Introduction to Colossians

By James M. Rochford

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Authorship

Critics have questioned the authenticity of Paul’s authorship of this letter. Carson and Moo claim that “many recent scholars think that a follower of Paul rather than the apostle himself actually penned the book.”[1] However, a number of arguments can be made in favor of Pauline authorship, and the arguments against his authorship are not very weighty in our estimation.

First, the book itself claims to be written by Paul. He names himself at the beginning (Col. 1:1, 23) and at the end (Col. 4:18).

Second, early church fathers attributed the letter to Paul. These would include Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3.14.1), Tertullian (The Prescription Against Heretics, 7), and Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, 1:1).[2] Justin Martyr alludes to the letter by AD 150 (Dialogue with Trypho, 138), and the book appears in both the Marcionite Canon and Muratorian Canon.[3]

Third, arguments from vocabulary are unconvincing. Critics note that 50 words in this epistle are not used anywhere else in Paul’s writings,[4] and the letter contains 34 words that occur nowhere else in the NT.[5] Thus critics contend that this casts doubt on Paul’s authorship.

However, Galatians (which is affirmed as authentic by even the most strident NT critics) contains 31 words that occur nowhere else in the NT.[6] In fact, Carson and Moo point out that “the same is true of all of Paul’s letters” to some degree or another.[7] Furthermore, since the “Colossian Heresy” was such a unique teaching, it shouldn’t surprise us that Paul would draw on a more robust vocabulary to critique this view.[8]

Fourth, the presence of Gnosticism shouldn’t late date the letter. Some critics (e.g. F.C. Baur) denied Pauline authorship, because Gnosticism was thought to be a second century heresy. However, heresies do not appear overnight; they take time to develop. While Gnosticism reached its zenith in the second and third centuries; it most likely had its beginnings in the first century. Paul was most likely arguing against a proto-Gnosticism (that is, an early form of Gnosticism).

Because of the lack of evidence against Paul’s authorship, Vaughn writes, “Today, however, there is broad agreement that it is… from the hand of Paul—or that it is at least substantially Pauline.”[9] In fact, he writes that in recent years these arguments have been “largely abandoned.”[10]

Date

Some believe that Paul wrote from prison in Ephesus—not Rome. If this is the case, then we would date the letter sometime between 52 and 55 AD, when Paul worked in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10).[11] While we argued more extensively for Paul’s Roman imprisonment for the origin of Ephesians and Philippians (see “Introduction to Philippians”), additional evidence supports this conclusion for the writing of Colossians:

  • Paul mentions Aristarchus (Col. 4:10), who was with him in his Roman imprisonment (Acts 27:2).
  • Eusebius places Paul under Roman imprisonment (Church History, 2.22.1).[12]
  • Paul was not under lock and key while under Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:30), which would fit with Paul having so many coworkers with him when he wrote Colossians (Col. 4:7-17).

Thus we agree with scholars like Peter O’Brien who affirm the Roman imprisonment of Paul when he wrote this letter.[13]

If Paul wrote this letter while in Roman imprisonment, we can date this letter to AD 60 or 61.[14] This would most likely be during the time that he wrote Ephesians (see Introduction to Ephesians).

Audience: Who were the Colossians?

At one point, Colossae was a booming city. Herodotus (5th century BC) described Colossae as “a great city of Phrygia” (History 7.30.1). Xenophon (4th century BC) wrote that Colossae was “a populous city, wealthy and large” (Anabasis 1.2.6).[15]

However, even a few generations before the time of Paul, Strabo referred to Colossae as a “small town” (Geography 12.8.13).[16] Neighboring cities like Laodicea and Hierapolis (~10 miles away) overshadowed Colossae. This might be why Paul mentions both of these cities in his letter (Col. 2:1; 4:13, 15), and why he urged the Colossians to send a copy of the letter to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16).

Colossae may have been affected by the great earthquake that devastated Laodicea in AD 60-61 (Tacitus, Annals 14.27.1; Strabo, Geography 12.8.16; Orosius, Historiae ad paganos 7.7.12), though this isn’t certain.[17]

Because of its lack of commercial prosperity and significance, this may have been one of the least significant churches Paul wrote to.[18] Colossae is so small that Luke never mentions this church in the book of Acts, and it doesn’t seem that Paul had ever even travelled to this city (Col. 2:1).

A substantial Jewish population may have lived in Colossae. Josephus records that two thousand Jewish families settled in the general area of Lydia and Phrygia (Antiquities 12.147-53),[19] and archaeologists have discovered Jewish graves in Hierapolis (just 12 miles from Colossae). The Roman governor Flaccus seized twenty pounds of gold from the Jewish settlers in Laodicea (Cicero, pro Flacco 28), which could amount to a population of around 11,000 Jewish people living there (if each Jewish person gave a half-skekel).[20]

From the letter itself, it is most likely the case that the majority of these believers were Gentiles (Col. 1:27; 2:13). Paul seldom quotes from the OT in Colossians, which could imply a high Gentile population.

Who started the church in Colossae?

Paul had never been to Colossae, as the letter indicates (Col. 1:4, 9; 2:1).

Epaphras most likely started this church (Col. 1:7; 4:12). This may have coincided with Paul’s ministry in Ephesus where “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Epaphras is said to be with Paul in prison (“fellow prisoner”), when Paul wrote his letter to Philemon (Phile. 23), along with Onesimus (Col. 4:9).

Epaphras’ imprisonment may be why Paul sends the letter to the Colossians with Tychicus—not Epaphras (Col. 4:7-8). Epaphras apparently left Archippus behind to watch over the church while he was gone (Col. 4:17). Archippus was one of the home church leaders in Colossae (Phile. 2).

What was the Colossian Heresy?

Scholars refer to the “Colossian Heresy” to describe the false teaching present in Colossae. While we don’t exactly know the nature of this false teaching, we can piece together aspects of this heresy by surveying the letter itself:

It was a man-made philosophy. It was a “philosophy” (Col. 2:8), which was based on the tradition of men. Paul calls it a “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23), and it was based on the “elemental principles of the world” (Col. 2:8, 20; see comments on Gal. 4:3).

It involved the worship of angels and visions. Paul refers to the “the worship of the angels” and the “visions” that the false teachers used to damage the faith of this church (Col. 2:18).

It commanded asceticism. Paul refers to “self-abasement” (Col. 2:18) and the “severe treatment of the body” (Col. 2:23). Moreover, Paul mentions the false teachers’ commands to not handle, taste, or touch material things (Col. 2:21), which may refer to “food” (Col. 2:16).

It had aspects of Jewish mysticism (or Gnosticism). Some Jewish teachers held that angels were the agents of creation based on God creating humans in “our image” (Gen. 1:26; 3:22). Philo espoused this errant view,[21] and Justin Martyr argued against this view in his dialogue with the Jewish man Trypho (Dialogue with Trypho, 62).

