Colossians 1-2

While the Epistle to the Colossians resembles the literary structure and themes in Ephesians, if one scrutinizes the two carefully they will notice significant diversity as well.  Paul employed an ‘organic architectural’ metaphor in Ephesians in order to communicate the strength and expansion of the church body (2.19-22; 4.11-16); in Colossians, the metaphor of choice was a heavenly inheritance (1.5, 12-14; 2.8, 16-17; 3.1-4).  Perhaps most noteworthy in distinguishing the two epistles is that Paul spent significant time in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19), but had never set foot in Colossae (2.1).  It is thus ironic that Ephesians has an impersonal feel, while Colossians mentions several personal relationships (1.7; 4.7-17)—and this is telling.  Ephesians differs from Colossians in that the latter was written in light of a specific problem.  At some point after an evangelical presence had begun to take root in Colosae, some teachers flourished with a syncretistic message that combined elements of Roman paganism and Judaism.  Especially dangerous was the fact that they may not have out-rightly rejected some facets of the Christian gospel; they rather proposed that in addition to the message of Christ one needed to secure their eternal inheritance through circumcision (2.11-13), observance of (especially Jewish) holidays (2.16-19), and asceticism (2.20-23).  For Paul this was a denial of the gospel all together; for him, Christ plus anything implied that Christ meant nothing.  Paul argued that Christ is supreme over all spiritual authorities (1.13-20), and believers are complete in Him (1.28; 2.6-10), awaiting a secured heavenly inheritance (1.3-6, 9-12; 3.1-4).  Like Ephesians, the doctrinal foundation of the epistle (chs 1-2), has implications for Christian ethics (chs 3-4):

  1. Paul offered thanksgiving and petition in light of the objective hope of an eternal inheritance that was given the Colossians with the message of the gospel (1.1-14).  Paul recognized that their forward and upward looking hope was in fact the basis of the faith and love among them (vv. 3-5).  The reality of what awaited them was not heard from a stranger, but from one they knew, Epaphras (vv. 7-8).  Paul thus asked God to fill the Colossians with the knowledge of His will—both the insight to “walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him” (v. 10), and to know that He had given them a “share in the saints’ inheritance in the light” (v. 12).  Their future reward and present ethical norms were to be based upon the fact that God had transferred them out of Satan’s domain, and “into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (v. 13), the place of redemption and the forgiveness of sins (v. 14)
  2. Paul called the Colossians to remember that the means of their reconciliation with God was none other than the exalted Christ (1.15-2.3).  Paul was concerned that someone was attempting to rob the Colossians of their inheritance; to aid in their self-defense, he called them to remember the high status of their Savior, and their security in Him.  They had been reconciled by none other than One who was human and divine, “the firstborn over all creation” (1.15), the creator of all physical and spiritual reality (1.16), the initial cause of existence for all that exists, and the point of coherence for everything (1.17), the “head of the body, the church” (1.18), the bodily fullness of God (1.19).  Through the shed blood of the exalted Messiah, the Colossians, “once alienated and hostile in mind” (1.21), were brought near to God.  In light of the opponents who had come to Colossae proclaiming that Christ was not sufficient for salvation, Paul’s word of encouragement to the church was that they “remain grounded and steadfast in the faith…not shifted away from the hope of the gospel” (1.23).  So compelling was the supremacy of Christ—even for the Gentiles (1.27)—that Paul’s ministry aim was to “present everyone mature in Christ” (v. 28).  He labored and struggled for this, desiring that the hearts of God’s people be “encouraged and joined together in love” (2.2), that they would fully grasp the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in “God’s mystery—Christ” (2.2)
  3. In light of their completeness in Christ, Paul urged the Colossians to stand strong against those trying to demolish their hope through elements of Jewish or pagan religion (2.4-23).  After the gospel had arrived in Colossae, some had attempted to deceive them and pull them away from their stability in Christ.  In Paul’s view, the opponents employed “philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world” (v. 8) in order to take the Colossians captive to a ‘Christ-plus-x’ worldview.  Since the “entire fullness of God’s nature” (v. 9) dwells in Christ, Paul reminded the Colossians that they were spiritually complete in Him—needing nothing beyond sincere faith and devotion to Him (v. 10).  Some had claimed that the Colossians needed to be circumcised—but they had been, “in the circumcision of the Messiah” (v. 11); their union with Him in His death and resurrection was the basis of their pure and innocent status before God (vv. 12-15).  Others had argued that the Colossians needed to ‘finish-off’ their spirituality by maintaining (primarily Jewish) laws regarding food, drink, and holy days; Paul said, “These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is of the Messiah” (v. 17).  While ascetic practices of self-denial gave the impression of humble devotion, they were actually a mask for pride (v. 18), “human commands and doctrines” (v. 22)—those things which “are not of any value against fleshly indulgence” (v. 23b).  Paul reminded them that true spiritual progress comes only as one holds on to Christ, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God” (v. 19)

God demanded zealous devotion from those whom He brought into a covenant relationship with Himself.  Before Israel entered the Promised Land, they were warned time-and-again that the Lord expected their full attention—despite the pressures of idolatry that would come with their geographical situation in Canaan (cf. Exod 23.20-33; Deuteronomy 7, 11; 13; 28-30; 2 Kings 17).  In the progress of the storyline of Scripture, it becomes apparent that Christ—God in the flesh—is to be the object of all religious affection.  The Colossians lived in a highly syncretistic society, a diverse religious culture where one’s spirituality was measured by the number of gods they worshipped with sincerity—as opposed to the number of gods they rejected because of sincerity to Christ.  As a minority community, the Colossians were thus tempted to capitulate to the ‘Christ-plus-x’ worldview being proposed by their opponents.  Paul’s antidote was to remind them of Christ—and urge them to be thankful for their full status in Him (2.7)—that they would bear-up against those who offered cheap substitutes of spirituality.  

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