Commentary on Colossians 1:1-14
This week begins a series of four readings from Colossians that are appropriate for “ordinary time,” the season after Pentecost.
However, far from being merely “ordinary” (in the sense of being mundane or unremarkable), the series deals with living out of the extraordinary — Christ’s death and resurrection — within our everyday lives.
Prayer as participatory pedagogy
After the customary salutation, this passage introduces, with a thanksgiving prayer, the kind of pedagogy that runs throughout Colossians — a pedagogy in which the writer and readers participate in the reality or wisdom being taught and learned. As an introduction to this “participatory pedagogy,” the thanksgiving has two parts.1 It begins with the writer thanking God that the Colossians have heard the gospel and recognized God’s grace in it (Colossians 1:3-8). It then moves on to depict the writer’s prayer that they be further “filled” with the insight and lived practice that divine grace engenders among them (Colossians 1:9-14).
The use of pronouns in this prayer vividly renders how this pedagogy involves not only the writer and the Colossians, but also Epaphras (who founded the congregation) and, most importantly, God’s presence and activity through the Messiah Jesus. Echoing the format of the salutation (consisting of a sender, a receiver, and a greeting, Colossians 1:1-2), each stage of the thanksgiving begins by depicting the writer’s act of praying for the Colossians — using “we” (Colossians 1:3-4; 1:9). It then describes — using “you” — what has already taken place among the Colossians (in the first stage, Colossians 1:5-6) and what the writer hopes will take place in their lives in the future (in the second stage, Colossians 1:10-12). Concluding each stage is a portrayal — using the third person — of Epaphras, who initially founded the congregation (in the first part, Colossians 1:7-8), and of God, who continues to be at work among them (in the second part, Colossians 1:13).
Faith, hope, and love
The writer begins by thanking God for the Colossians (Colossians 1:3). God is addressed as “the Father of our Jesus the Messiah” — highlighting that this God differs from all other “rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15), a distinction that will be emphasized throughout the letter (see Colossians 2:10).
The writer is grateful for the Colossians’ “faith in the Messiah Jesus” and “the love they have for all the saints” because of “the hope reserved for them in heaven” (Colossians 1:4-5). In Pauline literature, these three — faith, love, and hope — are the chief ways our lives are oriented “in the Messiah” (Romans 5:1-5); they will abide or persist forever, with love being the greatest among them (1 Corinthians 13:13).
The Colossians initially heard of this hope through the “word of truth” — the gospel — that came to them (Colossians 1:6). Just as this “good news” has begun to bear fruit and growth throughout the entire world, so now it has begun to bear fruit among them, starting with the time they first heard it and recognized God’s grace in it (Colossians 1:7). A Pauline baptismal metaphor, “bearing fruit for God” visually depicts dying to sin and being raised with Christ (Romans 7:4, 5). Such fruit and growth results from the Spirit’s expansive work within and among us, in contrast to the constriction of our own often self-preoccupied desires and deeds (Galatians 5:16-15).
This first section concludes by establishing a connection with Epaphras, the one through whom the Colossians first heard the gospel (Colossians 1:7; 4:12). As a “faithful servant of the Messiah” on their behalf, he has informed the writer about the Colossian’s “love in the Spirit” (Colossians 1:8).
Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding
The writer, however, has not ceased praying for the Colossians (Colossians 1:9). If he had previously thanked God for the Colossians’ faith, love, and hope, then he now prays that they will receive another trio: “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). Probably drawn from Isaiah 11:2, this second trio is recited in baptismal liturgy, accentuating the fact that in baptism we receive the same “Spirit of the Lord” that rested on the Messiah — a spirit characterized by “wisdom and understanding” and “the knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).
Why highlight this second trio? Because the writer seeks to move the Colossians from merely “hearing” the gospel of the Messiah Jesus (Colossians 1:5) to “walking” (peripatesai) — or living — in ways that are pleasing to the Lord and correspond with his values (Colossians 1:10). This echoes another Pauline theme: in baptism, we have been buried with the Messiah so that — in the same way that he was raised from the dead — we too we might “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Repeating the fruit metaphor, the writer now prays that the Colossians will bear fruit in every good work, as they grow more fully into a deeper and more expansive recognition of God’s grace throughout their lives (Colossians 1:10). In addition, he prays that the Colossians will be empowered by the Lord’s own glorious authority to face whatever happens to them with perseverance and patience (Colossians 1:11).
Yet they can joyfully give thanks for what God has done among them, even now. God has already made them sufficient to share, with all the saints, in the Messiah’s inheritance (Romans 8:17). Throughout the letter, the writer will portray the way this inheritance consists of sharing the image of the Messiah, who is the very Wisdom of God (Colossians 1:15-20; 3:10; 2 Cor 4:4).
The writer concludes by narrating how God “rescues” us from oppressive powers and authorities and “transfers” us — within our everyday lives — to another sphere of existence: the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13a). In this Son, we have “redemption,” a biblical theme related to being bought back as slaves or freed as prisoners by ransom. Moreover, such redemption is equated with “the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13b): the word for “forgiveness” used here (aphesis) depicts being set free from unjust forces and contracts, as in the Jubilee Year when debts were remitted and land was allowed to be fallow (Luke 4:18; see also Isaiah 61:1).
- Scholars disagree on whether Colossians was written by the Apostle Paul or someone influenced by him.