God's salvation; that is, the suffering of the servant results in salvation (compare Mk 8:34-8; 1 Pet 2:21-25).

In fact, Paul will return to his servanthood in verse 25 when speaking of God's commission for his ministry to the Gentiles. This may help explain why Paul also speaks of his suffering in terms of his relationship with his Gentile readership: for you (that is, Colossian Gentiles) I, Paul, suffered. Since he does not know the Colossian readers personally, never having visited them (see 2:1), it is difficult to understand his words here as an expression of intimacy or personal commitment. Certainly his imprisonment proves his devotion to the wider Gentile mission; but it is primarily his devotion to God that Paul has in mind. God, and not the Colossians, has called him to preach the gospel at the cost of personal suffering. This point is repeated in Paul's other autobiographies, where his service to God is stressed in contrast to self-interest (for example, Gal 1--2).

According to the mythology of the Hellenistic world, the heroic suffering of great leaders at the hands of outsiders was thought to vindicate their integrity, and sometimes also the value of their teaching for the community. Ancient biographical literature often stressed the costliness of virtue and truth. Against this literary backdrop, then, Paul's reference to his suffering may well make two critical points about his intentions for his Hellenistic readers: his gospel ministry proves his faithful service to God, and it proves the value of what he now writes.

What, however, is the plain meaning of Paul's cryptic phrase that his suffering fill[s] up . . . what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions? In what sense does the suffering of Christ "lack" anything? And in what sense does Paul's suffering "fill up" what Christ's suffering lacks, if anything? I have argued that here Paul's emphasis is not on God's salvation, as before, but on Christ's church. To the point, Paul is surely not saying that the Lord Christ lacks anything as the messianic agent of God's salvation; nor does he mean that the redemptive results of his death need to be supplemented by Paul. His previous confession of Christ's lordship (1:15-20) and his subsequent assertion of God's forgiveness (2:13-14) testify to Paul's confidence in the sufficiency of Christ's work. Lohse is quite right, then, to object to any interpretation that renders this phrase as a reference to the community's "mystical union" with a suffering Christ, whereby the community is absorbed into and derives spiritual benefit from Christ's passion (1971:69). In fact, Paul rarely speaks in his writings of Christ's suffering (as distinguished from his death) and almost never of Christ's suffering in terms of God's salvation (as the writer of 1 Peter, for instance, does in 1 Pet 2:20-22). The images of a suffering Christ in Paul's writings are usually employed to illustrate and interpret his own suffering as a missionary. Here suffering is exemplary of servanthood, but not expiatory of sin. In this way Christ's suffering is logically parallel to his own; like Christ, Paul is God's "suffering servant"; and like Christ's, his suffering indicates obedience to God's commission.

Most scholars understand Paul's reference to Christ's afflictions as a catchphrase from Jewish apocalypticism. In this tradition, Jews understood Israel's suffering as a sign of the last days and a condition for the coming of the Messiah (see O'Brien 1982:76-80). Some even assigned a fixed amount of suffering which, when satisfied, would result in the apocalypse of God's salvation. Israel's suffering, then, was the "birthpangs" of the promised new covenant (compare Jer 31:31) about to become a reality. According to O'Brien, some early Christians, especially within the Jewish church, believed that Jesus' suffering had initiated the "last days" of ever-increasing trials and tribulations (see Mt 24:4-29), when the "true" Israel (the community of Christ's disciples) would suffer for his name (Mt 5:11-12) in order to fulfill this quota fixed by God. With this condition met, Messiah would return in triumph to usher heaven into earth (Mt 24:30-31). If Paul had this apocalyptic formula in mind, then his reference to sharing in Jesus' suffering would indicate that the "last days" of salvation's history have already commenced. In this light Paul's suffering "fills up" what is lacking from what God has assigned the church to suffer.

Paul's phrase, however, is to be taken metaphorically rather than literally. Speaking of completing requisite suffering is yet another way of calling attention to the importance of completing the Gentile mission. In Paul's conception of the Gentile mission, his evangelistic work brings into Israel's number the "fullness of the Gentiles" (Rom 11:1-24) that will trigger the Lord's return to earth and ethnic Israel's return to God (Rom 11:25-26). Even in this passage Paul repeats the root of to fill to stress that the aim of his personal sacrifice--I fill up [antanapleroo] in my flesh--is to complete his mission: to present to you the word of God in its fullness [plerosai].

