The Apostle Paul and his coworker Timothy wrote this letter to the church at Colossae (v. 1), a small city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Paul had not visited Colossae, but had received reports from Epaphras, the missionary who most likely founded the church there (1:7).
Paul speaks positively of the Colossian Christians’ faith, love, and hope (1:4-5) and acknowledges that the Good News is bearing fruit and growing in them (1:6). However, Epaphras has apparently brought Paul news of serious problems at Colossae—problems with false teachings that some scholars have labeled “the Colossian Heresy.” Paul’s is writing this letter to help the Colossians to deal with those problems (see especially 2:4, 8, 13-16, 18; 3:5, 8, 18—4:1).
While Paul will deal with their problems one by one, he first seeks to ground these Colossian Christians solidly in the basics of the faith—and Christ is at the center of that faith (see especially 1:15-20). If these Colossian Christians can better understand the nature and mission of Christ—who Christ was and is and what Christ came to do for them—that understanding will give them a firm footing to deal with the problems with which Paul is concerned.
We might characterize Paul’s strategy as filling these Colossian Christians with true beliefs, so untrue beliefs won’t find a place in their hearts for lodgment—in much the same way that a homeowner nurtures the growth of grass to prevent weeds from finding a place to grow.
We might also use the North Star as a metaphor. People who navigate by the stars find the North Star especially helpful. If they can get a “fix” on the North Star, that will help them to orient themselves so that they will know where they are and in what direction they are headed. They can use that knowledge to steer away from dangerous rocks and shoals—and to guide their ship to its intended destination. In this letter to the Colossians, Paul establishes Christ as their North Star—the fixed point in the sky by which they can navigate dependably—the truth who will help them to avoid the many falsehoods that threaten to lead them astray.
In verses 15-20, Paul states twelve ways that Christ is superior to things (such as angels) to which Colossian Christians might find themselves drawn. Christ is:
• The image of the invisible God (v. 15a).
• The firstborn of all creation (v. 15b).
• The one by whom all things were created (v. 16).
• The one who is before all things (v. 17a).
• The one who held (and holds) all things together (v. 17b).
• The head of the body, the church (v. 18a)
• The beginning (v. 18b).
• The firstborn from the dead (v. 18c).
• The one who has preeminence (v. 18d).
• The one in whom all the fullness was pleased to dwell (v. 19).
• The one through whom God has chosen to reconcile al things (v. 20a).
• The one who has made peace through the blood of his cross (v. 20b).
COLOSSIANS 1:15-20. A HYMN TO CHRIST, CREATOR AND RECONCILOR
15 who is the image (Greek: eikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones (Greek: thronoi) or dominions (Greek: kuriotes) or principalities (Greek: archai) or powers (Greek: exousia); all things have been created through him, and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things are held together. 18 He is the head of the body, the assembly (Greek: ekklesia—church), who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. 19 For all the fullness (Greek: pleroma) was pleased to dwell in him; 20 and through him to reconcile (Greek: apokatallasso) all things to himself, by him, whether things on the earth, or things in the heavens, having made peace (Greek: eirenopoieo) through the blood of his cross.
Biblical scholars tend to refer to these verses as a hymn—a song of praise to Christ. They base that assessment on the style, vocabulary, and content, which differ from the surrounding text. Philippians 2:5-11 and John 1:1-18 are also examples of New Testament hymns.
It isn’t clear that these verses are original with this epistle. It is possible that Paul is quoting a hymn with which these Colossian Christians would be familiar.
In any event, Paul is emphasizing Christ’s deity to people who are tempted to be “vainly puffed up” (2:18) and “not holding firmly to the Head” (2:19). He will exhort them: “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17)—but first he must help them understand that Christ is preeminent.
“who is the image (eikon) of the invisible God“ (v. 15a). There is a good reason why God is invisible. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). To see God would be like grabbing a high-voltage wire. We aren’t designed to survive contact with that kind of power.
“Who” in this verse refers back to the beloved Son (v. 13). It is the Son of God who is the eikon of the invisible God.
