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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).