In this letter, then, Paul's imprisonment has come to symbolize his Gentile mission: his mission has resulted not only in countless conversions but also in imprisonment. Yet his personal suffering symbolizes his faithful attention to God's election of Gentiles for salvation and God's commission for him to prepare the Gentile church for the return of Christ. Paul rejoices, then, knowing that his ministry will bring God's coming triumph that much closer to his readers.

Of course, Paul's intent in drawing a parallel between himself and Christ may only be to impress his readers that his ministry is in fundamental continuity with Christ's: both are suffering servants, devoted to making God's salvation a reality for every creature.Paul's Servanthood (1:24-25)

In verse 25 Paul repeats his earlier statement from 1:23 that he is a servant (Harris 1991:64). Both times Paul's comment is emphatic: I, Paul, have become a servant. His sense of service to God in the ministry of the gospel is his essential identity as a person. In this new formulation, however, Paul replaces the gospel with the church. This new thematic focus relates Paul's gospel ministry to a particular audience. His work is not removed from real people in real places; he is not an ivory-tower academic, but a pastor who is intent on adapting the gospel message in ways that are useful in the lives of his readers.

As we attempt to follow in the footsteps of Christ, Christian leaders, including pastors, will be tempted to give in to a kind of vocational dualism. On the one hand, to follow Christ demands our single-minded attention to his interests; we are called to serve him and proclaim his gospel. We understand ourselves in terms of our relationship with Christ; we are subject only to him. In the realm of human relations, on the other hand, we remain leaders, in charge of things and expecting unswerving loyalty from those over whose lives we exercise some control and influence. As leaders of people, then, we serve Christ. But is this what Paul means? Isn't he saying that as a leader of Christians he must embody the servanthood of Christ?

The issue is not merely to serve Christ, but to serve like Christ. This fashions a different kind of servant leadership--a leadership characterized by setting aside any interest in social standing or political power and submitting ourselves to others in order to share their burdens (see Gal 6:1-10; Phil 2:1-11).Paul's Commission (1:25-26)

The source of Paul's calling is God's commission. The word for "commission" is oikonomia, which envisions the effective and orderly work of a household or business; it is the same word from which we derive the word economy. Paul uses it here in reference to his missionary vocation for two reasons. First, Paul understands his calling and ministry within the context of a "household," God's household (1 Cor 3:10-15; Rom 1:11-12; Eph 2:19-20). He is a servant of and for Christ's church, without personal ambition or any malicious sense of rivalry toward other apostles or even his opponents. Second, Paul understands the tasks of his servanthood as those of a steward or trustee of an organization. (O'Brien uses ecclesiastical terms to define "commission," speaking of it as Paul's call to an apostolic "office" in which he rules over the church; 1982:81.) In this sense, God's com mission entrusts Paul with the management of God's household. The "gift of apostleship" (see Rom 1:5) is given Paul to ensure that his stewardship over God's household is spiritually effective (see Rom 1:11). Notice that Paul retains his focus on God to resist the temptation of exalting his own status: the source of and authority for his ministry is God.

The Bible speaks of many heroic people like Paul, whom God commissions and enables to work with great profit in the economy of God's salvation. We should honor their faithfulness without romanticizing their importance to God. Their historical significance is yet another expression of the grace of God, who first rescued them from the results of their sin before commissioning and empowering them for an effective ministry. The true measurement of the effective servant is not intellectual acumen or glib eloquence, committed activism or sincere effort; it is whether the believer has been a faithful and wise steward of God's calling, whatever tasks that may include (see Mt 24:45-51).

Typically, Paul echoes prophetic ways of speaking about his call; no doubt this reflects his discernment of the Damascus Road experience. The formula he uses here to define his task, to present to you the word of God, reflects a prophetic missiology: God calls servants to proclaim the word of the Lord to those who have been elected to receive salvation. The sense conveyed is not that Paul's ministry fills in the missing content of the gospel or that his attention to detail makes certain that his audience knows it fully; rather, Paul's particular version of God's word for a Gentile audience completes it in a way similar to his earlier claim that his suffering completes Christ's suffering (see 1:24).

