Proper 10 • Colossians 1:1-14 • July 14, 2013
By James W. Voelz
Editor’s note: An abbreviated form of this Homiletical Help appeared in the Spring 2013 Concordia Journal. The full commentary written by Dr. Voelz is provided here.
The book of Colossians has had its authenticity questioned from the nineteenth century onward, though not before. Much of the problem lies in its similarity to Ephesians, in both vocabulary and thought. There also seems to be a focus on Gnosticism, which flowered much later. Finally, the vocabulary and syntax of this letter (as well as of Ephesians) are different from that of the so-called “genuine Pauline letters,” which has raised suspicions. To respond briefly to each point in turn: when the vocabulary and thought of two letters is not similar, that raises suspicions (see 1 and 2 Peter), thus similarity should not be an insurmountable hurdle; there seem to have been gnostic tendencies afoot already in the first century AD (see 1 Cor 2:6–16, 8:1–3); the abstract vocabulary, as well as the complex and lengthy sentence structure, reflect the Greek of Asia Minor, where Colossae was located (it should be noted that, except for Galatians, virtually all of the Pauline letters under question by scholars were addressed to Asia Minor churches [Ephesians, Colossians] or situations [1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus]).
The setting for Colossians is important. It is a captivity epistle, along with Philemon, Ephesians and 2 Timothy, as well as Philippians. It is probable that the captivity setting for it (along with the others, except for Philippians) was not Rome—or Ephesus (a location for which there is no proof of a captivity)—but Caesarea in Judea. We know that Paul was imprisoned there for several years, under two procurators, Felix and Festus, in the late 50s, so we may date it to AD 59 or so. It cannot have been much later, because Colossae, a textile center, was situated on the Maeander River near Laodicea in Asia Minor (Turkey). In AD 61 Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake (Tacitus, Annals, 14.27.1), which probably did in Colossae, as well. It is never mentioned in literature after AD 61. Paul is writing to recent converts after his third missionary journey, it seems, and he sends his instructions through Tychicus (4:7) and Onesimus (4:9).
The Greek of this book is a challenge (see above), and one must be prepared for loooong sentences, especially with strings of nominative participles following the main verb (see προσευχόμενοι in 1:3, ἀκούσαντες in 1:4, καρποφοροῦντες and αὐξανόμενοι in 1:10, δυναμούμενοι in 1:11, εὐχαριστοῦντες in 1:12). Note also the string of subordinate structures at the end of the pericope, with an articular participle in 1:12, and with a relative pronoun at the beginning of 1:13 and 1:14 (and 1:15!).
1:2: The phrase “in Colossae” likely modifies both the saints and the brothers (note the single article). Probably “in Christ” is adverbial, modifying Paul’s writing to the Colossians and characterizing it as being “in Christ.”
1:3: As is common, Paul gives thanks first (cf., e.g., 1 Cor 1:4 and Phil 1:3). Thanksgivings commonly began letters in the ancient world, as well, though secular writers normally thanked the pagan gods. Perhaps Paul emphasizes his praying at the end of the verse because it seems as if he did not know the Colossians personally (see 1:4 and 1:7).
1:4: Note the structure after πίστιν: ἐν Χριστῳ Ἰησοῦ (not εἰς + accusative). This reflects the verbal structure seen in John 1:15 and Ephesians 1:13. The thought of this verse is parallel to Philemon 5 and Ephesians 1:15. The binding of the two ideas is striking: faith in Christ and love for all the saints are closely linked.
1:5: This verse gives the basis for the faith and the love, viz., hope (something in short supply for many in the Roman Empire)—a hope that is sure and reserved in heaven. Without hope, faith and love cannot survive (1 Corinthians 13:13 is making a different point, which has to do with visibility and presence). Important also is that the basis for all of this is the gospel, which is characterized as the word of truth. So this chain develops: faith and love depend on hope, which depends on the gospel—good Lutheran stuff!
1:6: This verse says that the gospel is with the Colossians and throughout the world, and it is bearing fruit in the same context. Indeed, the gospel has had this effect right from the first. Note that what struck these Christians was specifically the grace of God (not rules and regulations?). Two important Greek notes: first, the εἰς (third word) is the equivalent of ἐν, BUT, with the additional thought that a prior “coming into” has occurred (as the gospel came into the midst of the Colossians); second, the construction ἀφ’ ἧς ἡμέρας (cf. Acts 1:2) is a condensed construction reflecting ἀπὸ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐν ᾑ.
1:7: Epaphras was the one who brought the gospel to the Colossians. He was imprisoned with Paul at one time (see Phlm 23). As mentioned also in Colossians 4:12, this dedicated servant was from the midst of the Colossians.
1:8: The participle with article functions as a relative clause, which is normally restrictive. There were a number of faithful “deacons” operating on the Colossians’ behalf, but he made clear to Paul their love. For Paul, people remembering him was (logically) very important (cf. Phil 4:10, 14).
