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Typically, the second section of Paul's letters expresses his thanksgiving for the spiritual formation of his readers. In this way Paul continues the practice of other letter writers in the ancient world, who offered thanks to their gods for blessings received, often the deliverance from some physical calamity or economic ruin (O'Brien 1982:7-9). The thanksgivings that typically introduce Paul's letters are quite different; they suggest dependence on the biblical psalms more than the secular literary conventions of his day. The tone of Paul's thanksgivings is worshipful, often fashioned as a prayer. It is offered to his readers much like a pastor's invocation at the beginning of a worship service, which calls a congregation to worship God.
Paul's long sentences (1:3-8 and 1:9-11 are each a single sentence) evoke the sense of sustained conversation with God as the proper setting for reading or hearing Paul's letter. Further, Paul's thanksgivings are full of important theological themes that will be taken up again in what follows. My point is this: Paul's purpose in thanking God with profound prayer and praise is to locate his instruction in a setting of worship. Here, in perhaps the most worshipful portion of his letter, Paul remains very much a pastor seeking to nurture his flock. He does not compose his letters from a scholar's study in some ivory tower; his prison cell is a pastor's study, and as he writes, the concerns of his flock weigh on his heart and mind.
Paul's expression of thanksgiving serves not only a pastoral role within the congregation but also an introductory role within the composition. At an emotional level, Paul's prayer for the well-being of his readers helps to establish a constructive environment for reading his often critical letter. Especially by offering intercession for the Colossians' spiritual growth (1:9-11), Paul projects the image of a caring pastor rather than a judgmental patron. His warm and worshipful tone is especially important since his readers do not know Paul on a first-name basis and, even though he is their apostle, they may well require his acceptance of them before they are ready to accept his advice.
More important, the letter's thanksgiving includes a hint of the spiritual crisis at hand. Wright comments that Paul's references to his prayer are not "devotional musings" detached from the more important "main body" of the letter (1986:49). Quite deliberately, the prayer forms the logical basis for Paul's subsequent admonitions. In the case of Colossians, the second half of Paul's thanksgiving (vv. 9-11) petitions God for the congregation's understanding of the gospel, so that it will live a life worthy of the Lord. By equating the "worthy life" with every good work (1:10), this theologian of grace introduces his message to the Colossians in a provocative way: a more thorough knowledge of the gospel they have heard and accepted (vv. 7-8) is required to produce a practical Christianity of good works and transformed lives (vv. 9-11).
Upon closer reading, even the chiastic structure of the thanksgiving portion of Paul's letter illumines his message. A chiasmus (from a Greek word that means "marked with an X") is a literary pattern used by a skilled writer to help readers remember the important points. In a passage formed in a chiastic pattern, the author presents a sequence of key ideas and then repeats the same ideas in inverted order. What distinguishes a chiasmus from an inverted parallelism, found frequently in the Old Testament psalms, is the presence of a new idea located between the two inverted sequences. Scholars call this new idea found at the X the chiastic "vertex"; this pivotal idea expresses the chief concern around which the other ideas find their meaning. The vertex of a chiasmus works rather like the point guard of a basketball team or the quarterback of an American football team: he is the team's playmaker who controls the surrounding action and enhances the play of his teammates.
Viewed as a literary chiasmus, Paul's thanksgiving contains two parallel although inverted series of three theological ideas (vv. 3-6 and vv. 9-12), with the vertex in between (vv. 7-8), as follows:
A We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you (v. 3),
B because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven (vv. 4-5)
C and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth (vv. 5-6).
D You learned [the gospel] from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit (vv. 7-8).
C' For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might (vv. 9-11)
B' so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully (v. 11)
A' giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light (v. 12).
Paul first (A/A') gives thanks to God, because he has heard reports of the readers' piety, described by two related triads of good works (B, faith, love and hope, and B', endurance, patience and joy). He concludes by interpreting their piety to be the natural fruit and logical growth of accepting the gospel's truth (C/C').
Paul actually interrupts his prayerful thanksgiving to mention the ministry of faithful Epaphras, through whom the gospel first came to the Colossians. This interruption works to draw the readers into the vertex, or pivotal point, of Paul's opening comments. Epaphras is a well-known exemplar of practical piety. Like Timothy (1:1), he is a "fellow servant" and "faithful minister" in the hard work of the Gentile mission. That is, Epaphras embodies the "right stuff" that Paul desires for all his readers, whose spiritual crisis is their failure to incarnate their faith in practical, life-transforming forms. Their tendency is rather to exchange the word of truth (v. 5), which Epaphras proclaims and embodies, for "fine-sounding arguments" (2:4) that are rooted in a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" (2:8).
Perhaps Paul is concerned about Epaphras's current status among the Colossian believers and places this comment at the thanksgiving's vertex to help secure his reputation as an exemplary believer. While it remains impossible for us to know just why Paul makes this strategic reference to Epaphras, two biblical clues fashion an outline of Epaphras's story that help confirm my speculation. First, church tradition asserts that the Epaphras who shared Paul's prison cell according to Philemon 23 is the same Epaphras Paul mentions in Colossians. While the references to Epaphras in Colossians do not suggest that he is in prison, Philemon, which was written before Colossians, could refer to an earlier imprisonment. Epaphras's past imprisonment could well have resulted in a prolonged absence from Colosse, during which time others (including theological opponents) could have taken charge of the congregation's spiritual nurture. Now that he is able to return to his former ministry, Paul's prayer recalls the importance of Epaphras's earlier ministry to reestablish him in this congregation.
A second and more important clue comes from Colossians 4:12-13, where Paul vouches for Epaphras's commitment to the Colossian congregation. Why would Paul sense a need to vouch for Epaphras and to stress the close tie the two men share in the Gentile mission? Masson has suggested that Paul wants to overturn Epaphras's reputation for incompetence, and even laziness, which has helped the false teachers succeed (1950:156). While this speculation seems strained to me, it is true that Paul is concerned with Epaphras's reputation. I suspect Paul is concerned because the truth of Epaphras's teaching, which had converted the readers to Christ, is now jeopardized. In this sense, Paul's letter defines and defends the content of Epaphras's teaching and witness.
In any case, I am convinced that Epaphras's relationship with the Colossian church is a key to unlocking the reason Paul wrote Colossians. Certainly the reputation of any congregation's spiritual mentors, past and present, is an important issue to consider. I recall as a young boy seeing the portraits of former pastors displayed prominently in our church's narthex. They were a loving reminder of our congregation's spiritual heritage and encouraged all of us not to depart from it. In a similar way, Paul's desire to promote Epaphras's work in Colosse has the effect of an exhortation to follow his faithful example and to maintain the word of truth he had proclaimed to them.