Colossians 2:9-12 Commentary: Raised with Christ

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. NRSV

In the previous passage (Colossians 2:6-8), Paul urged the Colossians to avoid captivity to the principles and powers that underlie the human traditions in which the Colossians had been dabbling. Here, in Colossians 2:9-12, Paul begins to tell them why they should do so. The reason is that Christ is the divine head of every power and authority, including those the Colossians have been entertaining. Since these powers and authorities are not really in charge—rather, Christ is—the Colossians should not let themselves be ruled by them.

Colossians 2:9-10 Commentary

In Col. 2:9 Paul tells us that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Paul can make this enormous theological claim—that Christ is divine—in a brief manner because he has already explained it at length in Col. 1:15-19. Indeed, it seems that Paul’s prior lofty teaching about Christ was setup for this point in the letter, where he uses the teaching in his argument. Paul’s specification that the full divine nature dwells in Christ “bodily” is telling. Again it seems Paul is countering a proto-Gnostic strand in the Colossian heresy that held the material world to be evil. That the thoroughly good divine nature would dwell in Christ bodily—in the material stuff of his human body—puts the lie to the thought that matter is inferior to spirit and wicked. On the contrary, it is worthy of divine inhabitance.

In Col. 2:10 Paul tells the Colossians that they have “come to fullness” in Christ, or that they have been filled in him, or through him (BDAG, p. 828). Whatever fullness the Colossians have been seeking in their dabbling in human traditions—whatever power or quality they wished to take on—Christ has already provided it. Thus, they need not seek it elsewhere. This Christ is the “head” of the powers and authorities underlying human traditions. In other words, he ranks supremely over them in status and power (BDAG, p. 542).A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, BDAG Paul’s reference to “every ruler and authority” seems clearly to refer back to the “elemental spirits of the universe” he mentioned in Col. 2:8. Thus, the first reason the Colossians should avoid the teachings and spiritual powers behind mere human traditions is that the divine Christ is supreme over them and anything they were seeking in such teachings and powers is already available to them in the fullness Christ has brought to them. They need look no further.

Colossians 2:11-12 Commentary

Furthermore, in Col. 2:11 Paul begins to explain that the Colossians have mysteriously taken part in Christ’s death and resurrection, which means they are no longer subject to the spiritual powers and authorities. Rather, they participate in Christ’s triumph over them, and so they need not appease them. Paul begins this point with his claim (in Col. 2:11) that in Christ the Colossians “were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision [a circumcision made without hands], by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” The word translated “flesh” here (sarkos) is a subtle one with a range of possible meanings. However, in this verse Paul seems to be referring to the physical body as an instrument of sinful activity (BDAG p. 915). Thus, the idea is that in “the circumcision of Christ”—the spiritual circumcision made without hands—the source of the Colossians’ sinful activity was cut away as the foreskin is cut away in circumcision. Paul’s metaphorical use of ‘circumcision’ here suggests that his audience may have thought that the Jewish rite of circumcision was part of what was required to appease the elemental spirits. Part of Paul’s point, then, is that the spiritual “circumcision of Christ” is sufficient for them.

But, what exactly is the “circumcision of Christ”? Paul tells us in Col. 2:12: the “circumcision of Christ” is the Colossians’ participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism. In baptism, the Colossians were “buried” and “raised” as Christ was. The act of being submerged beneath the waters of baptism is a picture of being submerged beneath the ground, as in a grave. Similarly, the act of rising up out of the waters is a picture of bursting forth from the grave in resurrection. Importantly, however, Paul clarifies that while baptism symbolizes this death and resurrection, the real spiritual death and resurrection whereby the Colossians have been liberated from their sinful flesh is a result of their “faith in the power of God.” Thus, while baptism is a powerful symbol, it is not the source of the spiritual work wrought in the Colossians. Rather, it is their faith, and ultimately God’s power, that has liberated them. God’s power is what liberated Christ from death, and so God’s power is what has liberated the Colossians.

Colossians 2:12: Did Paul Write Colossians?

Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology, Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye ThompsonColossians 2:12 is ground zero of the debate over whether Paul actually wrote Colossians or whether another author in Paul’s theological tradition wrote it in his name after Paul’s death. The controversy turns on the author’s claim in Col. 2:12 and Col. 3:1 that the Colossians were “raised with” Christ. In the two other places that Paul discusses the resurrection of Christians he seems careful to locate that event in the future. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 he says, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Similarly, in Romans 6:5 Paul writes, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In both of these passages, Paul claims that Christians will be resurrected in the future. As Achtemeier et al. (p. 419) state, “The compound verb ‘crucified with’ occurs in the undisputed letters (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20), as does the compound verb ‘buried with’ (Rom. 6:4), but the compound verb ‘raised with’ does not.” Given the theological importance of the resurrection in Paul’s thought, the different way it is presented in Colossians has led many scholars to deny that Paul wrote the letter.

However, this argument fails to see that the author of Colossians qualifies the idea that Christians have already been raised with Christ. First, he says that the Colossians have been raised with Christ “through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” In other words, the author’s claim is not that Christians have been raised bodily in the way that Christ was. Rather, they have been raised in some other (spiritual?) sense brought on by their faith in God’s power. Second, when the author again claims that the Colossians have been “raised with Christ” in Col. 3:1, he says shortly thereafter that their lives remain “hidden with Christ in God,” and that this life in Christ will only be revealed in the future, when Christ himself is revealed. Thus, in both verses it seems clear that Paul is talking about a non-bodily resurrection that anticipates the bodily resurrection of the saints but does not constitute it. This is obviously different from the context of 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 6, where Paul is talking about the bodily resurrection of the saints.

Moreover, the argument that Paul did not author Colossians misses the fact that Paul would have had very good reason for shifting his language in Colossians to talk of Christians being “raised with Christ,” despite not using this phrase elsewhere. As noted, the central problem in Colossae seemed to be that the Colossians were thinking of Christ as just another one of the elemental spirits of the world that one had to appease if one was to do well in life. Paul’s burden was to show them that Christ, as God, was supreme over these spirits in authority and power—indeed, that Christ made them. In this context, Paul seems to have used the somewhat uncharacteristic language suggesting that Christians have already “risen with Christ” since he wanted to emphasize that, like Christ and because of Christ, Christians now need not be concerned with the power of the elemental spirits; they have risen above them, and thus should put their minds on things above.

This context is very different from the context of 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 6. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul was contending with a church that doubted resurrection altogether. Thus, his burden there was to emphasize that Christ had, in fact, been raised bodily from the dead, thereby disproving their doubts. In Romans 6 Paul’s burden was to show that Christians have died to sin, and thus his emphasis is on the parallel between Christ’s death and the Christians’ symbolic death to sin in baptism. In neither 1 Cor. 15 nor Rom. 6 does Paul have the same aim as the author in Col. 2. Thus, Paul had reasons to use this new language in Col. 2 that he would not have had in 1 Cor. 15 or Rom. 6. Thus, I see no good reason to doubt that Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians.

Colossians 2:9-12: Lessons

What can we learn from this passage? First, as Christians many of us struggle to view Christ as the one in whom we have come to fullness. The spirits and powers of our age tempt us to seek fullness elsewhere, whether in our work, our family, our romantic life, our friends, drugs and alcohol, money, or power. Indeed, this is just another way of describing idolatry: seeking fullness apart from Christ, the second person of the divine trinity. The trick is to cultivate practices that keep Christ and the fullness he brings ever before us. This is why we study and meditate on scripture, and why we pray, fast, and worship together: that we may know in the deepest parts of ourselves that Christ is our sufficiency, no matter what the cultural idols around us might say. These spiritual disciplines help us to live—both inwardly and outwardly—the truth of the fullness to which Christ has brought us.

Second, Paul’s parallel between circumcision and baptism, here, is one doctrinal source of the practice of infant baptism. Circumcision was (and continues to be) a Jewish practice performed on babies. On the eighth day of life, male babies are circumcised in a public ceremony known as a “bris” or “brit milah”. This act of circumcision is a kind of welcoming of the baby into Abraham’s covenant and the Jewish religious community. But, if Paul is drawing a parallel between circumcision and baptism, why not think baptism, too, should be practiced on infants born to Christian parents as a way of welcoming them to the Christian religious community? This, at least, is part of the rationale of those Christian denominations that practice infant baptism. Such a practice does not, of course, do away with the idea that each person must eventually have a personal faith in Christ. In communities that practice infant baptism, the practice of confirmation typically plays this role. There are, of course, arguments that may be put in favor of “believer’s baptism,” the practice of baptizing only after someone has come to a conscious faith of their own. Nevertheless, those advocating such a believer’s baptism often dismiss infant baptism as having no scriptural grounding when, in fact, that is false, as Colossians 2:11-12 suggests.