1:9: In this verse, the letter takes a turn, from thanksgiving to the body or the main concern. Paul now talks about praying and petitioning on behalf of the Colossians, not their love for him. Several Greek items are of interest:
- Note the same Greek structure here with ἀφ’, as in v. 6.
- Note also the use of the ἵνα clause. After verbs of praying and requesting it normally conveys content or object, i.e., what is requested, not why the requesting is taking place (“asking that . . .” not “asking in order that . . .”).
- The construction πληρωθῆτε τὴν γνῶσιν is difficult. Normally verbs of “filling” use the genitive case to express the contents of the filling (see Acts 2:4 with πνεύματος), so that the genitive τῆς γνώσεως would be expected. But it is probably right to take this accusative as expressing content; see Philippians 1:11 (indeed, note that the variant reading there does evidence the genitive!). Thus, “. . . that you be filled with the knowledge of his will . . .”) is probably best.
Note the emphasis at the end of the verse on spiritual understanding; Paul is not a promoter of human wisdom and understanding (see 1 Cor 1–2).
1:10: The first word is an aorist active infinitive, whose use is ambiguous. It could be simple purpose (“in order that you walk”) or simple result (“with the result that you walk”), but perhaps best is to see some sort of combination meaning, e.g., “so as to walk,” which might be characterized as “epexegetical,” i.e., detailing in what area the Colossians would have knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (“as far as walking is concerned”). Striking is the chiastic construction of the latter part of this verse, with phrases and verbs: ἐν παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ (A) / καρποφοροῦντες (B) // αὐξανόμενοι (B’) / τῇ ἐπιγνώσει τοῦ θεοῦ (A’). In terms of argumentation, the idea of walking in a way worthy of the Lord is important; the Christian’s life should reflect his faith. This is amplified by the further thoughts of bearing fruit in good works and increasing in knowledge. No content-less Christianity here! Faith is incarnated in a new creation.
1:11: As Paul continues, it is apparent that this new creation living is not “on one’s own steam,” as it were. Christians are empowered by “the power of his glory,” which is a difficult phrase but probably means something like this: “Glory” in the OT and NT involves the revelation of God for who he truly is. For Christians this means that he stoops to be incarnate and to serve (in which condition one truly “sees” God [cf. the Gospel of Mark]), but also that in resurrection and ascension he is Lord over all. So here the power of him who is one with us in the flesh and now has authority over all things empowers those who are his. And this issues in endurance and long-suffering, which will characterize and be the lot of those who have faith in Christ and love for the saints (1:3). “With joy” probably goes with the participle following.
1:12a: Note the return to thanksgiving! This is the final response for all that the Christian receives.
1:12b–14: The thought progression of these verses is well worth paying close attention to.
- First, the Father has made the Colossians sufficient for participation in the lot of the saints in light.
- He (= ὅς), the Father, has rescued us from the authority over darkness and transferred us into a new lordship, the reign and rule of his Son who is the incarnation of his love.
- In that Son (ἐν ᾧ) we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Run the thoughts backwards: the forgiveness of sins is the basis for Christians being under the reign and rule of Christ, and that reign and rule frees us from darkness and gives us a destiny in light. Note that dealing with the problem of the relationship between God and man (i.e., sin) is at the root of all (further) positive developments such as new lordship and the final inheritance of the saints.
Thinking and Preaching Theologically
This text has enough for five sermons, and any sermon on it will have to determine focus (see, e.g., the Textual Notes on 1:4 or 1:5, above). Helpful is a set of observations by C. F. D. Moule in his insightful Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge: University Press, 1957; reprint 1975). He notes (p. 47) that the petition of Paul from 1:9ff is for:
- “sensitiveness to God’s will,” including a “grasp of what is spiritually valuable.”
- “issuing in conduct worthy of Christians and pleasing to Christ,” which involves good works and growing in understanding,
- “the equipment for this being strength, a strength derived from God’s power…in keeping with his revealed splendour (sic), a strength which cheerfully stays the course.”
This is followed by the thanksgiving. But, Moule continues, “the prayer had already sprung out of an antecedent thanksgiving: its foundation is the solid fact of what God has done (alluded to already in vv. 5–7), and to this it returns in vv. 12–14.”
On the basis of these insights, a suggestion is to run the text in reverse for homiletical purposes. Thus, begin with what is detailed in the last textual note, above (1:12b–14). That is the foundation for the Christian life. But one builds upon a foundation. What such building means is laid out clearly in verses 9–11: through the power of God, doing good works and growing in understanding, on the basis of the knowledge of the will of God. And where does one find that knowledge? In the “word of truth of the gospel” (1:5), which does bear fruit (1:6) and does give knowledge of the grace of God (1:6)—bringing us full circle.
The entirety of the Christian life and hope can be surveyed in this wonderful text sent on papyrus to the Colossians, written from a prison cell by a slave of Christ whom no manacles or bars could keep from the glorious promises of the gospel.