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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)