This could be why Paul emphasizes Jesus’ creation and authority over the angels (Col. 1:15-18). This could also be why Paul emphasizes Jesus’ absolute victory over the demonic realm of angels through his Cross (Col. 2:13-15).

 

Commentary on Colossians

For a free mp3 teaching series from James, see “Colossians 2014.”

Unless otherwise stated, all citations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

Colossians 1:1-12 (Body Life)

(1:1) “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.” Paul wrote this letter alongside his friend Timothy. He wrote other letters in Timothy’s company as well (e.g. 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon).

(1:2) “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” The letter wasn’t written to some specific group of leaders. It was written to the people themselves (“saints and faithful brethren”). Normal people—like us—can read and understand the Bible.

Thanking God for them

(1:3) “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.” In Christian work, there is often a lot of discouragement. But notice that even while he was in prison, Paul still gave thanks. Notice how much Paul gave thanks for the churches.

(1:4-5) “Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel.” The reason that the Colossians were so loving was “because of” the “hope” laid up for them in heaven. Our hope is heaven, and the gospel relates directly to getting there.

(1:6) “Which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth.” Paul seems to personify the gospel as an agent that “bears fruit” and “increases.” This refers to the way the gospel was being spread in evangelism to the lost world. But notice also that this gospel was also doing the same thing for the believers. The grace of God is for the world (“just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing”), but it’s also for the believer (“even as it has been doing in you”).

Paul claims that this gospel is “truth.” This stands in contrast to the false teachers who were trying to delude the believers in Colossae.

The grace of God needs to be “understood.” This implies study, meditation, and reflection on the grace of God.

(1:7) “Just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf.” God shares the gospel through fallen, human agents like Epaphras (and us!). For information on Epaphras, see the Introduction above (“Who started the church in Colossae?”).

Scholars usually don’t identify Epaphras with the man named Epaphroditus in Philippians (Phil. 2:25; 4:18).[22] Epaphras was a “nobody,” but God used a “nobody” like him (and us!) to start churches.

(1:8) “[Epaphras] also informed us of your love in the Spirit.” Epaphras must have come back and told Paul about this church he started in Colossae.

Praying to God for them

(1:9) “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Paul prayed for these believers—even though he had never met them. Just imagine what that would feel like to read for the first time. We all have Christian leaders we look up to. Imagine if one of them said that he or she had “not ceased to pray” for your local church.

While the false teachers were giving the Colossians false “knowledge” (gnosis), Paul prays for them to have true “knowledge [epignōsis] of God’s will.”

Paul wants this knowledge to “fill” them (plērōthēte). Paul uses this term a lot in this letter, because it was a backhanded way of rejecting the false teachers. Gnostic teachers used the term (pleroma) to refer to the “fullness” of knowledge found in Gnosticism. Vaughn writes, “Plērōma (‘fullness’) was a technical term used by second-century Gnostics of the hierarchy of the supernatural beings lying between God and the world. Many present-day scholars think it likely that the word was employed in this sense during Paul’s lifetime.”[23] Paul subtly counters that the true knowledge is found in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19; 2:2, 9; 4:12).

(1:10) “So that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” To the Gnostics, “knowledge” was the ultimate value. But not to Paul. For him, this knowledge was a means to an end: to please God, bear fruit, and pursue good works. Vaughn writes, “What rain and sunshine are to the nurture of plants, the knowledge of God is to the growth and maturing of the spiritual life.”[24]

Sometimes our fruit is character transformation. Here it specifically refers to “every good work” for others. The focus is on ministry.

This knowledge refers to his moral will, but also “in all respects.” God’s truth gives us wisdom to navigate every area of life.

(1:11) “Strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience.” This verse is counterintuitive. Paul starts by describing the “power” and “glory” of God, but he ends with “steadfastness and patience.” This seems like a real letdown! However, it takes strength and power to be able to patiently wait on God to work. This implies that we wait on his power, rather than our own. We don’t “cut corners” in Christian work—unethically striving after ministry or growth. Instead we wait on him through the power of the gospel to change hearts and lives and grow the church, as Paul promises (v.6).

(1:12) “Joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” The term “qualified” (hikanoō) means “to cause to be adequate, make sufficient, qualify” (BDAG). We don’t gain all of this from our own self-effort or moral qualifications. God qualifies us for this.

Colossians 1:13-19 (The Cosmic Christ)

The false teachers in Colossae were denigrating Jesus to just “one of many spirit beings who bridged the space between God and men.”[25] Paul responds with one of the most descriptive explanations of Jesus’ nature and work that we have in the entire Bible. As you read through this section, notice the several titles and attributes that we can learn about Jesus.

Rescuer

(1:13) “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” The “domain of darkness” refers to sin (Rom. 13:12; Jn. 3:19), as well as the “world forces of this darkness” (Eph. 6:12). So sin and Satan could both be implied. Like a hero cop rescuing a hostage, Jesus “rescued” us from this world of sin, Satan, and death.

The term “transferred” (metestēsen) was “used in secular literature in reference to removing persons from one country and settling them as colonists and citizens in another country.”[26]

Forgiver

(1:14) “In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The term “redemption” (apolytrōsis) means to “release from a painful interrogation, release” or “release from a captive condition, release, redemption, deliverance” (BDAG). It was used of slaves being emancipated. Elsewhere, Paul tells us that we have redemption “through His blood” (Eph. 1:7). Later Paul will write that reconciliation was “through the blood of His Cross” (Col. 1:20).

“Forgiveness” (aphesis) means “the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt, or punishment, pardon, cancellation” (BDAG).

Image of God

(1:15) “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Jesus died on the Cross years ago, but Paul writes that Jesus currently is the image of God. This implies that he is still alive, and he mirrors the very nature of God (cf. Heb. 1:3).

(1:15, 18) Was Christ a “firstborn” in the sense of being a created being?

Creator

(1:16) “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” Why is Jesus the “firstborn” of all creation? This is because he made all of creation! “Firstborn” implies hierarchy or stature—not chronological birth.

In the OT, Yahweh was the Creator. Here, Paul says that Jesus was the Creator. While the Colossians were worshipping angels (2:18), Paul writes that these were just creations of Jesus—never to be worshipped.

Paul twice states that Jesus created “all things.” It’s as if he was thinking, “When I wrote all things… I meant all things! Did I stutter?”

(1:16) “All things” or “all other things”

Sustainer of the Universe

(1:17) “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Jesus isn’t just the Creator of the universe. He is also the sustainer of it. He “upholds all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).

Ruler of the Church

(1:18) “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Jesus rules and runs the Church.

