Philemon 22-25 Commentary: Prepare a Guest Room

22 One thing more: prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

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Historical-Cultural Context: Ephesus and Colossae

Ephesus was roughly a four-day walk from Colossae and was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia at the time Paul wrote the letter. Some scholars argue that the prison from which Paul wrote Philemon was in Ephesus. In contrast, the other main options considered by scholars—Caesarea and Rome—were much farther away and likely would have required travel by boat.

Philemon 22 Commentary

The fact Philemon has a guest room in his house (v. 22) reminds us he is a wealthy property owner. Only such property owners would have a house large enough to include guest rooms.

The fact Paul thinks he’ll “be restored to” the Colossian church soon (v. 22; why else would he ask them to prepare a guest room?) implies both that Paul expected his term in prison to end soon and that his place of imprisonment was likely close to Colossae. This evidence suggests he was not imprisoned in Caesarea or Rome but rather in Ephesus at the time he wrote Philemon.

Philemon 23-25 Commentary

From Colossians 1:7-8 and 4:12-13, it seems Epaphras was from Colossae and founded the churches in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis.

The fact that Colossians 4:10-14 mentions the same names mentioned in Philemon 23-24, along with the fact that Onesimus seems to have delivered the letter to the Colossians (cf. Colossians 4:9), suggests to some scholars that the two letters were written and sent at or around the same time.

Paul calls Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke his “coworkers,” again emphasizing the egalitarian relations between followers of Jesus that Paul has emphasized throughout the letter.

Paul’s use of “spirit” in v. 25 is a reference to the human spirit, i.e., to the people of the Colossian church understood as spiritual people open to the grace and Spirit of God.

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 10-17, or Philemon 18-21.


Philemon 18-21 Commentary: Conflict with Onesimus

18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

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Philemon 18 Commentary

The idea that Onesimus may have “wronged” Philemon (v. 18) suggests there was a conflict between them. Paul’s talk of “owing,” “charging,” and “repaying” (vv. 18-19) suggests the conflict involved money.

Paul’s use of a conditional sentence in v. 18 (“If he has wronged you…”) suggests he doesn’t really think Onesimus has wronged Philemon. If Paul really thought Onesimus had wronged him, Paul would simply have said, “Charge what he owes to me.” Thus, it seems likely Paul is acknowledging, here, that Philemon thinks Onesimus has wronged him and owes him compensation, even though Paul and Onesimus disagree.

The fact of the conflict suggests that part of Paul’s objective with the letter is to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. This objective, in turn, suggests that what Paul felt bold enough to command Philemon to do in v. 8 was to forgive Onesimus whatever wrong Philemon perceived him to have committed. Forgiveness was a teaching Jesus frequently emphasized (e.g., Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4), explaining why Paul would feel bold enough to command it (v. 8).

The fact of the conflict further suggests that Onesimus’s “separation” from Philemon (v. 15) did not arise because Philemon sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison. Philemon would not have sent a slave he perceived to be disobedient, especially to serve a person as important to Philemon as Paul. In light of the reasons (given in commentary on Philemon 15) for thinking Onesimus didn’t seek Paul out to mediate his conflict, the traditional explanation for Onesimus’s separation seems most plausible: Onesimus fled his enslavement.

The conflict may explain why Paul doesn’t want to force (v. 14) or command (v. 8) Philemon to do what he wants, and why Paul is subtle in his request for Onesimus’s freedom: the situation is delicate, Onesimus is at risk, and he doesn’t want to anger Philemon.

Philemon 19-21 Commentary

Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’s perceived debt (vv. 18, 19) echoes the way the sin of humanity was charged to Jesus’ account when he died on the cross.