An eikon is an image or likeness—such as the emperor’s image on a coin or a child as the image of a parent. This word eikon is also found in 2 Corinthians 4:4, which says that Christ is the image (eikon) of God. Hebrews 1:3 uses a similar word, charakter, to speak of Christ as the image of the Father’s substance. Both words (eikon and charakter) represent something real (God)—and are therefore unlike the kind of graven images that are prohibited by Torah law (Leviticus 19:4; 26:1)—images that represent false gods.
It is wonderfully useful to have an eikon “of the invisible God”—to make visible and understandable what would otherwise be unknowable. Christ is that eikon. When Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father” (John 14:8), Jesus replied, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He went on to say that he has spoken the Father’s words and has done the Father’s works (John 14:10). In other words, Jesus’ life represents the Father accurately and with integrity.
Something of the same idea is found in the Prologue to the Gospel of John where John speaks of Jesus as “the Word”—who “became flesh and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). When I asked my theology professor why John referred to Jesus as the Word (Greek: logos), he asked me to explain how we use words. I said, “We use words to communicate something from one person to another. He said, “That’s right—and that’s what Christ came to do. He came to communicate something from the Father to us. That’s why John calls him “the Word.”
“the firstborn of all creation“ (v. 15b). In Jewish law and practice, the firstborn was accorded a special place.
• God said, “All the firstborn are mine” (Numbers 3:13)—including firstborn human children (Exodus 13:2)—”the males shall be Yahweh’s” (Exodus 13:12).
• Firstborn cattle, sheep, and goats were to be sacrificed to God (Exodus 13:12-15).
• The firstborn of other animals (unclean animals) were to be redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb (Exodus 34:20). Firstborn sons were also to be redeemed (Exodus 13:13).
• The firstborn son was to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17).
• Esau, the firstborn of Isaac, was supposed to receive the birthright, but his brother Jacob persuaded him to sell it for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29ff). Esau was also to receive his father’s blessing, but Jacob tricked their father into giving Jacob the blessing instead (Genesis 27).
It is clear that Jewish custom and law bestowed great privileges on the firstborn. It is in this sense of priority or privilege that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. Paul is not suggesting that Jesus was the firstborn in the sense that he was part of the created order—like the human race. Instead, Jesus was the pre-eminent one—the ruler over all rulers—the King of all kings. It is in that sense that the Psalmist, speaking of David, says, “I will also appoint him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27).
The following verse (v. 16) will make this interpretation even more certain.
“For by him (Greek: en auto—in him or by him) all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible“ (v. 16a). We get the same sense in the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which says:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him.
Without him was not anything made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
Colossian Christians have been tempted to worship angels (2:18). Now Paul goes to lengths to show them that Christ was involved in the creation of “all things”—things “in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and invisible”—in other words, everything. If Christ was involved in creating them, he must be superior to them. Colossian Christians should reserve their worship for Christ—not for angels or other parts of the created order.
“whether thrones (thronoi) or dominions (kuriotes) or principalities (archai) or powers (exousia); all things have been created through him, and for him“ (v. 16b). Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers are four facets of power:
• Thrones(thronoi) represent the seat of majesty and power.
• Dominions (kuriotes) have to do with the authority and power of civil rulers.
• Principalities (archai) represent preeminence—that which is before all or above all.
• Powers (exousia) have the authority and ability to accomplish things.
From our perspective, each of the above seems awesome. I have seen Air Force One—the President’s airplane—big and unbelievably grand. I have read of majestic palaces owned by Arab princes. Via television, I saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the wedding of Charles and Diana. All those things were so grand as to be almost beyond comprehension. What would it be like to live like that?
But these various thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers “have been created through (Christ), and for him.” That puts them into perspective. The creator is superior to the creation. The potter is superior to the clay—and the pottery. Christ is superior to all these forms of human power.
“He is before all things“ (v. 17a). Once again we hear the echo of the Prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). In this context, the word “before” suggests two things: (1) Christ was before the created order chronologically—and therefore (2) Christ is superior to the created order.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries, Arius promulgated the Arian Heresy—that Christ was not pre-existent but was created by the Father and was therefore subordinate to the Father. The Council of Nicea deemed this as heresy in 325 A.D.
“and in him all things are held together“ (sunesteken—from sunistemi) (v. 17b). The verb sunestekenis perfect tense, suggesting a completed action. This is another argument by Paul for the primacy of Christ over the created order. He was not only present at the creation, but has held things together ever since.
