Commentary on Colossians 1:1-14
Was Paul just undisciplined or did his writing get away from him?
Or did he dictate this letter so quickly and with such enthusiasm that his secretary (likely Tychicus, 4:7) didn’t think about punctuation and sentence structure? You see, after a brief salutation (Colossians 1:1-2), this epistle launches into a long, run-on sentence that stretches from 1:3 to 1:14, and then adds on a poem (Colossians 1:15-20) for good measure. The preacher is advised to avoid such monster sentences while embracing and proclaiming the breathtaking scope and depth of what Paul here writes.1
Let me suggest a hermeneutical principle: Always read the New Testament with Old Testament eyes. Or to shift the metaphor, always hear the New Testament with the ears of Hebrew scripture. Of course allowing the lectionary to shape our worship and our preaching is already living by this hermeneutical principle.
So as we begin to read this passage from Colossians what Old Testament allusions or echoes might we immediately begin to notice? And how might attending to those connections deepen our reading and our preaching?
Let’s begin with the metaphor of ‘fruit.’ Paul employs the metaphor three times in the span of four verses. “Just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves … ” (Colossians 1:6). And then he prays that the community would “lead lives fully worthy of the Lord … as you bear fruit in every good work … ” (Colossians 1:10). Isn’t it lovely that our reading from Deuteronomy today employs the same metaphor? Torah obedience, the text assures, “will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (Deuteronomy 30:9).
Beyond the happy serendipity of the metaphor occurring in two of our texts for today, might we “fruitfully” investigate this relationship more closely? Might it be that when Paul, a Jew deeply embedded in the narrative and symbolism of the Hebrew scriptures, employs a metaphor like “fruit” there is a whole wealth of allusion to be unpacked? In the biblical imagination fruitfulness is always connected to faithfulness while disobedience and idolatry invariably results in fruitlessness. But what is this fruitfulness that we are talking about? Evoking a covenantal shalom that permeates all of life, our reading from Deuteronomy refers to the fruitfulness of our bodies, our livestock, our soil. This is a familial, procreative, agricultural, and ecological fruitfulness.
And perhaps, just perhaps, this language of fruitfulness goes all the way back to the beginning of the story. Creation is invited to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis. And the first word spoken to humanity, indeed, the primal blessing is, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it … ” (Genesis 1:28). This isn’t the place to engage in the ecological debate about whether this is license to a death-dealing domination of the world (it isn’t), but it is clear that for Paul, when the gospel is proclaimed it brings life, not death. Indeed, when people grow in gospel wisdom and understanding they lead lives worthy of Jesus, lives that bear fruit in every good work.
The creative word that calls forth a world and a people of fruitfulness is spoken anew in the gospel and, lo and behold, it bears fruit. The fruit of a new humanity who themselves bear the fruit of good work in every dimension of life, every nook and cranny of our culture. If the preacher was thinking of expanding on what that might look like, she would need look no further than today’s gospel reading.
The preacher is also wise to notice the proximity of this gospel, this fruit-bearing word. This is a word, says our Deuteronomy reading, that is not far away, but rather, “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your hearts for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14). And so the apostle says that the gospel is also not far away. It is not something that you need to go looking for. Rather, in almost personalizing language, it “has come to you” (Colossians 1:6). The gospel has sought us out. Perhaps we need to consider how our preaching is called to be a ministry of such proximity, wherein the word is near and the gospel comes to bear rich fruit in our lives.
Paul’s prayer for the community mirrors the purpose of his letter. He prays that they “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9-10). That is also Paul’s agenda in this epistle. It is, if you will, a catechetical text. An epistle for deepening knowledge, wisdom and understanding. But the goal is not to acquire abstract theological information. No, this is a transformative knowing, rooting this young Gentile Christian community ever more deeply in the story of Jesus understood through the narrative of Israel. Without growing in such knowledge, without being more deeply shaped by this story, the community will be barren, devoid of good fruit. No wonder the psalmist this week prays, “Lead me in your truth, and teach me” (Psalm 25:5).
Again, Paul evokes the story of Israel in the language that he uses. Employing metaphors of covenant and election, he calls his listeners to give “thanks to the Father, who has enabled [or ‘called’] you to share the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:12). And he clearly understands redemption in Jesus in terms of the exodus tradition when he concludes our passage with language of being “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred … into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14).
1 These commentaries on Colossians will assume Pauline authorship of this epistle.