Colossians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Greeting

Following the literary conventions of the ancient world, Paul begins his letter to the congregation at Colosse by introducing himself and greeting his readers. Such introductions had a function similar to that of business cards in today's professional world. Business cards make introductions and help to establish relationships with potential clients. Likewise, Paul greets his readers in order to establish a relationship with them, creating a positive setting for their reading (or listening--see 4:16) and responding to what he has written.

In Paul's letters, however, variations on the opening formula convey important theological content that helps to introduce his message. The various phrases Paul uses to introduce himself or to greet his audience frame his relationship with them: his apostolic message is authoritative for them and is useful for their spiritual nurture.The Author (1:1)

At the head of Paul's letter is his Roman name, Paul, perhaps used here as an expression of solidarity with his unknown Gentile readers. More important, Paul describes himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus. Houlden calls this title a "badge of office" (1970:145); the writing of the letter to the Colossians is an exercise of his office and carries the weight of its authority. Literally, the word apostle derives from a verb that means "to send on a mission"; it refers to a public official with the authority to represent and act on behalf of the one who has sent him. Schweizer suggests a more Jewish background to the word (1982:29): like the Old Testament prophets, Paul has been sent on God's mission to proclaim the "word of the Lord" (cf. Is 61:1; Luke 4:16-19; Acts 9:14-15; Gal 1:11-16; 1 Cor 1:17).

In other letters where Paul calls immediate attention to his apostolic office (cf. Gal 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1), his authority is being challenged from within the congregation. Firm reference to his apostolic authority at the outset seems warranted. While Lohse suggests that at Colosse the "unique position of the apostle is undisputed, so that Paul is presented as an apostle only in the opening verse" (1971:6), Paul returns to speak of the responsibilities of his Gentile mission in 1:24--2:5 to clarify his "official" relationship with his readers. The interpreter does well to compare Paul's use of autobiographical material in Colossians with the apologetical role that autobiography plays in his other letters (such as Galatians and 2 Corinthians) where he recounts his missionary work in response to opponents. While he has not yet met with his Colossian readers, no doubt there is opposition to his ministry and teaching among them.

Recall that Paul's Gentile mission was quite controversial in earliest Christianity, when many believers understood themselves as belonging to a messianic movement within Judaism. Boundaries between the church and synagogue were still quite fuzzy; Paul's preaching of a "law-free" gospel (as in Galatians) and his conversion of Gentiles without compliance to the most basic proselyte requirements of Greek-speaking Judaism (as in Romans) were increasingly difficult for religious Jews, and even for many Jewish Christians, to accept (see Acts 11:1-18; 15:1-5; 21:15-26). Moreover, although Paul had witnessed the resurrection of Christ on the Damascus Road, some early Christian leaders still doubted his apostolic credentials. After all, he had persecuted Christ's disciples and had not been with Christ from the beginning (see Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor 15:8-11).

This ambivalence toward Paul's apostolic credentials within the early church is reflected in Acts, where Paul's ministry is commissioned by the Lord (Acts 9:15-6) but his apostleship results from a congregation's ordination (Acts 13:3; cf. 1 Thess 2:6-7). Even the church's mission to the Gentiles was initiated by Peter, the leader of the Twelve who immediately succeeded Jesus; he, not Paul, was appointed by God to bring salvation to the Gentile soldier Cornelius. Paul himself adds other reasons, including the itinerant nature of his evangelistic ministry, which was widely scorned in the ancient world (cf. 1 Thess 2:1-16).

Against this background of controversy, then, the pointed manner of Paul's introduction is made necessary by readers who know him only by "muddy" reputation. Paul reminds them that his personal authority (and by implication the trustworthiness of his advice) is not granted by another person nor by some more prominent congregation but by Christ Jesus, the Lord of the church. Moreover, Christ's decision to do so was by the will of God. Since the will of God is the redemption of all creation, Paul does not use this idiom to "strong-arm" his readers into an undesirable submission. Rather, he understands that his ministry to the Colossians--given by Christ, who gave himself for their redemption (1:14)--conforms with the will of the One who wills their rescue from the reign of darkness (1:13). Some have even linked this reference to the will of God with Paul's commission on the Damascus Road (cf. Acts 22:14), an event that harks back to God's calling of the biblical prophets as carriers of God's word. In this sense Paul's apostleship is prophetic, since he is called by God to bring the word of salvation to a people who have need of it.

Besides Paul, there is Timothy, his coworker and Christian brother. The appearance of Timothy's name in the greeting may serve a couple of purposes. Unlike Paul, Timothy may be known to the readers, so Paul may have mentioned his name to persuade them of Timothy's support for the content and purpose of this letter (cf. Martin 1981:44; Lohse 1971:7). While Paul does not indicate that the Colossians actually know Timothy personally (but see Schweizer 1982:29-30), he is apparently well-known as an important leader of the church's Gentile mission in this part of Asia (cf. Acts 16:1-5). Thus, Paul's reference to the Colossian congregation as faithful brothers in verse 2 expresses a desire that the close relationship he enjoys with Timothy is also shared with his readers.

