The City of Colossae was situated in the valley of Lycus approximately 10-12 miles past Laodicea. It was an area which had much diversity in regards to philosophical and religious life. The Colossian Christians were surrounded by these mixtures of ideals but were seemingly not willing to recant or mix their belief in Christ with other religious systems and may have had tremendous struggles in the process. Paul’s writing was to encourage them and also, indirectly, to respond to those false teachings in which they were being exposed to. It wouldn’t have been easy to resist some of these erroneous teachings since false/alternative teachers were very persuasive in their approach. Yet, Paul commands them to resist them (Colossian 2:4,8,16,18) at all cost. There was one main advantage that these Colossian Christians had and that was they had the very personification of wisdom and knowledge in the Lord Jesus. The very thought of truth flows from the person of the Lord Jesus and they could find courage to hold on to the teaching through Him. The letter is a bit different from other epistles dealing with false teaching in that it is a bit more vague. Paul never really comes out to name the false teaching or teachers. I believe the reason he is writing this way is due to the vast array of thinking they were being exposed to. The language used in the letter seems not to point to a particular teaching but perhaps a few different religious beliefs. It is important then to carefully examine the exact terminology used by the apostle in order to give some sense whom he is addressing.[i] I have a leaning however towards the two particular groups based upon some internal evidence. I feel the heretical movements challenging the church in Colossae were based upon a form of Judaism[ii] and most likely Gnostics[iii]. Gnostics in the day of Paul held to a variety of different beliefs but two main tenets seemed to have some popularity in their circles mainly that they had a special privilege in the enlightenment of knowledge. It would not have been rare to hear the Gnostics speak of terms such as wisdom (Sophia) or knowledge (epignosis) as they held to the pursuit of knowledge as a means of final salvation. The other tenet that was popular among them was dualism. The Gnostics viewed their god as ultimately pure and holy and men as corrupt and purely evil. They had difficult reconciling how a pure and perfect god could create something as evil and impure as man. In order to solve the problem they created a lineage where their god created what was called “aeons” which were mediatory angelic beings (or demi-gods) who were grouped into what was called ‘fullness” (pleroma). These aeons are godlike creatures, often identified as angels when Gnosticism encountered Jewish or Christian belief.[iv] Greek Scholar Kenneth Wuest writes:
The more numerous the emanations, the farther away from Deity they became, and as a result the divine element in them became more feeble, until it became so diffused that contact with matter was possible, and creation took place. Thus, the gap between a holy creator God and matter which, according to the Gnostic is evil, is bridged by these emanations from God that are so far removed from a Deity who is holy, that matter could be created which is inherently evil, and this act of creation could not be attributed to a holy God”[v]
Seemingly these Gnostics were said to be from the Valentian School of Gnosticism and were highly influential. We can argue this simply from looking at the amount of space given in scripture to their refutation (1-3John)[vi] and also through the writings of many early church fathers.
The identity of the author of the letter is given, as usual, at the very beginning of the epistle. Paul identifies himself as the author and also expresses the intended recipients of the letter also. Paul identifies himself as an apostle and the term can have different meanings[vii] however it seems to denote the idea of one who is a representative of the Lord Jesus Christ and having some sense of authority to shepherd the sheep through respected teaching from above. It was stamped and sealed in the person of Christ! As most commentators note; Paul had never visited that city yet he was still considered their apostle. This seems rather peculiar since seemingly Apaphras would have been the one who planted the assembly there. The authority of the apostle runs with particularity as one who is in charge of the bigger picture, mainly the churches en toto. This apostleship was by the will of God. This was no mere “wishing” on God’s part but it was His intention for Paul’s work as an apostle. Paul could even say: But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16) demonstrating the ultimate Sovereign will in action as to the destiny of this great apostle.
