Introduction to the Bible - 51- Colossians

The Epistle to the Colossians

by Louis Berkhof


 The Epistle to the Colossians may best be divided into two parts:

 I. The Doctrinal Part, emphasizing the unique Significance of Christ,  1:1--2: 23. Paul begins the letter with the apostolic blessing, the  usual thanksgiving and a prayer for his readers, 1:1-13. Then he  describes the pre-eminence of Christ as the Head of both the natural  and the spiritual creation, who has reconciled all things to God,  14-23, of which mystery the apostle himself was made a minister, 24-29.  He warns his readers against the inroads of a false philosophy that  dishonored Christ. Since the Colossians have all the fulness of the  Godhead in their Lord and Saviour, are rooted in him, and have arisen  with him to a new life, they should walk in him and avoid semi-Jewish  practices and the worship of angels, 2:1-19. This was all the more  necessary, because they had died with Christ to their old life and to  the beggarly elements of the world, 20-23.

 II. The Practical Part, containing divers Directions and Exhortations,  3: 1--4:18. Where believers have risen with Christ to newness of life,  they must part with the vices of the old man and clothe themselves with  Christian virtues, 3:1-17. Wives should submit themselves to their  husbands and husbands should love their wives; children must obey their  parents and parents must beware of discouraging their children;  servants should obey their masters and these should give the servants  their due, 18--4:1. The duty of prayer and thanksgiving is urged, and  directions are given for the right behavior of believers toward the  unconverted, 2-6. With a few personal notices, several greetings and a  salutation the apostle closes his Epistle, 7-18.


 1. On its formal side this Epistle differs from that to the Ephesians  in its polemical character. It is not a general exposition of the truth  that is in Christ Jesus, without reference to antagonistic principles,  but a statement of it with a special view to the errors that were  gradually creeping into the Colossian church, insidious errors of which  the Cobssians, so it seems, little realized the danger. It is true that  we find none of the fiery polemics of the Epistle to the Galatians  here, nor any of the sharp invective of II Corinthians;--yet the  controversial character of this letter is very evident.

 2. On its material side it exhibits great affinity with the Epistle to  the Ephesians. Hence the contention of the critics that the one is but  a copy of the other. We should not infer from this, however, that the  teaching of these Epistles is identical. While that contained in  Ephesians is in the main Theological, that found in Colossians is  primarily Christological, the summing up of all things in Christ, the  Head. Essentially the Christology of this letter is in perfect harmony  with that of previous Epistles, but there is a difference of emphasis.  The writer here places prominently before his readers, not only the  Soteriological, but also the Cosmical significance of Christ. He is the  Head both of the Church and of the new creation. All things were  created by him, and find the purpose of their existence in him.

 3. In point of style and language too this Epistle shows great  similarity to its twin-letter. Of the 155 verses in Ephesians 78  contain expressions that find parallels in Colossians. There are the  same involved sentences of difficult interpretation, and also a great  number of hapax legomena. The letter contains 34 words that are absent  from all the other writings of Paul, 12 of which are found in other New  Testament books, however, (cf. lists of these words in Alford and in  Abbotts Comm.) Of these 34 words at least 18, and therefore more than  half, are found in the second chapter. Owing to the polemical character  of this letter the author is generally speaking in a more  matter-of-fact manner than he is in Ephesians, and it is only, when he  sets forth the majesty of Christ, that he soars to sublime heights.  Comparing this Epistle with those to the Corinthians and the  Philippians, Lightfoot says: "It is distinguished from them by a  certain ruggedness of expression, a want of finish often bordering on  obscurity." Comm. p.123.


 There are no good reasons to doubt the Pauline authorship of this  Epistle. Marcion and the school of Valentinus recognized it as genuine.  And the great witnesses of the end of the second century, Irenaeus,  Clement of Alexandria and Tertuilian repeatedly quote it by name.

 Moreover the internal evidence decidedly favors the authenticity of the  letter. It claims to be written by the apostle in 1: 1; the line of  thought developed in it is distinctly Pauline and is in striking  harmony with that of the Epistle to the Ephesians; and if we do not  first rule out several of the Pauline Epistles and then compare the  style of this letter with those that remain, we may confidently assert  that the style is Pauline. Moreover the persons named in 4:7-17 are  all, with but a couple exceptions (viz. Jesus called Justus and  Nymphas) known to have been companions or fellow-laborers of Paul.

 Yet the Epistle did not go unchallenged. Mayerhoff began the attack on  it is 1838, rejecting it, because its vocabulary, style and thought  were not Pauline; it was so similar to Ephesians; and it contained  references to the heresy of Cerinthus. The school of Baur and many  other critics, such as Hoekstra, Straatman, Hausrath, Davidson,  Schmiedel e. a., followed his lead and considered this Epistle as a  second century production. Holtzmann, as we have already seen, found a  genuine nucleus in it.