God Incarnate

(1:19) “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.” Does this refer to the incarnation? Paul uses the same expression in 2:9 to refer to the incarnation, so that may be in view here.

The Gnostic false teachers would’ve held that only part of God’s fullness was in Jesus, because he was merely one of many spirit beings who brought us knowledge. By contrast, Paul writes that all the fullness” is found in Christ.[27]

(1:20) “And through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” Jesus’ work on the Cross will have cosmic significance.

(1:20) Does this passage teach universalism?

Colossians 1:21-2:3 (Learning to Serve Christ)

(1:21-23) Does this verse threaten eternal security?

(1:21) “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds.” Our alienation from God began in our “mind” (e.g. worldview, thoughts, attitude, etc.). After this poison took effect, it led to our lives (“evil deeds”).

(1:22) “Yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” Paul goes to great lengths to state that reconciliation needed to occur in Jesus’ fleshly body.” Aren’t all bodies “fleshly”? Why does he emphasize this? Again, remember that the Gnostic false teachers denied the physical nature of Jesus. Under their view, Jesus was merely a spirit being—not a human being.

Being “holy and blameless” and “beyond reproach” (i.e. unaccusable) is similar to Paul’s language of our position in Christ in Ephesians 1:3-5.

(1:23) “If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul’s use of the first-class condition (“If—and I’m assuming for the sake of argument that this is true—you continue in the faith…”) is not a threat to their salvation, but an assumption that verse 22 is in fact true of them.[28]

(1:23) Did Paul really believe that the entire world had heard the gospel at this point?

(1:24) “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Often when we suffer, we cannot rip our eyes off of our own situation and circumstances. Paul, however, could rejoice in his sufferings (cf. Mt. 5:12; Acts 5:41; Heb. 10:34), because they were for the benefit of others. He writes that his suffering will build up the Colossians, as well as “His body” (i.e. the whole Christian church).

Paul’s suffering was not asceticism, torturing himself for God.[29] His suffering was based on willingly putting himself in harm’s way for the welfare of others.

Paul also views his suffering in line with the continuing work of Jesus through his Church. That is, as we suffer “in Christ,” we are carrying out the work of Christ on Earth. This does not refer to Jesus’ suffering with reference to paying for sin (i.e. the atonement) which is completed (Col. 2:10-15). This refers to Jesus’ suffering through the continuing work and service of his Body on Earth (Acts 9:4).

(1:24) Did Jesus not finish his work on the Cross?

(1:25) “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God.” Paul viewed his ministry as a stewardship entrusted to him from God. Regarding this word, Vaughn writes, “Oikonomia, related to our words “economy” and ‘economics,’ is perhaps best rendered here by ‘stewardship’ (cf. Luke 16:2–4). This rendering suggests that Paul conceived of the work to which God appointed him as both a high privilege and a sacred trust. He was a servant of the church, but in the deepest sense he was a steward of God.”[30]

Imagine if a billionaire gave you millions of dollars to invest for him. You’d want to be able to show a return on his money when he came back to check in. Similarly, though not the same, God is looking to see if we’ve been “faithful” with his ministry (1 Cor. 4:2; cf. 2 Tim. 1:14).

The purpose of being a Christian leader is not for prestige or glory. We are “servants” and “stewards.” Paul writes that he existed “for their benefit,” not his own.

(1:26-27) “That is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” God can keep certain truths hidden from us. That’s his prerogative.

The central facet of the “mystery” in this context is the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s people. However, more specifically, Paul writes that the culmination of the “mystery” is “Christ in you.” The radical identification and indwelling of Jesus with his people was a mystery in the OT. For a more robust explanation of this topic of the “mystery,” see “Why Did Satan Crucify Jesus?”

Christian discipleship

After this long explanation of the person and work of Christ and our secure position before him, Paul now moves to the practical aspects of these truths. If all of this material so far is true, then what should we do as a consequence? We can summarize Paul’s imperatives in one word: discipleship.

Discipleship simply means to teach, instruct, coach, and counsel other believers to serve Christ. This is where we take less mature believers under our wing to teach them the ways of God.

(1:28) “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Discipleship is both a corporate (We proclaim him,” v.28) and an individual (I labor,” v.29) responsibility of the church. This relates to our stewardship before God (v.25).

“We proclaim Him shows that discipleship is always directed toward Jesus. When we disciple others, we should be clear that they are ultimately disciples of Christ—not of us. Properly understood, we are all Jesus’ disciples.

“Admonishing” (noutheteō) can be defined as “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct” (BDAG). Sometimes, this is done “with tears” in our eyes (Acts 20:31). Admonishment is not for the purpose of “shaming” people (1 Cor. 4:14), but for their spiritual growth. Vaughn translates this word as “counseling,”[31] which is an apt definition. Later Paul states that “teaching and admonishing” needs to be done with “wisdom” (Col. 3:16). It takes wisdom to truly know how to apply God’s truth to people’s lives through biblical counseling.

“Teaching” (didaskō) implies that new believers need help in reading and understanding the great truths of Scripture. Much of discipleship is studying and reading together to understand God’s truth. Discipleship without study is really pseudo-discipleship.

Twice, Paul states that this is for every man.” The Gnostic teachers were exclusive in who could initiate into the religion. By contrast, Christian discipleship is open to all those who are willing to follow Jesus.

(1:29) “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Discipleship is hard work! Paul uses two terms to describe what it is like:

“Labor” (kopiaō) means to “become weary or tired” or “to exert oneself physically, mentally, or spiritually, work hard, toil, strive, struggle” (BDAG). Jesus encouraged the church of Ephesus that they had “not grown weary” (Rev. 2:3). This is because Jesus gives rest to the “weary and heavy-laden” (Mt. 11:28). Ephaphras “labored” in prayer for his fellow believers, which is another aspect of discipleship (Col. 4:12).

“Strive” (agōnizomai) is where we get our English word “agonize.” It was often used of athletes competing or “engaging in a contest” (BDAG). More generally, it means to “fight” or “struggle” (BDAG).

At this point, the reader might think that discipleship does not look very appealing. After all, it implies hard work, struggle, and agony! But keep reading. Our “labor” and “striving” are “according to His power, which mightily works within me.” As we step out in faith to disciple others, we experience the raw power of God working through us to effect others’ lives!

(2:1) “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face.” Paul a great “struggle” (agōna) for this church (cf. 2 Cor. 11:28). Christian work is hard.

(2:2) “That their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself.” Paul uses the term parakaleo to describe “encouragement.” This means to “call to one’s side” (BDAG). This was used in a military context to describe encouraging soldiers in battle (2 Macc. 15:8).

The focus of this encouragement is based on the truth (“understanding… true knowledge”).