Paul’s phrase, “…owing me even your own self” (v. 19) seems to refer to Philemon’s conversion under Paul’s influence. Here Paul applies subtle pressure, reminding Philemon of how much he owes Paul. Paul’s phrase, “…benefit from you in the Lord” (v. 20) seems to have a similar purpose of pressuring Philemon: Paul connects the benefit he requests with “the Lord,” thereby making the request a matter of Philemon’s faith. Perhaps Paul here puts reconciliation and Onesimus’s freedom among the good things (“benefits”) he hopes to share in Christ (v. 6) with Philemon.

Paul’s imperative, “Refresh my heart…” (v. 20) recalls Philemon’s refreshing of the hearts of the saints from earlier in the letter (v. 7). Philemon has done it before, and Paul is asking him to do it again.

Paul is confident Philemon will do as he asks and “even more” (v. 21). Some scholars think the “even more,” here, may be a request for legal manumission. On this view, not only is Paul asking Philemon to treat Onesimus as a free person (v. 16), but he’s asking him to free Onesimus legally.

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 10-17, or Philemon 22-25.


Philemon 10-17 Commentary: No Longer as a Slave

10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

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Historical-Cultural Context: Roman Slavery

In v. 16, Paul refers to Onesimus’s status as Philemon’s slave. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire and was a key basis for economic production and wealth. Roman slavery took many forms. Some lucky slaves, such as those who served in the Emperor’s household, lived in relative luxury and enjoyed significant freedom and responsibility in their work.

However, for most Roman slaves, life was difficult and often cruel. In the worst cases—e.g., slaves who rowed on galleys, dug in mines, or worked in fields—slavery amounted to a slow death sentence. While slaves in Ancient Rome typically had more freedom and responsibility than (e.g.) slaves in the American South before the Civil War, and while race was not used to justify Roman slavery, the institution remained a condition that every person in the Roman Empire wished to avoid. All Roman slaves were subject to physical violence and arbitrary separation from family members, and no slave had legal standing or social status in Roman culture.

As a result, Roman slaves sometimes tried to escape their enslavement. If caught, these “fugitive slaves” were subject to punishment at the discretion of their masters, including death by crucifixion.

Manumission (freeing) of slaves was a common occurrence. Upon the death of a slaveholder, a faithful slave might be freed as a condition of the slaveholder’s will. Slaves could also be freed at the discretion of a slaveholder through a ceremony before a Roman magistrate (by “vindicta”).

Philemon 10-14 Commentary

In v. 10 we learn of Onesimus, whose situation seems to have prompted the letter. Colossians 4:9 suggests Onesimus was from Colossae. Onesimus is dear to Paul: Paul speaks of him as his “child,” understands himself to be Onesimus’s “father” (v. 10), and calls Onesimus “my own heart” (v. 12).

It seems Paul’s use of father-son language (v. 10), along with his description of Onesimus as a “beloved brother…in the Lord” (v. 16) implies Onesimus became a follower of Jesus through his relationship with Paul.

“Onesimus” means “useful” or “beneficial” in Greek. Thus, in v. 11, Paul is using wordplay that draws on Onesimus’s name. His claim that Onesimus was “formerly…useless” (v. 11) to Philemon may hint at a conflict between Philemon and Onesimus. His claim that now Onesimus is “useful to you [Philemon] and to me” seems to refer to Onesimus’s conversion to Christian faith but may also refer to Onesimus’s care for Paul’s needs while imprisoned (cf. v. 13).

Philemon 15-16 Commentary

Verse 15 tells us Onesimus “was separated” from Philemon for a while, and v. 12 says Paul is “sending him [Onesimus] back to” Philemon. Thus, the passage raises two key questions: (1) what caused the separation between Onesimus and Philemon and (2) why did Paul send Onesimus back?

The traditional answer to question (1) is that Onesimus tried to escape his enslavement. However, not all scholars accept that answer. Some think Onesimus sought Paul to mediate a conflict with Philemon. But, given that Onesimus spent time serving Paul in prison and converted under his influence, it seems unlikely Onesimus went simply seeking mediation: staying away as long as Onesimus did would not have helped his chances at reconciliation with Philemon. Indeed, the duration of the visit might have suggested to Philemon that Onesimus had, in fact, escaped. Other scholars think Philemon himself sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison (v. 13 might suggest this view).

