The Epistle to the Colossians - Part 1
William Banks, Hamilton, Scotland
Colossians was one of four letters written from the prison in Rome, Acts 28. 16.1 It was delivered to Colossae, together with the letter to Philemon, by the hand of Tychicus, accompanied by Onesimus, Col. 4. 7-9. Epaphras, who had apparently been instrumental in establishing the assembly at Colossae, 1. 7, and possibly those at Laodicea and Hierapolis, 4. 12, 13, and now a fellow-prisoner, Philem. 23, had reported conditions in the assembly to Paul. It seems that Paul had never visited the assembly at Colossae, 2. 1. Colossians, and possibly Ephesians, was to be read in the church at Laodicea, 4. 16. These letters are complementary. In Colossians the emphasis is on Christ as the Head of the church which is His body, 1. 18; 2. 19, while in Ephesians the emphasis is on the church which is His body with Christ as the Head, Eph. 1. 23. Of the 155 verses in Ephesians, seventy-eight are repeated with some variation in Colossians.2 Both Epistles are peculiarly relevant for the present time ‘when the compromising of truth with error is regarded by many as a Christian grace. They are bastions against the cults, the “damnable heresies”, and the pseudo-scientific evolutionary theories . . . as well as the present trend towards the occult’.3
The assembly at Colossae appears to have been subject to false teaching in relation to the person of Christ. It was ‘Judaistic Gnosticism’ – a mixture of Greek philosophy, 2. 8; oriental mysticism, 2. 18, 23, with its associated idolatry, 2. 18, and immorality, 3. 5; and Jewish ritual, 2. 11, 16. It detracted from the person of Christ, making Him one of many aeons – powers, (totality of powers were called pleroma) between God and man. It denied both His essential deity and true humanity. It was the occupation of intellectuals.
The theme of Colossians is the all-sufficiency of Christ – His pre-eminence, 1. 18, and His fullness, pleroma, 1. 19. Here the word is ‘removed from the precarious foundation of philosophy and mythology and set upon the impregnable rock of inspiration’.4
The same word is also used of Christ in chapter 2 verse 9, ‘In him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’. In chapter 1 verse 19 the idea is that of intrinsic excellence in the greatness of His person, while in chapter 2 verse 9 the fullness is found in a body to give expression to it in the realm of revelation. This idea of ‘fullness’ is also applied to the believer, 2. 10; to Paul, 1. 24, 25 and to others, 1. 9; 4. 12, 17.
Generally speaking, the Epistle follows the same structure as some of Paul’s other Epistles, e.g., Romans and Ephesians. A doctrinal section is followed by practical exhortations. Here the doctrine is covered in the first two chapters, with the balance of the Epistle applying the doctrine to the Christian’s life, 3. 3; interests, ‘put off’, v. 9, ‘put on’, v. 12; movements, ‘do’, v. 17; relationships, ‘wives’, v. 18, ‘husbands’, v. 19; and assembly interpersonal responsibilities – twelve names are mentioned in chapter 4 verses 7 to 18. Essentially, chapters 3 and 4 are asking for the Christ-centred doctrine of chapters 1 and 2 to be seen in its outworking in the believer’s experience.
Outline of chapter 1
– note couplets throughout the chapter
The prescript, vv. 1, 2.
The two servants, v. 1,
Paul and Timothy, cp. Philemon and Philippians
The two descriptors, v. 2a, b, saints and faithful brethren
The two salutations, v. 2c, grace and peace
The two sources, v. 2d,
God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
The two prayers, vv. 3-14.
Thanksgiving, vv. 3-8.
‘Since we [may be indicating joint authorship] heard’, vv. 3-5a, ‘faith . . .
love . . . hope’.
‘Since . . . ye heard’, vv. 5b-8.
Petition, vv. 9-14.
There are two requests.
‘That ye might be’, v. 9.
‘That ye might walk’, vv. 10-14.
The two majesties, vv. 15-23a.
The majesty of Christ in creation, vv. 15-18.
The majesty of Christ in new creation, vv. 19-23a.
The two ministries, vv. 23b-29.
The minister of the gospel, v. 23b.
The minister of the church which is His body, vv. 24-29.
The prescript, vv. 1, 2.