 There are especially three objections that are urged against the  Pauline authorship of this letter. (1) The style is not that of the  apostle. The fact that the letter contains 34 hapax legomena that  characteristically Pauline terms, such as dikaiosune, soteria,  apokalupsis and katargein are absent, while some of the particles often  employed by the apostle, as gar, oun, dioti and hara are rarely found;  and that the construction is often very involved and characterized by a  certain heaviness, is urged against its genuineness. (2) The error  combated in this Epistle, it is said, shows clear traces of second  century Gnosticism. These are found in the use of the terms sophia,  gnosis, 2 :3, musterion, 1 :26, 27; 2 :2, pleroma,1 :19, aiones, 1 :26,  etc.; in the series of angels named in 1: 16; and in the conception of  Christ in 1: 15. It is held that they point to the Valentinian system.  (3) Closely related to the preceding is the objection that the  Christology of this Epistle is un-Pauline. Davidson regards this as the  chief feature that points to the Gnostics, Introd. I p. 246, but it is  also thought to conflict with the representation of Paul in his other  writings, and to approach very closely the Johannine doctrine of the  Logos. Christ is represented as the image of the invisible God, 1:15,  the central Being of the universe, absolutely pre-eminent above all  visible and invisible beings, 1: 16-18, the originator and the goal of  creation, and the perfect Mediator, who reconciles not only sinners but  all things in heaven and on earth to God, 1: 16-20.

 In answer to the first objection we may say that the argument derived  from the hapax legomena is irrelevant and would apply with equal force  in the case of the Epistle to the Romans. From the fact that more than  half of them are found in the second chapter it is quite evident that  they are due to the special subject-matter of this letter. The  difference between Colossians and some of the other Pauline writings  also explains why the characteristically Pauline terms referred to  above are absent from our Epistle. Had Paul used exactly the same words  that he employs elsewhere, that would also, in all probability, have  been proof positive for many critics that the letter was a forgery.  Moreover it should not be regarded as very strange that a persons  vocabulary changes somewhat in the course of time, especially not, when  he is placed in an altogether different environment, as was the case  with Paul. We fully agree with Dr. Salmon, when he says: "I cannot  subscribe to the doctrine that a man, writing a new composition, must  not, on pain of losing his identity, employ any word that he has not  used in a former one." Introd. p. 148.

 As to the second objection we would reply that there is absolutely no  proof that the Epistle presupposes second century Gnosticism. The  Gnostics evidently did not regard it as a polemic directed against  their tenets, for Marcion and the Valentinians made extensive use of  it. Moreover some of the most important elements of Gnosticism, such as  the creation of the world by a demiurge, ignorant of the supreme God or  opposed to Him, are not referred to in the Epistle. An incipient  Gnosticism there may have been in Paul's time; but it is also possible  that the error of the Colossian church is in no way to be identified  with the Gnostic heresy. Present day scholarship strongly inclines to  the view that it is not Gnosticism at all to which Paul refers in this  letter.

 And with respect to the third argument, we do not see why the further  development of the Pauline Christology cannot have been the work of  Paul himself. There is nothing in the Christology of this Epistle that  conflicts with the recognized representation of Paul. We clearly find  the essence of it in Rom. 8:19-22; I Cor. 8:6; II Cor. 4:4; Phil,  2:5-11. These passages prepare us for the statement of Paul regarding  the Cosmical significance of Christ,. 1: 16,17. And the representation  that all the forces of creation culminate in the glory of Christ does  not necessarily run counter to Rom. 11: 36 and I Cor. 15 : 28,  according to which all things exist to the praise of God, their  Creator.


 Colossae was one of the cities of the beautiful Lycus Valley in  Phrygia, situated but a short distance from Laodicea and Hierapolis.  Herodotus speaks of it as a great city, but it did not retain its  magnitude until New Testament times, for Strabo only reckons it as a  polisma. We have no information respecting the founding of the  Colossian church. From the Acts of the Apostles we learn that Paul  passed through Phrygia twice, once at the start of his second, and  again at the beginning of his third missionary journey, Acts 16: 6; 18:  23. But on the first of these journeys he remained well to the East of  Western Phrygia, where Colossae was situated; and though on the second  he may have gone into the Lycus Valley, he certainly did not find nor  found the Colossian church there, since he himself says in Col. 2: 1  that the Colossians had not seen his face in the flesh. In all  probability Paul's prolonged residence at Ephesus and his preaching  there for three years, so that "all those in Asia heard the word of the  Lord Jesus," Acts 19:10, was indirectly responsible for the founding of  the churches in the Lycus Valley. The most plausible theory is that  Epaphras was one of Paul's Ephesian converts and became the founder of  the Colossian church. This is favored by 1 :7, where the correct  reading is kathos emathate,and not kathos kai emathete.

