Epistle to the Colossians

Pasi Hujanen
Reija Becks

A chapter-by-chapter commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians

Colossians chapter 1 – Christ is the Head

Small industrial city

Colossae was situated in the valley of the river Lykos in southern Phrygia. The city was situated along the road leading from Ephesus to Syria. It was about 160 km from Ephesus. The nearest cities were Laodicea (about 15 km away) and Hierapolis (Col. 4:13).

The church of Colossae was not founded by Paul, in fact, Paul had never visited the city (Col. 2:1). It has been suggested that the church was founded by Epaphras (Col. 1:7), who may have been in Ephesus sometime in the mid-fifties and who became a Christian through Paul's ministry. Later he returned to his hometown and established a church there – and perhaps also in Laodicea (Col. 2:1).

Colossae was the centre for the manufacturing of woollen fabrics, and with the important road, the city was also important in terms of trade. No wonder there were many Jews in the city. However, the congregation seems to have consisted mainly of former gentiles (Col. 2:13).

Paul wrote to Colossians when he was in prison (Col. 4:3,18). Evidently this was during his imprisonment in Rome in the early 60s. An indication of it is also the fact that some manuscripts of his letter to the Colossians have the closing remark "Written in Rome with the help of Tychicus and Onesimus".

In AD 61-62, the city of Colossae was destroyed in an earthquake, and apparently it was not rebuilt, because no mentions of the city have been found after the earthquake. After Paul's letter, Colossae had only a few years before its destruction.

Paul wrote the letter to warn the church about a heresy, syncretism, which had spread there. It was a blend of various religions. On the one hand, it involved asceticism (Col. 2:16), and on the other hand, worship of angels and other spiritual powers (Col. 2:18). It may be that circumcision was also required (Col. 2:11). Apparently, Paul had received information about the church's difficulties from Epaphras, who was with him again (Col. 1:4,7-8, 4:12).

Salutation – Col. 1:1-2

In all, five of Paul's letters mention Timothy as the co-sender of the letter (2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1). Timothy followed Paul from the time he became a Christian (Acts 16:1-3). Timothy was not the scribe of the letter but its second sender. If he had been the scribe, his name would have been at the end of the letter and not at the beginning (cf. Rom. 16:22).

Paul was an apostle called and authorized by God. For this reason, he could also teach and give advice to a church that was not founded by him. Paul did not speak in his own name but in the name of Christ, the true founder of the Colossae church.

Thanksgiving for the faith – Col. 1:3-8

Many heresies spring from the idea that "ordinary Christians" have the right foundation, but they lack something that makes them "better, true Christians" (for example, speaking in tongues, believers' baptism, etc.). This may have also been the case in Colossae. The false teachers wanted to add certain things to what Epaphras had taught the Colossians. Perhaps the heretics had also wanted to make a difference between Paul and Epaphras: "Epaphras has not told you everything that Paul teaches..." However, in this prayer of thanksgiving, Paul strongly emphasizes that saving faith was known in Colossae from the beginning. And no difference is to be made between Paul and Epaphras (verse 8).

All of Paul's letters except Galatians begin with thanks. It would certainly be good for us to learn from Paul; saying thank you creates good cheer and thankfulness.

Growing in faith – Col. 1:9-11

The new teachers who had come to Colossae had claimed that Epaphras had not preached the whole gospel. That is why they had come to "complement" the faith of the Colossians. Paul saw exactly the same issue in Galatia (Gal. 5:1-6) and Colossae – nothing can be added to the gospel. You can either accept it or reject it, but you cannot make changes to it. The Colossians did have all the faith and knowledge that was needed, but they had to grow in knowing it.

Growing in faith is not doing some things, for example, but living close to Jesus, hanging on to Jesus in all circumstances (verse 11). If we have a living relationship with Jesus, he becomes our strength to grow in faith. We should not so much dabble in various "spiritual exercises" as focus on the most important thing: that we have a living relationship with Christ (John 15:5). Only by abiding in Christ can we bear fruit (verse 10).

The Christ hymn – Col. 1:12-20

This is one of the two Christ hymns in Paul's epistles. The other one is in Philippians 2:5-11. Both are probably quotations from the worship liturgy of that time. The fact that such hymns existed even before Paul, shows that from the very beginning of the Christian faith, Jesus was described by the key attributes of Divinity, such as e.g. Creator, Almighty, Redeemer.

In verse 13, Paul talks about people being transferred from the power of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of God. Today we do not always want to accept it, but nevertheless even today it is true that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the realm of His adversary. A person belongs to one or the other. One is born into the kingdom of the devil because of original sin but transfers to the kingdom of God through baptism (Col. 2:12).