(2:3) “In [Jesus] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The Gnostics claimed to have “hidden” wisdom. But Paul claims that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Jesus.

Discussion Questions

Paul agonized over the people in Colossae—even though he had never personally met them (2:1). Compare and contrast God’s role in Christian work versus our role in Christian work.

What stops us from admonishing one another as Paul teaches in verse 28? Respond to these false beliefs below:

“I’m not going to bring up that issue… He’ll figure it out… eventually.”

“I’ll get a more mature believer to admonish him.”

“I’m not going to correct her… She’s my best friend!”

Why would Paul use a military term to describe encouragement? In what ways is encouraging a fellow believer similar to encouraging a soldier during war?

Questions to consider for ourselves

Do people around me feel like they have the green light to correct me, or do I punish them for saying something?

Do people around me feel the freedom to raise questions about issues that are not black and white?

When was the last time that I thanked someone for correcting me in the moment?

What are signs that a group is weak on encouragement?

Colossians 2:4-23 (False teachers)

In the introduction, we described the “Colossian Heresy.” This portion of the letter gives us the best insights on what was being taught by the false teachers in this church.

(2:4) “I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument.” We typically use the term persuasion in a positive sense (i.e. using reason to convince a person of the truth). This term “persuasive speech” (pithanologia) comes from the roots peithō (“persuade, convince”) and logia (“words, speech”). It isn’t that the false teachers were using persuasive arguments or reasons, but rather they were using persuasive words and rhetoric. It can be understood as “persuasive rhetoric” or giving someone “a smooth line.”[32]

(2:5) “For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ.” The Colossians must have been holding up pretty well to this false teaching. They had stability and discipline to keep focused on the truth.

“Good discipline” (taxin) was a “military term connoting the orderly array of a band of disciplined soldiers.”[33]

“Stability” (stereōma) also had military connotations. Vaughn writes, “If this is the imagery Paul intended, he sees the situation of the Colossians as being like that of an army under attack and affirms that their lines were unbroken, their discipline intact, and their ‘faith in [reliance on] Christ’ unshaken.”[34]

(2:6) “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” Receiving Christ is purely by faith—not mixed with works. John uses the same word (“received”) when describing how to become a child of God (Jn. 1:12).

Similarly, when we follow Christ, we need to do this by faith—not works. Apparently, the “Colossian Heresy” was focusing on ascetic, formalistic practices (vv.18-23), rather than pure, ongoing trust in Christ.

(2:7) “Having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” This term (“firmly rooted”) is in the present tense, meaning that this is secure. Our firm root is in our justification (“as you have received Christ,” v.6). Our position before God doesn’t change.

“Being built up” is in the present (ongoing) tense. This refers to our condition.

“Established” (bebaioumenoi) means to “put something beyond doubt, confirm, establish” or “to make a person firm in commitment” (BDAG).

Regarding the “gratitude” mentioned here, Vaughn writes, “The present passage may imply that those who lack a deep sense of thankfulness to God are especially vulnerable to doubt and spiritual delusion.”[35]

(2:8) “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” Paul uses the singular (“no one [individual]”). Thus he might be referring to the ring leader of the Gnostic teachers in Colossae. It’s also possible that he is writing of any singular person in general.

“Takes you captive” (sylagōgeō) is used to refer to carrying away slaves or booty in war time (BDAG).

Paul is against this specific philosophy because it is errant and comes from “the traditions of men.” The “elemental principles of the world” in this context probably refers to angelic (demonic) influence (see Gal. 4:3), as the subsequent context makes clear (Col. 2:18).

(2:8) Is it wrong for Christians to study philosophy?

(2:9) “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” The term “deity” (theotēs) means “the state of being god, divine character/nature, deity, divinity” (BDAG). We might think that these false teachers were denying the deity of Christ here. Not so. In this setting, they were denying the humanity of Christ. The shocking part for us is that “all the Deity dwells” in Jesus. For them, the shocking part was that Jesus existed “in bodily form.” Gnostics denied that God could or would take on human flesh.

(2:10) “In Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority.” We don’t need to add legalism, asceticism, or formalism onto Christ. He has already made us “complete” (plēroō) in our new identity.

The realm of spirit beings in Gnosticism (“rule and authority”) were nothing compared to Christ. He is the “head” of them. That is, he has all authority over them as their Creator (Col. 1:15-17).

Jesus conquered sin and Satan

(Col. 2:11-13) Does this passage support infant baptism?

(2:11-12) “In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” The contrast here is between the physical circumcision under Moses versus the spiritual baptism in Christ. Thus we have been spiritually baptized into Christ, who has given us a spiritual circumcision (cf. Deut. 30:6).

If we hold that this is water baptism, then we would be forced into the difficult conclusion that this sacrament removes our “body of flesh” (i.e. sin nature). No Christian denomination (even those who hold baptismal regeneration) hold to such a view. We enter into spiritual baptism “through faith,” as Paul writes, not “through water.”

(2:13) “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.” The term “uncircumcision” could be figurative (cf. Acts 7:51).

We are “made alive” through “forgiveness.” Without forgiveness, we would have no spiritual life.

(2:14) “Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Some commentators believe that the imagery of the “certificate of debt” refers to the act of crucifixion victims.[36] A crucifixion victim had their crimes placed on this certificate, and it was nailed above their cross. After they paid for their crimes (via crucifixion), this showed that their penalty was paid. When Jesus was crucified, they wrote, “The King of the Jews” on his “certificate of debt.” As a result, Jesus was able to scream “Tetelestai!” from the Cross, meaning “paid in full” (Jn. 19:19-22, 30). If our sin has been paid for, this means that formalism, asceticism, and legalism are all abolished. It is to these subjects that Paul turns.

(2:15) “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.” The “rulers and authorities” are demons (Eph. 6:12, Col. 1:16; 2:8, 19).[37] Jesus’ “triumph” refers to his victory over the demonic realm. Roman generals would lead a triumphal procession after they conquered a nation, bringing the vanquished soldiers behind them back to their country (see comments under 2 Corinthians 2:14 in “Introduction to 2 Corinthians”). Jesus’ triumph on the Cross somehow disarmed the demonic authorities. Vaughn writes, “Christ, in this picture, is the conquering general; the powers and authorities are the vanquished enemy displayed as the spoils of battle before the entire universe. To the casual observer the cross appears to be only an instrument of death, the symbol of Christ’s defeat; Paul represents it as Christ’s chariot of victory.”[38]

Why go under false teaching, when Jesus conquered sin and Satan?

(2:16) “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” The “food and drink” could refer to the Mosaic Kosher laws, or it could refer to asceticism in general. If this Gnostic teaching was a form of Jewish mysticism, these could refer to a blending of the two.

