Colossians, Theology of
Introduction. Although short in length and written to a church Paul did not plant, Colossians stands tall in highlighting the centrality of Jesus Christ as the mediator of God's saving activity. It emphasizes that those who belong to Jesus need only draw on the resources God provides through Jesus in order to find blessing. This letter is known as one of the "Prison Epistles" (along with Ephesians, Philemon, and Philippians). Although some believe it was written by a student of Paul, it has traditionally been associated with Paul and his imprisonment at Rome, dating from around a.d. 61 to 62. Its major concern was to exhort the Colossians in the face of false teaching, which emphasized ascetic practice as a means of experiencing God's presence in a more meaningful way. Paul outlines the blessings of a God who Acts through the Mediator-Enabler Jesus, who is the Lord. By doing so, he refutes the false teaching and lays the basis for articulating the call of the church. So we look at Paul's teaching about God, Jesus, the heresy, and the task of the church. These four themes are the center of Paul's teaching in this book, as the apostle seeks to carry out the ministry God has given him.
The Active God Who Saves. The letter begins with a note of thanksgiving for the Colossians, who reflect the faith and love that draw their vitality from the sure hope that God has provided in the gospel ( 1:3-8 ). This gift reflects God's gracious activity ( 1:6 ). Now Paul describes this activity in more detail after his note of thanksgiving. God directs the saving process. Paul uses the language of warfare, as he notes that God "rescued" believers out of Satan's dark domain and "transferred" them into the kingdom of his beloved Son ( 1:13-14 ). It was God's pleasure to work through the mediatorial effort of his Son, who is made in his image and in whom all the fullness of deity resides ( Colossians 1:15 Colossians 1:19 ; 2:9 ). In fact, God's desire was that the Son have preeminence in all things, as seen in the Son's work in creation and redemption (as evidenced especially by his own resurrection 1:15-20 ).
God's work extends beyond rescue to transformation. He is also active in filling believers with the fullness of life that he graciously bestows to those in Christ ( 2:10 ). This transfer is pictured as a "circumcision" God performs as he buries us in baptism and raises us to new life through faith ( 2:11-12 ). This highly symbolic description of salvation really portrays the "new birth" and "new life" that God gives and effects. Thus, God "makes alive" by forgiving the sinner, cancelling out the debt of sin, and defeating those who stand opposed to humanity through Christ and the cross ( 2:13-15 ). As a result all growth comes through one's relationship to Christ and not through any series of rules or religious disciplinary practices ( 2:19 ).
Paul says it another way, when he stresses that the believer's life "is hidden" in God ( 3:3 ). This is why Paul can exhort the readers as "God's elect, " since God is the active agent in their salvation from start to finish. This is also why God should be praised ( Colossians 1:3 Colossians 1:12 ; 3:16 ) and is the object of intercession for boldness ( 4:2-4 ). God's power, provision, and sovereignty are central for Paul.
Of course, God is active in another way. He is the one who directs Paul's ministry ( Colossians 1:1 Colossians 1:25 ). So Paul is called to reveal along with others, the riches God has made available to the saints, and especially to Gentiles ( 1:26-29 ). Paul calls these riches a mystery, the hope of glory, which is Christ in the believer ( 1:26-27 ). Christ is the center of God's work and it is through Christ that both maturity and glorification come ( 2:2 ; 3:3-4 ).
Jesus Christ-The Mediator-Enabler-Lord. The centrality of Jesus is also clear from the start of the letter. Paul is his apostle ( 1:1 ) and the brothers and sisters find their set-apart status in him ( 1:2 ). In fact, it is Christ Jesus who is the object of faith and the source of the concrete future hope that awaits them from heaven ( 1:4-5 ; 3:3-4 ). When God acted to rescue them, he took them out of the grip of Satan and placed them into relationship with Christ and his rule ( 1:13-14 ). The past tenses in 1:13-14 show that this transfer has already taken place, although its implications extend into the future toward things that have yet to occur ( 3:3-4 ). This discussion of the benefits that come from Christ is important to the letter, because before Paul even treats the problem that the Colossians face, he is exposing them to the rich benefits they already possess.
How great is the one into whose kingdom they have come? The answer to this question is the goal of the great hymnic section of 1:15-20. This passage has roots in the wisdom tradition of Judaism and its great confessions of the role of God in the creation (cf. Gen 1:1 ; Job 28:23-28 ; Psalm 95:6-7 ; 100:3 ; Prov 8:22 ; Wis 7:22-27; Eccl 24 ). Wisdom is not found mainly in Torah, but in the one who is the image of the invisible God. He incarnates God's attributes and bears divine authority as one who participated in the creation itself. As the firstborn of all creation ( Psalm 89:27 ), he is preeminent among all rulers. Everything in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, no matter what level of spiritual authority, was created by and is subject to him. He is the sustainer of creation and rules the kingdom to which the saints belong. Jesus serves as the sovereign mediator of creation, exercising divine prerogative.
