Colossians 1:9-14 is a significant passage for modern believers. Like many new Christians today, the believers of Colosse found themselves bombarded with a torrent of so called “Christian Truths.” In response to this, the Apostle Paul found it necessary to respond to these “truths” through correct teaching. Many mainstream commentators on the letter to the Colossians proceed on the assumption that Paul’s primary reason for writing was to combat Judaism and Gnosticism.[1] Yet, Paul never expressly states this as his purpose. Indeed, the New Testament writers, in general, do not address these issues, especially the issue of Gnosticism.[2],[3] While, Paul may have had specific heresies in mind as he wrote, he seems to be more concerned with the general contradictions of “false knowledge” verses “true knowledge” in relation to Church teaching (Col 2:8).[4] Verses 9-14 of the opening chapter of the letter provide the source and the method of obtaining true knowledge.

Context

In order to correctly derive, interpret and practically apply any meaning of a Biblical text, the reader must first understand the context of the text. This means realizing that a specific passage “was written by a particular individual (or group of individuals) in a particular time in history and that it was motivated by some particular occasion.”[5]  In other words, the reader must cognitively assess the personal, historical, and literary context of a passage. While this occurs on many different mental levels, this paper will examine the passage in Colossians in the light of authorial, historical, and literary context.

Authorial

It is perhaps unfortunate that most newcomers to the writings of the Apostle Paul do so with the preconception that Paul was a Christian who railed against the evils of Judaism. This reading of Pauline letters has directly contributed to the view that Paul was a supercessianist who saw God as rejecting the physical Israel for a new spiritual one made up primarily of Gentiles with a few Jewish converts thrown in. Such a view could not be more in error, especially “since “Christianity, at the time of Paul, was nothing else than a Jewish messianic movement, and therefore, Paul should be regarded as nothing other than a Second Temple Jew.”  This means Paul had Jewish parents, grew up in Jewish cultural, and shared Jewish sentiments.

However, Paul was not merely another Jew among those who were under subjection to the Roman Empire. He was a Pharisee, a member of the religious elite. Before his conversion to Christianity, he was trained under the Rabbi Gamliel (Acts 22:3). Since Pharisees saw themselves as the successors to the Old Testament prophets,[6] Paul would have certainly have felt that he was the possessor of divine truth and authority before his conversion. This self-assurance, combined with legal arrest warrants from the Sanhedrin, the religious authority of the Jews, directly contributed to Paul’s zeal in persecuting the followers of “The Way” as Christianity was known at the time (Acts 9:1-2).

Still, one should not conceive Paul as viewing his conversion on the Damascus road as one from Pharisaical Judaism to “The Way.” Indeed not, for Luke records Paul’s own words in which he identifies himself as a “Pharisee, the son of Pharisees.” (23:8) It is from this Pharisaical background and its emphasis on the divine authority of the Torah which Paul presents the true knowledge which is found in Christ Jesus as extorted in his letter to the Colossians. That Paul was writing from such a standpoint is most clearly evidenced in his introductory statements of the letter, where he tells the Colossians that they have heard what he is going discuss before in the Gospel (Col 1:5). He was not expounding some fresh revelation; neither was adding to what he had already taught them. For Paul, the Gospel is based upon the entirety of scripture coming to fulfillment in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:3-4). This is what he had originally brought to the people of Colosse: The announcement that Jesus is Lord as foretold by the entirety of the Jewish scripture. This dependence on scriptural authority precludes eliminating the pharisaical background of the Apostle.

Historical

While the authorial context deals primarily with the cultural background of the author, the historical context is the specific occurrence (or occurrences) in a time in and for which the text was written. Seeking the historical context of Colossians 1:9-14 means primarily answering two questions. Why did Paul write what he wrote? Why did Paul choose to write what he wrote when he wrote it?

The city of Colosse was in the valley of the Lycus River, approximately a hundred miles east of the city of Ephesus. At the time of the Persian wars of the fifth century, Colossi was a significant and influential city. However, by the time Paul would address the church there, it had become overshadowed by its two sister cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. It had degenerated into a small merchant route town, which survived from the trade between Rome and the cities in the east.[7]