Paul is not alone in his salutation to the Colossian assembly but adds “Timothy our brother” to his opening greeting. Timothy met Paul during his missionary trip to the region of Derbe and Lystra where Paul had met him and took him with him. (Acts 16:1-3) Some have come to the conclusion that the reason that Paul added Timothy to the letter was because they feel perhaps he was taking dictation and it was his hand that wrote it. I don’t believe this is necessarily the case since his name is found in several other of Paul’s epistles. I believe by adding the name “Timothy” was to give a sense of authority to Timothy as a young man shepherding and teaching the churches of God. He seems to have a special place seeing that others are named in the epistle (4:7-14) yet Timothy stands out alongside Paul in the salutation.
In v.2 Paul states who were the intended recipients of the letter and refers to them as “Saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae”. The term “saints” is used because they were set apart to be God’s holy people and representatives in their locality. I believe the reason for calling them “faithful brethren”[viii] was as a means of inclusion especially in light of the family of God. It gives a sense of relationship that we are to have as those who share in the unity that is found in Christ Jesus our Lord. The term “in Christ” is remarkably rich if we take a moment to think about the situation these believers in Colossae were in. They were surrounded by divers false religions even some that had become a mixture of flavours yet in the end they all shared in one common them; they were all “in Adam”. What set the Colossians apart was that they were in Christ.
As customary in Paul’s epistles, he sends the “peace and grace” from God the Father[ix] their way. The desire of Paul’s heart was that they might experience freedom from strife and that the goodwill of the Father might be upon them. It is with love for the brethren that we can muster the desire to see our fellow brethren witness knowledge of the true benevolence of our gracious Father. One must wonder if we lack in this thinking in our day due to the lack of hostility we face in our North American culture.
We begin in v.13 with an explanation for the expression “who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the Saints in light”. (v.12) The term “qualified” in the preceding verse refers to how God has made us competent or worthy of receiving the inheritance He has promised. We are “qualified” because God has “rescued” or delivered us (NKJV) from the domain of darkness”. The domain of darkness seemingly refers to the powers or authorities of darkness. (Luke 22:53) The domain (exousiaV) is referring basically to the rule of that darkness and I feel should be put in contrast with “inheritance…with light”. We are speaking of being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son which is where we find our inheritance. The idea of rescuing here is probably parallel to the language of reconciliation we will see later on and seems to be closely paralleled to being brought back from exile. (Exodus 6:6-8; Psalm 107). The Colossians (and all believers) were living in darkness under the rule and dominion of their sin, the world and the devil and were in need of a “rescuing” in order to come into any blessing of the kingdom of God. These Colossian believers were not told that they were only rescued FROM the dominion of darkness but were “transferred” TO the kingdom of His beloved Son![x] This transferring to the kingdom wasn’t something that was future but that they were already in that kingdom. The Kingdom is something that was inaugurated and hence present (Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 4:20; 15:24) while not yet consummate and future (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21)
In v.14 Paul furthers the definition of the work of the Father of rescuing and transferring. This effort was accomplished through the Son’s work of redemption. We read “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. It is “in Him” that we have been rescued and transferred. We have found deliverance from the being exiled from our creator in the creator Himself. The language of redemption for a believer brings us to our true Christian hope. It should be carefully noted that the redemption spoken of is something they is already possessed. It is the accomplishment of Christ’s death in demonstrating that our freedom from the bondage of sin[xi] is due to our being bought with a price. The Messiah is the liberator of His people, not from the slavery of Roman rule or governmental oppression but of man’s greatest slave master mainly sin. The result of redemption is the forgiveness of sins which is the departing of our sins from our account similar to the goat being led away or departing from Israel as he went into the wilderness. Our sins are forever sent away and never to return to us. The blood of Christ is the only means by which we can wipe away the stain of sin and avoid the coming wrath of God in judgment. (John 3:36)
