For a letter, Colossians exhibits remarkable coherence. The major argument develops a singular theme: the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. The first half of the letter (chs. 1-2) proclaims the universality of Christ's dominion, while the second half (chs. 3-4) applies his lordship to daily living.
At the outset of the letter (1:3), the apostle refers to Jesus Christ as “Lord.” This choice of title calls to remembrance one of the earliest confessions of the Christian church: “Jesus is Lord.” In 1:15-20, a hymn of praise to Christ develops this theme of Jesus' lordship with great majesty and power.
In 2:6-23 Paul combats the false teaching at Colosse by using this touchstone. He exhorts his readers, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him” (v. 6). He appeals to them on the basis of their initial confession of faith. They had received instruction in the Gospel and had personally acknowledged the lordship of Christ. That is now the foundation on which they ought to build and thereby grow in their faith (see v. 7).
The apostle argues his case against the heresy on the basis of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives” (2:9). Jesus has disarmed the rulers and authorities. The false teaching has its own mandates, but they do not accord with Christian doctrine. To follow them is to deny Christ's sovereignty, because it is to submit to lesser authorities. Why should believers submit to these lesser rulers when they “have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority” (v. 10)?
Paul then applies this theme to specific areas of daily living. He begins with a general exhortation for every Christian: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). This description of Christ's supremacy is derived from Ps 110:1, a text frequently used in the NT to acclaim Christ's conquest over death and his present dominion.
The exhortations that follow flesh out the meaning of Christ's sovereignty for those who seek to live in his kingdom. The general principle is stated in 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” A believer's whole life, both in thought and conduct, is to be subordinated to the lordship of Jesus.
Christ's sovereignty is to be the reference point for all personal relationships. Thus wives are exhorted to be subject to their husbands, “as is fitting in the Lord” (v. 18). Children are to be obedient to their parents in everything, “for this pleases the Lord” (v. 20). Likewise, slaves are to be obedient to their earthly masters, in “reverence for the Lord” (v. 22). The exhortations to slaves have a general applicability to all Christian workers: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. . . . It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (vv. 23-24).
It is evident that Paul extensively argues and applies the theme of Christ's sovereignty. However, Colossians is not a doctrinal essay; it is a letter. As such, it contains some personal comments (1:1-2, 3-14, 24-2:5; 4:2-18) that do not fit easily into the thematic outline. The common feature of these personal comments is their description of servant ministry. Thus they represent a logical counterpoint to the epistle's major theme of sovereign lordship.
In the first of Paul's personal comments, he opens the letter by introducing himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1:1). He then describes his ministry on the Colossians' behalf. He prays for them with this goal in view, “that you may live a life worthy of the Lord” (v. 10).
The universality of Christ's kingdom represents for Paul the scope of his commission as a minister. His task as “a servant” is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ “to every creature under heaven” (1:23).
The extent and nature of Paul's servant ministry are well illustrated in his relationship with the Colossians. He states that he has endured a great struggle “for you and those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally” (2:1).
At the end of the letter, the apostle speaks not only of his own ministry but of the ministries of others as well. Here, too, the themes of sovereignty and servanthood are evoked. Tychicus is commended as “a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord” (4:7). Epaphras is called “a servant of Christ Jesus” (v. 12). Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus are also named as “my fellow workers for the kingdom of God” (vv. 10-11). Finally, there is a word of exhortation for Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord” (v. 17).
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