Because of the constraints of prison life, Paul may have used Timothy as the letter's scribe and messenger (see Phil 2:19). Evidence for this suggestion comes from the letter itself. In the closing benediction, Paul writes the letter's final blessing "in my own hand" (4:18). The implication is that the rest of his letter is written by Timothy's "hand," following a common practice in the ancient world. In fact, the role of a servant-scribe in the early church was based on the scribal role in the synagogue. The Jewish scribe was not so much a stenographer who merely wrote down what was dictated as he was an editor who composed writings based on what the teacher said. Paul's Jewishness, coupled with his perception that he was engaged in a collaborative ministry, would have allowed Timothy to serve him as a scribe in this sense. Timothy's part in composing Colossians may partially explain the extant differences in writing style and vocabulary between this and Paul's other letters (see introduction, under "Author").The Audience (1:2)

Having introduced himself, Paul next greets the Colossians as a holy and faithful congregation. Christians are not holy by their own efforts to please God; they are transformed into a holy people for a holy God by the Lord's gracious initiative. The added phrase in Christ deepens the significance of this core conviction (cf. Phil 1:1) in that it expresses Paul's "participatory" Christology: God's grace positions the holy and faithful community in Christ to participate in the glorious results of his messianic work. The readers of this letter are not outsiders who are unable to understand Paul or unable to act upon his advice. They are insiders whose proximity to God's transforming grace promises new life for those who obey the apostle's admonitions. They should read the letter accordingly.

Paul's glad greeting of his readers as those who possess the prospect of being transformed in Christ also intends to draw them together into a community for Christian witness. Wright stresses the importance of the parallelism between in Christ and "in Colosse" (unfortunately obscured in the NIV translation, at Colosse): those who are faithful believers in Christ are also responsible citizens in Colosse, and the two worlds must never be separated. Their public witness to Christ in the town of Colosse must always reflect their participation with him in the power of God's salvation (1986:47). In drawing this parallelism, Paul has the Colossian conflict in mind, for this congregation of saints is struggling to connect their life in Christ with their life in Colosse. In fact, their religious observance tends toward moral asceticism and spiritual mysticism, which actually disconnect them from the world around them. Added to these tendencies, their interest in philosophical speculation has given rise to a variety of Christian devotion that is much too private and esoteric, and largely irrelevant to unbelievers in Colosse.

Because Paul is writing to a congregation that specializes in theological abstraction, his advice often takes on a similar cast. Colossians is difficult to preach and teach because it is the ideas of faith that are at stake, not the actions of faith. Yet we will find that Paul always holds the two together. All that he writes envisages the parallelism "in Christ" and "in Colosse," which is the focal point of Christian life: those in Christ who are made holy and faithful by divine grace must live "in Colosse" as public agents of divine grace.

In stressing faithful brothers, Paul may very well have the audience's religious confusion in mind. In fact, Houlden suggests that Paul differentiates those who resist false teaching (the faithful brothers) from those who are susceptible to it (1970:148). Paul uses "faithful" three other times in Colossians (1:7; 4:7, 9) to characterize the work of trusted colleagues whose ministry of evangelism is exemplary. In every sphere of public life, whether at home or at work, whether in the marketplace or in the town square, believers embody the grace by which God in Christ has saved them from the terrible consequences of sin.The Greeting (1:2)

The apostle's conventional salutation wonderfully expresses the theology of his Gentile mission. Grace to you was a common greeting between people living in the Roman world. In Paul's vocabulary of God's salvation, however, it underscores the stark contrast between God's saving grace and the secular forms of salvation offered by the ruling elites of the Roman world. Every event Paul recites in the story of God's salvation--beginning with God's election of a people for salvation (3:11-12), climaxing with God's sending of Jesus as Son (1:15-20) in order to lead that people on a new exodus from sin (1:13-14), and concluding with God's call of Paul as apostle (1:24--2:5) in order to lead Gentiles into God's final triumph over evil in Christ (1:21-23)--is understood as the work of God's grace. That is, grace empowers a holy and faithful life from which death and sin are absent (see Rom 6:4). Unlike the Roman offer of secular salvation, often repressive and always conditional, God's salvation is offered as a free gift, even to those without social merit or political power.

The second critical word of Paul's salutation, peace, has a biblical background, reflecting the prophetic catchword shalom. The prophets of the Old Testament speak of shalom when describing the fulfillment of God's promise to restore all things to their created order: peace is the word that summarizes a "new world," transformed from its fallen state into the form of life intended by the Creator God. More than a reference to internal and spiritual contentment, then, the biblical idea of peace embraces every dimension of human existence--past, present and future. Certainly in Colossian Christianity, God's victory in Christ is celebrated and confessed as a cosmic event: the exalted Christ now mediates God's rule over the natural order as well as over the spiritual order (1:15-20). As a result, peace is more than a good feeling or mystical experience; it presumes a universal condition, in which all of human life is brought into conformity with the Creator's intentions for all things (3:5--4:6). The glib distinction that pundits and preachers often allow between a "public morality," typically secular, and a "private morality," typically religious, is frankly unbiblical. The lordship of the Risen Christ demands complete consistency in the norms and values that characterize those gathered in Christ, and the same when scattered "in Colosse."

Next commentary:
Paul's Prayer of Thanksgiving

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