Paul introduces himself as Christ's apostle (1:1). His apostolic commission is to proclaim him among the Gentiles (vv. 27-28). Paul aligns himself with others as a fellow servant in the Lord (see 4:7), as a minister of the Gospel proclaimed to every creature under heaven (1:23).
Paul broadly defines the task of ministry. It is fulfilled in preaching, teaching, and admonishing people about Christ (1:25, 28). It includes prayer and suffering on behalf of the church (vv. 3-4, 9, 24; 2:1). It entails warning God's people against error (2:4, 8) and challenging the claims of those who oppose the Gospel (vv. 16-23).
With this letter, as with Romans, Paul is writing to a congregation he has not met (1:1). Nevertheless, he is with them in spirit (2:5) and continually ministers on their behalf in prayer (vv. 3, 9). The report he has received about them occasions thanksgiving and concern (vv. 3-4, 9-10; 2:1-4).
The introduction (1:1-2) follows the epistolary formula used in all of the Pauline letters. First the writer is identified (v. 1); then the recipients are named (v. 2a); finally, greetings are extended (v. 2b).
The title apostle, to which Paul lays claim, has about it a ring of authority. Elsewhere in this letter he describes himself as a servant (1:23, 25) and fellow servant (v. 7; 4:7). He invokes his apostolic authority only at the outset of the letter, to establish his right to challenge the false teachings at Colosse.
Paul's apostolic authority is derived from his appointment by God. Because it is by the will of God (1:1), the identification of himself as an apostle is no idle claim. Paul addresses the congregation at Colosse as a divinely commissioned leader of the church. He is Christ's apostle, in accord with God's will. He is an emissary under orders. He speaks, not on his own authority, but as a divine messenger like the prophets of old.
The readers are addressed as Christian believers. They are described as holy ones or “saints,” in a slight variation on Paul's typical usage (cf. 1:2; Php 1:1; Eph 1:1). Other Pauline letters are generally addressed “to the church” (1 and 2Co, 1 and 2Th, and Gal). The two forms of address—“to the saints” and “to the churches”—appear synonymous.
At the beginning of the letter proper, Paul describes his ministry of prayer on behalf of the church at Colosse. The description naturally divides into two paragraphs. In the first (1:3-8), Paul tells his readers that he thanks God for the evidences of spiritual vitality at Colosse. In the second (vv. 9-14), he affirms his ongoing prayer of concern for them, asking that God will complete the work begun among them. The first paragraph identifies the evidences of Christian experience in its initial stages; the second lists the attributes of Christian maturity.
According to Paul, thanksgiving is one of the hallmarks of Christian experience (see 1:12; 2:7; 3:15, 17). It is one of the attributes that the apostle exemplified personally. In all of his letters to the churches (except Galatians, where special circumstances prevailed), Paul began with expressions of thanksgiving. Reflecting his awareness of the fact that the basic root (charis) of the Greek word for thanks (eucharistia) means “grace,” Paul expresses his thanksgiving as a natural response for the gifts of God's love.
In the case of the Colossians, there is good cause for thanksgiving. Paul is grateful (1:3-4) because of the evidences that (1) God's Spirit is at work in their hearts and that (2) God's Word is at work in their fellowship.
The familiar triad of faith, hope, and love emerges in this prayer of thanksgiving. Faith in Christ Jesus (1:4) is fundamental to all of Christian experience. Elsewhere Paul clearly articulates what faith is. Faith consists of putting our trust in the person of Jesus Christ, and receiving the saving benefits of his death for our sins.
But, as James says (2:17), faith without works is futile and vain. Genuine faith expresses itself in love. So the love [they] have for all the saints (1:4) is another significant evidence of the Colossians' saving relationship with Christ. This love God pours into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Ro 5:5).
At this point the apostle theologizes while praying. Faith and love, he says, spring from the hope of the Gospel, the “living hope” of which 1 Peter 1:3 speaks. Faith and love are inspired by the hope set before us—and all of these are evidences of initial Christian experience. But they are subjective evidences that must be anchored in the word of truth, the gospel (1:5).