A third lesson derives from Paul’s claim that the Colossians have, in a sense, been liberated from the spiritual powers and authorities. Although this is true—given what Christ has done and their participation in that act through faith—there is also a sense in which it is not true. Indeed, there would have been no need for Paul’s letter instructing the Colossians to avoid entanglement with such powers and authorities if, through Christ, they were completely free of them. Thus, Paul’s claim that the Colossians have been liberated from the powers and authorities is nevertheless a standard toward which the Colossians must strive. They must do their part in making this fact a complete reality. Christ’s work—in death and resurrection—has made this complete liberation possible, and now it is up to the Colossians to live it out, empowered by Christ.

The same holds for us as contemporary followers of Christ. This reality can be quite difficult to navigate. In a sense we are already liberated, but in another we are not yet liberated. This struggle is a large part of the Christian life. Sometimes we are captive to the idols of this age, and other times we walk free of them. Christ’s promise to us is that we will walk with ever greater freedom from them as we follow and obey him, and that one day we will be completely free. Come Lord Jesus; may it be.

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Colossians 2:6-8 Commentary: Continue in Christ

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives [Greek: “walk”] in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. NRSV

In Col. 1:1-2:5 Paul gave a lengthy introduction to his letter, in which he greeted the Colossians, reminded them of his relationship to them, expressed the general aim of his letter, offered a statement of the gospel tailored to the Colossians’ context, reviewed his commission to make the word of God fully known, and revealed the specific aim of his letter—to counter deception among the Colossians.

Now, having finished this introduction, in Col. 2:6-4:6 Paul wades into the heart of the letter and the specific teaching he has for the Colossians. In Col. 2:6-8 he begins with a general summary of the teaching: the Colossians are to “continue” in Christ (2:6-7). A crucial aspect of continuing in Christ for the Colossians will be for them to avoid various deceptions that have been plaguing the church (2:8). In subsequent verses Paul will clarify certain specific deceptions they should avoid (2:16-19) and the reasons they should do so (2:9-15 and 2:20-23).

Colossians 2:6-7 Commentary

Paul’s central teaching of the letter, then, is that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ (2:6). Just as they began by “receiving” Christ Jesus, the Lord, so they should continue to live their lives “in him.” The Greek word here translated as “received” has the sense of accepting or affirming a certain religious tradition—namely, the teaching that Christ Jesus is the Lord. From Paul’s prior teaching in the letter, the sense in which Christ is Lord is lofty indeed: Christ is the divine creator and supreme authority over all creation, which includes the Colossians. Thus, just as the Colossians first affirmed that Christ is Lord over them, so they should continue to live their lives in a way that reflects Christ’s Lordship over them. This, it seems, is part of what Paul means by telling them to walk “in him.”

However, Paul has more to say about what it means to walk in Christ. It is to be “rooted and built up in him,” to be “established in the faith,” and to abound in thanksgiving (Col. 2:7). The verbs “rooted,” “built up,” and “established” are all passive verbs, suggesting that rooting, building up, and establishing are not activities that the Colossians themselves can accomplish directly. Perhaps Paul’s idea is that Christ does the rooting, building up, and establishing. Nevertheless, the Colossians can do something to put themselves in a position to be rooted, built up, and established in the faith. First, they should abound in thanksgiving, expressing thanks for all they have been given in Christ, such as their rescue from the powers of darkness (Col. 1:13), their forgiveness (Col. 1:14), and their reconciliation with God (Col. 1:21-22).

Colossians 2:8 Commentary

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, BDAG
Second, they can avoid empty deceptive philosophies that conform to “human tradition” and the dark powers of the universe (Col. 2:8). According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the Greek word translated by the NRSV as “elemental spirits” seems to have a dual meaning in this passage. First, it refers to “transcendent powers that are in control over events in this world…elemental spirits.” Second, it seems to refer to “things that constitute the foundation of learning,” i.e., “fundamental principles” (the NASB translation privileges this second meaning). The intriguing implication is that, in Paul’s view, there is a close link between elemental spirits and fundamental principles, between spiritual forces and basic teachings. It seems that the elemental spirits exercised their control over events in the world, in part, by way of certain fundamental principles. A contemporary scientific analogy might be the link between matter and the physical laws that govern it. Paul’s idea, then, is that the elemental spirits have been holding certain of the Colossians captive by way of false principles at the root of the “human traditions” they were following. They had returned to the captivity from which Christ had liberated them (Col. 1:13-14), and thus had submitted to powers and principles contrary to Christ. Paul’s admonition is that they should allow no one—no teacher, no principles, no spirits—to take them captive in this way. Rather, Christ alone is their Lord, and so it is his teachings alone to which they should submit.

