Colossians

An exegetical commentary on the Greek New Testament

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Introduction

Colossae was a city in the Lycus valley, Asia Minor. It was linked with two other cities, Laodicia and Hieroposis. The area came under Roman rule in 133BC. The population was made up of a mixture of racial groupings with Greek and Roman influences added. The valley was settled by Jewish emigrants from around 300BC. The gospel first reached the region following the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas in AD 47, 48. During Paul's Ephesian ministry, AD 52-55, the gospel would have further impacted the region when "all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord", although Paul did not personally evangelize the Lycus valley.

 
The structure of Colossians
 
Introduction

1. Introduction, 1:1-14

i] Greeting, 1:1-2.

ii] Thanksgiving, 1:3-8.

iii] Prayer, 1:9-14

2. The person and work of Christ, 1:15-23

i] The supremacy of Christ in creation and redemption, 1:15-20

ii] Reconciliation, 1:21-23

3. A personal perspective on gospel ministry. 1:24-2:5

i] Paul's stewardship of the mystery, 1:24-29

ii] Paul's spiritual struggle, 2:1-5
The Argument Proper

When it comes to sanctification, the cross of Christ is complete in itself
    Thesis

4. The purpose of Paul's letter to the Colossians, 2:6-7

Living the gospel as received, 2:6-7
    Theology

5. False teaching exposed and defeated. 2:8-3:4

i] Christ is the remedy for error, 2:8-15

ii] Freedom from nomism, 2:16-19

iii] The consequence of dying with Christ, 2:20-23

iv] The consequence of rising with Chrsit, 3:1-4
    Ethics

6. Exhortations for Christian living. 3:5-4:6

i] Put to death the old life, 3:5-11

ii] Put on new life in Christ, 3:12-17

iii] Maintain loving relationships in the home, 3:18-4:1

iv] Pray and witness, 4:2-6
Conclusion

7. Concluding personal notes. 4:7-18

Greetings and final instructions, 4:7-18

 

This letter follows a typically Pauline structure which reflects, to some extent, a rhetorical discourse designed to persuade. The following rhetorical classifications can help in understanding Paul's intended structure, but cannot be relied upon as a perfect representation of what he had in mind.

Exordium: The greeting, thanksgiving and prayer of the readers, 1:1-14;

Narratio: A hymn of praise and a note on reconciliation, 1:15-20;

Digressio: Personal comments, 1:24-2:5;

Partitio: Thesis, 2:6-7;

Peroratio: The theological argument proper, 2:8-3:4;

Exhortatio: Ethical instructions, 3:5-4:6;

Conclusio: Typical Pauline epistolatory conclusion, greetings etc., 4:7-18.

 
Literary genre

There is much to support the view that the New Testament authors reflect the rhetorical style of public speaking and writing in the first century. Of the three forms of rhetoric, judicial rhetoric seeks to persuade the audience or reader to make a judgment about events occurring in the past, a form evident in the gospels, while the epistles display evidence of the other two forms, deliberative rhetoric, where the author seeks to persuade his audience or readers to take some action in the future, or epideictic rhetoric where he seeks to persuade them to hold or reaffirm some point of view in the present, cf., Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism. A discourse which is designed to persuade usually begins with an exordium, an introduction which serves to elicit the sympathy of the audience, possibly a narratio, a narrative section which serves as a statement of facts, and these often associated with a digressio, a digression which is thematically linked to the proposition/s of the central argument. Then follows the partitio, or summary of the argument / proof, before the probatio, the argument proper. A peroratio, summary of the main themes, may follow, often with an exhortatio, a concluding exhortation.

Some of these elements are certainly evident in Paul's letters, including Colossians, although Paul, in many ways, is his own man. So, with this letter, we are looking at a form of rhetoric designed to persuade, although it would not be unreasonable to simply classify it as a sermon or homily.