Now we enter into the actual portion that we feel was inserted by Paul as a tool for exhorting the Colossian church. Vs. 15-20 were thought to be a devotional poem or a hymn. Some would even employ it in worship. L. Hurtado writes:
It is likely that it either originated within the context of early Christian praise and worship, as a hymn celebrating Jesus, or was composed by the author of Colossians himself as a hymnlike expression of Christ’s supremacy…so in either case the passage reflects, whether directly or indirectly, the hymnic praise of Christ that was a feature of the devotional life of at least some circles of first-century Christians.[xii]
Now that Paul has spoken of the “Son of His love”, he begins a compilation of focal statements meant to demonstrate who his redeemer is. The next five verses are widely acknowledged as being a hymn that existed prior to the writing of this epistle. It certainly seems by the distinction of the next few verses that there is the idea of something quoted or brought into the discussion. Some argue that Paul was the writer of the hymn however it seems more apparent that Paul utilized a common Christian hymn to which he made some alterations to fit the context of his argument. The reason the hymn was inserted was because it was a type of devotional exhortation to demonstrate the perfection and superiority of Christ over all things. This is very fitting to be sure and stressing the sufficiency of Christ over the mixture of religious thinking in Colossae would have had an impact on the perseverance of these believers. There have also been a variety of opinions on how the hymn should be viewed in regards to its construction but I don’t feel that this really impacts the text enough to really place to much emphasis upon. I have basically found the following to make the most sense:
- Vs. 15-16 — Opening main Stanza (pre-eminence over creation)
- Vs.17-18a — Transition (pre-eminence over the church)
- Vs. 18b-20 — Closing main Stanza (pre-eminence over the new creation or redemption)
Paul wishes to place Christ on the highest point of glory as possible and hence argues that any sort of truth or knowledge must have Him as the primary starting point. No philosophical system or religion can compare to the person of Christ Jesus. With that said, let us explore and savour the sweet aroma of worship dedicated to our great Saviour and Lord.
Vs. 15 begins with the expression “He is the image of the invisible God”.[xiii] The Son, our redeemer and to whom we owe all our blessings in the kingdom, is firstly identified as the image of God. Christ is the image of the invisible God in the sense of being the means by which Jehovah has been revealed to the eyes of men.[xiv] This seems to at least be hinted to by the term “invisible” that in Him the invisible has become visible.[xv] The hymn is expressing that we may see in Christ what God is: All God’s glory is reflected in Him, and when we see Him, we see the Father.[xvi] This is not the same idea as we humans having been created in the image of God since we must distinguish Christ as being the image of God and humans being created in the image of God. The Scriptures are very explicit in their affirmation that our Great God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, cannot be seen. The bible is very clear that No one has seen God at any time (1 John 4:12) since He dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. (1 Tim 6:16) Exodus 33:20 states: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live! No man can look upon the face of our blessed God the Father, to see Him in full view without any sort of object dividing Him and man and survive. Being in the presence of the great Majesty of God is not viable to man or any other being and we have confirmed that no being has seen God yet, at the same time, the scriptures also substantiate that One has seen Him. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. (John 6:46). Our Lord Jesus is the only exception to this particular rule. John 1:18 states: No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. With all this said, we know that men had seen Jehovah (Genesis 12:7; Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:8 and especially Isaiah 6) but the light of the New Testament explains to us that it was Christ in those instances who was the one who was gazed upon and not the Father. (John 12:29-44) God is revealed in the fullest possible way through His very image who is the exact representation of His nature. (Hebrews 1:3)[xvii]
The great redeemer/Son is also identified further by the apostle by using the expression “Firstborn of all creation”. This is not in relation to the Father but His relationship to creation. The term “firstborn” is used in scripture to identify one who is the first one to be conceived in a family and this interpretation is used of the Lord Jesus (Luke 2:6-7) but in this instance I believe it is saying something more. Professor Moo writes:
The word prototokos (“firstborn”), while often used in the literal sense of the first to come from the womb, takes on a metaphorical significance based on the ancient attribution of pre-eminence to the first to be born”[xviii]