Interpreters have also given several answers to question (2). Early Church Father John Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) and Americans who supported the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act understood Paul to be sending Onesimus back to restore his role as Philemon’s slave. Other interpreters understand Paul to be seeking reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon. Some also understand Paul to be asking Philemon to free Onesimus. Lastly, some think Paul is asking Philemon to let Onesimus continue to serve Paul in prison (vv. 13-14). Some of these possibilities are not mutually exclusive, i.e., Paul could have several motives.

In vv. 15-16, Paul implies Philemon should treat Onesimus as a “beloved brother” and “no longer as a slave.” This statement suggests one of Paul’s intentions in sending Onesimus back is that Philemon no longer treat Onesimus as a slave. To restore Onesimus to the hierarchy of master and slave would be contrary to the egalitarian sibling relationship between Christians that Paul emphasizes throughout the letter. Freeing Onesimus would follow Jesus’ mission to “proclaim release to the captives” and to “set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

Philemon 17 Commentary

Paul’s overt request finally comes in v. 17: “welcome him as you would welcome me.” Given what Paul has said about his relationship with Philemon, the implication is that Philemon should treat Onesimus as a partner (v. 6, 17) and a beloved brother (vv. 7, 16).

This request seems to further support the idea that Philemon should no longer treat Onesimus as a slave: surely Philemon would not treat Paul as a slave. The request is at least part of the “good deed” (v. 14) and “right thing” (v. 8) that Paul desires of Philemon, the action that Paul hopes will flow from Philemon’s faith (v. 6), partnership (v. 6), and love for the members of the church (vv. 5, 7, 9)

Paul’s description of Onesimus as beloved brother to Philemon “in the flesh” (v. 16) may refer to the fact that Onesimus is part of Philemon’s household, or it may suggest that Onesimus was related to Philemon by blood (e.g., as a half-brother). For Paul, “flesh” refers to human beings in their ordinary, natural capacities (e.g., their capacity to feel hunger and thirst).

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 18-21, or Philemon 22-25.


Philemon 4-9 Commentary: Philemon’s Relationships

I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the partnership of your faith may become effective as you comprehend all the good that we share in Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

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Philemon 4-7 Commentary

After addressing several people in vv. 1-3, Paul addresses one person, Philemon (singular “you”), for most of the remainder of the letter (vv. 22 and 25 are exceptions). Apparently, the letter was primarily addressed to Philemon, but was meant to be read aloud to the church in his home.

In this passage, Paul reminds Philemon of the nature of their relationship. We learn that Paul prays for Philemon (v. 4), that he is consistently thankful to God for Philemon (v. 4), that he understands them to have a kind of “partnership” in their faith (v. 6), that they share a kind of “good…in Christ” (v. 6), that Philemon is a source of “joy and encouragement” to Paul (v. 7), and that Philemon is his “brother” (v. 7)—again emphasizing the sibling relationship that Jesus taught for his followers.

The good they “share” in Christ (v.6) likely refers to all the good things they experience because of their shared faith in Christ, i.e., the good things resulting from their corporate faith, their faith together.

Paul also reminds Philemon of his relationship to the church that meets in his house. He notes that Philemon has a “love for all the saints,” and that his service has refreshed “the hearts of the saints” (v. 7). The “saints,” here, are simply members of the church that meets in his house (v.2).

The emphasis on the warmth and love that characterize Philemon’s relationship with Paul and with the “saints” demonstrates Jesus’ teachings that we are to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40) and fellow followers of Jesus (John 13:34-35).