What can we learn from this passage? Paul’s central teaching that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ seems crucial for us today. For Christians that emphasize evangelism or mission, the focus (especially in church gatherings) can be so much on receiving Christ that it is sometimes easy to overlook the importance and practicalities of living life “in Christ” each day. As Paul suggests here, part of living in Christ is being grateful for all we have received—both spiritual and physical blessings. If we make it a daily discipline to express gratitude to God and people, this can have a truly transformative effect on our attitude. If we are grateful, we are no longer fearful, anxious, or discontent. Rather, we meet the world with a sense that we are taken care of, and that we have enough. In this way, gratitude can bring a peaceful contentment that no pile of material treasure could ever produce.

The second provocative lesson we can learn is that whenever we follow teachings contrary to Christ’s, we have slipped out from under the lordship of Christ and are being led by dark spiritual powers. I have discussed this idea at more length in a previous post.

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Colossians 2:1-5 Commentary: Countering Deception

2:1 For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face. 2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ. NRSV

In the previous passage Paul recounted his general calling or commission “to make the word of God fully known” (Col. 1:25). In Colossians 2:1-5 he states his specific desires for the Colossians and the specific aim of his letter. He is concerned that the Colossians avoid a certain deception that threatens the church and his letter is designed to further this end.

Colossians 2:1-3 Commentary

In Col. 2:1 Paul connects the general struggle and toil of his commission to his special struggle on behalf of the Colossians and the church near them in Laodicea. He is working hard and suffering for them in particular. We are reminded here (as in Colossians 1:3-8) that Paul has never met the Colossians or the Laodicean church face to face. Rather, Paul has only heard about them from Epaphras, who, it seems, was the one who founded the churches (see Col. 1:7-8). Paul’s desire for these followers of Jesus, then, is that their hearts “be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3).

Paul’s idea, here, is interesting and quite counter-intuitive. His suggestion is that the encouragement and unity of the community in love is a means to understanding and knowledge of Christ. The implication is that, as individuals disconnected from the community—lacking in love and unity—they will be unable to realize the riches of understanding and knowledge of Christ. Such knowledge is only (or at least primarily) available to a community of encouraged, united, and loving followers of Christ.

The list of goods that Paul says is available to such a community is decidedly cognitive: “assured understanding,” “knowledge of God’s mystery,” “wisdom and knowledge.” As I suggested in my comments on Colossians 1:27, it seems these are at least some of the “riches” of Christ’s glory that are available to his followers. While the riches of Christ’s glory are surely not restricted to such cognitive goods, it may be that Paul emphasizes these goods due to the proto-Gnostic nature of the heresy troubling the Colossians. If the Colossians have been duped into seeking secret knowledge (“gnosis,” transliterated from Greek) by false teachers, Paul’s counter-argument seems to be that any knowledge they might want or need is to be found in Christ.

Thus, these cognitive riches have a very different role in Paul’s story than they do in the proto-Gnostic story. For the proto-Gnostics, special knowledge was the means to liberation from an evil material world. For Paul, a kind of knowledge and wisdom—namely, knowledge of Christ and wisdom about how to live this earthly life—are the end result of proper communal attachment to Christ. Thus, Paul directs the Colossians not to mere knowledge, but to Christ and his community as a means to knowledge and wisdom. He also suggests that in Christ our understanding is “assured” in a way that it is not otherwise (Col. 2:2).

Colossians 2:4-5 Commentary

In Col. 2:4 Paul states that his purpose in reminding the Colossians of the true route to understanding, knowledge, and wisdom—Christ himself—is that “no one may deceive” them with “plausible arguments.” Here we have the first hint in the letter that certain false teachers have been tempting the Colossians with plausible but deceptive arguments. Since Paul’s teaching in Col. 2:2-3 is meant to counter this deception (“I say this so that no one may deceive you…”), it seems that the deceptive arguments pushed the Colossians toward a rugged individualism and disunity contrary to the loving unity Paul urges on them, and toward a kind of knowledge apart from Christ that left them unsure of themselves, contrary to the assured understanding and knowledge that Paul says is to be found in Christ.