“He is the head of the body, the assembly” (ekklesia—church or assembly) (v. 18a). Paul uses this same imagery a little later when he speaks of Christ’s body, “which is the ekklesia” (1:24). The Greek word ekklesia is related to the word kaleo, which means “to call.” The ekklesia, as that word was used in secular settings to speak of calling out people to a public assembly.
Early Christians adopted the word ekklesia to refer to Christians gathered together for worship—what we today would call “the church.” Most modern translations translate ekklesia as “church” rather than “assembly.”
Paul introduces an especially helpful metaphor for the church here. It is the body for which Christ is the head. As Paul notes elsewhere, bodies have many parts—feet, ears, eyes, hands, etc.—all of which are important (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). The same is true for the church. There are many members, some distinguished and some humble—but all are important.
Now Paul says that Christ is the head of the church. The head, as we know, is the concertmaster in charge of all the members of the body. The head orchestrates their movements—helps them to work in concert—gives them direction—makes it possible for them to accomplish wondrous things. So it is with the church and Christ, its head.
“who is the beginning“ (v. 18b). Christ is the beginning in that he was “before all things” (v. 17) and was the one “by whom all things were created” (v. 16). He is also the beginning in that his incarnation, death, and resurrection began a new chapter in God’s salvation history.
“the firstborn from the dead“ (v. 18c; see also Revelation 1:5). Elsewhere, Paul uses a similar but different phrase: Christ “became the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Both phrases (firstborn and first fruits) tell us that Christ’s resurrection was to be the first of many—”Christ the first fruits, then those who are Christ’s, at his coming” (1 Corinthians 15:23).
“that in all things he might have the preeminence“ (v. 18d). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about Christ, “who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, …becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God has also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).
In other words, Christ was first preeminent in service and sacrifice. Now he is preeminent in receiving honor.
“For all the fullness (pleroma) was pleased to dwell in him“ (v.19). This word pleroma has to do with fullness or abundance.
While this verse does not mention God, Paul later says, “For in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and in him you are made full” (2:9-10a). That makes it clear that verse 1:9 should be understood to mean “For all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ.”
A century later, the church would have problems with Gnosticism, which believed that the spiritual is good and the physical is bad. As a result, Gnostics had a problem with the Incarnation—God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. They said that the fullness (pleroma) of God could reach us only through emanations or angels—being gradually drained of its pleroma as it approached our earthly existence.
Some scholars believe that the church at Colossae was infected with this kind of dualistic viewpoint. For instance, Paul criticized the Colossian Christians for subjecting themselves to rules such as “Don’t handle, nor taste, nor touch” (2:21)—and for seeking spiritual enlightenment by practicing “severity to the body” (2:23)—ascetic practices consistent with Gnosticism. Now, in the opening verses of this epistle, Paul seeks to correct this sort of error by presenting Christ as the one in whom all the fullness of the deity was pleased to dwell.
“and through him to reconcile (apokatallasso) all things to himself, by him, whether things on the earth, or things in the heavens“ (v. 20a). Reconciliation involves a change in a relationship from bad to good—from enmity to friendship. When used of nations, it involves establishing peace between nations that were previously at war with one another.
There is another Greek word for reconciliation—kataallasso. Adding apo (from) as a prefix, as Paul does here, strengthens the force of the reconciliation. In other words, when God (through Christ) reconciled all things to himself, he took on a really hostile situation and transformed it into a peaceful situation.
This reconciliation is not something we could have accomplished for ourselves. It required God’s initiative, because our unholiness was incompatible with God’s holiness. Paul says that God accomplished this reconciliation “through him” (“him” being Christ). He did so through the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.
Reconciliation is related to several other New Testament concepts—forgiveness, grace, justification, and redemption—but is distinct from them:
• Forgiveness is the first step in reconciliation, justification, or redemption. We need to be forgiven, and then we need to learn to forgive.
• Grace (Greek: charis) is the undeserved favor of God.
• Justification involves a “not guilty” verdict.
• Redemption involves bringing liberty to a captive, usually through the payment of a price.
Paul outlines the scope of this reconciliation. It involves “all things…whether things on the earth, or things in the heavens.” This reconciliation is all-encompassing.