 
Date and place of writing

It is generally accepted that Paul wrote this letter from prison in Rome around 61AD after being informed by Epaphras of the situation developing in the church at Colossae. Some have argued that it is written from prison in Ephesus, although there is no real evidence that Paul experienced a long-term stay in prison there. If Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus, its time of writing would place it between first and second Corinthians, but the letter has a later feel to it. It is possible that it was written during Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea, an imprisonment lasting around two years. Most scholars reject this view, but some support it, eg., Hawthorne, Reicke, ... That it was written by Paul during his imprisonment in Rome seems more likely, so O'Brien, ....

 
Authenticity

Commentators such as Schweizer, Dunn, ...., are of the view that Colossians is not Pauline in that it reveals a Christology and eschatology that is a step beyond Paul's letters, somewhere toward the writings of Ignatius and Ireneaus. The issue is a contentious one and much has been written on the subject, but these notes proceed on the assumption that the letter is from Paul and that the perceived differences between Colossians and Paul's earlier letters, are simply a product of style and doctrinal development - ideological compression within the context of a stressful imprisonment.

Even today, professions will tend, over the intervening years, to tighten the way they articulate their field of expertise. Colossians is full of Pauline short-talk (semantic density), concentrated statements which, in earlier years, he would have unpacked. Take for example, eiV epignwsin tou musthriou tou qeou, Cristou, "toward the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ ("which is Christ", ESV)." Really! Is this a post-Pauline theological development, or an example of Pauline short-talk - an unpacked statement? The mystery is all about Christ, Christ in us, the hope of glory, etc., etc., etc. This is Paul the theologian, running out of gas and just not able to spell it out again for umpteenth time. Any person who has ever climbed into a pulpit knows the feeling!

 
Purpose

From information provided by Epaphras, sent by the churches of the Lycus valley to aid Paul in his imprisonment, Paul becomes aware of a situation developing in the Colossian church that has the potential to undermine the Pauline theological foundations upon which the church is founded. The problem is probably the heresy of nomism, promoted by his old friends in the Circumcision Party, the judaizers. So, he pens his letter / sermon to address the situation, while at the same time addressing wider pastoral issues to aid in the welfare of the church.

It is likely that Paul recognizes the need to address his other mission churches is a similar vein, and so this prompts him to write his letter to the Ephesians, likely to be a general letter, not only to the church in Ephesus, but also to his other churches in Asia Minor. These letters are conveyed to Ephesus, Colossae and beyond, by Tychicus and Onesimus. Onesimus is a runaway slave that Paul has likely led to the Lord, and Paul now wants him to return to his master Philemon - Philemon is probably a member of the Colossian church.

So, Paul writes to show that Jesus supersedes the complicated and outdated imposition of a Second-Temple nomism - sanctification by obedience. Paul depicts "Jesus Christ as the beloved Son and total revelation of God, as redeemer who in eternity holds the whole created world (including the invisible power) in his hand, as the mediator of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, and as guarantor of eternal life, and master of daily life", Bath.

 
The Colossian Heresy

There has been much debate as to the type of heresy infiltrating the Colossian church. Some have proposed some sort of Hellenistic philosophy, in particular a Jewish form Gnosticism (see Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, 1975), but this is increasingly opposed today. Wright proposes a Jewish background to the heresy, while Bird sees it as a form of Jewish mysticism.

We can never be sure, but seems more likely that the problem addressed by Paul is the same one he addressed in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. Here again there are Jewish Christians promoting an elitism through obedience to the regulations of the law. The heresy runs as follows: Although beginning the Christian life is a matter of trusting the finished work of the Jewish Messiah Christ, full standing and the full attainment of the promised blessings in Christ come only by submitting to the Jewish Torah (Deuteronomic law), along with the ethic of Christ. Obedience to the law restrains sin and purifies the believer - it sanctifies. Against this view Paul writes that, "such regulations have an appearance of wisdom, with their self imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." We are to go on in the Christian life as we started, by faith in the cross of Christ. Looking to Jesus, to his finished work of love, not only accounts a person holy before God, but also shapes holiness in the Christian life. To return to law ("the basic principles of this world") is to inevitably place ourselves under the curse which already stands over the people of Israel. Paul therefore opposes the heresy by stressing that fullness in the Christian life is found by grace through faith in Christ alone, and this apart from the law.