Paul links himself with Timothy in the writing of this letter. ‘That Timothy alone is named along with him in the prescript is due to Timothy’s sharing his ministry on a permanent basis’.5 Paul links Timothy with himself uniquely in four letters in the New Testament, viz. 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon, as well as Colossians. There was a special bond between them which was forged during Paul’s second missionary journey, Acts 16. 1. Timothy may have been converted during his first missionary journey, 14. 8-20. He ‘was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium’, 16.2 and was held in the highest esteem by Paul, Phil. 2. 20-22. It is always encouraging when older brethren see such lovely features in a younger brother and embrace them fully in the development of their ministry.
While there is a close connection between the two, there are also vital differences. Paul can describe himself as an apostle, while Timothy is referred to as ‘the brother’.6 As an apostle, Paul reminds the Colossian believers of the exalted Christ he serves – ‘Christ Jesus’, RV, JND; cp. Acts 9. 6, and the special call he received ‘by the will of God’, cp. Gal. 1. 15, 16. The experience on the Damascus road was indelibly impressed on his mind. While he never forgot the exalted honour into which he was initiated, on the other hand the fundamental brotherhood that existed as a result was something he cherished – ‘Timothy the brother’. It immediately introduced a link with the believers at Colossae.
Indeed, Paul’s relationship God-ward and Timothy’s relationship saint-ward is immediately replicated in the believers at Colossae. They are described as ‘saints and faithful brethren in Christ’. They are saints God-ward, and faithful brethren man-ward. They, and we, are saints by divine calling, 1 Cor. 1. 2. The word for saint is cognate with the word for holiness, and what we are by calling ought to be replicated in what we are practically. God anticipates that His people will be ‘holy; for I am holy’, 1 Pet. 1. 16. Paul refers to ‘saints’ several times in this first chapter, 1. 2, 4, 12, 26. Those whose lives are thus regulated God-ward are most likely to be faithful man-ward. There are several ‘faithful’ brethren mentioned in the letter – Epaphras, 1. 7; Tychicus, 4. 7 and Onesimus, 4. 9. It is a lovely trait, but utter reliability of this nature is sadly lacking in our day.
The sphere of their faithful fellowship is said to be ‘in Christ’. This is an interesting term with clear dispensational significance. It is the current sphere of all our spiritual blessings, Eph. 1. 3, and the sphere for the consummation of divine purpose for the ages, ‘both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in Him’, Eph. 1. 10. At the rapture, ‘the dead in Christ shall rise first’, 1 Thess. 4. 16.
These are they of the present dispensation who have died since the inception of the church at Pentecost.
The double salutation ‘grace . . . and peace’, which is common to nine of Paul’s Epistles, follows. They are characteristically Christian in their atmosphere and diametrically opposite to conditions pertaining in the world. ‘Grace is God’s unconditioned goodwill toward men and women which is decisively expressed in the saving work of Christ, cf. 1. 6; peace is the state of life—peace with God, cf. 1. 20, and peace with one another, cp. Eph. 2. 14-18,—enjoyed by those who have effectively experienced the divine grace’.7 The order, of course, is significant – the peace comes as a result of experiencing the grace.
The two sources of the above blessings are then affirmed, ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. Although the reference to the Lord Jesus Christ is omitted in the Revised Version, it is retained in many other versions.8 The double source is at once an affirmation of the equality of these two persons of the Godhead, and, at the same time, a statement of the essential deity of the Lord Jesus. The reference to God as ‘our Father’ is also a term of dispensational significance. Language like this could not have been used in the Old Testament. There, God was the ‘Father’ of the nation of Israel who was called ‘My son’, Hos. 11. 1, but God was never addressed by individuals as their Father. In His Upper Room ministry the Lord Jesus introduced this unique relationship to ‘His own’, John 13. 1, and encouraged them to address God as their Father, John 16. 23, 24. There are fifty-two references in forty-five verses to the ‘Father’ in the Upper Room ministry. We little appreciate the tremendous blessings into which we have been introduced in this day of grace.
1 The others were Philemon, Ephesians and Philippians.
2 J. M. Davies, Prison Letters – Colossians and Philemon, Precious Seed Publications, 2008.
5 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
6 J. N. Darby, New Translation.
7 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Colossians, William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
8 JND, YLT, Bishops, NKJV, LITV.