Bible Book List
Colossians 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Apostolic Concern for Insiders

Paul includes various instructions (4:7-9, 16-17) and personal greetings (4:10-15) in the letter's benediction to guide the church's response toward his coworkers. In one sense, these concluding words show the practical authority of Paul's apostleship: virtually everyone he mentions is given identity within the congregation by relationship to him. This is clearest in the instructions he gives for receiving Tychicus (see below, commentary on 4:7-9). Paul defines the congregation's vocation by his own. Therefore, while some continue to inspect this passage for clues to help reconstruct the chronology of Paul's life, its principal value remains theological: Paul's primary interest is to gird up his apostolic authority to strengthen the prospect for a successful evangelistic campaign, in keeping, then, with his preceding exhortation.

It is a prospect that seems imperiled. Paul refers to his imprisonment three times in this benediction (4:3, 10, 18) and says that he is sending Tychicus in order to tell the Colossians about our circumstances (4:8), presumably difficult. His cryptic aside about Mark (4:10) may suggest some internal strife within the mission's leadership (compare Acts 15:36-41); even Archippus's instructions (4:17) seem odd unless it is necessary for Paul to exhort him to complete the work. Further, Paul's strong and extraordinary endorsement of Epaphras (4:13) is unnecessary, given his previous association with this congregation (1:7-8), unless there is some trouble in his relationship with the Colossian believers (see introduction, and also my comments on 1:7-8). Lastly, Paul's admission that only a few Jews participated with him in the Gentile mission (4:11) may reflect the growing rift between the church and synagogue as well as between Gentiles and Jews within the church (Acts 15:1-4; 21:17-26; Gal 2:1--3:5).

Against this backdrop, then, Paul uses this letter's benediction to bolster support for his mission within a troubled community so that their prayers (4:2-6) and his (1:8-9) will not be in vain.The Ministry of Tychicus (4:7-9)

Paul often uses benedictions for personal commendations, often to solicit support for a colleague. The apostle's introduction of Tychicus to the Colossians carries considerable weight. He is more than a courier of personal regard--someone sent by Paul to field questions about his imprisonment so that the believers can pray more effectively for him (Wright 1987:155). The titles Paul gives Tychicus, dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant, suggest a role more important than that of a messenger. He was, in O'Brien's words, "a particularly valued colleague" (1982:247). In fact, the title faithful minister (diakonos, literally "servant," from which we derive "deacon") is used earlier to describe the ministry of both Epaphras (1:7) and Paul himself (1:23). Moreover, the title fellow servant (syndoulos) is used earlier (1:7) to describe Epaphras as one who participates equally with Paul in the Gentile mission. In effect, Tychicus is Paul's own designate to continue the ministry, at least at Colosse, during his imprisonment. Epaphras would have been the natural person for this ministry, since he first brought the gospel to Colosse; however, apparently his relationship with the Colossians is troubled and requires Paul's intervention (4:12-13).

Because of the various interruptions during his ministry (including imprisonment), Paul was unable to visit many Gentile congregations in person even though this was his desire. In Romans, for example, Paul repeats his desire to visit the Christian congregations in the world's most important city in order to "impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong" (Rom 1:11; compare 15:23-4). Like the Colossian believers, those in Rome had never profited from the apostle's personal visit, a time when Paul could minister to them directly and they could benefit from his apostolic persona and gifts.

Paul's constant references in his letters to past and future visits are expressions of his apostolic authority. The gifts that Christ had given him (see Rom 1:5) have transformed him into a conduit of eschatological power, capable of empowering others to resist evil and grow in holiness, thereby preparing for the Lord's return. When he was unable to visit congregations in person, Paul sent substitutes (both people and letters) through which his apostolic ministry could continue to have its powerful effect (Funk 1967:249-68). Tychicus is one such substitute, Timothy is another (Phil 2:19; 1 Thess 3:6), and this very letter is a third. In this case, the apostle is "in chains" and unable to convey the gift of his apostleship to the Colossian believers in person. Because their faith is threatened by false teaching, he sends Tychicus as minister and servant to encourage [their] hearts--the very purpose Paul has assigned to himself (2:2).