Paul also reminds Philemon of his relationship to Jesus, a relationship characterized by faith (vv. 5, 6). By “faith,” Paul means an attitude of trust. This faith can be “effective,” according to Paul (v. 6), which means it can issue in certain kinds of action. Indeed, Philemon’s faith has led him to host the Colossian church in his house (v. 2) and to refresh “the hearts of the saints” (v. 7).

Philemon 8-9 Commentary

Paul’s purpose in this passage seems to be to prepare Philemon for something Paul is about to ask him to do (“the right thing” in v. 8). Paul wants Philemon’s act to be an expression of his partnership with Paul (v. 6), his love for Paul and for the church (vv. 5, 7, 9), and an expression of Philemon’s faith in Jesus (v. 6).

Paul likely feels bold enough to command Philemon to do as he asks because he believes he’s asking him to do something Jesus commanded his followers to do (like in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; when Paul doesn’t have a command of the Lord, he only feels comfortable giving his trustworthy opinion [1 Corinthians 7:25].) In commentary on v. 18, I guess at which command of Jesus might be in view.

It does not seem Paul feels he could command Philemon simply because Paul is an Apostle and Philemon is merely the host of a church. Indeed, Paul never mentions his standing as an apostle in the letter. Such a hierarchical motive would be contrary to the egalitarian relationship between members of the church that Paul has emphasized thus far in the letter.

In this passage, Paul seems to understand love not as a kind of action, but rather as a motive for action (vv. 8-9).

Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 10-17, Philemon 18-21, or Philemon 22-25.


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.


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.


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.


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 1:21-23 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.


Colossians 1:13-20 Commentary: Paul’s Gospel, Part 1

13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in [or “by”] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in [or “by”] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  NRSV

In Col. 1:12 Paul completed his prayer for the Colossians—that they would have strength, patient endurance, and joyful gratitude. Now, in verse 13 Paul switches from prayer to a general description of what God has done in Christ. In other words, in verse 13 Paul begins an extended statement of the gospel that will conclude in verse 23 (“I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel”). However, Paul casts the gospel in a way that will speak specifically to the situation of the Colossian church. Paul’s gospel seems aimed at helping the Colossians toward the growing knowledge of God that he wants for them (Col. 1:10).

Colossians 1:13-14 Commentary

Verses 1:13 and 1:14 are a revealing summary statement of the gospel he will explain further in Col. 1:15-23. The backdrop of the first part of this summary (v. 13) is a conflict of spiritual powers—between the “power of darkness” and God’s “beloved Son,” Christ. The gospel for the Colossians, then, is that they (and Paul) have been rescued from the dark powers and transferred to the “kingdom” of Christ. Importantly, the word translated ‘kingdom’ here does not refer to a location in space, as for kingdoms with castles, princes, and princesses. Rather, it refers to the rule, reign, or power of a king. Thus, the Colossians have been transferred from the rule of dark spiritual forces to the rule of Christ. Christ’s power has won out over the powers of darkness.

What are these powers of darkness? So far in the letter we don’t know. However, Paul’s teaching later in the letter gives us some indication. In Col. 2:8 Paul calls them “elemental spirits of the universe,” and in Col. 2:15 he calls them “rulers and authorities” over whom Christ has triumphed through the cross. From Col. 2:18 it seems these powers might also be understood as angels that the Colossians were being urged (by false teachers) to worship and appease through various rituals. These verses from Col. 2 yield a picture of a church being undermined by a certain brand of idolatry whereby the Colossians were giving too much credence, and attributing too much power, to the demands of certain earthly dark spirits.