(2:17) “Things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” What was the purpose of OT rituals and ceremonies? Paul says that these all prefigured the work of Christ. Now that Jesus has come, we shouldn’t return to the shadows, but move on to the substance. (Just imagine talking to a person’s shadow, rather than talking to the individual themselves!)

Exodus 12:1-22 The celebration of the Passover foreshadows the work of Christ, who was the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29).

Exodus 25:10-22 The ceremonial practices of Tabernacle worship foreshadow the work of Christ.

Foreshadowing in the Festival System The religious ceremonies and festivals prefigured the Christ’s life and work.

Leviticus 16:16-22 The annual sacrifice of an innocent animal in the Levitical law foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of Christ—an innocent substitute on our behalf.

(2:18) “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” The danger with ritualism is that it can quickly degrade into false teaching. The Colossians were in danger of being drawn away from their “prize,” which presumably refers to reward. Though Vaughn understands the phrase (“let no one keep defrauding you”) as, “Let no one deny your claim to be Christians.”[39]

The term “self-abasement” in the Greek is the same term used for “humility” (tapeinophrosynē). Since the expression “self-abasement” and the “worship of angels” are part of the same preposition in the Greek, translators take this to mean “false humility” (NIV). Though it could also be understood as “asceticism” (ESV), which is clearly mentioned in verses 21-23 (“severe treatment of the body”). Perhaps the Gnostic teachers were claiming that it is humble to worship angels, rather than God. Or it was humble to torture their bodies out of “humility” before God.

The “visions” could likewise refer to “the initiatory rites of the mystery cults… used by the heretical teachers.”[40] These Gnostics stood on their supposed visions (embateuō), rather than on the revelation of Christ.

All of this false religion is not humility but pride (inflated without cause by his fleshly mind”). They actually had an unrighteous view of themselves.

(2:19) “Not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.” These rituals and false religion can quickly serve as a substitute or replacement for a relationship with Christ.

(2:20-21) “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 ‘“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’” A problem with ritualism is that it effectively says that the work of Christ was insufficient. We have a new identity in Christ (“you have died with Christ”), and we are severed from false religious practices like these.

These could refer to dietary laws. However, the reference to “handling” and “touching” sound like more involved than just food was in mind. It could be the prohibition to remove oneself from the physical world around them in a variety of ways.

(2:22) “(which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?” Ritualism comes from human thinking—not from God.

(2:23) “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Ritualism doesn’t address the heart issues or really change us at all. They might intuitively seem like a good way to grow, but they don’t help at all.

Concluding insights

There is a connection between the “disarming” of demons through the Cross, and the Gnostic asceticism of verses 16-23. Satan’s greatest weapons against God are the false beliefs that he is restrictive, cruel, or tyrannical. Jesus disarmed all of these objections publically at the Cross. In the same way, the asceticism of the Gnostics really communicates that God is restrictive, cruel, and tyrannical. After all, what type of being would want you to harm yourself or restrict you from the physical world he created?

Discussion Questions

Based on verses 16-23, what reasons does Paul give for rejecting ritualism and formalism?

Why would people prefer formalism to a direct personal relationship with God? Why prefer rituals to relationship?

Are all rituals antithetical to a relationship?

What would you say to someone who claimed, “I feel closer to God through these rituals?”

Colossians 3:1-11 (Living out our New Identity)

(3:1) “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” As Christians, we have a new identity in Christ. Since Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, we have this identity as well.

The Greek term “seeking” (zēteite or zeteo) means “to seek information, investigate, examine, consider, deliberate” (BDAG). The Bible uses this word to describe the way Jesus would “seek” to save sinners (Lk. 19:10), or how Herod’s men “sought” to kill Jesus as an infant (Mt. 2:20). The verb is in the present imperative form, which can be translated “keep on seeking.”

Christ is not an intermediary spirit-being, as the Gnostics claimed. He is “seated at the right hand of God.”

(3:2) “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” We should adopt a worldview that focuses on eternity in heaven. Zeteo refers to “seeking” Christ. This term “set your mind” (phroneō) means “to have an opinion with regard to something, to think, form/hold an opinion, judge” or “to give careful consideration to something set one’s mind on, be intent on” or “to develop an attitude based on careful thought, be minded/disposed” (BDAG). It can be understood as “giving such things a large place in one’s thought life.”[41]

Paul isn’t condemning all “earthly things” as evil. After all, he just denounced asceticism in the previous chapter (Col. 2:16-23). Instead, Vaughn writes, “Even things harmless in themselves become harmful if permitted to take the place that should be reserved for the things above.”[42]

(3:3) “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Sin brings death (Gen. 2:17). This decree from God has never been lifted. As believers in Jesus, we have died. Our old self was crucified with Christ. I might pray, “James Rochford is dead. He is a cadaver—a corpse. That old person that frustrates me, disappoints me, and fails repeatedly is dead and gone.” Now that our old self has been crucified, we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). God didn’t try to rehabilitate or fix our old selves. Instead, he crucified the old self and has created us brand new in Christ. Our lives are “hidden with Christ in God.” When God looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

(3:4) “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” While we have a new identity (i.e. our “position”), we still currently struggle (i.e. our “condition”). At the Second Coming, our condition will line up permanently with our position.

(3:5) “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” Verse 3 says that “we died.” Here we read that we need to put our bodies to death. Verse 3 refers to our position in Christ, while this passage urges us to line up our condition with our position.

Immorality (porneia): This is the root from which we get “pornography.” It has a broad semantic range to refer to any “unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication” (BDAG).

Impurity (akatharsia): This means “any substance that is filthy or dirty, refuse” or “a state of moral corruption” (BDAG).

Passion (pathos): This is sometimes translated “lustful passion” (1 Thess. 4:5) to show the meaning in its context. It is “the experience of strong desire” (BDAG).

Evil desire (epithymia): This term (epithymia) is difficult to translate. It is similar to an “over desire” or an “inordinate desire.” It can be defined as “a great desire for something, desire, longing, craving” or “a desire for something forbidden or simply inordinate, craving, lust” (BDAG). It is usually used in a negative sense. However, Paul had an “over desire” to be with Christ in heaven (Phil. 1:23), and Jesus had an “over desire” to eat the Passover meal with his disciples (Lk. 22:15).

Greed (pleonexia): This means “the state of desiring to have more than one’s due, greediness, insatiableness, avarice, covetousness” (BDAG). It comes from the two root words pleon (“more”) and echō (“to have”).[43]

All of these qualities are “idolatry.” This occurs when we place created things above the Creator. Whether it’s sex or greed, we are trying to fill our hunger outside of God’s will.

