The Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians
Typically dated by scholars to around 62-70 AD, Paul wrote the Letter to the Colossians while in prison, but his several imprisonments leave the specific place and date of composition uncertain. On this point the same problem exists as with Ephesians and Philippians. Traditionally the house arrest at Rome, in which Paul enjoyed a certain restricted freedom in preaching (see Acts 28:16–28), or a second Roman imprisonment has been claimed as the setting. Others suggest a still earlier imprisonment at Caesarea (see Acts 23:12–27:1) or in Ephesus (see Acts 19). Still others regard the letter as the work of some pupil or follower of Paul, writing in his name. In any case, the contents are often closely paralleled by thoughts in Ephesians, lending to the thought that it may have been written during his imprisonment in Ephesus, which would then date the letter to around 55 AD.
Excerpts from Colossians:
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The Letter to the Colossians:
Prayer for Continued Progress.
His Person and Work
Christ in Us.
- [1:3–8] To encourage them he mentions the success of the gospel elsewhere (Col 1:6) and assures them that his knowledge of their community is accurate, since he has been in personal contact with Epaphras (Col 1:7–8), who likely had evangelized Colossae and other cities in the Lycus Valley of Asia Minor (cf. Col 4:12, 13; Phlm 23). On faith, love, and hope (Col 1:4, 5, 8), see note on 1 Cor 13:13; cf. 1 Thes 1:3; 5:8.
- [1:7] Epaphras: now with Paul but a Colossian, founder of the church there.
- [1:9–14] Moved by Epaphras’ account, the apostle has prayed and continues to pray fervently for the Colossians that, in their response to the gospel, they may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will (Col 1:9; cf. Col 3:10). Paul expects a mutual interaction between their life according to the gospel and this knowledge (Col 1:10), yielding results (fruit, Col 1:10; cf. Col 1:6) in every good work: growth, strength, endurance, patience, with joy (Col 1:11), and the further giving of thanks (Col 1:12).
- [1:15–20] As the poetic arrangement indicates, these lines are probably an early Christian hymn, known to the Colossians and taken up into the letter from liturgical use (cf. Phil 2:6–11; 1 Tm 3:16). They present Christ as the mediator of creation (Col 1:15–18a) and of redemption (Col 1:18b–20). There is a parallelism between firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15) and firstborn from the dead (Col 1:18). While many of the phrases were at home in Greek philosophical use and even in gnosticism, the basic ideas also reflect Old Testament themes about Wisdom found in Prv 8:22–31; Wis 7:22–8:1; and Sir 1:4. See also notes on what is possibly a hymn in Jn 1:1–18.
- [1:18] Church: such a reference seemingly belongs under “redemption” in the following lines, not under the “creation” section of the hymn. Stoic thought sometimes referred to the world as “the body of Zeus.” Pauline usage is to speak of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12–27; Rom 12:4–5). Some think that the author of Colossians has inserted the reference to the church here so as to define “head of the body” in Paul’s customary way. See Col 1:24. Preeminent: when Christ was raised by God as firstborn from the dead (cf. Acts 26:23; Rev 1:5), he was placed over the community, the church, that he had brought into being, but he is also indicated as crown of the whole new creation, over all things. His further role is to reconcile all things (Col 1:20) for God or possibly “to himself.”
- [1:19] Fullness: in gnostic usage this term referred to a spiritual world of beings above, between God and the world; many later interpreters take it to refer to the fullness of the deity (Col 2:9); the reference could also be to the fullness of grace (cf. Jn 1:16).
- [1:20] The blood of his cross: the most specific reference in the hymn to redemption through Christ’s death, a central theme in Paul; cf. Col 2:14–15; 1 Cor 1:17, 18, 23. [Through him]: the phrase, lacking in some manuscripts, seems superfluous but parallels the reference to reconciliation through Christ earlier in the verse.
- [1:21–23] Paul, in applying this hymn to the Colossians, reminds them that they have experienced the reconciling effect of Christ’s death. He sees the effects of the cross in the redemption of human beings, not of cosmic powers such as those referred to in Col 1:16, 20 (all things). Paul also urges adherence to Christ in faith and begins to point to his own role as minister (Col 1:23), sufferer (Col 1:24), and proclaimer (Col 1:27–28) of this gospel.
- [1:24–2:3] As the community at Colossae was not personally known to Paul (see Introduction), he here invests his teaching with greater authority by presenting a brief sketch of his apostolic ministry and sufferings as they reflect those of Christ on behalf of the church (24). The preaching of God’s word (Col 1:25) carries out the divine plan (the mystery, Col 1:26) to make Christ known to the Gentiles (Col 1:27). It teaches the God-given wisdom about Christ (Col 1:28), whose power works mightily in the apostle (Col 1:29). Even in those communities that do not know him personally (Col 2:1), he can increase the perception of God in Christ, unite the faithful more firmly in love, and so bring encouragement to them (Col 2:2). He hopes that his apostolic authority will make the Colossians perceive more readily the defects in the teaching of others who have sought to delude them, the next concern in the letter.
