3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. (NRSV)
Here Paul reviews his relationship to the Colossian church. This relationship is mediated by Paul’s “fellow servant” (literally, fellow “slave”) of Christ, Epaphras, the member of Paul’s missionary team who seems to have been the first to share the gospel with the Colossians. Indeed, from Col. 2.1, it seems that Paul has never met the Colossians face-to-face. From Col. 4.12 we learn that Epaphras is “one of” the Colossians. However, it is not clear exactly what that means. In context, it could mean simply that Epaphras is a gentile (see 4.11). Or, it could mean that he is a leader in the Colossian church, or a native of Colossae, or both. From 4.13 we further learn that Epaphras’s work has been focused on the three cities of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hieropolis. In Philemon 23 we learn also that Epaphras was in prison with Paul (see also Col. 4.10 and 18).
Ultimately, then, Paul’s relationship to the Colossians is founded on the gospel. He knows of them and is concerned for them because they have responded to the gospel, as shared by Epaphras. He is thankful for their faith in Christ, and for their love for all the saints (1.4). This love for their fellow saints is an expression of their faith, deriving from “the hope laid up for [them] in heaven,” which they have learned about previously when they first heard “the word of truth, the gospel” (1.5). Interestingly, we see here the three so-called “theological virtues” that Paul famously mentions in 1 Cor. 13. Here, however, ‘hope’ does not refer to an attitude that the Colossians will have in heaven (as we might have hope here and now), but rather to some object set aside for them in heaven, the thing they will receive in heaven, and which they now hope for. Thus, it is the object of their present hope that is “laid up” for them in heaven.
But, what is this thing hoped for? Col. 1.27 suggests that it is none other than “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Paul’s point, then, in 1.4-5 is that the Colossians’ love for the saints is because of Christ, and his presence in them. This presence of Christ has stirred up a love for those with whom they share faith. Indeed, it seems Paul and Timothy—the writers and senders of this letter (1.1)—have also become objects of the Colossians’ love. I take it that the Colossians’ “love in the Spirit” (1.8) that Epaphras has made known to Paul and Timothy is simply the love that the Colossians have for Paul and Timothy. The phrase “in the Spirit” seems to mark two things. First, it seems to mark the fact that the Colossians love Paul and Timothy despite never having met them. This is like saying that you are with someone “in spirit”, even though you are not actually present with them. Second, it again seems to mark the idea that Christ’s mysterious presence with the Colossians, by the Holy Spirit, is the cause of their love for Paul and Timothy.
What can we learn from this passage? First, we can learn from Paul’s seeming aim. By reiterating his relationship to the Colossians—reminding them of the Colossians’ love for him, of his loving connection with Epaphras (“one of them”), and of how thankful he is for their faith—Paul seems to be smoothing the way for the correction that will come later in the letter (Col. 2.8-23). This is especially important since he has never met them face-to-face. We are reminded here that difficult truths are always easier to receive when they come from someone with whom we have a strong relationship. When hard truths do come from someone we are close to, we know that the words do not jeopardize our tie to the person. If it is strong, the relationship can weather the storm and come out stronger. This seems especially important for parents. In my experience, my correction of my children is most effective when my children are sure of my love for them, and that the correction does not in any way threaten my love or our ongoing relationship.
A second lesson from this passage, it seems to me, is that Christ’s presence stirs love for fellow followers of Christ. But, why is this? Perhaps as Christians we take on something of Christ’s love for his followers. As we are united with Christ—as Christ takes his place in us and with us, by his Spirit—we begin to think, feel, and act as he does, and so we take on his love for those that call him Lord. This fits with the further idea that the inward renewal that begins when we commit ourselves to Christ is a kind of taking on of the image of Christ, or a becoming like Christ. (This idea is also evident in Colossians; see 3.10.) If we are taking on Christ’s image and becoming like him—by the power of the in-dwelling Holy Spirit—then we will care about the things Christ cares about, which include his followers.