This point is highlighted by the chiastic pattern of the text itself. Recall that a chiasmus is a literary device that arranges words and ideas into two parallel and inverted passages, with an odd member placed at the vertex, where the two passages intersect (ABCDC'B'A'). The odd phrase found at the vertex (D) helps the reader locate the passage's principal idea. Consider verses 7-9 in this light:

A Tychicus will tell you all the news about me (v. 7a).

B He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord (v. 7b).

C I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances (v. 8a)

D and that he may encourage your hearts (v. 8b).

C' He is coming with Onesimus (v. 9a),

B' our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you (v. 9b).

A' They will tell you everything that is happening here (9c).

The chiastic shape helps us to identify the most important ingredient in the instructions Paul sends to the Colossians: that [Tychicus] may encourage your hearts. Paul's chief interest is that his ministry continue through Tychicus during his imprisonment (see Lohse 1971:171). The chiasmus also subordinates Onesimus to Tychicus, for it is the latter who is central to Paul's plans and additionally is called faithful minister. The credential added to Onesimus, who is one of you (4:9), suggests that his task is to help Tychicus gain entry into this Colossian community.Greetings from Jewish Coworkers (4:10-11)

The next three colleagues mentioned by Paul--Aristarchus, Mark and Jesus, who is called Justus--are Jewish believers and are said by Paul to be the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God. Actually, the Greek text is more vague about their ethnicity than the NIV. The phrase translated "Jews" is literally "from the circumcised" (ek peritomes) and may in fact refer to a specific group of Jewish Christian missionaries called "the circumcision party" (see Acts 10:45; 11:2; 15:1-5; Gal 2:12), whose membership included these three (Ellis 1978:116-28). Of course, we know that earliest Christianity sent different missions to various constituencies. In Galatians 2:1-10 Paul himself identifies two distinct missions, each with its own version of the gospel (Gal 2:7; compare Acts 15:19-21). What is less clear, especially in light of Paul's negative verdict against "the circumcision party" of Galatians 2:12, is the meaning of his positive reference to three of its members in this letter (although his high regard for Mark is less certain; see below).

In my view, we should not assume that Paul's words in Galatians describe a static sentiment; Galatians is a highly emotional book in any case, full of angry rhetoric that contrasts with the more cooperative language we find in Paul's other letters. While he has been called by Christ to evangelize primarily Gentiles (but also Jews; see Acts 9:15), there are others who are called to evangelize the Jews. The apostle understands this and celebrates them (see Gal. 2:7-10), so long as they do not substitute a more Jewish version of the gospel (Gal 2:11-16) for the one that has been given him by Christ for Gentile conversion (Gal 1:11-17).

Also, Paul may have identified these three Jewish evangelists as "being of the circumcision" in connection with the earlier reference to circumcision in his polemic against false teaching (2:10-12). If this is the case, the phrase bears subtle testimony against the Jewish content of the false teaching at Colosse: there are at least three Jewish-Christian teachers who support Paul and even share his imprisonment. In this sense, the comfort they have provided Paul is the knowledge that there is still support within the Jewish church for the Gentile mission and its gospel.