It seems probable that the church at Colosse was founded by Epaphras at Paul’s instruction. It appears that Epaphras was converted during Paul’s three-year ministry at Ephesus.[8]  The result is he began a church at Colosse that was primarily Gentile in its makeup as seen by the references to “uncircumcision,” which Paul usually reserves for Gentile designation (cf. Col. 2:13, Rom. 2:24-27; Eph. 2:11). Being primarily Gentile in makeup makes it likely that this young church faced outside pressure from the pagan religions which characterized the Asian near east. However, it is impossible to say exactly which cults existed as Colosse has never been excavated and there is no archeological evidence.[9] However, it is well established that the Asian Near East religions were composed of classical Greek gods and Eastern mysticism which promised that through the right rituals and initiations one can gain knowledge of the world beyond the world.[10]  Over time these religions blended ideas from one another in a process known as syncretism. [11]

Some scholars believe it was some form of syncretism between Judaism and mysticism which motivated Paul to address the church. This seems unlikely as the religious purism fervor of Judaism does not allow for the blending of the pagan religions. Still Colossians presents us with a complexity of seeming contradictions. On one hand the letter seems to rail against the legalism of Judaism and at the same time seems to attack some seemingly pagan ideals. New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright sums up the problem brilliantly: “The problem, at its essence, could be stated as follows. There are clear Jewish elements in what Paul is opposing, and yet there are many things which look more pagan than Jewish – the actual worship of angels and ascetic practices which appear to deny the importance of the created order.”[12]

It is probably best to understand Paul as addressing all religions which do not hold Christ as the center of true knowledge. This includes even Judaism which Paul in ironic fashion makes out to be a form of paganism even though it was the preparation for the work of Christ.[13]

Literary

It is to the detriment of the modern church that many believers approach the New Testament, and indeed the Bible with the view that it is a source book of proof texts. Small, easily digestible snippets are learned and tucked away to be regurgitated at the right time. The Bible is a mix of literary genres which unless properly understood those regurgitated snippets lose their power and become nothing more than a catchphrase. It is necessary to understand that Colossians is a letter. It was intended to be read as a whole and the individual themes and passages were meant to be framed within that whole. As such it is proper to ask where it was written, why did they write it, and when did they write it.

Where and When Was the Passage Written

In verse three of chapter four in the letter to the Colossians, Paul refers to his imprisonment. This would seem to indicate that Paul wrote his letter during a period in which he was under arrest. Of course, it is possible that Paul may have been speaking metaphorically in which case the letter was probably written during a missionary journey. However, most scholars do not think this is the case and take the reference quite literally.[14] If the majority of Biblical scholarship is correct, there are three possible periods of imprisonment: in Ephesus (1 Cor 15:32; 2 Cor 1:8), Caesarea (Acts 27:24), and Rome (Acts 28:16ff.).[15]

Traditional Biblical scholarship has placed the writing of Colossians during the Roman period. This would place the date of the writing circa AD. 60.[16] This seems to be mostly based on Paul reference to the praetorian guard and Caesar’s household in the letter to Philemon which is believed to be written during the same period (1:13; 4:22). However, this possibly could also refer to Roman garrisons stationed at both Caesarea and Ephesus.[17]

It seems more proper, however, to place the date and location of Colossians at Ephesus during the early 50’s, for a number of reasons. First, Colossians has the feel of a letter written to a church young in the faith in need of teaching about what exactly happens at conversion.[18] Another factor in favor of Ephesus is the idea that it seems more likely that Epaphras would have visited Paul in Ephesus which was only 100 miles away from Colosse where he founded the church. (Col 1:7) Additionally, assuming the letter to Philemon, an overseer of a house church in Colosse, was written around the same period, it seems improbable that Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, would attempt to visit Paul in Rome.[19] It is even less probable that Paul would attempt to send him back to Philemon and have him return to him again. (Phlm 14) Simply put, it would be a lot to ask a man with a price on his head to make that kind of journey three times. Finally, Paul speaks of visiting Philemon after his impending release. (22) Since Paul saw Rome as a launch point for missions in Spain, it does not stand up to logic that he would backtrack to Colosse before embarking on the trip (Rom 15:22-29). Ephesus seems to be the more reasonable choice.

The Passage as a Prayer

The fact that Paul chooses to begin the main portion of his letter with a prayer is of great significance. The content of the prayer highlights how the Colossian should handle the problems of the invading heresies. It is almost as if Paul is praying, and God is answering the prayer which becomes the body of the letter. Paul, then, is introducing his themes by saying here is what I am praying that you receive and here is how God is going to give it.