However, it is clear from Paul’s other epistles that, while this reconciliation is available to Jew and Gentile alike, we must accept it—and not everyone will do that. Some people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). “Therefore God also gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:24-25; see also Romans 2:1-16; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
“having made peace (eirenopoieo) through the blood of his cross“ (v. 20b). This Greek word eirenopoieo is made up of two parts: eirene (peace) and poieo (making).
Peace (eirene) is a significant word, occurring nearly a hundred times in the New Testament. It has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom, which was used frequently in the Old Testament. The LXX (the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the Greek word eirene to translate the Hebrew word shalom nearly two hundred times.
Both eirene (Greek) and shalom (Hebrew) can refer to an inner kind of peace—the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God—the kind of wholeness that comes from having the image of God, once shattered by sin, restored in the believer.
But both eirene and shalom can also refer to an external kind of peace—the absence of rancor or violence among individuals or nations. That is what is involved in this verse. Christ, through his blood—his cross—has established peace between God and humans.
Eirene is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It has its roots in the peace that we have with God, who has granted us the gift of grace through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-2a). Having received grace from God, we are also expected to extend grace to others. In a community where grace is freely received and given, eirene (peace) will almost certainly prevail.
Christ has made peace between God and humans—removing the stain of guilt that made it impossible for humans to approach the divine throne.
COLOSSIANS 1:21-23. THE COLOSSIANS, ONCE ALIENATED, NOW RECONCILED
21 You, being in past times alienated (Greek: apallotrioo) and enemies in your mind in your evil works, 22 yet now he has reconciled (Greek: apokatallasso) in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy (Greek: hagios) and without blemish and blameless (Greek: anegkletos) before him, 23 if it is so that you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the Good News which you heard, which is being proclaimed in all creation under heaven; of which I, Paul, was made a servant.
In verses 15-20, Paul stated twelve theological principles that make Christ the one in whom the Colossian Christians should place their faith. Now in verses 21-23 he reminds them what Christ has done for them personally—further proof that they should reserve their worship for him—and not angels.
“You, being in past times alienated” (apallotrioo) (v. 21a). Our English word “alienated” is an excellent choice for conveying the meaning of apallotpioo. My dictionary says that alienation involves a good relationship gone bad. That is exactly what happened to the human race. We were created in God’s image and enjoyed God’s favor, but became alienated by our sin.
It is likely that many of these Colossian Christians were Gentiles (see 1:27, 2:13), so the following from the book of Ephesians applies: “You were separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace” (Ephesians 2:12-14a; see also Ephesians 4:17-24).
“and enemies in your mind in your evil works“ (v. 21b). It was not just their evil works that alienated them from God in times past, but also the way their minds worked. Evil deeds grow out of evil thoughts—thoughts are the starting point. In his letter to the Romans, Paul outlines how that works (see Romans 1:18-32).
“yet now he has reconciled (apokatallasso) in the body of his flesh through death“ (v. 22a). See the comments on verse 20a above for the meaning of “reconciled.”
In the incarnation, Christ took on a human body—a body of flesh like ours (John 1:14; Philippians 2:6-11). Then he took on the role of a sacrificial lamb to die on the cross for all humanity’s sins that we might be reconciled to God once again. Christ “gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2). Christ’s crucifixion was the core of Paul’s preaching. He said, “I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
It is significant that Paul does not say, “except Jesus Christ, and him crucified and resurrected” (1 Corinthians 2:2)—or “having made peace through the blood of his cross and his open tomb” (v. 20b)—or “in the body of his flesh through death and resurrection” (v. 22a). Paul believes in Christ’s resurrection (Romans1:4, 4:24-25; 6:4-9, etc.), but his focus in these verses is on Christ’s death on the cross—his role as a sacrificial lamb—”our Passover, (who) has been sacrificed in our place” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
“to present you holy” (hagios) (v. 22b). The word hagios is often translated “saints,” but in this context, it means “holy”—sinless or upright. God’s people are called to be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is always derivative—derived from a relationship to God. To be holy is to be called out from the sinful world into a deep and abiding relationship with God so that the person becomes more God-like—holier—less like the sinful world-at-large.
Our holiness is not something that we attained by spiritual self-discipline. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), but Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has the same effect for us that the sacrifices of the Jewish people had for them—it relieves us of our guilt and makes us holy in God’s eyes—sinless and upright.