But this interpretation invites a similar question: what does the "word of God" lack that Paul's gospel ministry fulfills? Paul anticipates this question and responds in a parenthesis found in verse 26: the mystery that has been kept hidden . . . is now disclosed to the saints. The critical word in Paul's response is mystery, the meaning of which continues to be debated. Few scholars today understand mystery as a catchword Paul has borrowed from Gnosticism to use here against Gnostic opponents. While he may indeed have his Colossian opponents in mind, including certain elements of their false teaching or religious practice, they are probably not Gnostics (see introduction). Our understanding of Gnosticism, especially of its advanced systems of thought from the second century, has little value in determining how Paul and his first readers understood his reference to mystery. Some have suggested that we should understand mystery in the context of Hellenistic Jewish apocalypticism, where it referred to God's plan for the future, but most scholars today are not inclined to this interpretation either (even though this meaning would be more apropos as a response to Paul's opponents).

Most commentators place Paul's use of mystery in Colossians within the context of Paul's Gentile mission. Mystery is apparently used as a catchword for the core convictions of Paul's gospel. But depending on the spiritual crisis facing his readers, Paul emphasizes different theological dimensions of the mystery that God has commissioned him to proclaim. For the believers at Colosse, whose crisis stems from their overly Jewish understanding of Christian faith, the central issues, and therefore the substance of the glorious riches of this mystery (1:27), are God's election of Gentiles for salvation and Christ's work that makes God's election effective. Therefore, most commentators agree that Paul uses mystery as a metaphor for God's plan of salvation for the Gentiles, which is unknown apart from divine revelation. Paul's proclamation of the gospel merely articulates the "mystery" that God has revealed to him, presumably on the Damascus Road. Further, most agree that Paul's usage is more Jewish than Hellenistic and may even be rabbinical. Probably mystery refers especially to the particular meaning embedded in biblical texts that is recovered by the interpreter's exposition. The act of interpretation transforms biblical texts into carriers of divine revelation. In this added sense, then, Paul's proclamation of the gospel discloses the mystery or revelation of God which had been hidden within his Scriptures for ages and generations but which God now has enabled him to disclose for the conversion of a Gentile people.God's Mystery (1:27)

Groups of Christians still battle each other today to promote the rights or even the salvation of one group over against another. Gender or sexual orientation rather than faith in Jesus Christ has come to determine the believer's status within a congregation. Against a masculine God, then, a feminine God is promoted by some, while for others Christian faith is defined or denied by sexual orientation. In the recent political campaign in America, some conservative Republican believers went so far as to argue that Christian faith and support for Democratic candidates were mutually exclusive! Paul would have no part of such a divisive debate, except to remind all believers that in Jesus Christ many different people have one faith in common (compare Col 3:11; Gal 3:28).

In a similar way, Jewish Christian (and Judaic) opponents of Paul's Gentile mission debated his interpretation of the biblical doctrine of election (see Acts 15:1-21; Gal 2:1-10). Paul taught that even as God had elected Jews for salvation, so also God had elected Gentiles out of the world for salvation. In Christ, Jewish and non-Jewish believers have equal value and access to God, since all ethnic and national barriers have been demolished by Christ's death (Eph 2:11-22). Yet some early believers, recognizing that Christianity began as a messianic movement within Judaism, taught that to be Christian meant to remain Jewish. They argued that the Torah laws and the Jewish traditions must be observed so as to maintain the ethnic and socioreligious distinctives of God's people. Paul's response to these Jewish Christian opponents was that God's promised salvation has already been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, and the blessings of God's salvation are now experienced by those who belong to him by faith (rather than by ethnicity or religious observance).

The missiological issue facing every person after Christ, then, is this: How does one enter into Christ, and how does one remain in him in order to participate in the blessings of God's salvation? The short answer given by Paul is sola fide--"by faith alone."