(3:6-7) “For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.” The believer is dead to the old life of sin. Why continue on in this way of life? These qualities are so terrible that they warrant the judgment of God. This was the old self. It is inconsistent to continue on in this way.

(3:8) “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.” Christians often focus on the sins in verse 5, but Paul continues into the inner heart issues of anger, wrath, etc.

“Anger” (orgē) means a “state of relatively strong displeasure, with focus on the emotional aspect” (BDAG). Jesus showed anger (Mk. 3:5), as does God (Heb. 3:11; Rom. 12:19). Scripture teaches us to be “slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19), or as Paul writes elsewhere, “Be angry, but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).

“Wrath” (thymos) refers to an “intense expression of the inner self, frequently expressed as strong desire, passion, passionate longing” (BDAG; see Rev. 14:8 “passion”). Here it is used as “a state of intense displeasure, anger, wrath, rage, indignation” (BDAG).

“Malice” (kakia) is “the quality or state of wickedness, baseness, depravity, wickedness, vice” or “a mean-spirited or vicious attitude or disposition, malice, ill-will, malignity” (BDAG).

“Slander” (blasphēmia) refers to “speech that denigrates or defames, reviling, denigration, disrespect, slander” (BDAG).

“Abusive speech” (aischrologia) is “speech of a kind that is generally considered in poor taste, obscene speech, dirty talk” (BDAG). Vaughn writes that the term “may denote either filthy or abusive speech, and the authorities are divided as to its meaning here.”[44] It could refer to cussing someone out. After all, the context refers to angry and hateful speech.

(3:9) “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices.” One of the greatest reasons for lying is that we don’t feel secure in telling the truth. We worry that we’ll be in trouble, judged, etc. But if we realize that our Heavenly Father doesn’t judge us, we have no reason to fear the condemnation of anyone. Honesty flows from seeing our new position and identity in Christ.

(3:10) “And have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.” This refers to lining up our condition with our position. We are being renewed in our condition to line up what is true of us in our position.

(3:11) “A renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” The new identity also has sociological dimensions. Since we are all in Christ, this means we have a basis to transcend sociological, gender, and racial boundaries. Instead of focusing on the color of my skin, I realize that Christ is the ultimate value (“Christ is all”), and he is the defining attribute that brings equality because he is “in all” of us, no matter who we are.

Colossians 3:12-17 (Renovation project)

(3:12) “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” The key to these qualities is to “put on” the new identity. Because this is who we are in Christ, we should line up our minds with what’s true. We don’t grit our teeth and try to force these qualities. Instead of trying to change ourselves, we present ourselves to God and trust that he will begin to change us. It’s as we reflect on our new position in Christ that these qualities begin to flow naturally:

Compassion (oiktrimou): This term means “display of concern over another’s misfortune, pity, mercy, compassion” (BDAG). This is a quality that God has toward us (2 Cor. 1:3). Much of Christian work is simply being able to understand how people are feeling, showing appropriate emotional concern for them. Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

Often, people lack compassion because they aren’t really invested in their relationships. Have you placed yourself in close enough proximity to others to be affected by them?

Kindness (crestotes): This refers to “uprightness in one’s relations with others, uprightness” or “the quality of being helpful or beneficial, goodness, kindness, generosity” (BDAG). Brown defines this as “a friendly nature.”[45] It can be defined as “sweetness of disposition.”[46] Jesus was strong, confident, and fierce—being able to strike fear into the religious authorities. Yet when kids saw him, they wanted to crawl all over him like a jungle gym!

Often we have these feelings, but we don’t know how to express them. Pray that God can show you the appropriate emotion. Without this, people wonder if we really love them.

Humility (tapeinophrosynen): This quality involves thinking of others more than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4). Peter writes, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Pet. 5:5). There can also be an ungodly form of humility called “self-abasement” (Col. 2:18, 23). See our paper “Humility.”

Can I delegate “front of the house” responsibilities? Or do I hoard all of the great opportunities for myself? (The only time we take the front of the house role is for the benefit of the Church—not ourselves.)

Am I easily offended or slighted?

Gentleness (praytes): This refers to “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG). It can also refer to the concept of self-restraint in our power or strength. Brown writes, “Words from the praÿs group are used of… [tamed] animals.”[47]

This quality was found in Jesus. Thus, it cannot refer to weakness. Boice writes, “Gentleness (prautēs) describes the person who is so much in control of himself that he is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”[48] John Stott writes, “The word was also used of domesticated animals. So ‘meekness’ is not a synonym for ‘weakness’. On the contrary, it is the gentleness of the strong, whose strength is under control. It is the quality of a strong personality who is nevertheless master of himself and the servant of others.”[49]

Patience (makrothymia): This can be defined as a “state of remaining tranquil while awaiting an outcome, patience, steadfastness, endurance” (BDAG). It can refer to the preparation of battle. Brown writes, “Being strictly military terms, the various words are readily used as metaphors in connection with the battles of life.”[50] This is the ability to wait on God before the battle and not hit the panic button. This refers to waiting on God “in season or out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).

(3:13) “Bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Reflect on God’s forgiveness for you (Mt. 18:21-35). As you realize God’s forgiveness toward you, it allows you to release the demand to enact judgment on others.

  • God forgives without excusing our sin (Rom. 2:1).
  • God forgives without trusting us (Jn. 2:24-25).
  • God forgives without making us weep (2 Cor. 7:9-10).
  • God forgives without conditions (Heb. 10:10).

(3:14) “Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” Love and unity are tied together. Love is the ultimate virtue on this list, and perhaps the virtue that all of these others describe and aim toward. This is similar to Paul’s list of the “fruit of the Spirit” which is love (Gal. 5:22). Paul’s use of the singular (“fruit,” rather than “fruits”) implies that love is the central and ultimate fruit of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 13).

(3:15) “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.” Some Christians interpret this passage to refer to the “inner peace” of Christ. While this is one way of taking this passage (cf. Jn. 14:27), the context refers to the relational peace between believers.

A key to peace with other believers is to “be thankful” for them.

(3:16) “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The NASB implies that we should sing our admonitions to each other (!!), which is a bizarre rendering. We prefer the NIV, which shows that this is a list of participial imperatives—not to be joined to each other like this.

One of the keys to effective teaching and admonition is to let the word of Christ “richly dwell” within us. As we let the word change us, we’re more effective in handing it out to others.

(3:17) “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” The new identity should change both our inward attitudes, thoughts, and convictions, as well as our outward lives. Again, Paul mentions the importance of giving thanks. Gratitude was one of the driving engines behind sanctification and healthy Christian community.

Discussion questions

Based on verse 15: What are some positive steps that you might take in order to prepare for working through a major conflict?

Based on verse 12: How might you help someone who comes off as “cold”? What are some practical steps that could help them to develop this “friendly nature”?