The thought of the position of the firstborn is what Paul is attempting to present to the Colossians. Paul is speaking of a priority to all creation and sovereignty over all creation[xix]. A firstborn son had a position on special honour within the family where he would receive double the portion of the inheritance and was a ruler over his father’s affairs.[xx] (Deuteronomy 21:17)Paul’s emphasis is not to present Christ as the creaturely creator but as the supreme ruler over all creation![xxi] Paul is refuting the Gnostics who pictured Christ as one of the aeons by placing him before “all creation” (angels and men).[xxii] The title helps explain how we can trust that Christ’s redemptive work was going to be sufficient and superior to any other religious system to bring about the forgiveness of sin. The reason they could trust in Christ was because He is the ruler over all creation and His Messianic authority dictates that because He rules over all things that we can be guaranteed the inheritance because we are in Him. (Colossians 1:5,12)
The 16th verse of this beautiful passage begins with the term “hoti” which gives the reason why Christ is the “firstborn of all creation”. Mainly it is because “by Him all things were created”.[xxiii] The term “by” is heavily debated among scholars in regards to how exactly it should be translated. Many argue that the term “en” (by) should be used as “through” in presenting Christ as the instrument of creation (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6 where the Greek word “dia” is used). The term however seems to be consistently translated as “in” throughout the epistle and it would seem strange to translate it differently here. The expression “in Christ” wasn’t foreign to Paul and probably gives us the idea that all of creation is created “in Him” or “in reference to” Christ Jesus. We can see its usage also in Ephesians 1:3-14 where all blessing is found “in Christ”. In other words everything that is created finds its way back to Christ Himself somehow. The term “all things” is defined as:
- Things in heaven and on earth
- Things visible and invisible
- Thrones, dominions, rulers or authorities
The first qualifier (things in heaven and on earth) seems to be pointing to the fact that the Lord Jesus is the creator of the physical and spiritual realm which is essentially synonymous with the idea of ‘things visible and invisible”. The idea of thrones, dominions, rulers or authorities is basically giving us another parallel to the physical/spiritual realm in that it encompasses both earthly and spiritual rulerships. It is said that All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:3). Paul then repeats the term “all things” as to bring us back to what he was defining by these three terms. We saw that all things were created “by Christ” but also they were created through Christ (dia) which is speaking of the role of Christ as mediator in all the creations existence but what is even more important is the idea that all things were created “for Him”. Everything that He brought into existence serves as a purpose and belongs primarily to Him. As Robertson rightly states it is a Christo-centric universe. This is why He is the faithful redeemer because He owns everything that bares the definition of creation. We should not forget that the pronouns expressed in these beautiful scriptures should be paralleled with the words of Paul in Romans 11:36 where we are told that For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things To Him be the glory forever. Amen. Which are speaking explicitly of Jehovah the Father Himself. This is the same idea as we see from the prophet Isaiah who expressed the idea that Jehovah was “all alone” when all things were created. (Isaiah 44:24)
When we enter the transitional verse of the hymn in v.17, Paul seems to bring us the idea of Christ’s role in creation and why it continues in existence today. We read: He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. Christ is before all things which mainly is a beyond the scope of our finite minds. Notice the text says “He is” not “He began” before all things.[xxiv] This is speaking of His pre-existence and also a reference to His eternality. The hymn at this point is very much in line with the text of John 1:1(a) where we read: “In the beginning WAS the Word…” We are speaking of something that has a title to all things because He has never come into existence. Paul is not finished! He expresses creations coming into existence in the past but he now switches to a present continuous reality mainly that all things NOW exist because of Christ. The hymn is giving the title of “Sustainer” to the Lord Jesus in showing that we even owe our existence today to Him. This is a far cry from the gods of Paul’s day who had put things into motion but then sat back to observe. He is sovereign over all things because He participates in their continuous existence and without Him nothing would continue to be.
