Knowing the Truth
Explore the Bible Series
April 17, 2011
Background Passage: Colossians 1:1-20
Lesson Passage: Colossians 1:3-20
Authorship: Until the early Nineteenth-Century, Christian scholars universally affirmed the Pauline authorship of Colossians. According to Raymond Brown, academic theologians began to question the traditional view on several grounds. He mentions, for instance, that Colossians uses eighty-seven words not found in other Pauline writings, and he raises concern about the extraordinary sentence structure used throughout the epistle. Some think these stylistic issues point to another author who simply used Paul’s name. I take these observations seriously; however, the stylistic differences may arise from the aid of Paul’s assistant Timothy. Perhaps Timothy acted as Paul’s amanuensis, and additional help may have come from Tychicus or Epaphrus.
In addition to the literary issues, some believe the occasion of the letter, the rise of false teachings in Colossae, may reflect religious developments that evolved after Paul’s death. These scholars tend to identify the false doctrine with the Gnostic heresy, a religious system that evolved fully in the Second Century. This concern has, I think, two problems. First, it is not completely clear that the Colossian heresy was Gnostic. The legalistic nature of the heterodoxy seems to reflect the same kinds of theological problems Paul encountered elsewhere. The emphasis on veneration of angels and ecstatic experiences do add a unique dimension to the aberrant theology, but the foundational teachings seem similar to Paul’s theological debates in other churches. Second, we know that early forms of Gnosticism troubled churches some time before the Second Century. Perhaps Paul encountered a kind of proto-Gnosticism, in his correspondence with the Colossians.
After careful thought, it seems reasonable to affirm Paul’s authorship of Colossians. The book clearly claims to be Pauline, and the objections do not seem insurmountable. Also, the connections between this letter and Philemon prove persuasive. Even liberal scholars tend to attribute Philemon to Paul, and a careful reading of that letter demonstrates important commonalities. Philemon was a Christian from Colossae, and both letters mention several persons connected with the church. It seems unlikely that a forgery, written many years after Paul’s death, would include these personal references.
Recipients: Paul had no personal relationship with the Colossians; rather, it seems that the city was evangelized by one of the apostle’s associates, perhaps Epaphras, sometime after Paul’s work in Ephesus (c. 52-55 A.D.). At one time the city enjoyed great prominence and prosperity; but, by the middle of the First Century the city had declined badly. It was located in the Lycus River Valley, about one hundred miles east of Ephesus. The church was largely Gentile, and false teachers had infiltrated the congregation with a legalistic theology that demanded, among other things, circumcision of these Christian converts. In addition, certain pagan, occultic elements lured the church away from the gospel. Paul wrote to counteract these false doctrines.
Date: Church history has long believed that Paul wrote this epistle, along with three other letters, during his Roman imprisonment. If so, he must have written the letter around 63 or 64 A.D.
If possible, try to locate a copy of Dr. Curtis Vaughan’s Colossians: A Study Guide Commentary. The Founders folks have graciously reprinted several of Dr. Vaughan’s little commentaries, but you will need to find this one in a used book outlet. You just can’t beat Vaughan’s study guides. More advanced students will benefit from reading J.B. Lightfoot’s classic commentary on Colossians.
I. Paul’s Greeting (1:1-8)
A. Salutation (vv. 1-2): This is typical of Paul’s method of introducing his epistles. With the exception of Galatians, he used a similar formula: personal introduction, appeal to the grace of God, identification with the Lord Jesus, inclusion of associates (such as Timothy), recognition of recipients, and blessing.
B. Paul’s gratitude for the Colossians (vv. 3-8)
1. Familiar qualities of Christian character (vv. 3-5): Ass elsewhere, Paul mentioned faith, love, and hope. Faith always centers on the Lord Jesus, a settled confidence in the goodness of grace of Christ. Love, in this case, focused attention on the genuine affection enjoyed among believers. Hope is that confidence that anticipates goodness from the Lord, assurance of an inheritance safeguarded in heaven, as promised in the gospel message of the apostle.
2. The good report of the Colossians (vv. 6-8): The word of the gospel had transformed the lives of the Colossians, and their reputation, as reported by Epaphras, had issued in great fruitfulness. We know little of Epaphras. Apparently, he lived in Colossae and served as one of the leaders of the congregation.
II. Paul’s Prayer for the Colossians (vv. 9-12): Since the day Paul heard of the Colossian church, he prayed continually for his unseen brothers and sisters in Christ. This paragraph outlines the content of the apostle’s prayer.
A. “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will” (v. 9): Some aspects of God’s will seem clear and distinct, for instance the Ten Commandments; however, more nuanced guidance comes only as believers grow in wisdom and understanding. These qualities are fostered by consistent, prevailing prayer. Immature Christians often seek guidance through temporary, intense periods of prayer, but Paul prescribed a different approach. Nuanced guidance requires wisdom, spiritual insight that arises from a prayerful life and time-tested experience.
B. “that you may walk worthy of the Lord” (v. 10): Again, Paul prayed for the long-term prospects of his friends. “Walk” implies consistent progress toward a purposeful destination, a strenuous effort to make one’s way through life with clear intent and resolve. This resolute progress pleases the Lord and guarantees fruitfulness and the increasing knowledge of God.
C. “strengthened with all might” (v. 11): Growth in grace requires more than resolve—it demands supernatural strength (stamina) to continue one’s pilgrimage, a strength that comes from the believer’s union with the risen Christ. This divine resilience includes patience (the gracious ability to persevere despite challenges to one’s faith) and longsuffering (fortitude to bear with the hardships of life).
D. “giving thanks to the Father” (v. 12): In particular, Paul highlighted his gratitude for the inheritance treasured up in heaven.
III. Reflections on the Believer’s Inheritance (1:13-20): I follow Dr. Vaughan’s outline of this paragraph (He extends the paragraph through verse twenty-three).
A. The Scope of Christ’s Supremacy (vv. 15-18): Paul included three profound, sweeping statements concerning the deity of Jesus.
1. “the image of the invisible God” (v. 15a): Jesus Christ, according to Paul’s theology, is the very likeness of the invisible God; that is, he bears every quality of divinity, on equal standing with the Father.
2. “the first-born of all creation” (vv. 15b-17): Lightfoot saw this phrase as an assertion of Christ’s supremacy, in rank, over creation. He existed before the world, and the created order exists by him and for him. Vaughan says, “The references to ‘thrones,’ ‘dominions,’ ‘principalities,’ and ‘powers’ is perhaps an allusion to the angelic hierarchy which figured so prominently in Gnostic teaching… His words do suggest, however, that whatever angelic powers there may be, Christ is the one who made them and he is their Lord.”
3. “and he is the head of the body, the church” (v. 18): A vital union exists between Christ and his church, a union that implies his sovereignty over his people. These three descriptions leave no doubt concerning Paul’s belief in the supremacy of Christ.
B. The basis for Christ’s supremacy (vv. 19-23)
1. “For it pleased the Father that in him all the fullness should dwell” (v. 19): The fullness of deity permanently resides in Jesus Christ.
2. “and by him to reconcile all things to himself” (vv. 19-23): All things will eventually be subdued by the reconciliation of Christ. The Colossians, once lost in sinful darkness, were a prime example of the reconciliation of Christ. Once enemies of God, the cross changed forever their relationship with God. Jesus’ death resolved the enmity between these sinners and God, and, through Christ’s redemptive work, they will be presented, to the Father, holy, blameless and irreproachable in his sight. Of course, the genuineness of their conversion will be proven by their steadfast perseverance in the hope of the gospel, the gospel preached faithfully by the Apostle Paul.