Paul’s message to the Colossians in v. 13, then, is that Christ and his power is supreme over these spirits, and that Christ has liberated the Colossians from the clutches of such dark powers. The second part of Paul’s summary statement of the gospel (v. 14) makes this clear: the transfer to the rule of Christ has accomplished “redemption” for the Colossians. Redemption, here, is an image of being liberated from captivity to a harsh master. Having been redeemed, the Colossians are now servants of the benevolent master, Christ, because of whom their sins have been forgiven (v. 14). This forgiveness of sin is the crucial element in God’s reconciliation of human beings to himself, since it is what brings about peace (v. 20) between God and people. It is proper for people to be ruled by God. However, sin generates conflict between people and God since by sinning people reject God’s rule over them. From v. 13 it seems that by rejecting God’s rule people also become subject to the rule of dark powers. By forgiving people in Christ, God gives up his claim against humanity and welcomes them back to their proper place—under his rule, or dominion. In this same act of forgiveness, then, people are redeemed from the rule of the dark powers and repositioned under the rule of God.

Colossians 1:15-20 Commentary

Having summarized his gospel in verses 1:13-14, Paul launches into one of the loftiest portraits of Christ in all of scripture. Perhaps its only parallel is John 1:1-14 where Christ is portrayed as the Logos of creation, equal to God. The structure of Col. 1:15-20 has led some scholars to view the passage as something like a formal statement of doctrine (perhaps formulated by others) that both Paul and the Colossians would recognize as authoritative. The passage, thus, may play a role similar to that of the Hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11.

Paul begins the portrait with the claim that Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” (v. 15a). This claim contrasts starkly with the claim in Genesis 1:27 that human beings were made “in the image of God.” Christ is not in the image of God; rather Christ is the image of God. This is the first indication, then, that the portrait of Christ will distinguish sharply between creation—including humans made in the image of God—and Christ the Creator. In other words, Christ will be portrayed here as God himself, made visible in the man Jesus. Verse 15b continues in this vein, calling Christ “the firstborn of all creation.” Some interpreters—notably, the Jehovah’s Witnesses—have stumbled on this verse, taking it to mean that Christ was the first created thing, and thus that Christ is not divine but rather is part of creation. However, several things militate against such a view. First, the term translated “firstborn” does not necessarily mean the first thing generated or made. Rather, it can also simply be a title of preeminence, picking up on the preeminence of the firstborn son in ancient Hebrew families. In such families, the firstborn typically inherited far more than any of the other children, and thus was viewed as the best hope of carrying on the family name. Second, verse 1:16 makes it crystal clear that Paul does not mean by “firstborn” that Jesus was created by God. Quite the opposite: “all things in heaven and on earth were created” by Christ, including the dark powers (“dominions or rulers or powers”) that the Colossians have been thinking too highly of, and from whom the Colossians have been liberated in Christ. Thus, verse 1:16 makes it clear that the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of 1:15 is incorrect. Here Christ is portrayed as Creator of all, a role that only God plays.

In case it wasn’t clear (!), Paul reiterates the claim that Christ is the Creator in Col. 1:17: “He himself is before all things, and in [or “by”] him all things hold together.” Insofar as Christ is “before all things”—meaning, before all created things—this verse makes him out as the divine generator and initiator of the universe. Interestingly, though, the verse does not stop there: Christ is also portrayed as that in (or, “by”) which “all things hold together.” Here is a side of God’s role as Creator that we contemporary westerners tend to neglect. Perhaps this neglect is a reflection of the continuing influence of Deism on our theology. According to Deism—a view typically rejected by Christians as heretical—God initially made the universe, but God has no role in its continued operation. Here, God is like a watchmaker that made a watch, wound it up, and then left it to run on its own. On this view, matter and physical laws are sufficient for the functioning of the universe, and so God does not intervene. However, Col. 1:17 contradicts this view: God not only initiated the universe; God also upholds it from moment to moment, and this role is simply part of what it means to call God “Creator.” Colossians 1:17b, then, recalls Acts 17:28: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” The divine Christ is both generator and sustainer of all creation.