Based on verse 12: What is the difference between righteous and unrighteous anger? What are signs that you do not have your anger under control? What steps might be helpful to gain control of your anger?

 

Righteous anger

Unrighteous anger

Done for the sake of others

Done for the sake of self

Objective

Subjective
Humble: done even when we realize our own sin

Hypocritical: overlooks our own sin in favor of another

Slow to anger (Jas. 1:19)

Reactionary

 

Colossians 3:18-4:1 (Living out our New Identity: Family and Work)

(3:18) “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Wives are called on to follow the servant leadership of their husbands. Vaughn comments, “The form of the verb (hypotassesthe, middle voice) shows that the submission is to be voluntary. The wife’s submission is never to be forced on her by a demanding husband; it is the deference that a loving wife, conscious that her home (just as any other institution) must have a head, gladly shows to a worthy and devoted husband.”[51]

(3:18-19) Was Paul a sexist pig? (links to “Christianity and Women”)

(3:19) “Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them.” In the ancient world, the wife “was often little more than chattel [i.e. property].”[52] Here, Paul tells the Christian husband to show Christ-like love to his wife (agapate). Moreover, he tells husbands not to be “embittered” (pikrainō) which means an “irritable attitude.”[53]

 (3:20) “Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord.” In the parallel passage, Paul notes that children are to be obedient “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). This means that children should never disobey the Lord, in order to obey their parents (i.e. doing something immoral). O’Brien writes, “Since Paul has a Christian family in view (ἐν κυπριῳ), he does not envisage the situation where parental orders might be contrary to the law of Christ. Clearly at that point the law of Christ must take precedence and children would have to obey God rather than men.”[54]

This refers to both parents—not just the fathers (who are specified in verse 21).

This refers to young children—not grown adults. In Ephesians 6:4, Paul writes that fathers should “bring them up.” Thus young children are in view. Wall writes, “The Greek word Paul uses for ‘children’ is tekna, which refers to young children living at home.”[55]

Paul quotes Exodus 20:12 in Ephesians 6: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” The reason for honoring parents is that it is good for the child (“that it may go well with you” Deut. 5:16).

The adult child is supposed to care for the elderly parent (1 Tim. 5:4). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the adult son needs to carry his elderly mother to the bathroom. It also shouldn’t override his ability to lead his own family. He needs to care for both. It does mean, however, that we should continue to provide and take care of elderly parents to the best of our ability.

(3:21) “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.” If we had better Christian fathers, we wouldn’t think verse 20 is so radical of a statement.

They shouldn’t “exasperate” (erethizō) their children which means “to ‘irritate’ either by nagging at them or by deriding their efforts.”[56] Otherwise, the children will “lose heart” which means “to be discouraged” or to “become timid.”[57] Vaughn writes, “Parents can be so exacting, so demanding, or so severe that they create within their children the feeling that it is impossible for them to please.”[58]

In both Roman and Jewish culture, the father was the head of the house, and he couldn’t be questioned. O’Brien writes, “In contemporary society the Roman patria potestas, i.e. the authority and power of the head of the house, gave the father unlimited power over his children and this law exercised a considerable degree of influence in the Hellenistic culture generally (cf. Schrenk, TDNT 5, 950, 951). In Hellenistic Judaism severe punishment could be meted out for disobedient children (Philo’s demand for severity on the part of parents has been attributed to this influence: Philo, Hyp 7.2; Philo, Spec. Leg. 2.232; cf. Josephus, Ap 2.206, 217; Ant. 4.264, and note Crouch, Origin, 114–116).”[59]

It seems that Paul has fathers specifically in view. While pateres (“fathers”) can be used for both our father and mother (see Heb. 11:23), here it is contrasted with verse 20, where both parents are in view. Why the switch unless Paul is specifying fathers? The words and actions of the Christian father can have a massive impact on the delicate fabric of a maturing child—for good or for bad.

Paul says that we have a serious responsibility as fathers to provide for our families: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

(3:22) “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.”

See our earlier article, “The Bible and Slavery.”

(3:23-24) “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” Instead of focusing on their evil masters, Paul urges them to fix their eyes on God. By having a sincere heart and love for their masters, slaves could show themselves to be different. This would result in slave masters being open to the love of Christ.

(3:25) “For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.” If slaves worked sluggishly at their jobs, they would face harsher treatment. Likewise, if they revolted, they would be killed. Paul urges them to sacrificially love their masters instead. This plan led to many slave masters coming to genuine faith in Christ, and having a transformation of the heart to love their slaves (see Col. 4:1). Eventually, the transforming spread of the gospel ended chattel slavery in the Western world.

This passage likely refers to the slave masters. Notice the shift from the “you” in verses 23-24 to “he” in verse 25. The slaves likely felt wronged and their situation was unfair. However, Paul is telling them, “Life is currently unfair, but God will ultimately balance the scales of justice.” How could these slaves be embittered at their masters who could be standing before the judgment of God?

(4:1) “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” In the Greco-Roman world, slave masters had no obligations toward their slaves. Vaughn writes, “Though in the Roman world slaves had no rights, Paul does not hesitate to teach that duty is not all on the side of slaves. Masters also have obligations.”[60]

Paul doesn’t call for the overthrow of the system of slavery. Instead, he calls for “justice” and “fairness” within the existing, fallen system of slavery. If slave masters gave their fellow men justice and fairness, the system of slavery would be effectively abolished.

Paul points out that slave masters have a “Master” themselves. This theological truth decapitates the hierarchy and control of the systematic injustice of slavery.

Colossians 4:2-6 (The relationship between prayer and evangelism)

(4:2) “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.” The term “devote” (proskartereite) means “to stick by or be close at hand, attach oneself to, wait on, be faithful to someone” (BDAG; cf. Acts 2:42; 10:7).

To “keep alert” (grēgorountes) means “to be in constant readiness” (BDAG) or literally “keeping awake.”[61] This is the same term that Jesus used when the disciples were sleeping, rather than praying (Mt. 26:38, 40-41).

One question that might be good to casually kick around in a group of people is this: “What is the most remarkable answer to prayer that you’ve experienced?” or “What is the most recent answer to prayer that you’ve seen?”

(4:3-4) “Praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; 4 that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.” Christians often pray for “open doors.” We get this concept from this passage. The purpose of his request is so that he can share the message of Christ with others more effectively.

Paul prays for his own clarity in being able to speak (“that I might make it clear). Often, we pray for non-Christians to be protected from the evil one (2 Cor. 4:4), to have their hearts softened to the gospel (Acts 16:14), or for them to come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:8-10). And all of these prayers are thoroughly biblical. But how often do we pray for a fellow believer that they can have the ability to clearly explain the gospel to their friend or loved one? We should emphasize both of these important prayers.