The hymn not only considers Jesus' role in creation; it also considers his mediatorial role in redemption. This redemption involves not just human beings, but extends to the entire creation, both heaven and earth ( 1:18-20 ). Such authority starts in the church, where Christ functions as its head, its leader, the beginning, the first to rise from the dead. He is the first to manifest the characteristics of a new humanity, redeemed into newness of life. His preeminence extends into all areas, for not only did he create the cosmos and sustain it; he also is the means and example of its redemption. Such authority reflects God's desire that Jesus be the reflection of the presence of divine fullness ( 1:19 ). Such reconciliation begins at the cross.
When Paul considers such redemptive activity at a personal level, rather than a cosmic one, he recalls how estranged and hostile sinners were reconciled through Jesus' death in order that those who abide in faith might be set apart as special before God ( 1:21-23 ). Jesus is not only mediator, but enabler.
This is why Paul can speak of the church as so identified and united with Christ that it is called his body. He procured it with his very own death. In fact, for Paul to suffer on behalf of this church is for him to "fill up ... Christ's afflictions" ( 1:24 ), because when the church suffers (as Christ's body), Christ suffers. Such a corporate identification reflects Christ indwelling the community, the great mystery of God ( 1:29 ).
To be in Christ means one should pursue the maturity that comes from him ( 1:28 ). Such theological reality enables the church to have unity and love. These truths about Christ mean that faith can have orderliness ( 2:2-4 ). When one turns aside from this focus of Christ, trouble follows ( 2:8 ). So one's walk should be with these realities directing the life, what Paul calls walking "according to Christ" ( 2:8 ). He is the one they received as Lord and in him they are to continue to walk, since he is the source of their enablement, wisdom, and knowledge ( 2:2-6 ). That is also why salvation can be described as "Christ's circumcision, " since they are set apart for him ( 2:11 ). All throughout 2:9-15, Paul says again and again that what happens occurs "in, " "with, " or "through" Christ. It is also why Paul says that Christ is substantive life, while the practices others teach to be life bringing are merely shadows ( 2:17 ).
In fact, the believer's existence is so identified with Jesus that Paul speaks of dying with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world and being raised with him (2:20-3:11). This language repeats the imagery of 2:9-15. It reflects a change of identity and allegiance, so that one's life is defined not by the standards, methods, and created forces of the world, but by the desires of the God who rescued them in Christ. To be heavenly minded is not to escape or withdraw, but to reflect the divine attributes of the new life God makes available to the believer ( 3:1-17 ). In fact, one can speak of Jesus as the "new man" or new humanity in which people from various nations dwell and find renewal according to the image of God ( 3:10-11 ).
So Christ is mediator and enabler, the source of life. The response to that reality means that peace before God can reign in the heart ( 3:15 ), the Word of Christ can dwell richly in the life ( 3:16 ), and that all that is done occurs knowing that one is his ( 3:17 ). His lordship governs our relationships ( Colossians 3:18 Colossians 3:20 Colossians 3:24 ). Sharing in the gracious benefits of his rule means honoring his rule with one's life. This is the theological center of Colossians that enables believers to counteract the false teaching that approaches them ( 2:4 ). But what exactly was the problem that Paul deals with through this Christology?
The Colossian Heresy. The first hint of a problem appears in 2:4. Paul speaks of beguiling speech and the threat of delusion. The Colossian community is a healthy one ( 2:5 ), and Paul does not wish that anything distract it from being on course. But this false teaching is particularly subtle, because it draws on religious enthusiasm. It promises a deeper experience with God, one greater than even Jesus provides ( 2:16-23 ). But one must prepare for such an experience. It requires discipline and denial. On the surface, such an opportunity for a closer experience with God would be attractive to people who desire to know him. But Paul regards such a claim as a delusion, based on factors and standards of this world and the forces of this world, and not according to Christ ( 2:8 ).
There has been much discussion whether the heresy in view here is Hellenistic or Jewish. Those who see a Hellenistic influence appeal to Gnostic or mystery religion influence. It is probably best to see it as eclectic, combining features of both cultures. The reference to observing Sabbaths ( 2:16 ) indicates a Jewish flavor, while the emphasis on ascetic practice and heavenly mediaries, like the angels, has a Hellenistic character, although a connection to mystery influence is more likely than a Gnostic one. The key to understanding the heresy comes in the debated 2:18. Two readings are popular and the choice between them is difficult. The key phrase is "worship of angels."
One reading holds that this refers to the heresy's desire "to worship angelic beings." Taken in this sense, the heresy comes to have a strong Hellenistic background, for a Jewish monotheist would be unlikely to worship these mediatorial spirits. It is also this emphasis that makes the view unlikely. Would it be attractive to a church initially committed to Jesus?
The other reading takes the phrase as meaning "seeing the worship of angels." In the other words, the teaching emphasizes visions in which heavenly worship of the angels was observed. In order to have this experience and go into God's presence, one had to prepare for the experience through prayer, fasting, and rigorous disciplined worship. The offer of such a direct experience with God would be attractive to a church that desired to be close to him. Those who have criticized this view have argued that Jews would not be drawn to a teaching that elevated the angelic realm so highly as to challenge monotheism, but this misunderstands the view. The presence of angels merely reflects one's presence before God, not the worship of them. There is no demeaning of monotheism in the view; rather what is sought is a heightened experience of it! We take this second option as the most likely reading of 2:18.
