As I mentioned in a previous post, I am beginning a study of the Book of Colossians because I plan to teach through the book in a few weeks. I began by reading through the book in several different translations so that I could get a good “feel” for how Paul arranged his material.
The next step in the process is to develop a preliminary outline. I try to put together a preliminary outline based on my reading. Now, you may wonder why I don’t consult commentaries for an outline. That might be the expedient step, but I typically don’t consult commentaries until the very end of the study. I want to understand the text as much as I can before I consult commentaries.
(By the way, I should pause here for a moment. While I try to consult only the text, this is very difficult to do. Almost all English Bible translations and even edited Greek texts include some type of outline. Of course, translations are also interpretations. So, I can’t actually separate myself from this scholarship, and I don’t attempt to. But, I do try to recognize and admit those influences.)
To begin with, Colossians is a letter. So, there is a basic outline for letters written during this time period. (Of course, letters do not always fall perfectly within this pattern.)
The salutation of Colossians is found in Colossians 1:1-2, which includes the sender, the recipients, and the initial greeting. Also, the prayer/thanksgiving/blessing for the recipients of the letter is found in Colossians 1:3-14.
The closing of the letter is found in Colossians 4:7-18, which includes both travel plans and greetings.
So, the body of Colossians is found in Colossians 1:15-29. The body of the letter is fairly easy to outline because of the transitions and connections that Paul uses. For example, at the end of his prayer for the Colossians, Paul says, “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14) This immediately transitions into a discussion of the Son, Jesus Christ, which begins in Colossians 1:15.
So, the first section of the body of the letter is about Jesus. There appear to be two subsections here: 1) Jesus’ preeminence over creation (beginning in Colossians 1:15) and 2) Jesus’ preeminence over the church (beginning in Colossians 1:18). Now, it could be that Jesus’ preeminence over the church is actually within his preeminence over creation, not a separation subsection. But, since it seems that Paul uses Jesus’ preeminence over the church to transition into the next section of the letter, I want to include that as a separate subsection.
As I mentioned, at the end of the subsection on Jesus’ preeminence over the church, Paul begins another transition by mentioning his own ministry to the church. This leads to a longer discussion about Paul’s service on behalf of Jesus Christ. This is another section within the letter than runs from Colossians 1:24through Colossians 2:5. Importantly, Paul not only describes his own ministry of the Gospel, he explains his understanding of the mystery of the Gospel, which is Christ himself.
Next, Paul again uses the end of the previous section as a transition. Paul says that his ministry includes rejoicing in the firmness of the Colossians’ faith (Colossians 2:5). This leads directly into the final (long) section in which Paul exhorts his readers to “walk in Christ, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.” (Colossians 2:6-7)
The completion of this exhortation is not found until near the end of the letter when Paul says, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders,” or literally “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders.” (Colossians 4:5) This verse forms an inclusio (book ends) with the simiar exhortation in Colossians 2:6-7. Thus, these two passages (Colossians 2:6-7 and Colossians 4:5) frame this section of Paul’s letter.
Within this section, there appear to be two subsections. In the first, Paul uses the imagery of circumcision and baptism (death, burial, and resurrection) to exhort his readers against trusting human wisdom and toward only trusting Christ. This section begins in Colossians 2:8 and ends in Colossians 3:4. The final subsection contains various exhortations toward living in Christ (especially living in Christ together). This subsection runs from Colossians 3:5 through Colossians 4:5.
So, putting this all together, I end up with this preliminary outline:
Obviously, there is more work to be done here. That’s why this is a preliminary outline. As I continue to study and work through the details of the passage, I will probably modify the outline.
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Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.
He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.
Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.