So, in the course of his prayer of thanksgiving, the apostle acknowledges the working of God's Word among believers. He describes that Word as bearing fruit and working to produce growth, not only at Colosse, but all over the world (1:6). It is the working of God's Word in the midst of believers that produces real growth in the church. The Gospel provides the objective basis for our subjective experience in Christ.
This portrayal of Christian experience is reflected in the traditional Wesleyan understanding. The new birth is grounded in God's Word. A transforming experience, it expresses itself in tangible evidences of spiritual growth.
The next prayer paragraph (1:9-14) touches on things central to Christian growth: (1) knowing and doing God's will, (2) cultivating the attributes of Christian maturity, and (3) responding gratefully to God's gracious work in our lives.
The attributes of faith, love, and hope constitute only the foundation stones of Christian living. So Paul pleads that the Colossians may be filled with the knowledge of God's will: “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way” (1:10). The apostle then highlights four attributes of such a life: (1) fruitbearing, (2) growth, (3) empowerment, and (4) gratitude. This is how Paul characterizes a Christian life that is perfect and fulfilled, made complete in the will of God. The goal is to live a life worthy of the Lord, to please him in every way. The attainment of this goal requires not only spiritual enlightenment but also spiritual enduement. Here Paul portrays the life of Christian perfection as dynamic and characterized by continuing growth.
Christians need to be reminded that joyfully giving thanks (1:11-12) is an attribute worthy of the Lord and is pleasing to him. We have much for which to be grateful, as Paul suggests in these verses. The focal point of our thanksgiving is the salvation that God has wrought on our behalf. He has adopted, rescued, and redeemed us from our fallenness. He has forgiven our sins and made us his own.
The final verses of this passage (1:12-14) lead into a hymn of praise to Christ. The movement in Paul's prayer is exemplary: Beginning with thanksgiving, he proceeds to intercession, then follows with joyful praise. This is a positive model of prayer. We should further note that Paul is not praying for himself so much as he is praying for others. He expresses appreciation for what God is doing in the lives of the Colossians. He intercedes for them, asking that they might achieve full maturity in their Christian experience. His thanksgiving to the Father and praise to the Son follow naturally. This is the kind of praying that modern Christians should emulate and practice.
The following passage (1:15-20) is hymnic in structure and seems to preserve a primitive Christian hymn of praise to Christ. Paul appears to quote the hymn verbatim; his application of it follows in 1:21-23.
The hymn consists of two stanzas (1:15-16 and 1:18b-20) separated by a refrain (vv. 17-18a). The two stanzas reflect a similar structure, as do the two lines of the refrain. This is more evident in the Greek text than in English translation (see chart below).
The theme of the hymn is the sovereignty of Christ. The first stanza expounds his sovereignty over the natural order of creation, as the Creator of the world. The second stanza extols him as the Savior of the world and the Head of the church.
The passage is rich in Christology. It declares Christ's divine essence, preexistence, creative agency, and absolute lordship. As noted earlier, Adam Clarke was particularly impressed with its affirmation of Christ's deity.
With regard to Christ's relation to creation, the text affirms that all things were created by him and for him (1:16) and in him all things hold together (v. 17). Paul finds in Christ “the key to creation, declaring that it is all there with Christ in view” (Hunter, 60). He is the one through whom all things exist, by whom they hold together, and for whom they have their being. Not only does he reflect the very image of the One who created all things, but as the firstborn, he is the heir of all creation.
A HYMN OF PRAISE TO CHRIST
|Verse||Greek Text||Literal Translation|
|Col. 1:15||ὅς ἐστιν (1), (2)||who is (1) title, (2) title|
|Col. 1:16||ὅτι ἐν αὐτῳ̂...||because in him...|
|Col. 1:17||καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν...||and he himself is...|
|Col. 1:18a||καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν...||and he himself is...|
|Col. 1:18b||ὅς ἐστιν (1), (2)||who is (1) title, (2) title|
|ὅτι ἐν αὐτῳ̂||because in him...|
The title firstborn is particularly significant in this passage, where it occurs twice (1:15, 18). This title derives from the messianic promise of Ps 89:27, where God says, “I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” These words are applied directly to Jesus Christ in Rev 1:5 and 19:16, as King of kings and Lord of lords.