- [1:24] What is lacking: although variously interpreted, this phrase does not imply that Christ’s atoning death on the cross was defective. It may refer to the apocalyptic concept of a quota of “messianic woes” to be endured before the end comes; cf. Mk 13:8, 19–20, 24 and the note on Mt 23:29–32. Others suggest that Paul’s mystical unity with Christ allowed him to call his own sufferings the afflictions of Christ.
- [2:1] Laodicea: chief city in Phrygia, northwest of Colossae; cf. Col 4:13, 16; Rev 3:14–22.
- [2:4–23] In face of the threat posed by false teachers (Col 2:4), the Colossians are admonished to adhere to the gospel as it was first preached to them (Col 2:6), steeping themselves in it with grateful hearts (Col 2:7). They must reject religious teachings originating in any source except the gospel (Col 2:8) because in Christ alone will they have access to God, the deity (Col 2:9). So fully has Christ enlightened them that they need no other source of religious knowledge or virtue (Col 2:10). They do not require circumcision (Col 2:11), for in baptism their whole being has been affected by Christ (Col 2:12) through forgiveness of sin and resurrection to a new life (Col 2:13; cf. Col 3:1 and Rom 6:1–11). On the cross Christ canceled the record of the debt that stood against us with all its claims (Col 2:14), i.e., he eliminated the law (cf. Eph 2:15) that human beings could not observe—and that could not save them. He forgave sins against the law (Col 2:14) and exposed as false and misleading (Col 2:15) all other powers (cf. Col 1:16) that purport to offer salvation. Therefore, the Colossians are not to accept judgments from such teachers on food and drink or to keep certain religious festivals or engage in certain cultic practices (Col 2:16), for the Colossians would thereby risk severing themselves from Christ (Col 2:19). If, when they accepted the gospel, they believed in Christ as their savior, they must be convinced that their salvation cannot be achieved by appeasing ruling spirits through dietary practices or through a wisdom gained simply by means of harsh asceticism (Col 2:20–23).
- [2:11] A description of baptism (Col 2:12) in symbolic terms of the Old Testament rite for entry into the community. The false teachers may have demanded physical circumcision of the Colossians.
- [2:14] The elaborate metaphor here about how God canceled the legal claims against us through Christ’s cross depicts not Christ being nailed to the cross by men but the bond…with its legal claims being nailed to the cross by God.
- [2:15] The picture derives from the public spectacle and triumph of a Roman emperor’s victory parade, where captives marched in subjection. The principalities and the powers are here conquered, not reconciled (cf. Col 1:16, 20). An alternate rendering for by it (the cross) is “by him” (Christ).
- [2:16] Festival or new moon or sabbath: yearly, monthly, and weekly observances determined by religious powers associated with a calendar set by the heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars (cf. Col 2:8).
- [2:18] Ascetic practices encouraged by the false teachers included subjection of self humbly to their rules, worship of angels, and cultivation of visions, though exact details are unclear.
- [3:1–4] By retaining the message of the gospel that the risen, living Christ is the source of their salvation, the Colossians will be free from false religious evaluations of the things of the world (Col 3:1–2). They have died to these; but one day when Christ…appears, they will live with Christ in the presence of God (Col 3:3–4).
- [3:5–17] In lieu of false asceticism and superstitious festivals, the apostle reminds the Colossians of the moral life that is to characterize their response to God through Christ. He urges their participation in the liturgical hymns and prayers that center upon God’s plan of salvation in Christ (Col 3:16).
- [3:8–10] Put…away; have taken off; have put on: the terms may reflect baptismal practice, taking off garments and putting on new ones after being united with Christ, here translated into ethical terms.
- [3:11] Scythian: a barbarous people from north of the Black Sea.
- [3:22–25] Slaves: within this table of duties in family and societal relations, involving wives and husbands, children and parents (Col 3:18–21), such as also appears in Eph 5:22–6:9, slaves here receive special attention because of the case of Onesimus the slave returning to his master (Col 4:9; Phlm 10–12).
- [4:7] Tychicus: Acts 20:4 mentions his role in the collection for Jerusalem; Eph 6:21 repeats what is said here; see also 2 Tm 4:12; Ti 3:12.
- [4:10] Aristarchus: a Thessalonian who was with Paul at Ephesus and Caesarea and on the voyage to Rome (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2). Mark: also referred to at Phlm 24 and 2 Tm 4:11 and, as “John Mark,” in Acts (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:13; 15:37–40). See also 1 Pt 5:13 and the note there. Traditionally the author of the second gospel.
- [4:13] Hierapolis: a city northeast of Laodicea and northwest of Colossae.
- [4:14] Luke: only here described as a medical doctor; cf. Phlm 24 and 2 Tm 4:11. Traditionally the author of the third gospel. Demas: cf. Phlm 24; he later deserted Paul (2 Tm 4:10).
- [4:15] Nympha and…her house: some manuscripts read a masculine for the house-church leader, “Nymphas and…his house.”
- [4:16] The one from Laodicea: either a letter by Paul that has been lost or the Letter to the Ephesians (cf. note on Eph 1:1 in Ephesus).