The letter to the Colossians was written by Paul and Timothy about 60 AD while Paul was in prison in Rome. It is a rebuttal to an undefined false teaching or collection of teachings, after first presenting the true teachings.
- 1:1–14 Greetings, prayer and praise
- 1:15–20 Jesus’ divinity, humanity, and supremacy
- 1:21–23 Reconciliation and persistent faith
- 1:24–2:3 Paul’s mission
- 2:4–8 Warnings about crafty arguments
- 2:9–15 Spiritual relationships and truths
- 2:16–23 Standing firm against falsehood
- 3:1–17 The believer’s proper focus and behavior
- 3:18–4:1 Treating each other properly
- 4:2–18 General instructions and final greetings
1:1–14 Greetings, prayer and praise
The Colossians were known for their faith and love for all believers, and for their spiritual growth. Paul prays that even more will be added to them: good behavior, pleasing God, success, knowledge of God, and the power to endure. As he has mentioned more than once in other letters, all believers have a guaranteed inheritance. Notice the past tense: we have been rescued from darkness; we have had our sins cancelled.
1:15–20 Jesus’ divinity, humanity, and supremacy
This passage is an excellent one for answering all who claim Jesus is something less than God. Jesus is clearly shown here to be the Creator God, the source of everything, and the sustaining power of all that exists. Yet some stumble over the phrases, “firstborn of all creation” and “firstborn from the dead”, as if he were a mere creation. His being “born” here, as the context shows, is not his coming into existence, but his taking on human form (see Phil. 2:5-11) and then having that form rise from the dead in a new and immortal condition. He was the first to do that. Others rose from the dead before him, but still in their old, mortal bodies. His full deity is further enforced by the clear statement that in him lives the entirety of God, not just a part. This is the so-called “hypostatic union”. He was not part this and part that, but all of both.
Note the head/body metaphor that Paul is fond of using. The Greek indicates head of, not over, and stresses the unity of head and body as well as the Greek understanding that the body grew out of the head. Since it immediately precedes the statement about reconciliation between God and people, and since the context here is about not only divine power but “holding everything together”, we cannot arbitrarily assign the modern meaning “boss” to the word “head”. We will see more references to this throughout the letter. And our inability to fully grasp this hypostatic union is no excuse to ignore it or misapply it.
1:21–23 Reconciliation and persistent faith
Now Paul moves from how Jesus reconciled God and people to the purpose of that reconciliation: that we could be presented to God as flawless. This is something Jesus does for us, not something we do for ourselves. Yet what does Paul mean by saying he trusts that they persist in the faith and are not removed from the hope of the Gospel?
At first glance this may appear to support Conditional Security, that is, that salvation itself can be lost. But context is the key, and it keeps speaking of our salvation being based upon faith in what Jesus already did. Paul sees this as the foundation that was laid, and it must be stable. A wavering foundation is one that was not properly laid. So Paul is addressing initial salvation and not the possibility of lost faith. If the right foundation was laid, we will naturally continue to follow it.
So just as the foundation determines how the building progresses, our salvation determines our actions. If it is true and firm we will continue in it, but if not, we will waver. So our continuing in the faith is proof of the right foundation having been laid, not that the foundation can be taken away. He is telling the people to look at the solidness of their faith to determine if they had been saved in the first place. It is the difference between “If you are saved you will continue in the faith”, and “To remain saved you must continue in the faith”.
1:24–2:3 Paul’s mission
Now Paul briefly shares how God continues to refine him through physical hardship, and that this is for the believers’ benefit. He relates that he became a servant (Gk. diakonos) to them by God’s command, and that God had revealed to him the “secret” that had been kept hidden until now. What is this secret? That everyone, Jew and Gentile, can have the Holy Spirit in them due to faith in the risen Jesus, and through that we have hope, the assurance of “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
He had been working hard among all the believers to spread the gospel and then encourage new believers to grow and mature. He endeavors to guard them against deceptive teachings, and he is happy to see some strength and conviction forming in them. Now he urges them to keep on going and live out the teachings.
2:4–8 Warnings about crafty arguments
Specifically, Paul warns them against subtle and cunning worldly wisdom. This can come in the form of appeals to human tradition and the “elements of the world”. This letter, and in fact the entire New Testament, gives examples of such arguments, such as putting experience over sound doctrine, thinking that love is a license to sin, or concluding that since everyone is a sinner then no sinner can ever be confronted. Most people are not trained to recognize bad logic, or to ask hard questions about some new or pious-sounding teaching. Many in churches today follow even the most outrageous and demonic teachings, as long as they come with a Christian-sounding veneer. Churches often look to secular psychology for what are really spiritual problems, and few would be able to discern the difference. Thinking and standing against error are difficult and demanding tasks, but they are vital for the health of the Christian community.