Thus Paul begins his summary with the controversial claim that God has chosen . . . Gentiles (see also 3:11-12). The story of God's salvation which Paul proclaims begins here: to make known to the Gentiles that God is for them too! Paul hinted at this earlier when he wrote that God's salvation was for every creature under heaven (1:23; see also 1:20). But he is more pointed here. Official Judaism would not deny God's universal salvation; after all, Isaiah taught that salvation would extend through one restored nation to all nations. Yet according to the prophet, God's salvation of the Gentile nations depended upon Israel: they would be saved only through and because of the faithfulness of the Jewish nation. Even in Paul's day, Hellenistic Judaism was committed to an evangelism program, seeking to convert and proselytize non-Jews. But Gentile converts to Judaism were second-class citizens both religiously and sociopolitically. In light of this religious tradition, Paul's teaching about Gentile conversion is controversial precisely because it is so egalitarian: believing Gentiles and Jews share God's universal salvation equally in Christ.

Gentiles need not go through any Judaic hoops to covenant with God for salvation. The means and hope of their salvation is christological: that Christ in you is the only hope of glory (see also 2:2). This formulation of the christological core of his gospel, Christ in you, reverses the sense of Paul's previous statement that we are "in Christ" (see my commentary on 1:2 and 1:16); here it is Christ who is "in us." At the very least, this reversal of familiar terms calls his audience's attention to Paul's participatory Christology, in which believers participate with Christ in the outworking of God's salvation within history. Such a unity promises Christlike suffering as well as Christlike exaltation (or, in Wright's phrase, "the guarantee of resurrection"; 1986:92).

An additional clue to the meaning of the Christ in you formula may be provided by Galatians 1:15, where Paul writes that God revealed the mystery of Christ "in me." Many scholars now believe that Paul is referring here to a personal experience of divine revelation, perhaps on the Damascus Road (see above), by which God disclosed the content of Paul's gospel to him. I suspect that in this autobiographical passage of Colossians Paul may have a similar meaning in mind. That is, the gospel of God's salvation, which proclaims Christ in you, is validated by Paul's own religious experience of "Christ in me." In this case, the phrase calls attention not only to the christological message proclaimed to the Gentiles but to its trustworthiness as the "word of truth" (see 1:5, 7).

In the light of Paul's participatory Christology, the community's hope of glory is not oriented toward the future return of Christ; rather, we hope to experience the benefits of being reconciled with God right now through our present union with the Lord Christ (1:15-20). To hope in the One who is already glorified is to have hope for a transformed today. Paul does not deny the cosmic importance of Christ's Second Coming (see 3:1-4); yet for these readers, whose religion is in retreat from the world, the apostle emphasizes that a vital relationship with the glorified Christ results in a profoundly hopeful orientation toward the possibilities of life on this side of the Lord's parousia.Paul's Gospel Ministry (1:28)

Paul next describes his Gentile mission in functional terms. At this point he reverts from you to we, perhaps to call to mind his colleagues, especially Epaphras, with whom he shares the gospel ministry. Paul uses three related verbs, anchored by we proclaim and expanded by admonishing and teaching, which are the "two natural and necessary concomitants of the proclamation of the mystery of Christ" (Harris 1991:72). The word for "proclaim" (katangello), which is used only in Pauline writings and in Acts, refers to the publication of the gospel for conversion. Lohse calls it "missionary preaching" (1971:77). Yet Paul does not conceive of his evangelistic outreach as the mere proclamation of the gospel for conversion; rather, the conversion of the lost is accompanied by spiritual nurture, admonishment and instruction.

Public gauges of success, whether large numbers of converts or eloquent speech or architecturally elegant sanctuaries, are not effective measures of a ministry's importance. God calculates success by whether a congregation entrusted to the care of a minister is spiritually fed and fit to the end. Paul's gospel not only provides knowledge of God's redemptive mystery but also equips the converted so as to present everyone perfect in Christ. The purpose of Paul's Gentile mission is exactly the same as the plan of God's salvation (1:22): the final justification of the saints. His ministry's success, then, can be fully measured only at Christ's parousia (see 2 Cor 3--5).Paul's Labor (1:29)

Toward this eschatological goal, then, Paul labors, working hard so that those committed to his spiritual care may be found fit to enter God's eternal kingdom at Christ's return. The church's salvation does not result from divine activity alone. Servants who effectively steward offices and gifts given by God are agents of God's salvation on earth. In this sense, Paul's participatory Christology yields a participatory missiology: believers labor with God to produce salvation. Conversion cannot take place without the energy of God; neither can it take place without the proclamation, admonishment and teaching of suffering servants like Christ, Paul and Epaphras. With all [God's] energy suggests cooperation between Paul and God for the work of Gentile conversion and instruction.