The parenthetical comment about Mark may be innocent enough: the Colossians are to welcome him, and Paul's instructions perhaps include a special task for him. However, Mark's relationship with Paul was troubled from the beginning (see Acts 15:36-41), and the welcome Paul encourages is conditioned on whether Mark actually arrives in Colosse. Still, I am inclined to take the tone of Paul's instructions as cautiously positive, since the conditional if he comes to you implies that he probably will come.Greetings from and to Gentile Coworkers (4:12-15)

Next comes Paul's greeting from Epaphras, who first preached the gospel to the Colossians (1:5-8). Because he is one of [them], Epaphras no doubt understands well the problems facing this congregation; in fact, I have argued that he may very well be the founding father of the Colossian congregation and therefore the more specific object of ridicule by the opponents of the Gentile mission in Colosse (see introduction, under "The Crisis at Colosse," as well as my comments on 1:7-8). Paul's commentary on Epaphras's personal commitment to the congregation indicates more than confidence that prayer is a critical ingredient in the work of the Gentile mission. Certainly the nurture of this congregation depends on Epaphras's wrestling in prayer for you. However, Epaphras's prayer that the Colossian believers stand firm in all the will of God (compare 1:9) indicates his commitment to them.

Further, Paul's phrase mature and fully assured extends his commentary on the importance of Epaphras's prayer for the Colossians. This phrase captures two themes in Paul's letter and therefore functions here to connect his concern for Epaphras with the content of what he has just written. According to O'Brien, the word mature (teleios) "touches on one of the key issues at Colosse in which members of the congregation were encouraged by false teachers to seek maturity or perfection through their philosophy (2:8) with its ascetic practices, visionary experiences and special revelations, rather than through Christ" (1982:253). Paul also uses this word to summarize his and God's purpose for mission: "so that we may present everyone perfect [teleios] in Christ" (1:28). The second term, fully assured (plerophoreo), belongs to the pleroo word-family, which Paul has used in confessing the core convictions of Colossian Christianity (1:9, 19; see also 4:17), in introducing his own mission (1:25; 2:2) and in arguing against the false teaching in Colosse (2:9-10). Paul's use of these two catchwords in describing the aim of Epaphras's prayer for the Colossians ties Epaphras with Paul in both the Colossian crisis and its resolution (see Lohse 1972:173-74).

This also may explain why Paul adds his extraordinary testimony of Epaphras's tireless campaign in the Lycus valley: I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. If we understand this comment in the light of the preceding one, Paul's reference to Epaphras's working hard may well combine with his wrestling in prayer for you to create a more favorable impression of him (so Schweizer 1972:240-41; Harris 1991:210-11). I am more inclined, however, to see it as a digression (as does O'Brien 1982:254), which allows Paul to vouch for Epaphras's commitment to the Colossian believers.

But why should Paul think his support for Epaphras is necessary now? Again, my speculation is that Epaphras, who is the principal architect of Colossian Christianity, has been discredited at home for some unknown reason, and that this has imperiled the work of the Gentile mission there. The coupling of vouch (from the word for "martyr," martyreo) with working hard (ponos, which emphasizes the painful outcome of hard labor) recalls the book of Revelation, where the faithful testimony (martyria, Rev 6:9) of the true disciple results in "pain" at the hands of evil powers and in the coming of Christ to bring this suffering to an end (ponos, Rev 21:4). Perhaps here too Paul uses these words to indicate that Epaphras is an exemplar of faithfulness, against the opinion of certain opponents.

Luke and Demas are joined together as they are in 2 Timothy 4:10-11; in the letter to Timothy, however, Demas has sadly deserted Paul "because he loved this world" (2 Tim 4:10), and Paul is left with only Luke. Whether Nympha is male (Nymphas) or female continues to be debated, since both forms are found in extant manuscripts of Colossians (O'Brien 1982:256). The question carries greater significance if a house church was generally led by the person who owned the home. If the homeowner here is a woman, as the NIV translation assumes, then a case could be made that female leadership was a part of the landscape of earliest Christianity. (Note also Paul's references to Priscilla in Rom 16:5 and 1 Cor 16:19, and Luke's narrative about Lydia in Acts 16, especially vv. 15, 40).Final Instructions (4:16-17)

The historical importance of Paul's final instructions is well known. On the basis of this single verse, a case has been made (first by Marcion around A.D. 150) that the letter of Ephesians is really this letter from Laodicea--a letter first written by Paul for Laodicean Christians and received from them by the Colossians, who passed it on to the Ephesians. This ancient opinion has received its modern draft by the eminent British scholar J. B. Lightfoot in the late 1800s and has since been widely accepted by others (see Wright 1987:160-61). On the other hand, Schweizer speculates that the Laodicean letter, rather than an edited book of Ephesians, might actually be the New Testament book of Philemon (1972:242), which I think is closer to the truth.