Finally, in Col. 2:5 Paul reminds them that although he is not physically with them, he is with them “in spirit.” This phrase seems to suggest that Paul views himself as connected with the Colossians by God’s in-dwelling Holy Spirit—“Christ in you” (Col. 1:27)—and that the Colossians are on his mind and in his heart despite his physical absence. Moreover, Paul’s joyful hope is that they would have firm faith in Christ, and that they would have strong morale. The word translated “morale” here suggests a state of good order or discipline, akin to military discipline. Thus, Paul’s hope seems to be that they would be firm not only in their faith in Christ, but also in their disciplined resistance to the false teachings.

What can we learn from this passage? Paul’s idea that wisdom and knowledge of Christ are goods to be attained communally is an important corrective for the prevalent contemporary individualism that tends to accept Jesus but reject his church. Here Paul suggests that you really cannot have assured understanding, knowledge of Christ, and wisdom apart from a loving union with Christ’s people—the church. Indeed, Paul suggests that it is deception to think that one could go it alone—“Just me and Jesus”—and have the kind of firm, living faith in Christ that is able to resist heresy. If we are to maintain a firm hold on the truth, we must gather together in our pursuit of Jesus. Alone, we are all too vulnerable to discouragement and plausible but deceptive arguments.

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Colossians 1:24-29 Commentary: Paul’s Commission to the Gentiles

24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.  NRSV

Having finished his statement of the gospel to the Colossians, in 1:24-29 Paul briefly recounts his commission to the Gentiles. Paul’s aim in this passage seems to be to remind the Colossians of the general reason for his letter—namely, that God has called him to guide the Gentile church, including the Colossians—and of his authority to address them. However, it does not seem that Paul’s authority was necessarily called into question by the Colossian church in the way that it seems to have been, for example, in Corinth (see 2 Corinthians 10-12) or Galatia (see Galatians 1-2). As a result, Paul does not really defend his commission here as he does in his letters to those churches. Rather, here he seems content just to explain it.

Colossians 1:24-25 Commentary

In Col. 1:24 Paul begins by referring to his sufferings for the sake of the Colossians and the church in general. In light of Col. 4:10, the suffering he is referring to is presumably that associated with being in prison. Given that Paul describes the sufferings as “for your sake” and “for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” it seems his imprisonment is a result of his work on behalf of the church. Col. 1:25 and 1:28 suggest more specifically that it is Paul’s efforts to “make the word of God fully known,” to proclaim Christ, and to warn and teach, that has landed him in prison. Paul’s joy in his sufferings recalls Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:11-12: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” However, Paul’s joy here seems less related to his reward in heaven and more related to the idea that his suffering is accomplishing the work of his commission. In part, he seems to view his suffering as a necessary result of his work on behalf of the church, and so his suffering is a sign that his aims are being advanced.

However, Paul’s joy may also be due, in part, to the fact that he views his suffering as part of Jesus’s suffering on behalf of the church. To be identified with his savior in this way would surely bring him joy. The language of Paul’s statement here is astounding: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” In Colossians 1:15-19 we learned that Christ is God himself—creator and sustainer of the universe. Indeed, Paul told us there that “all the fullness of God” was pleased to dwell in Christ (Col. 1:19). Surely, such a divine Christ could lack nothing. And yet Paul’s statement, here, tells us that something about Christ was lacking: his suffering on behalf of the church was incomplete, in some way, and Paul’s suffering is a contribution to its completion. Although Paul’s language seems jarring—especially when juxtaposed so closely with his portrait of Christ’s divinity—the effect is more rhetorical than substantive. Paul is not, here, suggesting that Christ’s suffering and death failed to be what it should have been. Rather, he is simply suggesting that Christ left work for us to do, and that his suffering is a contribution to that work.

In Col. 1:25 Paul tells us that he became the servant of the church “according to God’s commission that was given to me for you…” This may be an allusion to his conversion. Immediately after the first description of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, the Lord describes Paul’s commission to Ananias as follows: “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). This description of Paul’s calling resonates both with his own description of his calling in Col. 1:25-26 (“…to make the word of God fully known…”) and with his view in Col. 1:24 that his suffering is part of that calling (“…I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…”).