Additionally, it must be noted that Paul’s habitual use of prayer in his letters should not be passed over (cf. Rom 1:9ff; Phil 1;9; etc.). Paul’s entire calling is prayer dependent. “[P]rayer brings the assurance that his ministry is being used within God’s overall plan, and consequently that characteristic confidence, outside this context, could sound like arrogance.”[20]

One last point of notice which should not go unremarked upon is the way in which Paul links the prayer with the thanksgiving at the opening of the letter. The phrase “for this reason” in verse nine of chapter one of the letter gives insight into motivation behind the petitions to God concerning the church at Colosse which follow. For Paul, what God had done made what he was going to do a true reality. It is from this basis that Paul even begins to offer petitions. God is going to continue the grace-filled work, he began in the beginning. Therefore, Paul can confidently approach God with the requests which follow.

Meaning

The prayer which composes verses 9-14 of chapter one presents Paul’s request for God to bring the believers at Colosse into spiritual maturity. This request is done through three separate specific petitions: that the believers will be “filled with knowledge of what he wants in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (1:9); that the believers be “all strength according to the power of glory” (1:10); and that the believers “learn to give thanks to the father” (1:12). Each one of these petitions is designed to achieve a specific character quality within the life of the individual believer. It is only by examining each petition separately can the reader understand how they all fit together.

Knowledge

Paul’s first petition is for God to fill the members of the church with the knowledge of his will. Many scholars and commentators agree with David Guzik’s assertion that the Apostle is merely saying, “To know God and what He requires of us is our first responsibility.”[21] In other words, what many scholars say is that Paul simply wanted the Colossians to seek out God’s plan for their lives. Of course, there is no denying the truth in that assertion; however, it is just too small of a view. Paul was evidently dealing with a church, still young in the faith, into which heretical doctrines were being introduced. He, therefore, wisely goes back to the basics- the gospel! Certainly, the gospel encapsulates God’s plan for the individual within it, but it doesn’t stop there. It is much more than a behavioral checklist, it is the entirety of the good news of Jesus.[22]

So, what is the gospel according to Paul? The gospel is simply the announcement that Jesus was the Jewish messiah declared to be king by his death and resurrection and confirmed by the entirety of scripture.[23] It is with this kingly inauguration that the new creation has begun to come about in which people become genuine human beings fulfilling their Godly vocation as image bearers (Gen 1:26; 2 Cor 5:17). Paul confirms this by declaring Jesus as “the start of it all, firstborn from realms of the dead” (Col 1:18).

This is the knowledge that Paul is asking God to give the Colossians. By doing so, the Apostle has effectively set the framework for which all doctrine is to be discerned by. He has preemptively denounced both Greek philosophy and Jewish legalism. Even Gnosticism (assuming Paul had it in mind) must be rejected. For if Jesus is the messiah and as such the true Israelite and genuine human being; then the divine theocracy has entered the world. And if this is so, then the failure of Adam has been undone and God’s great restoration project of the cosmos has begun (cf. Gen 3; Romans 8). If then this is the case, Jewish legalism is out because there is no need for further separation of the people of God (Gal 3:24; Rom 10:12ff.). Greek philosophy is now to be judged as it corresponds to the personification of truth, King Jesus (Jn 14:6). Gnosticism is rejected on the grounds of Paul’s expectations that God would fill them with all knowledge.[24]

Still, Paul does not simply leave it at mere knowledge of the gospel. He wants them to know it all wisdom and spiritual understanding. He wants the Holy Spirit to use the knowledge to practically apply the power of the gospel into their lives. This will result in the believers naturally discerning what God requires; thereby producing spiritual fruit as they become the genuine human beings that God intended. Which in turn, results in more knowledge of God as these genuine human beings reflect God into the cosmos according to the ordained vocation of image bearers. As God watches the transformation occurring, God is pleased in every way. “God looks on his new (albeit as yet incomplete) creation, and declares it to be very good.”[25]

The spiral of transformation continues as the people of God continue to transform into image bearing genuine human beings, they naturally learn more and more about who God is and what he wants. This is precisely because the purpose of image bearers is to reflect God and God’s authority out into the cosmos while simultaneously reflecting the praise of creation back to God.[26] As human beings learn to reflect God outwardly, they must increase in knowledge of God to achieve is purpose which is ultimately to have his glory known to all creation as the water covers the sea (Hab 2:14, NIV).[27]

Strength

Verse eleven is Paul’s second petition – the petition for “all possible strength, according to the power of his glory.” To arrive at Paul’s meaning the reader must understand the two parts of the request: “all possible strength” and “per the power of his glory.” To properly arrive at Paul’s meaning; it is necessary to discuss the latter first. It is only by discerning where the power derives from that it can be effectively and efficiently used to achieve its purpose.