2:9–15 Spiritual relationships and truths
Once again Paul stresses that Jesus is the embodiment of the entirety of God. When we are united with Jesus we are complete. And again we see the Greek word kephale meaning “head” (see 1:15–20), but this time the topic is not the head’s unity with the body but its being the source of life, hence the translation here as “source”.
And being united with Jesus means we share in his immersion (trad. “baptism”), death, and resurrection; we are alive to God but dead to sin. But what Jesus accomplished for us is more than new life; it is also declaring us “cleared of all charges” by canceling the legal code that stood against us. He nailed this list of charges to the cross as a formal declaration of innocence. Because of that, all legalism and condemnation is “made prisoner” instead. The law that put Jesus on the cross is now nailed there in our place, and we are free.
2:16–23 Standing firm against falsehood
In light of our being declared innocent, by virtue of what Jesus did for us and our acceptance of it by faith, we must not let anyone judge us on the basis of what we eat or drink, what days we observe, or any such external legalism. Notice that even “Sabbaths” are among the things we are not obligated to observe. They were part of the old legalistic system that had brought condemnation, but they were only a shadow, a temporary darkness. Our union with Jesus is all that matters now; it is reality as opposed to shadow.
So we must guard against legalists who try to set themselves over us and put us under slavery. They fake humility instead of being part of the reality of our Source, Jesus. Paul refers specifically to those who participated in the conjuring of angels to do their bidding, and because of the visions they had they were conceited. As such they were like headless bodies (yet another head/body reference), cut off from the Source of Life.
Since we “died” to those things, why do we try to go back under their authority as if they still have power over us, making us “do this but don’t do that”? This question Paul asks should still be asked today, since there is still a lot of legalistic control being taught in the churches.
3:1–17 The believer’s proper focus and behavior
Here again we see our salvation referred to in the past tense. And because this is so, we must keep looking up and stop focusing on this world or on what used to be. We died to this world, and we are hidden or kept absolutely safe in Jesus. And when he is finally revealed to the world, we will finally be given the remainder of our inheritance.
As a result, we must treat all the “dead” things of this world as exactly that. We are new people, being continually changed into the image of Jesus. And this new image does not distinguish between ethnic groups, social ranks, or any other such divisions. We are to replace all that with new “clothing” that is the opposite of the old. And this new clothing can be summed up as Love. If we have that, the rest will follow. Everything must be done with the goal of glorifying God.
3:18–4:1 Treating each other properly
Now Paul focuses on interrelationships among believers. He begins with the principle of mutual submission, mutual teaching, mutual concern. We are all equals and must treat each other as such, in gratitude to God and in the Name of Jesus. There is no favoritism here, no superiority, no bossing or ruling.
Keeping that in mind and considering the context, we see some specific areas in which people might question how this mutual submission works out in practice. Wives support husbands because we all are connected to the Master. Husbands love wives for the very same reason, and remember that “love does no harm to its neighbor” (Rom. 13:10). Children obey parents and parents don’t aggravate children. Slaves obey masters sincerely, and masters treat slaves fairly and kindly, as they are treated by their Master.
What this section does not say is anything about domination. Support and identification cannot be twisted into a domination/submission relationship. Women of the time were presumed to be inferior and expected to obey their husbands, so what would be the point of telling them to obey? Instead, Paul recognizes society as it is but gently institutes a revolutionary change: the equality of all believers. We all serve the Master; nobody is closer to him than anyone else.
4:2–18 General instructions and final greetings
Now Paul gives instructions about praying and acting wisely. We need to keep our eyes open for opportunities to spread the gospel, and to be careful how we act in front of the world. He tells of people he will send to the Colossians, along with greetings from those staying with him in prison. He also gives personal recommendations for them.
A woman named Nympha is mentioned as one who has a Congregation of believers meeting in her house. We must not assume she is merely being hospitable, just because she’s a woman. Had this been a man, nobody would think twice about his being a leader or being worthy of respect. That the believers meet in her house is an indication of her leadership and respectability.
Lastly, Paul instructs the Colossians to read this letter also to the believers at Laodicea, who in turn were to give their letter from Paul to the Colossians. The letter to the Laodiceans was not preserved for us, but God certainly had his reasons. Paul makes sure this letter is known to be authentic by adding a greeting in his own handwriting, possibly due to the problem of forgeries referenced in 2 Thes. 2:2.