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.


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.


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.