The order of salvation, then, is covenantal; it is not a spectator sport but a dynamic relationship between God and people from beginning to ending. God works with servants of the church, struggling with them and powerfully working in them to bring forgiveness from sin and the promised life.Paul's Labor for Colosse (2:1-3)

Paul concludes this section on a more personal note: he not only serves the church of Christ (1:24) but "struggles" (in cooperation with God; 1:29) for the congregations at Colosse and Laodicea. Paul's intention is exactly the same as before: to clarify that the purpose of his ministry is to make known to every Gentile, including those at Colosse, the mystery of God, namely, Christ (compare 1:27). He does elaborate on the spiritual purpose of his ministry for them: that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love and may have complete understanding . . . and know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.

In Paul's Jewish psychology the heart symbolizes human volition rather than human emotion; the hard decisions of an embattled life are made by the believer's heart, fortified and matured by the mystery of God. Paul's gospel ministry strengthens the Colossians against false teaching so that they are able to make decisions that please God. The word translated "united" (symbibazo) means literally to be "knit together" and refers to an action that naturally follows after (if not also from) a fortified heart. That is, the purpose of Paul's ministry (presumably his proclamation of the gospel, and his pastoral admonishment and instruction; 1:28) is corporate: that the congregation weld well together in mutual love.

The truth of one's message is discerned in a very practical way, then--by whether or not a loving community is formed. False teaching or even a wrong emphasis often creates factions, with the result that the gospel's ministry is undermined. A Christian witness to God's grace is too difficult to maintain in a graceless society without the loving support and firm resolve provided by a people. Paul's use of the body metaphor for the church (compare 1:18; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4) implies this same lesson.

The NIV links the next couplet, understanding and knowledge, with the first couplet, encouragement and unity, as Paul's overarching purpose for the Gentile mission. But rather than taking these couplets as describing the congregations that resulted from Paul's campaigns, it seems best to understand them as describing the evangelistic campaigns themselves. Harris, for example, interprets the two couplets as comprising the specific objectives of Paul's ministry (1991:81) and perhaps even of this letter to them. If anything, Paul's earlier petition for "knowledge and understanding" (1:9-10) seems to indicate that the congregation will be spiritually healthy only if they know the gospel that Epaphras first preached to them. That is, the qualities of the productive minister are reproduced in his congregations.

In this light, the genitives used by Paul in this passage to modify understanding ("complete") and knowledge ("the mystery of God"; compare 1:27) are particularly important. In the first case, complete translates plerophoria (literally, "full accomplishment"), another in the family of plero- words that Paul has already used (see 1:9 and 1:25) for his aim to teach the congregation a fuller, more complete understanding of the gospel: to fill in what spiritual competencies they lack. In the second case, the phrase mystery of God supplies the core content of the complete gospel--namely, Christ.

Clearly, verse 3 is parallel to verse 2 in thought. The idea contained in the phrase full riches of complete understanding is virtually repeated in the following phrase, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, so that the idea of mystery finds a parallel in the word hidden. Significantly, sandwiched between these two parallel phrases is their focal point: Christ, in whom all these mysterious riches and hidden treasures of God's mystery are disclosed by the preaching of Paul's gospel. Remember that for Paul the biblical Jew, the mysteries of God's treasured salvation lie hidden within Scripture and are mined by exegesis; and for Paul the Christian missionary, the proclaimed faith is a christological monotheism, and so the wonderful riches of our faith are both deposited and drawn through Christ.

Simply put, spiritual maturity results from knowing Christ. The distinctive emphasis in this letter on wisdom (1:9, 28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5), knowledge (1:9-10, 27; 2:2-3; 3:10; 4:7-9) and knowing (1:6; 2:1; 3:24; 4:1, 6, 8), especially linked to Paul's proclamation of Christ, is no doubt made with Paul's Colossian opponents in mind. They too are concerned with ideas, but their "philosophy" is not centered by the teaching of and about Christ (2:8) and therefore is "hollow and deceptive," incapable of forming the spiritual life of the Christian congregation (2:6-7).

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The New Age

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