For the purpose of arriving at Paul’s intended meaning, there is a central question which needs proper answering, namely, what is “his glory?”[28] For Paul, the glory of God was simply that Jesus as God’s son, and the true Israelite was raised from the dead and as such was the newly inaugurated king of the divine theocracy. In other words, God’s glory was the gospel! Yes, once again Paul builds his petition on the shoulders of what he considered central to the Christian faith. The Apostle saw the gospel as more than just the announcement of this reality, it is the might of God poured forth into the creation (Rom 1:16ff, KNT.).

It is, then, from the gospel that “all possible strength” is derived. This is not to suggest that Paul implied that there was strength which was not possible. Rather, Paul saw the amount of strength in relation to quantity upon which his first petition for knowledge had been fulfilled. Stating it another way, Paul understood to the degree that one knows God and the gospel, and actively applies them both to their lives is the degree to which gospel is able to give strength. This explains why Paul petitions knowledge before strength, as it is through the knowledge that strength comes.

As that strength comes, Paul fully expects certain characteristics to begin to show up in the Christian’s life: patience, steadfastness, and joy. Patience is antithesis of fear. “It is the forbearance, steadfast endurance, fortitude, and the capacity to see things through.”[29] Steadfastness is the “self-restraint, even-temperedness, holding out long.”[30] It is easy to see Paul’s use of these words as redundant or repetitive for the sake of emphasis. However, the nuance of difference is extremely significant. “The former is what faith, love and hope bring to an apparently impossible situation, the latter is what they show to an apparently impossible person.”[31]

Finally, Paul does not want the use of this strength to display bitterness or resentment; rather he wants the people of Colosse to experience joy. This is not merely a front that he puts on in front of others. It is true joy which enhances the strength which has been given (Neh 8:10, NIV). This relates back to the “possible strength” that will be given. Even new believers who have yet to acquire a great amount of knowledge and thereby limit their Godly strength can accomplish things beyond that strength through joy.

Thanksgiving

While it is easy to merely dismiss Paul’s request that the Colossian church simply learn to give thanks for a.) the filling of knowledge (v.9), b.) the providing of all possible strength (v.10), and c.) being made fit to share the inheritance of God’s holy ones (v.12). Paul, once again, has condensed a much larger meaning into a simple statement. Once again, Paul is building upon the foundation of the Gospel. Only this time, he weaves a thick strand of eschatology within it.

The idea that Paul, is continuing to lay the foundation of the gospel is clear from verse thirteen. This verse announces the theocracy into which God’s people have been transferred. Paul is very clearly stating that believers are now no longer subjects of Caesar but now are subjects of Jesus. However, thanksgiving to the father is appropriate as he is the one has brought about this transference through the sacrifice of his son (Jn 3:16).

Yet, Paul does not leave it merely with the immediacy of the gospel, instead he projects it forward with the phrase “who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of God’s holy ones in the light” (v.12). The wording of this phrase in the Greek is strange. It literally reads, “unto the portion/share which consists in the lot/inheritance.”[32] Not only is the Greek grammar awkward, but Paul seems to strangely be evoking the Israelite narrative of entering the promise land to a church composed primarily of gentiles. The most logical explanation for this is that Paul is referring to the New Earth which will come at the second coming of Christ (Rev 21:1).

Paul seems to fighting against the Platonian separation of the spirtitual realm or realm of forms and the physical realms. Paul, who as Pharisee, understood that Israel’s vocation per scripture was be a royal priesthood which brought about God’s worldwide government (Ex 19:6, NIV). This, he asserts, began to happen at Jesus’s death and resurrection (Col 1:13-14). It will see its fulfillment in the age to come. Just as the physical nations would inherit a portion of the earth had Israel kept faithful to her vocation, believers will inherit a portion of the new earth when the great restoration project of God is finished. Therefore, the thanksgiving is not merely directed towards what God has done or is doing; but includes what he will do.[33]

Significance

The prayer for the believers of Colossians 1 impacts the modern reader in three fundamental ways. First, the prayer reminds us that truth comes from God through the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13). A believer must spend his life in search of the knowledge of God. This requires prayer and the searching out of scriptures (2 Tim 3:16). Additionally, Paul simply does not want his readers to see these things as pointless exercises, but they are designed to bring about spiritual maturity and develop them into the new creation which they have become in Christ. Any teachings which do not produce the new creation within a believer are simply not from God and must be rejected.