The case for the thesis that the letter from Laodicea is the New Testament Ephesians is cumulative, and it fails on two key points. First is the nature of the relationship between Colossians and Ephesians. Those who argue that the letter from Laodicea is Ephesians point out that the content of the two books is similar--a similarity that is obvious from even a cursory reading. On this basis, some contend that in 4:16 Paul's instruction is to read the two letters together, the letter from Laodicea with Colossians, presumably for a more nuanced understanding of the issues discussed in both letters. Historians argue, however, that a later composition will typically embellish upon and expand an earlier work. In this verse Paul writes that the Laodicean letter has already been written and sent, and that it has been read by the believers there; accordingly, it would be the earlier of the two letters. Yet clearly Ephesians is the fuller, more mature exposition of common themes; in the words of A. B. Hunter, it is the "quintessence of Pauline thought." More likely, Ephesians was written after Colossians and perhaps even depended on Colossians for its composition.

Second is the relationship between Ephesians and its first readers. This verse assumes that the letter from Laodicea had a specific address: the intended audience is the Christians at Laodicea. And if it had a specific address, we assume it also had a particular occasion: Paul wrote to the Christians at Laodicea to deal with a spiritual crisis there. But nowhere does Ephesians suggest that it was occasioned by a specific crisis in the life of a particular congregation. Probably it was written instead as an encyclical letter to circulate among several congregations for the purpose of instruction.

The more interesting historical aspect of this passage, in my mind, is its proposal to preserve and circulate Paul's writings--the earliest such proposal in the New Testament. Many speculate that the Pauline collection found in the New Testament had its origin in these instructions. More important, they illustrate why the church formed the New Testament: because a book written for a specific congregation was picked up by another and read for their spiritual benefit. The concerns of one related to the concerns of another. The writings subsequently gathered to form our biblical rule of faith were first picked up and read by congregation after congregation, from generation to generation, with spiritual profit. The letter from Laodicea was not preserved, even though it was written by the apostle, because it was not inspired by God to profit the wider Christian community (see 2 Tim 3:16). On the other hand, Paul's letter to the Colossians was preserved and finally included in the New Testament because it was picked up and read again and again; the marks of God's inspiring activity were readily recognized by subsequent generations of believers, and we continue to this day to use Colossians for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

Archippus is mentioned in Philemon 2 as Paul's "fellow soldier." Here, Paul instructs him to complete the work you have received in the Lord. What that work is we do not know, although in Paul's writings the word for "work" (diakonia) generally refers to the work of ministry. The importance of Archippus's ministry is underscored by the expression received in the Lord, which may refer to a special commission not unlike Paul's own (compare 1:25). Houlden suggests that this ministry may be his leadership within the "headquarters household," mentioned in Philemon 2, and that Paul is reminding him of his strategic role for fear that he has fallen under the influence of the Colossian philosophy (1970:222). Indeed, the verbs complete (pleroo; compare 2:9-10) and receive (paralambano; compare 2:6) recall Paul's contention that the "human tradition and basic principles of this world" (2:8), used by his opponents to promote an errant version of Christianity in Colosse, neglect Christ and so challenge the core convictions of his gospel (compare 1:25). In this light, perhaps Paul's instructions simply admonish Archippus to maintain the gospel of the Gentile mission in his house church.

Previous commentary:
Paul's Evangelistic Concern for Outsiders

Next commentary:
Final Farewell

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.