Colossians 1:26-27 Commentary

What does Paul mean by “making the word of God fully known”? Col. 1:26 tells us that it involves making known “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” Paul’s use of “mystery” here seems simply to pick up on the idea that whatever he is making known has been hidden, and is thus mysterious. But, what is the mystery that has been revealed to the saints? In Col. 1:27 Paul tells us that it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Much is contained in this compact little phrase. I take it that “Christ in you” is a reference to the inward presence of Christ with his followers, reminding us of John 17:23 and 17:26 where Christ says he will be “in” his followers. Read in one way, Paul’s suggestion in Col. 1:27 is that Christ’s inward presence gives us hope of one day reaching heaven. On this reading, Paul’s idea is something like his claim in 2 Corinthians that God has given “us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” or “down payment.” Here, the presence of Christ in his followers, by the Holy Spirit, is a sign of our future in glory. While this reading of the phrase in Col. 1:27 seems correct, the phrase also seems to suggest a bit more. As I have claimed in my comments on Colossians 1:3-8 and Colossians 1:21-23, another idea in this phrase seems to be that Christ himself is the object of our hope. Read in this way, Christ is the object of hope “belonging to” or “located in” heaven. More succinctly, Christ is heaven’s object of hope. Thus, Paul’s complete thought here seems to be that the presence of Christ in his followers is a sign or promise that one day we will meet him in glory. Christ’s presence in us, then, gives us hope for this outcome.

According to Paul, this mystery—“Christ in you, the hope of glory”—is exceedingly glorious. In Col. 1:27 he writes, to God’s saints God “chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery…” But, what exactly are these riches, and what does Paul mean by “glory”? Synonyms for Paul’s use of “glory” here might include splendor, magnificence, majesty, or excellence. It is the condition of the resurrected Christ—who is the “mystery” that Paul refers to here—and it is the condition God’s people will assume with him in heaven. As for its riches, from the very next passage (Col. 2:3-4) Paul seems to have in mind the riches of “assured understanding” and “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” I will say more about these riches in my next post.

Colossians 1:28-29 Commentary

Paul concludes this passage by stating the aspect of his commission that seems most relevant to the Colossians: “It is he [Christ] whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Given their flirtation with heresy, and the stern teaching that will come in Colossians 2, Paul wants to remind the Colossians that he is called to warn his flock of danger, and to teach them “in all wisdom,” i.e., to teach them about how they should act, what they should do. His aim in this work is that he may help his flock—including the Colossians—toward maturity “in Christ.” Presumably, to be mature “in Christ” is to be renewed according to, or to take on, the image of Christ to a substantial degree (see Col. 3:10). This maturity of his flock is what Paul “toils” and “struggles” for “with all the energy that he [Christ] powerfully inspires within me” (Col. 1:29). Thus, the Colossians should not be surprised if he focuses his warning and teaching on their them: after all, this is Paul’s calling.

Colossians 1:24-29 Lessons

What can we learn from this passage? One lesson—which has been a refrain for me in recent posts—is that Christ is not merely a means for us; rather, and perhaps more importantly, he is the end or goal of the Christian life. As Augustine puts it in De doctrina christiana, Book I, Ch. 11, “And thus, though Wisdom was Himself our home, He made Himself also the way by which we should reach our home.” Paul’s claim that Christ is “the hope of glory” reminds us of this dual roll that Christ plays. Surely, Christ is our means of attaining glory, and our reason for anticipating and hoping for heaven. But, Christ himself is also the prize awaiting us in glory, and knowledge of him is life’s greatest treasure. My hunch is that if we desired Christ himself as our greatest treasure many of the dissatisfactions and disappointments of this life would fade into insignificance.

Another lesson from this passage is that we can view our suffering as a contribution to the completion of Christ’s work in the world. When we suffer for the sake of others, in service of the things that God has called us to do, then we are participating in Christ’s redemptive suffering—mysteriously completing the work that Christ began on the cross. We must be careful, here, though: not all of our suffering may be viewed in this way. Much of our suffering results from our own misdeeds, and this does not necessarily have a roll in completing Christ’s suffering. As Peter reminds us, “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21). Are you suffering despite having done all that Christ asks of you in this time? If so, then your suffering is part of Christ’s work in the world and may, ultimately, be a means of closer identification with him and of joy.

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Colossians 1:21-23 Commentary: Paul’s Gospel, Part 2

21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— 23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.  NRSV

In this passage Paul completes his restatement of the gospel to the Colossians. He shifts from talking generally about the preeminence of Christ and the reconciliation between God and creation that Christ has made possible, to talking specifically about what Christ has done for the Colossians.