Yet even more fundamental to these ideals, is the gospel. It is the gospel which provides the believer with strength. It is the gospel which provides the path of knowledge to the one true God-king. It is the gospel which provides the framework of truth while simultaneously being the source of truth. Paul reminds the reader that anything which does not announce God as king and the inauguration of God’s kingdom is simply heresy (2 Cor 11:4ff.)

Conclusion

In typical Pauline fashion, the Apostle packs an enormous amount of theological principle and truth into a few tightly woven statements. In a few simple lines of petitionary prayer Paul disarms any heresies which may infect a believer. He expounds the nature of being a new creation in Christ. He expresses his eschatology and expounds his theology.

Yet, all these things pale in comparison to what Paul finds really important. What he considers to be the absolute truth – the gospel. It is the gospel in which the truth is to be found. It is the gospel which releases the power of God into the world. It is the gospel for which believers must be thankful. It is the gospel which provides the source and method of obtaining divine truth. The gospel is the summation of scripture in which God restores human beings into the divinely ordained vocation of image bearers by reflecting the authority of Jesus into the cosmos and reflecting the praise of creation back to King Jesus.

 

 

                                                             Bibliography              

Guzik, D. Colossians Commentary: Yahshua Publishing, 2005. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/guz/colossians-1.html.

 

Kaiser, W.C. and M. Silva. An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Zondervan, 1994.

 

Koester, H. Introduction to the New Testament. Walter de Gruyter, 1995.

 

Patzia, A.G. and W. Gasque. Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series): Baker Publishing Group, 2011. https://books.google.com/books?id=az72JO6jkn4C.

 

Pricopi, Victor-Alexandru. “From Ancient Gnostics to Modern Scholars – Issues in Defining the Concept of “Gnosticism”.” Romanian Journal for Multidimensional Education / Revista Romaneasca pentru Educatie Multidimensionala 5, no. 2 (2013): 41-56. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=93734072&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

 

Radmacher, D., R.B. Allen, and H.W. House. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life. Thomas Nelson, 1999.

 

Wellhausen, J. The Pharisees and the Sadducees: An Examination of Internal Jewish History. Mercer University Press, 2001.

 

Wright, N. T., “Cruciformed: Living in the Light of the Jesus Story.” Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Malibu, California, 2016.

 

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress Press, 1992.

 

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperCollins, 2008.

 

Wright, N.T. Colossians and Philemon. InterVarsity Press, 2015.

 

[1] D. Radmacher, R.B. Allen, and H.W. House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life (Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1558.

[2]   Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second ed., s.v. “Gnosticism.”

[3] Pricopi suggests that Irenaeus was the first to tackle the heresy of Gnosticism, circa. 180 our era.Victor-Alexandru Pricopi, “From Ancient Gnostics to Modern Scholars – Issues in Defining the Concept of “Gnosticism”,” Romanian Journal for Multidimensional Education / Revista Romaneasca pentru Educatie Multidimensionala 5, no. 2 (2013), http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=93734072&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (HarperCollins, 2011).

[5] W.C. Kaiser and M. Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Zondervan, 1994), 176.

[6] J. Wellhausen, The Pharisees and the Sadducees: An Examination of Internal Jewish History (Mercer University Press, 2001), 17.

[7] Radmacher, Allen, and House, 1558.

[8] Ibid.

[9] N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (InterVarsity Press, 2015), 24.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] H. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament (Walter de Gruyter, 1995), 164-203.

[12] Wright, 26.

[13] Ibid., 27.

[14] Wright,37

[15] It can be inferred that there were other periods of Roman imprisonment than what Luke records in Acts based upon Paul’s writing in 2 Cor 6:5 and 11:23.

[16] Radmacher, Allen, and House, 1559.

[17] Wright, 38.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Wright, 170

[20] Wright, 61.

[21] D. Guzik, Colossians Commentary (Yahshua Publishing, 2005), https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/guz/colossians-1.html.

[22] Wright, 61.

[23] For a full discussion of this topic see N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992).

[24] See the previous discussion of Paul’s assurance under Context.

[25] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 62.

[26] N. T. Wright, “Cruciformed: Living in the Light of the Jesus Story” (paper presented at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Malibu, California2016).

[27] Holy Bible (NIV) (Zondervan, 2008).

[28] It is proper to note that most common translations have “according to his glorious might.” See NIV for example.

[29] Radmacher, Allen, and House, 1561.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 63.

[32] A.G. Patzia and W. Gasque, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) (Baker Publishing Group, 2011), https://books.google.com/books?id=az72JO6jkn4C.

[33] For a full treatment of New Testament eschatology, see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008).