There is precedent for this approach to spirituality in Judaism, in a movement that came to be known as "Merkabah mysticism." The Merkabah is a reference to Ezekiel 1 and the throne chariot of God that Ezekiel saw. This teaching spoke of days of fasting to prepare for a journey to the heavens to see God and have a vision of him and his angelic host in worship (Philo, Som. 1.33-37; Mos. 2.67-70; 1QH6:13; 1 Enoch 14:8-25; 2 Bar. 21:7-10; Apoc. Abr. 9:1-10; 19:1-9; Asc Isa. 7:37; 8:17; 9:28, 31,33). One could withdraw and eventually go directly into God's presence. Thus the emphasis in this false teaching falls on the humility of ascetic practice, visions, rigors of devotion, treating the body harshly, and rules about what should not be eaten or what days should be observed (2:16-23). All of this activity was aimed at preparing for the experience that took one beyond what Jesus had already provided.
Paul's attitude to such an invitation to superspirituality is condemnation. He says that this road really is a disqualification of what Christ gained ( 2:18 ). It is a shadow ( 2:17 ), not the substance of life. In fact, it fails to check the flesh and is of no value ( 2:23 ). It ignores Christ, who is the source of growth for the body ( 2:19 ). That is why Paul calls it a philosophy that comes from human tradition and the world, a philosophy that is really deceitful ( 2:8 ). It is important to observe that Paul's complaint about philosophy is not an attack on the syllogisms of atheism, but on a movement that had God and divine things in view, but in a way that distorted what Christ provided.
This desire "to experience heaven" also explains why Paul uses so much heavenly language in describing what Christ has done. The concept of being raised with Christ and setting one's mind on the things above means that the believer already has established a relationship with the divine forces of heaven, so that a trip into God's presence is unnecessary. God has not called his church to withdraw and await a great future experience of himself, but to engage the world with the kind of life that reflects the attributes that reflect the character and righteous morality of those who know God ( 3:1-17 ). They can do this boldly, because they know that one day God will complete what he has started and will take them to himself in glory. Asceticism is not the way to heaven: faith in Jesus is. Thus Paul comes to focus on the call of the church to know God's will and to reflect what it means to belong to the "new man."
The Nature and Task of the Church. Three texts are key to this area of theology. First, there is the description of the church as "the body of Christ" ( 1:18 ). This description reflects part of the Son's authority associated with his kingdom ( 1:12-20 ). The kingdom is more than the church, but the church is a part of its program. The church is the place where God's rule and attributes are reflected to the world, since it functions as light, a point made more explicitly in Ephesians than in this epistle ( Eph 1:19-23 ; 5:7-14 ).
A second description of the new community is that it is the "new man" or "new humanity, " the incorporation of a new community before God in Christ, where there is no "Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" ( 3:10-11 ). The "new man" is not an internal attribute of the person (i.e., not the new nature), but a place where peoples reside. This means that the church was formed to be a community with values distinct from the world's, reflecting a distinct character. One is to identify with it and reflect its values. This explains the ethical exhortations and the new way of relating to others in 3:5-4:6. This community is to live differently, because God has transformed her members into a different kind of people, who know themselves to be chosen of God ( 3:12 ).
This background explains Paul's prayer at the beginning of the letter ( 1:9-14 ). He wants the Colossians to be filled with the knowledge of God's will. God's will is not facts about God, nor is it deciding where God would have one be or what one should do. In this text God's will is the kind of person one is, because they experience the benefits God makes available to the believer. This experience of God's will means that one not only completes the work God gives one to do but bears fruit while doing it ( 1:10 ). The bearing of fruit is not the completion of a task but how the task is done. What is the character manifested as it is accomplished? Such experience leads to an increase in one's knowledge of God ( 1:10 ). It takes enablement that goes through life with endurance, patience, and joy ( 1:11 ), since it understands that being God's child will mean being different than the way the world lives. Finally it is a life filled with gratitude to the Father for his rescuing work ( 1:12-14 ). Such is the life that Paul prays for believers to have and that he calls living worthy of the Lord, being fully pleasing to him, as one is filled with the knowledge of his will. So central is this goal in the letter that it is what Paul's co-worker, Epaphras, prays for when he intercedes for the Colossians ( 4:12 ). There it is called maturity, and being fully assured in the will of God.
So ultimately Colossians is about the work of the Father in the Son on behalf of a people he calls to manifest his message and presence on earth. This new community is to realize that all the benefits God has already given are all that is needed to accomplish the task of living a life that is honoring to God. Any suggestion that someone needs anything more than to appropriate what Christ already makes available is a delusion. Blessing comes from God through the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and a life that pleases God draws on what the mediator and enabler provides.
Darrell L. Bock
Bibliography. R. Argall, CTJ 22 (1987): 6-20; F. O. Francis, Conflict in Colossae; E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon; P. T. O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon.
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