“and without blemish“ (v. 22c). This is language clearly derived from Jewish law regarding animal sacrifices.
• Priests with any sort of a physical deformity (blindness, lameness, etc.) were prohibited from making sacrifices at the altar (Leviticus 21:16-21). They could eat the holy bread, but could not “come near to the altar” (Leviticus 21:22-23).
• Sacrificial offerings were to be “a male without blemish…. Whatever has a blemish, that you shall not offer: for it shall not be acceptable for you” (Leviticus 22:19-20).
• Christ on the cross constituted an offering without blemish (Hebrew 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19).
“and blameless (anegkletos) before him“ (v. 22d). This word anegkletos is composed of two parts: an (not) and egkaleo (accused). A person who is blameless (anegkletos), therefore, is a person against whom no accusation has been brought.
Once again, we should emphasize that our blamelessness is not due to our sterling character, but rather to the work of Christ on his cross. We have sinned (Romans 3:23) and—continue, in spite of our best efforts, to sin (Romans 7:15-20)—but are “being justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
“if it is so that you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the Good News (euangelion) which you heard“ (v. 23a). Christ is pleased to “present (us) holy and without blemish and blameless” (v. 22), but he requires our continuing faithfulness. While there are those who say, “once in grace, always in grace” (in other words, a person, once saved, can never lose that salvation) this verse makes it clear that Paul is concerned that these people who are in a state of grace could move “away from the hope of the Good News which (they had) heard.”
Later in this epistle (3:12), Paul will call these Colossian Christians to persevere—to endure. That kind of steadfastness is needed so that Christians are able to “continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the Good News” (v. 23).
“Good News” (euangelion). Paul uses this word euangelion almost fifty times in his epistles to speak either of (1) the salvation that Christ makes available to us through his death, burial and resurrection or (2) the proclamation of that message. The euangelion is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
“which is being proclaimed in all creation under heaven“ (v. 23b). That which is being proclaimed is the Good News (v. 23a).
Paul cannot mean that every creature under heaven has already heard the Good New proclaimed, because his missionary efforts have just begun to scratch the surface.
• Perhaps he means that God has somehow made the Good News accessible even to those who have not heard it preached. We get a hint of that in Romans 2:13-16, where he acknowledges that some Gentiles, who haven’t had the benefit of the Jewish law, nevertheless show that they have the law written on their hearts.
• But he could be looking to the future—confident that God will insure that the Good News is proclaimed to all the earth.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ last words to his disciples were what we call the Great Commission:
“Go, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.
Behold, I am with you always,
even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Paul has become known as the apostle to the Gentiles, because he emphasized the universality of the Good News. Yes, it was for the Jew first, but now the rest of humanity is also invited to become part of God’s people—God’s chosen people.
“of which I, Paul, was made a servant“ (diakanos) (v. 23c). Diakonos (servant) is the Greek word from which we get our word “deacon.” The New Testament makes it clear that being a diakanos (deacon) involves humble service. “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (diakonos) (Matthew 20:26; see also Matthew 23:11).
It is interesting that Paul says that he has been made a diakonos (servant) of the Good News rather than an apostolos (apostle—”one who is sent”) of the Good News. Paul is an apostle—the church’s highest office. However, he understand that Christ’s call to an apostolic office was a call to servant ministry.
The story of Paul’s transformation from a persecutor of the church into a servant of the Good News is found in Acts 9:1-20.
COLOSSIANS 1:24-28. PAUL REJOICES IN HIS SUFFERINGS FOR THEIR SAKE
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the assembly (Greek: ekklesia); 25 of which I was made a servant, according to the stewardship (Greek: oikonomia) of God which was given me toward you, to fulfill the word of God, 26 the mystery (Greek: mysterion) which has been hidden for ages and generations. But now it has been revealed to his saints (Greek: hagios), 27 to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory (Greek: doxa) of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory; 28 whom we proclaim, admonishing every man (Greek: panta anthropon) and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect (Greek: teleios) in Christ Jesus;
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake“ (v. 24a). When Paul talks about suffering, he knows whereof he speaks. He says:
“Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods.
Once I was stoned.
Three times I suffered shipwreck.
I have been a night and a day in the deep.
