The Fullness: Introduction to Colossians

Note: A blogentary is a “blogged commentary” on a book of the Bible. I am writing this blogentary on the epistle to the Colossians. My hope is that this commentary will be useful and encouraging to those ministers and laypeople who discover it. Subsequent posts will deal with small portions of the text, and will appear as I am able to finish them.

Introduction


Authorship

Maybe you didn’t know that certain books of the Bible have what scholars call disputed authorship. Lucky you. As it turns out, Colossians is one of those books. Traditionally attributed to Paul, the authorship of this letter has come under significant scrutiny in the past two centuries. Scholars point to differences of style and theology in Colossians (as well as Ephesians) when they compare it to the no-doubt-written-by-Paul books like Romans and 1 Corinthians. What are we to make of this? Is Colossians so obviously different from Paul’s certified letters that it’s possible he didn’t write it? And if he didn’t write it, what does that mean for us? What does it mean for the integrity of the New Testament?

We could just throw up our hands and say, “Well, it’s in the Bible, and I trust that God wouldn’t let anything get into the Bible that’s not supposed to be there. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who wrote what. The Spirit inspired it. God included it. I believe it.” We could say that, but there’s really no reason to concede the authorship issue.

N.T. Wright has come to conclude that “the main reason why Ephesians and Colossians have been regarded as non-Pauline is because they fly in the face of the liberal protestant paradigm for reading Paul which dominated the scholarly landscape for several generations, but which has been undermined from more or less all sides over the course of recent decades.”[i] In other words, Colossians doesn’t fit the liberal template created in the 19th century. So rather than adjusting the template to allow for Colossians, the letter has been discarded as “non-Pauline.”


It’s much more likely that Paul actually wrote Colossians than that someone else impersonated his writing so accurately.
Wright argues, however, that it is the template which must now be discarded. After all, authors have always possessed the ability to tailor their styles and messages to their audiences. Paul, intellectual giant that he was, was most certainly able to do this very thing. Referring to differences of style, Wright argues, “I regard the possibility of significant variation in Paul’s own style as much higher than the possibility that someone else, a companion or co-worker, could achieve such a measure of similarity.”[ii] The truth is, the similarities between all of Paul’s letters – disputed or otherwise – are far greater than their differences. It’s much more likely that Paul actually wrote Colossians (and Ephesians) than that someone else impersonated his writing so accurately as to fool millions of people, presumably including the original audience, over a period of nearly 1800 years. That 19th-century liberal scholars finally exposed this ancient ruse seems far less likely than that the people who should have known these things – the earliest Christians – actually did know them and verified Colossians as Pauline.

Historical Context

Colossae was once a large and important city in what used to be called Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), but by Paul’s day it was much smaller, particularly in comparison to nearby Laodicea. A change in trading routes by the Roman government initiated Colossae’s slow demise, and an earthquake around A.D. 61 caused significant damage to the city.[iii]

The church in Colossae was likely started by a man named Epaphras (Col. 1:7), who was probably converted by Paul while he was preaching in Ephesus, the economic hub of the region. Paul wrote Colossians while imprisoned, likely in Rome, as a response to the report he received from Epaphras about the believers in Colossae. “Although Paul has never personally been to Colossae (Col. 2:1), he knows much about the believers there and considers them one of his churches—through his coworker Epaphras.”[iv]

Epaphras’ report on the spiritual condition of the church in Colossae included “a twofold danger confronting the Colossians: relapse into pagan ways of thinking and acting…and acceptance of unorthodox teaching.”[v] Because the church was made up of mostly Gentile believers coming from a pagan, pantheistic religious background, there was a real danger that they might return to such forms of worship for social reasons. Christians were considered atheists and experienced varying levels of persecution and marginalization because they denied the power and existence of the Greek/Roman pantheon. (If they admitted the Roman gods existed, they would have called them demons.) “Paul’s aim in writing, therefore, was to provide the Christian antidote to error in doctrine and practice.”[vi]

Two of the believers in Colossae are of particular interest: Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus. It seems likely that Colossians and Philemon were written at the same time and sent with the same courier (a man named Tychicus), the former letter being read to the congregation, and the latter being a private letter to Philemon and his family. Paul is also sending Onesimus back to Colossae, and to Philemon’s house, with specific instructions for his master to receive him not as a slave, but as a brother. As Fee and Stuart have noted, “Paul is preparing the church to receive Onesimus back as well.”[vii] He left a slave, but he returns a brother.

Main Topics

The first, and most significant, point that Paul makes in this letter is of the supremacy of Christ. After his opening blessing he dives into a rich and exalted description of Jesus that weaves its way through the entire letter. Paul’s Christology (what he believes about Jesus) is the foundation of everything in Colossians. There is nothing that lies outside of the authority of Jesus, and there is nothing about God that cannot be discovered in Jesus.[viii]


There is nothing about God that cannot be discovered in Jesus.
The second major point that Paul makes is more practical – real world applications flowing out of his exalted Christology. Because of the supremacy of Christ, everything changes for believers. Because the old Roman gods aren’t in charge anymore, Christians are set free from their rules and regulations. Now, in Christ, we are free to become “new” and “full.” The emptiness of pagan life and Jewish customs was set aside when the Colossian believers embraced Jesus. And now they must continue in him as a new and full humanity. As we will see in the commentary, this new way of life is radically different in every way. As we have already said, there is nothing that lies outside of the authority of Jesus.

The Takeaway

We can understand the Scriptures so much better when we first take the time to learn about the contexts in which they were written. Inevitably, we will find parallels between our lives and the lives of the original authors and intended audiences. These parallels will help us to better apply the principles of ancient Scripture to our modern lives.

As you read the Scriptures, learn to ask good questions. When you come across a difficult passage, ask, “What did this word or phrase I don’t understand mean to the first readers?” Always keep in mind the social and cultural differences between your world and their world. How does imagining life without electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, or running water help you to understand the Bible better? And be sure to ask the question, “What did this mean to the first readers?” before you ask the question, “What does this mean for me”.


[i] Wright, N.T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 56. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2013.
[ii] Ibid., p. 60.
[iii] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, p. 569. IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 1993.
[iv] Fee, Gordon and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible Book by Book, p. 359. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002.
[v] Harris, Murray J. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Colossians and Philemon, p. 5. B&H Academic, Nashville, TN, 2010.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Fee and Stuart, p. 361.
[viii] Col. 2:9 “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”