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.


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.