I have been in travels often,
perils of rivers, perils of robbers,
perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles,
perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea,
perils among false brothers;
in labor and travail, in watchings often,
in hunger and thirst, in fastings often,
and in cold and nakedness.
Besides those things that are outside,
there is that which presses on me daily,
anxiety for all the assemblies” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).
This makes it sound as if Paul is a masochist—a person who derives some sort of perverse gratification from physical pain or humiliation. That, however, is not true. Paul doesn’t derive pleasure from ordinary suffering, but from suffering endured in the line of duty—suffering with a purpose—suffering fraught with eternal significance. Because of that, Paul can say, “We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
We are familiar with that kind of purposeful suffering. Through the centuries, Christians have risked life and limb to take the Gospel to primitive parts of the world—and are still doing so today. We admire their willingness to make sacrifices for a great cause. While we might be relieved that God has not called us to make that sort of sacrifice, a part of us envies such people for the purposefulness of their lives.
“and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the assembly” (ekklesia) (v. 24b). Paul isn’t suggesting that Christ’s suffering on the cross somehow lacked efficacy. Instead, he is saying that Christ, having ascended back to his heavenly realm, is no longer available to absorb the wrath of the enemies of God. Paul and other Christian servants are now the ones in the line of fire. They are suffering, but their suffering has a purpose. They are suffering for the sake of the body (the church).
See the notes above on verse 18a for the meaning of ekklesia.
“of which I was made a servant” (diakonos) (v. 25a). In verse 23, Paul spoke of being a servant of the Good News—the Gospel. See the comments on verse 23 for diakonos).
Now Paul speaks of being made a servant of the church—the ekklesia—the gathered community of faith (v. 24b-25a).
“according to the stewardship (oikonomia) of God which was given me toward you, to fulfill the word of God“ (v. 25b). The word oikonomia is usually used to speak of the management (nomos—distribution, apportionment, law) of a household (oikos—house).
In this verse, Paul is speaking of God’s oikonomia—God’s management—the arrangements that God made for the functioning of the church. God has delegated a number of duties to Paul to perform for the benefit of the church—so that the word of God might be fulfilled—might become fully known—might achieve its purpose.
“the mystery (mysterion) which has been hidden for ages and generations“ (v. 26a). A mystery, as Paul uses the word here, is spiritual knowledge that God kept secret for a time and then revealed to those who come to him in faith (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:9). The gospel is a mystery (Ephesians 6:19), as is Christ himself (Colossians 2:2).
In the book of Ephesians, the writer (who identifies himself as Paul, v. 3:1) says:
“by revelation the mystery was made known to me….
that the Gentiles are fellow heirs,
and fellow members of the body,
and fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus
through the Good News” (Ephesians 3:3-6).
In other words, God chose the Jews to be his people from the time of Abraham, but kept secret the fact that Christ would one day open the door of the church to Gentiles. That is what constitutes a mystery—spiritual knowledge kept secret for a time and then revealed by God.
“But now it has been revealed to his saints” (hagios) (v. 26b). The mystery, which God for so long kept hidden, is now revealed to the saints (hagios). As noted in the comments on verse 22b above,hagios can mean holy—sinless or upright. That’s what it meant in verse 22. Now in verse 26 hagios has a related meaning—saints—a holy people—a sinless people. We cannot attain this holiness—this sinlessness—by spiritual self-discipline. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is essential. It has the same effect for us that the sacrifices of the Jewish people had for them—it relieves us of the guilt of our sin and makes us holy.
God has chosen to reveal mysteries to some, but not to all. As Jesus said to his disciples, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables, that ‘seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest perhaps they should turn again, and their sins should be forgiven them'” (Mark 4:11-12; see also Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21).
But at Jesus’ Second Coming, the revelation will be more general. Jesus says, “But there is nothing covered up, that will not be revealed, nor hidden, that will not be known” (Luke 12:2; see also Matthew 10:26; Luke 17:30).
“to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory(doxa) of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory“ (v. 27). God was pleased to reveal the mystery to the saints—the hagios (see v. 26b).
The mystery revealed is “the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles” (v. 27b). God began a covenant relationship with Israel by saying to Abraham (long before the Israelites existed as a nation):
“Get out of your country, and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Note that God’s promise to Abraham had two facets:
• God promised to make of Abraham a great nation. God fulfilled that promise by the creation of the nation Israel.