Colossians 1:21-22 Commentary

Paul begins, in Col. 1:21-22, by noting that the Colossians themselves are part of the creation that God was pleased to reconcile to himself through Christ’s act on the cross, and that they have, in fact, been so reconciled since they have accepted the gospel. He notes that they were “once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds…” There was a relational rift between God and the Colossians, characterized by a hostility they bore toward him. This hostility might be the Colossians rejection of God’s authority in favor of the powers of darkness. This estrangement and hostility was expressed by their evil deeds. Their deeds demonstrated that they rejected God’s authority insofar as their deeds failed to conform to God’s will. However, Christ has now reconciled them back to God through his death on the cross.

The phrase Paul uses to describe this reconciliation is somewhat puzzling: Christ has reconciled the Colossians “in his fleshly body,” or translated more literally, “in the body of his flesh.” Does this mean that Christ’s fleshly body was the means of reconciliation? Probably, though it seems that Christ’s death is more properly the means of reconciliation here, since Paul says they were reconciled “through death.” Perhaps Paul’s meaning is simply that both Christ’s flesh and its death—i.e., the death of Christ’s fleshly body—was the means of reconciliation, which seems theologically straightforward enough. Still, the language of being reconciled “in his fleshly body” seems to suggest a bit more. It is almost as if the Colossians have been taken up into Christ’s body and hidden in it, dying with it on the cross. If this is right, then it might make further sense of 1.22b, which says that Christ’s aim in this reconciliation was to present the Colossians “holy and blameless and irreproachable” before himself. If the Colossians were hidden in Christ’s flesh, then in some sense to regard them would be to regard Christ, who is, in fact, holy, blameless, and irreproachable. In short, the imagery of being reconciled “in” Christ’s fleshly body might be a dramatic symbol to illustrate the fact that, through his bodily death, Christ has made the Colossians holy, blameless, and irreproachable in his sight, since, in some sense, they also died in Christ’s flesh, and so paid the price for their hostile minds and evil deeds.

If commentators are correct that the Colossians were tempted by some proto-Gnostic teaching (though, as I noted before, not full-fledged second-century Gnostic teaching), Paul’s description of the Colossians’ condition prior to reconciliation (hostility of mind) and of the means of reconciliation (Christ’s fleshly body) seems crafted to counter that teaching. The Gnostics believed that non-material mind or spirit was good while the material world was evil. Their aim, then, was to liberate their spirits from the material world by gaining secret knowledge of the spiritual world. However, in Col. 1:21-22a Paul inverts this teaching, suggesting that what was evil was the Colossians’ hostility of mind, expressed through their deeds, and that the remedy for this evil was Christ’s “fleshly body.” Thus, something material (Christ’s flesh) has rescued them from something immaterial (their hostile minds), turning the Gnostic teaching on its head.

Colossians 1:23 Commentary

In Col. 1:23 Paul moves on to note a condition on the Colossians being presented holy, blameless, and irreproachable before Christ: they must continue in faith. Specifically, they must be “securely established and steadfast” in their faith, “without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel…” What is this “hope promised by the gospel”? Again, as in Col. 1:5, what is promised by the gospel is not the having of an attitude of hope, but rather an object of hope. As we will learn in Col. 1:27, this object is Christ, “the hope of glory.” Paul’s idea here does not seem to be that heaven or “glory” is a pleasurable state to be hoped for, and that Christ is the ticket to heaven. Rather, his idea seems to be that Christ himself—or, the consummation of our already reconciled relationship to Christ—is the object of our hope, and that this attainment of Christ will only be realized in heaven. In short, our hope is not for glory but rather for Christ himself. This object of hope, then, is what Paul says the Colossians must not shift from: they must steadfastly hope for union with Christ in glory. Paul’s repeated reference to “hope” in Colossians 1 suggests that some in the church may have felt hopeless. To encourage them, Paul reminds them that their ultimate hope—union with Christ—has been promised to them by God and so it will be realized, provided that they continue to aim their lives toward it.

Interestingly, in Col. 1:23b Paul claims that this gospel that the Colossians heard “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” As in Col. 1:20, the cosmic scope of the gospel is in view. There, Paul told us that Christ’s work has made possible the reconciliation of all created things to God. Presumably, this cosmic reconciliation would somehow be effected by the universal proclamation of the gospel mentioned here. But, how has the gospel been proclaimed to fish, birds, and mammals? After all, they are some of the “creatures under heaven.” It is not clear, but what does seem clear is that it cannot be through words. Only humans (and perhaps angels) are equipped to receive a verbal gospel. Paul’s statement here is reminiscent of Romans 1:19-20, where he suggests that even inanimate creation—mountains, oceans, stars, etc.—proclaim the gospel, in a certain sense (or at least, “what can be known about God.”). It seems words are only one form of God’s proclamation.