(4:5) “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.” Believers should be cognizant of how they are being perceived by non-believers. This would imply doing good works and having moral integrity. However, Paul calls for more than this. He calls for “wisdom,” not just moral living. This means that we also should be considerate of how our “Christian culture” or “Christianese” comes across to non-Christians. We should try to remove any possible barriers that would make a non-Christian uncomfortable.

Prayer should be evangelistic. What does it look like to make the most of every opportunity? Vaughn writes, “The verb in the statement ‘make the most of every opportunity’ is a market term that meant ‘to buy out,’ ‘purchase completely’ (exagorazomenoi).”[62] As believers, we know that we have limited time to make an impact for Christ. We want to “buy out” every minute for the cause of Christ.

(4:6) “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” Apologetics can easily become abusive, contentious, or just generally counter-productive. Paul foresaw this, seeing our need to figure out how to respond graciously. The term “grace” (charis) can “be used in the broader sense of ‘pleasantness,’ ‘attractiveness,’ ‘charm,’ ‘winsomeness.’ These ideas are all implicit in the word.”[63]

The reference to “seasoned with salt” could refer back to Jesus’ teaching that believers are “the salt of the Earth” (Mt. 5:13).

Colossians 4:7-18 (Conclusion)

(4:7-8) “As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. 8 For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts.” These two lines are almost identical to Ephesians 6:21-22. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, they were being written and circulated at the same time. It seems as though Tychicus carried this letter to them.

(4:9) “And with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here.” We know that Onesimus was a slave under Philemon (see Philemon). But instead of focusing on Onesimus’ past life of being a low-class slave, Paul calls him a “brother” and “one of you” (NIV). Onesimus’ life and identity had been completely changed in Paul’s mind.

(4:10) “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him).” Aristarchus had been imprisoned during the Ephesian riot (Acts 19:29) and was with Paul in Rome (Acts 27:2).

Mark is the author of the gospel according to Mark.

(4:11) “And also Jesus who is called Justus; these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are from the circumcision, and they have proved to be an encouragement to me.” We don’t have any other information about Jesus Justus other than this passage.

These three men (Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus) were ethnically Jewish, and they were very encouraging to Paul. It must have felt good to have some friends who were fellow Jews that were also following Jesus.

(4:12) “Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.” Epaphras was a man known for his prayer life. He uses the words “laboring earnestly” (agōnizomenos) to describe how he prayed. He wasn’t laboring with God, but with his own flesh and with Satan.

(4:13) “For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis.” Luke is the author of the gospel according to Luke. This passage may imply that he is a Gentile, because he isn’t mentioned with the three Jewish men in verse 11.

(4:14) “Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas.” Demas later walked away from Christ (2 Tim. 4:10). Luke went on to write his gospel and the book of Acts.

(4:15) “Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house.” Nympha led a house church. The NET note states that the “harder reading” for this pronoun (her house”) implies that Nympha was a woman—not a man.

(4:16) “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.” The letter from Laodicea was likely Paul’s circular letter called “Ephesians.”

(4:16) Did Paul write a lost letter to the church of Laodicea?

(4:17) “Say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.’” Was Archippus put in charge of the church in Colossae while Epaphras was gone? We’re not sure. This passage teaches that we need to “fulfill” the work that God has set before us. God has certain works and and ministry that he wants us to fulfill (Eph. 2:10).

(4:18) “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you.” Paul would sometimes close his letters by writing it himself, rather than using a stenographer or an amanuensis (cf. 2 Thess. 3:17).

[1] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 517.

[2] Cited in O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xli). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[3] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xli). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[4] Frank E. Gaebelein (editor). Curtis Vaughan (author). Volume 11. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan. 1984. 164.

[5] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xlii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[6] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xliii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[7] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 518.

[8] Vaughn writes, “Vocabulary is not a great problem, however, for the distinctive vocabulary is most apparent where Paul is dealing with the Colossian problem. Therefore, it is not unlikely that at least some of these words were borrowed from the errorists for purposes of refutation; naturally, then, they would not be used in other totally different contexts.” Frank E. Gaebelein (editor). Curtis Vaughan (author). Volume 11. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan. 1984. 164.

[9] Frank E. Gaebelein (editor). Curtis Vaughan (author). Volume 11. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan. 1984. 163.

[10] Frank E. Gaebelein (editor). Curtis Vaughan (author). Volume 11. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan. 1984. 164.

[11] We hold to the later date for Colossians, believing Paul wrote this letter from Roman imprisonment. However, Wright argues that an Ephesian imprisonment would be much closer to the events in question. Still Wright calls this “simply a hypothesis.” Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 12). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1986. 40.

[12] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. l). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[13] O’Brien also holds that an Ephesian imprisonment is also very possible, but he prefers the Roman imprisonment. O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. liii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[14] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 522. O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. liv). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[15] Both cited in O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xxvi). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[16] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xxvi). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[17] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xxvi). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[18] Frank E. Gaebelein (editor). Curtis Vaughan (author). Volume 11. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Zondervan. 1984. 163.

[19] Cited in O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xxvii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[20] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xxvii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[21] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. xxxiii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[22] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 175). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[23] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 186). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[24] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 178). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[25] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 181). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[26] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 180). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[27] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 186). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[28] We recognize first-class conditional clauses by the helping word “if” (Greek ei) followed by a main verb in the indicative mood (in any tense). The NASB usually translates these conditions with the English rendering “If indeed…”

[29] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 190). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[30] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 191). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[31] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 193). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[32] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 195). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[33] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 195). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[34] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 195). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[35] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 196). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[36] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 202). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[37] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 202). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[38] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 202). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[39] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 205). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[40] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 205). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[41] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 209). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[42] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 210). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[43] Brown, C. (1986). New international dictionary of New Testament theology (Vol. 1, p. 137). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[44] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 213). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[45] Brown, C. Vol. 2: New international dictionary of New Testament theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1986. 105.

[46] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 215). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[47] Brown, C. Vol. 2: New international dictionary of New Testament theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1986. 256.

[48] Boice, J. M. Galatians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10: Romans through Galatians (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1976. 499.

[49] Stott, John R. W.: God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1979, 1980.

[50] Brown, C. Vol. 2: New international dictionary of New Testament theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1986. 764.

[51] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 218). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[52] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 218). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[53] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 218). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[54] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. 225). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[55] Wall, R. W. (1993). Colossians & Philemon (Col 3:20). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[56] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, pp. 225–226). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[57] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. 226). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[58] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 219). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[59] O’Brien, P. T. (1998). Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 44, p. 225). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[60] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 220). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[61] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 221). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[62] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 222). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[63] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 222). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.