Colossians 1:9-12 Commentary: Knowledge of God’s Will

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. (NRSV)

After recounting his relationship to the Colossian church—a relationship based in the fact that they have responded to the gospel of Christ that Paul preaches—Paul shifts gears and explains his desire for the Colossians, and states that he has been praying that this desire would be realized. The implicit purpose of these verses is to tell the Colossians the general point of his letter, or what he hopes the letter will help to bring about in them. Paul’s general purpose in writing the letter, then, is that they would be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9). Paul thinks this knowledge of God’s will will help the Colossians to live lives that are worthy of, and pleasing to, Christ. Specifically, the kind of life it will help them to live is one that is marked by good works and growing knowledge of God. This, then, is the life that Paul wants for the Colossians, and his letter seems aimed, in general, at helping them to achieve this goal.

In this passage Paul mentions for the first time “knowledge,” which will be a recurring theme in the letter. Over and over Paul contrasts knowledge of God with deceptive teachings that the Colossians have apparently been tempted by (e.g., Col. 2:2-4, 2:8). He will expose these falsehoods (e.g., Col. 2:16-23) and he will counter them with the true gospel (e.g., Col. 1:13-23, 2:9-15). Paul’s focus on the knowledge of God in Colossians has led some scholars to suggest that in the letter Paul was combating a form of Gnosticism—a doctrine according to which the key to liberating the soul from the wicked material world was a kind of secret knowledge (the Greek word for knowledge is transliterated ‘gnosis’). However, it is well known that Gnosticism did not become a full-fledged school of thought until the second century. Thus, if the traditional authorship and date of Colossians is correct—i.e., if the apostle Paul wrote the letter sometime in the 50’s A.D.—then it could not be that Paul was confronting Gnosticism proper. On the other hand, it could be that a confrontation with Gnosticism in the letter suggests a second-century date and different authorship. I will discuss these date and authorship issues later, when we come to the passage that some scholars think is stylistically different from Paul’s other letters (i.e., Col. 2:12-13), but suffice it to say here that I think the arguments for a later date and different authorship are very weak indeed. It seems pretty clear to me that Paul really wrote this letter. Moreover, the teachings he confronts later in the letter seem to have a distinctly Jewish flavor to them (e.g., Col. 2:16), suggesting that Paul’s opponents are no mere Gnostics.

After stating the general aim for his letter to the Colossians—that they would know God’s will and thus live lives marked by good works and growing knowledge of God—Paul prays that God would make the Colossians strong by sharing his power with them, and that this strength would prepare them to endure “everything with patience” (Col. 1:11). Presumably, the Colossians were experiencing hardship and struggle of some sort, perhaps related to the false teachings they were wrestling with. Paul ends his prayer with the hope that the Colossians will joyfully give thanks to God, who has enabled them (or called them) to share in the “inheritance of the saints in the light” (Col. 1:12). Here, the reference to “light” contrasts the glorious, illuminated kingdom of God with the place of darkness in which the Colossians lived before they accepted Christ (Col. 1:13). Verse 12 marks a transition from Paul’s hopes and prayers for the Colossians to a statement of the gospel in the next passage.

What strikes me about this passage is the kind of life that Paul wants for the Colossians—a life marked by good works and growing knowledge of God. These two aspects of the Christian life are inseparable: knowledge of God moves one to do good things in the world. While I will have more to say later about the “knowledge of God” that Paul wants for the Colossians, in this passage Paul points out some of the good works that he wants them to exhibit. Specifically, Paul wants the Colossians to endure their hardships with patience, and to give thanks to God joyfully for what God has done, exchanging their darkness for light. Typically, when I think of “good works,” I think of heroic acts of beneficence, such as rescuing vulnerable children from the streets of Calcutta. However, Paul reminds us here that good works can also be much simpler: drawing on God’s strength to endure hardship and giving thanks for what God has done are also good works. These tasks are still not easy, as hardship can be crushing sometimes, and, as a result, gratitude can be hard to come by. Nevertheless, where tending to children in Calcutta might seem so difficult as to be impossible, endurance and thanksgiving are surely within our grasp. This is an encouraging thought for an ordinary Christian pilgrim like me.

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