In the beginning of the 2nd main stanza, we are presented with Christ as it refers to His role in the life of His people. The stanza begins by stating that He is the head of the body, the church which is used elsewhere in Colossians to indicate to us the supremacy of Christ over His people. We are inseparable from the body and He is the supreme authority over the Universal congregation! We are given shepherds and teachers to guide us but ultimately He is the authority figure that is focused upon and made supreme. The role of the body seems to always point to service and worship as one people interlinked with their head. (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27) The stanza continues with more titles to denote His supremacy mainly that He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. I would see these expressions as giving us Christ firstly as the one from whom the church originates or was founded (beginning) and His superiority flows from Him being the firstborn from the dead. In other words because of the resurrection He has inaugurated His kingship over the dead and this is where we derive our certainty that we will be resurrected. Christ is the commencing mediator of the new life for those of whom He is the head. Christ’s resurrection guarantees our final resurrection. What was inaugurated in that day will be consummated when He will come to have first place in everything and begin His final rule. (Hebrews 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28) The resurrection is the fundamental hope for all believers and without it we have absolutely nothing by which to stand upon. (1 Peter 1:3) We have life only because He has it firstly to give to us and He bestows it on whom He pleases. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23)
The hymn is not finished with the praise and devotion to the Christ of God. We are told that it was the Father’s good pleasure that “all the fullness dwell in Him”. The question of what this “fullness” is has been debated but I believe that when we are honest with the parallel passage just a few short verses later where we read: “All the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form” that we are demonstrating that at the incarnation Christ kept the “fullness” of Jehovah Himself. (Colossians 2:9).[xxv] In Christ, Deity finds its dwelling place or home to which it expresses its most powerful attributes to the creation. The term deity[xxvi] here is not merely qualitative but it is expressing the very essence of God. Here the word “divinity” will not do, only the word “deity”. (Wuest) This language is very similar to what we find in John 1:14 where John states that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in that the Lord Jesus “tabernacled” among the people. The tabernacle was the dwelling place of Jehovah when He was among His people and while the Lord Jesus was on earth, the fullness of deity was dwelling in bodily form among them.
The closing passage in this extraordinary hymn focuses on what was our original context in presenting Christ Jesus as “redeemer”. Christ is the agent by which God “reconciles all things” to Himself. The reconciliation of all things should not be taken as meaning a Universal salvation for everyone and thing but that of a cosmic renewal (2 Corinthians 5:9; Revelation 5:13) that will come to pass through “the blood of His cross”. The blood of Christ is how God made peace with the created universe. This is exactly the argument found in Romans 8:19-23 where creation is in decay and awaiting the final consummation. There is a general reconciliation that was purchase by the death of our Lord but Paul becomes much more specific in vs. 21-24 where this reconciliation is obviously specific (YOU-Colossians) and also the conditional clause “if you continue in the faith firmly established”. The language in vs. 12-14 and 21-24 are way too particular to be speaking of a generic redemption that the Universal Salvation promoters are proclaiming.
[i] Most scholars are divided as to what exactly was the primary heretical movement that Paul was challenging in this epistle.
[ii] Notice the terminology used by Paul such as Sabbaths, New moons, meats & drinks and circumcision
[iii] Language such as service of angels, fullness and superior wisdom certainly at least hints towards this movement.
[iv] The Forgotten Trinity, James R. White, Bethany House Publishers, Page. 108
[v] Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, K. Wuest, Eerdmans, P. 164
[vi] It should be noted that the epistles of John were addressing primarily, in my mind, the Docetists who were influenced by the Gnostics. These Docetists believed that believed that Christ could not have come in the flesh since He was pure and holy.
[vii] Moo sees the term as being used as a messenger (Philippians 2:25; 2 Corinthians 8:23) and also as an “accredited Missionary” (1 Corinthians 9:5-6; 15:7; Galatians 2:9)
[viii] The term “faithful” is the translation of “pistos” which generally is translated as “believing” or “believers” but in this instance the idea stem from those who were continuously faithful in the circumstances they were in.