Another puzzle: does Paul really mean that the gospel has reached every creature under heaven? If so, it seems the gospel has already been proclaimed to every human being, making nonsense of Paul’s missionary efforts. Thus, this cannot be what Paul means. The best reading here is not that everyone has already heard the gospel, but rather that the gospel has been proclaimed, and that its intended audience is “every creature under heaven.” This reading leaves open the possibility that the task of actually communicating the gospel to its intended audience remains. Hence, Paul views himself as a “servant of this gospel,” (Col. 1:23c) since there is still work to be done in spreading it to every creature under heaven. I take it that the content of this gospel is what Paul has just summarized in Col. 1:13-22.

Colossians 1:21-23 Lessons

What can we learn from this passage? It strikes me that contemporary Christians are susceptible to an error something like the proto-Gnostic error Paul seems to be addressing in this passage. We can tend to view “the spiritual” as superior to “the material.” After all, 2 Peter 3:10-13 tells us that the earth will be burned up in the end, so material stuff can seem relatively unimportant. Moreover, our bodily urges—to eat, to drink, and to have sex—seem to be the source of so many kinds of sin that the “flesh” can seem downright wicked. However, Paul reminds us here that we have been reconciled to God in Christ’s “fleshly body,” and that the spiritual (or at least the mental) is the ultimate source of our sin, not our mere bodies. I hear this teaching as a reminder to embrace and care for the material things God has created, including ourselves, other people, and the world around us. So, go get some exercise, give somebody a hug, and recycle a bottle or two.

It further strikes me that we Christians often misrepresent the hope of our gospel. In the first instance, what we should hope for is not a life of pleasure and relief from pain in heaven, though it seems heaven will include these things. Rather, our first and highest hope should be to encounter Christ—to finally meet the Man that has reconciled us to God. Too often our thirst to know Christ is minimal at best. Our western (especially American) consumer culture has taught us that ease and comfort is the aim of our lives. We tend to think of heaven as the ultimate realization of this aim, and so we hope for that. But, Paul tells us to hope for a Person. We are to hope for knowledge of Christ, face-to-face. May Paul’s magnificent portrait of Christ in this and the previous passage stir us to greater love, greater hope, and greater longing for our Lord. And may we strive to know him better even here and now.

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Colossians 1:3-8 Commentary: Paul’s relationship to the Colossian church

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.

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Colossians 1:1-2 Commentary: Paul’s Greeting

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. (NRSV)

Paul’s greeting seems very typical of all of his other letters, except for the final benediction. In virtually every other letter he calls for grace and peace from God our father “and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The only exception is 1 Thessalonians, where Paul leaves off who the grace and peace is from altogether. There he just says, “Grace to you and peace” (1 Thess. 1.1). It is not clear that the missing “and the Lord Jesus Christ” in Colossians 1.2 has any significance, especially since Christ is mentioned in two other places in the greeting.

The greeting, of course, states Paul’s apostleship, and that his calling to this role is according to God’s will. We also learn that Paul is with Timothy.

Given that the occasion of Paul’s letter is a kind of heresy that has arisen in portions of the Colossian church (see 2.8-23), it is striking that he calls them “saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.” His affirmation here sets the tone for his corrective teaching later. He is not calling them to a complete about-face; rather, he is just calling them to greater maturity in their faith. Verses 1.10 (he wants them to be “…fully pleasing…” to God) and 1.28-2.1 further suggest this goal.

Paul’s affirmation here is a model of how God deals with his beloved, redeemed, yet stubbornly sinful people. If someone is a follower of Christ then God calls her a saint and a faithful one. The truth is, though, that even the most holy Christian continues to be un-saintly and unfaithful throughout her earthly life. Thus, the words “saint” and “faithful” apply to us only in light of God’s forgiveness and grace. God attributes them to us for Christ’s sake, despite the fact that they are not strictly accurate accounts of who and what we now are. In calling us saints and faithful ones, God gently calls us to maturity and to the standards of faithfulness that we will one day attain in glory. Thus, these words both mark our heavenly future and call us to faithful lives here and now.

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