 The church consisted, so it seems, of Gentile Christians, 1: 21, 27; 2:  11-13; the Epistle certainly does not contain a single hint that there  were Jews among them. Yet they were clearly exposed to Jewish  influences, and this need not cause surprise in view of the fact that  Antiochus the Great transplanted two thousand families of Jews from  Babylonia into Lydia and Phrygia, Jos. Ant. XII 6. 4. This number had,  of course, greatly increased by the time the Epistle was written.  Lightfoot estimates that the number of Jewish freemen was more than  eleven thousand in the single district of which Laodicea was the  capital. Cf. his essay on The Churches of the Lycus Valley in his Comm.  p. 20.

 According to the Epistle the Colossians were in danger of being misled  by certain false teachings. As to the exact nature of the Colossian  heresy there is a great variety of opinion. Some regard it as a mixture  of Judaeistic and theosophic elements; others dub it Gnosticism or  Gnostic Ebionism; and still others consider it to be a form of  Essenism. We can infer from the Epistle that the errorists were members  of the congregation, for they are described as those "not holding the  head," 2:19, an expression that is applicable only to those that had  accepted Christ. And it seems perfectly clear that their error was  primarily of a Jewish character, since they urged circumcision, not,  indeed, as an absolute necessity, but as a means to perfection,  2:10-13; they appealed to the law and emphasized its ceremonial  requirements and probably also the ordinances of the rabbis, 2:14-17,  20-23. Yet they clearly went beyond the Judaism that Paul encountered  in his earlier Epistles, falsely emphasizing certain requirements of  the law and adjusting their views to those of their Gentile neighbors.  Their dualistic conception of the world led them, on the one hand, to  an asceticism that was not demanded by the law. They regarded it as  essential to abstain from the use of meat and wine, not because these  were Levitically unclean, but since this abstinence was necessary for  the mortification of the body, which they regarded as the seat of sin.  They neglected the body and apparently aspired after a pure spiritual  existence; to be like the angels was their ideal. On the other hand the  consciousness of their great sinfulness as material beings made them  hesitate to approach God directly. And the Jewish doctrine that the law  was mediated by the angels, in connection with the influence that was  ascribed to the spirits in their heathen environment, naturally led  them to a worship of the angels as intermediaries between God and man.  Among the higher spirits they also ranked Christ and thus failed to  recognize his unique significance. The Colossian error was, therefore,  a strange mixture of Jewish doctrines, Christian ideas and heathen  speculation; and this composite character makes it impossible to  identify it with any one heretical system of the apostolic time. Cf.  especially Zahn, Einl. I p. 329 if.; Holtzmann, Einl. p. 248 if.;  Lightfoot, Comm. pp. 71-111; Biesterveld, Comm. pp. 18-28.


 1. Occasion and Purpose. From the Epistle itself we can readily infer  what gave Paul occasion to write it. Epaphras, the founder and probably  also the minister of the congregation, had evidently seen the danger,  gradually increasing, that was threatening the spiritual welfare of the  church. The errorists did not directly antagonize him or Paul; yet  their teaching was a subversion of the Pauline gospel. Hence he  informed the apostle of the state of affairs, and this information led  to the composition of the Epistle.

 The object Paul has in view is the correction of the Colossian heresy.  Hence he clearly sets forth the unique significance of Christ, and the  all-sufficient character of his redemption. Christ is the image of the  invisible God, the Creator of the world, and also of the angels, and  the only Mediator between God and man. He in whom all the fulness of  the Godhead dwells, has reconciled all things to God and has delivered  men from the power of sin and death. In his death He abrogated the  shadows of the Old Testament and terminated the special ministry of the  angels that was connected with the law, so that even this vestige of a  supposed Biblical foundation for the worship of angels has been  removed. In him believers are perfect and in him only. Hence the  Colossians should not fall back on the beggarly elements of the world,  nor in sham humility worship the angels. Having their life in Christ,  they should conform to his image in all their domestic and social  relations.

 2. Time and Place. For the discussion of these we refer to what we have  said in connection with the Epistle to the Ephesians. The letter was  written at Rome about A. D. 61 or 62. Of course the majority of those  who reject this Epistle date it somewhere in the second century.


 The canonical character of this Epistle has never been doubted by the  Church. There are slight but uncertain indications of its use in  Clement of Rome, Barnabas and Ignatius. More important references to it  are found in Justin Martyr and Theophilus. Marcion gave it a place in  his canon, and in the Muratorian Fragment it is named as one of the  Pauline Epistles. With Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian  the quotations increase both in number and definiteness. That the  Epistle is not quoted as often as Ephesians is probably due to its  polemical character.

 The permanent value of this letter is found primarily in its central  teaching, that the Church of God is made perfect in Christ, its  glorious Head. Since He is a perfect Mediator and the complete  redemption of his people, they grow into him, as the Head of the body,  they find the fulfillment of all their desires in him, as their  Saviour, and they reach their perfection in him, as the Goal of the new  creation. His perfect life is the life of the entire Church. Hence  believers should seek to realize ever more in every atom of their  existence the complete union with their divine Head. They should avoid  all arbitrary practices, all human inventions and all will-worship that  is derogatory to the only Mediator and Head of the Church, Jesus  Christ.