• God also promised, “All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you”—a not very subtle hint that they day would come when the exclusive relationship enjoyed by Israel with God would be expanded to all people—to Gentiles. While the Jewish people tended not to understand that, clues to the eventual inclusion of Gentiles are scattered throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 22:18; Psalm 22:27; 46:10; 65:2, 5; 66:4; 72:11, 17, 19; 86:9; 102:15; Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:1; 11:9-10; 24:16; 40:5; 42:1, 6; 45:22-24; 49:1, 6, 22; 55:5; 56:3-8; 60:3; 65:1; 66:18-23; Jeremiah 3:17; 4:2; 16:19-21; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:28-32; Zechariah 2:11; 8:22-23; Malachi 1:11).
For the meaning of “mystery,” see the comments on verse 26a above.
“which is Christ in you, the hope of glory“ (v. 27). Keep in mind that most of these Colossian Christians are probably Gentiles. That is no longer a hindrance to their salvation. Christ in them is “the hope of glory”—the hope that they will experience the resurrection of the dead and see Christ in his glory.
“whom we proclaim“ (v. 28a). It is Christ whom Paul proclaims—”Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23)—”Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:19)—”Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
He gives a thumbnail description of his proclamation in his first letter to the Corinthian church, saying:
“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve”
(and he lists a number of others to whom Christ appeared).
(1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
“admonishing (noutheteo) every man” (panta anthropon) (v. 28b).
The Greek word noutheteo means to warn, admonish, or exhort. It is a strong word, suggesting that Paul puts lots of energy and urgency behind his admonishment. For Paul, a person’s relationship to Christ is a life and death issue, and we can be sure that Paul put his whole being into proclaiming that.
“every man” is a literal translation of panta (every or all) anthropon (man). Most translations today use a gender-neutral word such as “everyone,” which does a good job of capturing the sense of the original Greek.
Paul uses “every man” three times in this verse—emphasizing the availability of the Good News to every person (male or female). There is no longer any exclusivity—no one who is not welcome.
and teaching every man in all wisdom“ (v. 28b). What constitutes wisdom? The Greeks prize philosophy as the ultimate wisdom, but the Psalmist says, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10a). Paul would agree with the Psalmist, of course, but has much to add:
• Paul doesn’t teach wisdom that comes from the minds of great thinkers, lest “the cross of Christ…be made void” (1 Corinthians 1:17). If Paul were to emphasize human wisdom in his preaching, that would distract from the true wisdom of “the cross of Christ.”
• Paul contrasts human wisdom with the wisdom of God, which appears to be foolishness, but is in fact infinitely wiser than human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:25-27).
• Paul proclaims “Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). This is an important insight. Christ embodies the kind of Godly wisdom that appears to be foolish, but in fact is infinitely wise. His cross is the ultimate expression of this “wisdom from God.” Paul preaches “Christ crucified” which appears to be “foolishness to Greeks” who prize human wisdom. However, “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-29).
“that we may present every man perfect (teleios) in Christ Jesus“ (v. 28c). This word teleios has a variety of meanings, to include “complete” or “whole” or “mature” or “unblemished” or “perfect.” On our own, we are none of those things. However, Christ came to take our brokenness and make us whole—to take our childishness and make us mature—to take our sinfulness and make us unblemished and perfect before God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984)
Donelson, Lewis R., Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982)
Hay, David M., Abingdon New Testament Commentary: Colossians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000)
Lincoln, Andrew T., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002
Longman, Tremper III, and Garland, David E., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians-Philemon, Revised (Zondervan, 2005)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1992)
MacDonald, Margaret Y., Sacra Pagina: Colossians & Ephesians (Liturgical Press, 2008)
Martin, Earnest D., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Colossians, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993
Martin, Ralph P., Interpretation: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991)
Melick, Richard R., Jr., New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Moo, Douglas J., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon(Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008)
O’Brien, Peter T., Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 44 (Dallas: Word Books, 1982)
Pao, David W., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Colossians & Philemon(Zondervan, 2012)
Wall, Robert W., IVP New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Ephesians (IVP Academic, 2010)
Wright, N.T., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986)
Copyright 2013, Richard Niell Donovan