In Col. 1:18 the doctrinal statement continues. There, Christ is portrayed as “the head of the body, the church,” “the beginning,” and “the firstborn from the dead.” Paul will return to the imagery of “head and body” in Col. 2:19 with greater specificity, so I will defer discussion of that image until then. However, in combination with the other claims of v. 18, the main point seems to be to reiterate Christ’s preeminence in all things, i.e., that he has “first place in everything.” This claim confirms the idea that “firstborn” simply refers (in vv. 15 and 18) to the special preeminent status conferred on the firstborn in ancient Hebrew culture, and not to being the first one generated. As if we needed a further statement of the divinity of Christ in this passage, verse 1:19 puts it baldly: in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In other words, Christ is God. This passage, then, is a support to the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ “the beloved Son” (v. 13) and God “the Father” (v. 12) are two of the three co-equal members of the divine Trinity.

Col. 1:20 ends the doctrinal statement by reiterating the good news that God “was pleased to reconcile” all of creation to himself through Christ, by making peace between God and creation via the cross. Christ’s death on the cross atones for the sin of creation, opening the way for creation to return to its proper place under the rule of God. The idea here is not that all things are already reconciled to God through Christ’s death. Rather, it is that God would be “pleased” to reconcile all creation to himself by way of Christ’s death. In other words, Christ’s death opens the way for this reconciliation, though it has not yet been fully realized. After all, reconciliation demands something of both estranged parties, and what Christ did only represents God’s side of the relationship. People must still reciprocate the olive branch extended by God. Did “all things” in creation really need reconciling to God? What about rocks and trees? The picture of total cosmic reconciliation, here, takes seriously the idea of Genesis 3:17 that the ground was cursed by God because of human sin. In other words, just as human sin had implications for all of creation—including the inanimate ground—so the reconciliation effected by Christ’s cross can make peace between God and all of creation.

Colossians 1:13-20: Lessons

The lessons of this passage are too numerous to try to recount in any summary conclusion. However, at a minimum, it seems helpful to reflect on why Paul thought the Colossians needed to hear this version of the gospel, with its emphasis on the preeminent authority and power of Christ, liberation from the powers of darkness, and return to the governance of God. The answer, here, seems to be that the Colossians continued to attribute too much power and authority to the earthly elemental spirits from which Christ had liberated them.

What are the things to which we attribute too much power and authority in contemporary western culture? Wealth? Sex? Social status? Work? Knowledge? Celebrity? Entertainment? With respect to these cultural idols, Paul has a message for us: Christ made and rules over them all. If we are followers of Christ, none of these cultural powers should rule us, since Christ is our true ruler. Moreover, as Christians we need not appease these cultural powers, or fear retribution if we fail to appease them: all of them are subject to the power of our benevolent King. These powers may have some role in our lives, and properly so. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of Paul’s point that whatever role they have, that role is subservient to the role of Christ in our lives. Christ alone is Lord.

A related lesson I draw from the passage is the idea that human beings are always subject to some sort of power or authority external to themselves. This seems to be Paul’s working assumption in the passage and in Colossians as a whole: if we are not submitted to God’s power and authority then we are submitted to some other power and authority—namely, the powers of darkness—whether we are aware of it or not. Another way to put this is to say that we are all worshipers: if we do not worship God we will worship something else, an idol. This teaching seems antithetical to the contemporary perspective. The modern culture holds that if we throw off the yoke of God’s power and authority in our lives, then we may govern ourselves. This is the view that humans are properly autonomous or self-governing creatures. According to this view, humans are properly free to make of their lives what they will, and to choose their aims and values on their own, according to reason. In a sense this is true: we do have some say in what aims and values we put at the center of our lives. However, Paul’s critique of the modern outlook might be that whenever we give some value or aim that role—when we make it the thing that structures our lives and drives us forward—we are no longer in charge. Rather, that value or aim has a life of its own, and it takes us places, as long as we serve it. We may shift from one governing aim to another, from one governing value to another, but make no mistake: we attribute ultimate value to, or worship, something, and so we are governed by something. In this passage, then, Paul suggests that Christians are those who have come under the highest governance of the universe—Christ. The implication is that Christ is the ultimate power that humans were made to worship, and that they are in darkness unless they do.