The second stanza of the hymn declares that Christ is Lord of the new creation brought into being through his saving work. He is not only Creator of all things but Savior as well. Through his death on the cross, God accomplished the reconciliation of all things to himself. This is a daring proclamation that often seems foolish to those who are educated, and it proves offensive to those of other religious persuasions (see 1Co 1:23).
The Christology of 1:15-20 is so exalted as to be breathtaking. The position of Christ in the mind of the primitive church challenges our own understandings, which often seem paltry by comparison. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, by reason of his role in both Creation and redemption.
Paul immediately proceeds to make an application of this Christological vision to everyday life. The paragraph that follows (1:21-23) exemplifies the applied theology of the NT. It describes the transformation that God has wrought in the believer through Christ's death, defining it in terms of a change of heart and conduct. It speaks of God's purpose for the believer in terms of personal holiness. It specifies that faith is the sole and necessary condition of such a relationship with God. And, finally, it portrays the urgent need to carry the evangelistic proclamation of the Gospel worldwide.
First, the declared truth about Christ's reconciling death is applied to the Colossians. Paul says that the Colossians, like all sinners, were once in need of reconciliation to God. They were estranged from God and at enmity with him. This situation found its expression in evil behavior (1:21). But now they have been reconciled to God through Christ's death. Just as their former alienation from God found expression in rebellious behavior, so now their reconciliation will be reflected in an obedient life. God's redemptive purpose, the apostle declares, is “to present you holy in his sight without blemish and free from accusation” (v. 22). This is the purpose for which Christ died—that his people might be holy, blameless, and irreproachable. This is the kind of conduct that accords with God's will and pleases him (see v. 10).
The holiness of life depicted here can and should be a present reality for every Christian. It is a work of God, contingent on faith. As you continue in your faith (1:23), you will progress in holiness. Thus sanctification as well as justification is produced by God's grace.
Second, Paul uses the affirmation of Christ's sovereignty over all creation to define the scope of the Christian mission. Because Christ's lordship is cosmic in scope, the Gospel of salvation through his name ought to be proclaimed to every creature under heaven (1:23). These words echo the Great Commission of Mt 28:19-20. Characterizing himself as a servant of the Gospel of Christ, Paul perceives his personal commission as encompassing the whole world. John Wesley similarly declared, “The world is my parish.”
Having identified himself as a servant/minister in 1:23, Paul speaks personally in the next section concerning his ministry. He testifies to his sense of divine commission. He articulates his evangelistic purpose and concerns. He reaffirms his commitment to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, despite the costs.
Paul's reference to suffering (v. 24) may reflect his present circumstances as a prisoner. Such personal hardship he interprets as a part of his ministry to Christ's body, the church. All of his life experiences are dedicated to the end of serving Christ's church. Paul declares that this is his divine commission. More particularly, his special calling is to serve as an apostle to the Gentiles, to proclaim the Word of God, and to disclose Christ to them.
Paul says that his purpose is to “proclaim him . . . so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (1:28). Alongside proclamation (preaching), he mentions admonishing and teaching as means of propagating the Gospel. All of Paul's energies are directed to this end, as he is empowered by God. Paul's statement of purpose reaches beyond evangelism, implying that he is involved in the processes of discipleship and nurture that are essential to Christian perfection. This succinct statement describes well the prevailing philosophy of ministry in the evangelical Wesleyan movement.
In the next paragraph (2:1-5) the apostle speaks not only of himself as a “servant,” but also of his “brothers” at Colosse. His mention of “struggling for you” probably refers to his ministry of prayer on their behalf (cf. 1:3-14; 4:12). His purpose is that they might grow to maturity, firm in the faith (cf. 1:23) and “perfect in Christ” (v. 28). The parallelism with statements in the preceding chapter indicates that Paul is making specific application of the general principles he enunciated there. Paul believes the antidote to the Colossian's deception by fine-sounding arguments (2:4) is a complete understanding of the full riches hidden in Christ (v. 2).
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