[ix] The NKJV (also KJV) add the words ‘and the Lord Jesus Christ” yet the NASB et al. Do not have that reading. It is difficult to establish simply from the manuscript evidence since I feel both have a strong support but it seems more likely that since the reading is similar to Ephesians 1:2 (and these are tremendously similar) then it is logical to say it was an attempt at harmonizing with the Ephesians epistle. In other words, even though rare, I feel the original probably didn’t have “and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
[x] The literal rendering here would be, as the NKJV translates, “the kingdom of the Son of His love”
[xi] Wuest would identify the term “aphesis” as carrying the idea of a release from bondage
[xii] Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in the Earliest Christianity, Larry Hurtado, Eerdman, Page 506
[xiii] The NASB, NKJV, ESV, NIV ect.. translate the term “hos” as “He is” but I prefer the KJV or JND translations in this instance as “who is” since it flows better with the “in whom” in v.14 and it seems to be the more literal rendering.
[xiv] Vincent defines “image” (eikwn) as: image is more than likeness which may be superficial and incidental. It implies prototype, and embodies the essential verity of its prototype. (P.468)
[xv] Bruce P
[xvi] The Lord of Glory, B.B. Warfield, Page 254
[xvii] The term character is very much parallel with the idea of the image. Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest explains: The words “express image” are the translations of charakter. This word was used in classical Greek of an engraver, one who mints coins, a graving tool, a die, a stamp, a branding iron, a mark engraved, an impress, a stamp on coins and seals. Metaphorically it meant “a distinctive mark or token impressed on a person or thing, by which it is known from others, a characteristic, the character of.” It was a Greek idiom for a person’s features. It was used of the type or character regarded as shared with others. It meant also an impress or an image. The classical usage of this world should throw some light upon its use in the New Testament
[xviii] The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo, The Pillar New Testament Commentaries, Eerdman, P. 119
[xix] Wuest p. 183
[xx] Compare Genesis 41:51 & Jeremiah 31:9 and also see Psalm 89:27 and Exodus 4:22
[xxi] D. Wallace writes: “Though some regard this gen. To be partitive (thus, firstborn who is a part of creation), both due to the lexical field of “firstborn” including “preeminent over” (and not just a literal chronological birth order) and the following causal clause (“for [oti] in him all things were created”)- which makes little sense if mere chronological order is in view, it is far more likely that this expresses subordination. Further, although most examples of subordination involve a verbal had noun, not all do (notice 2 Cor. 4:4 above, as well as Acts 13:17). The resultant meaning seems to be an early confession of Christ’s lordship and hence, implicitly, his deity. (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Daniel Wallace, Zondervan, Page 105)
[xxii] Robertson P. 478
[xxiii] The Watchtower Bible & Tract Societies translation “the New Word Translation of the Holy Scriptures” renders this passage as “all (other) things”. I feel this is unfortunately the very essence of reading your theology into the text. The basis for this insertion is that the term “other” is inserted for clarity but does adding the term “other” in this passage not completely change the intent of Paul? Is it very clear that the insertion was on eisegetical grounds. What is most alarming about this rendering is that it turns Paul’s entire argument against the Gnostic dualism on its head. We have here Christ as “a god” (John 1:1 NWT) and secondary creator who created everything but Himself. How this is any different than the dualistic rendering of creation is questionable to say the least.
[xxiv] It is important to note that the text doesn’t speak about Christ coming into existence at al particular point in time but that His superiority over all things stems not only from the fact that He created it all but that He precedes it all.
[xxv] In Colossians 2:9 Paul expresses the idea that “in Christ” we believers are made full (vs. 10-15). The point Paul is attempting to present is that we as Christians are not to be taken prisoner or captive by wordly and vain philosophical systems to lead us away from our focus on Christ. Why? Because all of God Himself has made His dwelling place or permanent home in Jesus Christ.
[xxvi] Greek jeothV