The same matter is also discussed at the end of the hymn (verse 20), where Paul talks about peacemaking between God and man. There is no need to make peace if there is no war. Man is by nature God's enemy, but God wanted to save man through the atonement of Jesus.

The hymn can be divided into two stanzas, both of which begin, "He is..." The first stanza (verses 13-18a) speaks of Christ as Creator, Lord, and Ruler of the world. The second stanza (verses 18b-20) speaks of Christ as Redeemer. We can in fact say that God has a double ownership of people: first through creation and then through redemption.

Very soon after the birth of the Christian faith, there started to appear false teachers who taught that Jesus was not God but only some kind of god-man, man of God. Arianism taught that God only dwelt in the “man Jesus” since his baptism in the Jordan, but God left the “man Jesus” before the cross of Calvary, so only the “man Jesus” died on the cross. Unfortunately, our time is no exception in this regard: even today it is declared – in the name of science, etc. – that Jesus was not God.

The Bible teaches that Jesus existed even before his birth from the virgin Mary – the so-called pre-existence (cf. John 1:1). Those who deny the virgin birth of Jesus are usually rather reluctant to say when it was that Jesus became God or did he become God at all, if, as they say, he was not God from birth.

Judaism did not expect the Messiah to be God – this was the reason for the accusations of blasphemy by which the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus crucified (Luke 22:70-71; also cf. Matt. 22:41-45). Instead, Judaism spoke of a personified Wisdom who was involved in the creation of the world (Prov. 8:22-31). In this, the Christian Church interpreted the Old Testament to mean that

Wisdom refers to Christ. Even today, it is the question of Jesus' divinity that separates the Christian faith from Judaism.

The hymn ends with the thought, "Jesus atoned for all the sins of all people." In the evangelical movement, this doctrine has traditionally been called “blessing the whole world”. However, it is important to make a clear distinction between the all-inclusiveness of Jesus' atonement and the salvation of all people. People can reject the salvation brought by Jesus and therefore end up in damnation, even though Jesus atoned for their sins on the cross at Calvary. The whole world is reconciled, but not everyone accepts the reconciliation and is saved.

The fact that Jesus atoned for all the sins of all people also means that there is no longer a need for anything or anyone else for our atonement or as our saviour. The only way to salvation, chosen by God, is Jesus (John 14:6). All other ways of salvation – including those proclaimed by the false teachers of Colossae – are human inventions.

Before – now – in the future – Col. 1:21-23

Often the so-called personal testimonies follow this formula, "Before, I was..., but now, after I became a Christian, I am..." As we stated above, becoming a Christian means moving out from under the power of the devil to the kingdom of God. Therefore, such a way of speaking is fully justified. Paul also used it in this segment. However, Paul didn't just stay in “the now” but also talked about what the future will bring.

We can divide the segment into three parts: - Before, verse 21 - Now, verse 22 - In the future, verse 23

Verse 21 suggests that most of the Colossian Christians were former gentiles. The Jews could, of course, have rightly been called enemies of God, too, but it fits better to describe Gentiles (cf. Col. 2:13).

The bedrock of becoming a Christian is not in ourselves, but in the events of Calvary (verse 22). A Christian must never forget it! Living and growing as a Christian is also tied to the events of Calvary; if we do not stay on that right foundation, the “building” will not be sound, no matter how fine its construction materials are (cf. Matt. 7:24-27) (cf. Matt. 7:24-27).

There are two dangers that threaten our sanctified life. First, there is the danger of starting to think that sanctification is entirely up to the Christian. However, living as a Christian will not work on our own; we are not able to fight against sin by ourselves – it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we succeed in the struggle. Compare with Luther's explanation to The Third Article of Faith:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church, He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day, He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.”

The other danger is that we begin to trivialize sin: “Well, God will forgive my sins. No one is perfect...". We must stay firmly on the foundation of faith and not start wandering back into the realm of the devil. Paul describes this in the sixth chapter of the Romans: whom we serve can be seen in our lives (Rom. 6:15-23). The basis of sanctification is "abide in Christ".

Ministry of the apostle – Col. 1:24-29

At the same time when God called Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he "promised" that Paul would suffer persecution as a witness of Christ (Acts 9:16). Because the world does not want to receive the gospel, it persecutes Christians inherently, in a way – especially those who publicly proclaim the gospel and Christ.

Paul saw his ministry to be twofold: he was to proclaim Christ to everyone (verses 27-28) and, on the other hand, he was to teach Christians to know all the mysteries of God (verses 25-26, 28b). There is no point in evangelizing people if we do not also take care of teaching them (cf. Matt. 12:43-45). Both are needed in missionary work; we must constantly invite new people to salvation, but neither must we forget to teach young Christians.