So, this letter defends the gospel against nomism, by reaffirming:

*The uniqueness of the person of Christ - he is the embodiment of the Divine and thus wholly to be relied upon.

*The perfect and complete nature of the redeeming work of Christ on the cross.

*The spiritual freedom and liberty of those who live by faith.

 
Paul's argument in a nutshell

The argument of the main theological section of the letter is as follows. Paul's readers were once alienated from God and were enemies because of their evil behavior. Now they have been reconciled to God on the basis of Jesus' death on their behalf, which offering by Christ enables them to be presented to God, holy in his sight, without blemish and free from any accusation by the powers of darkness. Yet, their standing in the sight of God depends on their continuing trust in Christ, particularly in his work on the cross. A believer's continued standing before God depends on their not being moved from their hope / faith in the right-standing they possess in the sight of God, which hope / faith rests on the sacrificial offering of Christ on the cross - the hope held out in the gospel, 1:21-23. The danger the Colossian believers face is of their being deceived by fine-sounding arguments, 2:4.

Against such they must continue to live by faith in Christ, 2:7. They must not let themselves be taken captive by a hollow and deceptive philosophy (nomism - sanctification by obedience / good-works Christianity) which is based on human traditions and the basic principles of this world, 2:8. Christ has forgiven all their sins, having canceled the written code, with all its regulations, 2:13-14. The last thing they need to do is to return to the obedience of the law, (do not taste and do not touch), as though trying to do this progresses their Christian life - makes them holy, sanctifies them. Such harsh treatment of the person does not restrain evil within, 2:16-17, 20-23. No, they must set their minds on Christ. In his death they die, in his rising they live, 3:1-4. In Christ's act of love on the cross, in the power of his resurrection, they are able to put to death all that belongs to the earthly nature, 3:5. Thus, they must live by faith and not by works of the law.

 
A Selection of English Bible Commentaries on Colossians

Level of complexity: 1, non-technical, to 5, requiring a workable knowledge of Greek.

Deceased: D. For publications no longer in print, search bookfinder.com

Other identifiers: Recommended R; Greek Technical G; Theology T

 

Barth and Blanke, Anchor, 1994. 4

Bird, NCC, 2009. 3R

Bruce, NICNT, 1984. 4DR

Caird, New Clarendon, 1976. 2D

Campbell, HGT, 2013. G

Carson, Tyndale, 1960. 2D

Dunn, NIGTC, 1996. 5R

Harris, EGGNT, 1991. G

Hendriksen, Banner of Truth, 1964. 3

Houlden, Paul's letters from prison, Penguin. 2D

Hunter, Layman's, 1959. 1 DR

Lightfoot, Macmillan. 1879. 5D

Lohse, Hermeneia, 1971. 5

Lucas, BST, 1980. 2

Martin, NCB, 1974. 3R

McKnight, NICNT, 2018, 4

Melick, NAC, 1991. 4

Moo, Pillar, 2008. 4R

Moule, CGTC, 1957. 3DG

O'Brien, Word, 1982. 5R

Pfitzner, ChiRho, 1983. 2DR

Pokorny, Hendrickson, 1991. 4

Schweizer, Fortress, 1982. 4

Synge, Torch, 1951. 1D

Thompson, Horizons, 2005. 4T

Wilson, ICC, 2005. 5

Wright, Tyndale, 1986, 2nd. ed. 1994. 2

Yates, Epworth, 1993. 3

 

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Colossians: Expositions

Exegetical Commentary on the Greek New Testament

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