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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.

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