Commentary on Colossians 1:1-14
Scholars continue to debate whether the closely related letters of Colossians and Ephesians were written by Paul himself or by later Christian teachers who had been influenced by him. But all agree that these letters express a boldly distinctive theological vision, as though playing a familiar song, now in a new key.
“Paul’s letter to the Colossians is fundamentally about shaping the imagination of the Christian community,” write Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat.1 To this end, Colossians paints for its readers a vision of the cosmos breathtaking in scope, with Christ as firstborn of all creation (1:15), and Christ’s faithful saints in Colossae dwelling with him in the heavenly realm (3:1-4). The letter’s moral vision is a summons for this small group of believers to inhabit their newly exalted status as God’s holy, chosen, and beloved ones (3:12). In short, in Colossians living the gospel means knowing who—and where—you are.
Like many of Paul’s letters, Colossians begins with thanksgiving. Although generally broken up in translation, Colossians 1:3-8 is in fact a single, complex sentence expressing Paul’s prayerful gratitude for the Colossian believers and recalling their early experience of the gospel. Three key features stand out:
- “Now faith, hope, and love abide,” Paul had written in 1 Corinthians 13:13, his famous hymn to love. This same trio of virtues appears in Colossians 1:4-5, now with hope in the leading role. The addressees’ faith in Christ and love for the “saints”—a term that here designates all those made holy by Christ—are nourished by the newfound hope they have found in the gospel.
- The word “hope” has in this context a twofold sense. It refers to the addressees’ expectant posture toward the future, but also to good things that await them there, set aside for them “in the heavens” (1:5). Modern readers might be tempted to see here a reference to the afterlife, as though the Colossian believers hoped to be rewarded with good things in heaven after death. But that is not what this writer has in mind. In this letter’s vision, believers are already in the heavens, their lives “hidden with Christ in God” (3:3); for indeed they have, in an important sense, already died and been raised with Christ (3:1-3; see also 2:11-14). To be sure, believers continue to hope for the full unveiling of their glorious inheritance when Christ himself is revealed in glory (3:4). But this does not mean hoping that things will be different. It means hoping for more of a heavenly reality that in Christ they have already tasted.
- In recollecting the history of the Colossian Christ group, this letter writes them into the epoch-making story of a cosmos transformed by God’s good news in Christ (1:5-6). This would not be the only way to tell their story. To most of their neighbors in Colossae, the little cluster of Christ followers gathered by Epaphras (1:7) would probably have looked rather pathetic: no temple, no priests, not even a proper meeting place—just a rag-tag group of misfits caught up in a Jewish superstition they had learned second-hand. But here they are invited to imagine their place in the world quite differently, as the local vanguard of a movement cosmic in its scope. It is not just that the gospel is bearing fruit in the “whole world” (1:6), as the NRSV translation suggests. No, it is the whole universe, God’s entire created order (kosmos), that is being remade in the gospel of Christ (see also 1:16). And the Colossian believers are in on it.
After recollecting their past, the writer turns now to expressing his prayer for their future. Another sprawling single sentence, Colossians 1:9-14 begins with a reference to full, spiritual knowledge and ends on a note of thanksgiving.
We have all felt the difference between knowing something and really knowing something. It’s one thing to be able to parrot the facts—to say, for example, that the climate is changing. But it’s something else entirely to have felt the truth of it, to have watched with our own eyes as the forest burned or the floodwaters rose. It’s something else entirely to comprehend the truth as an aspect of our own lives.
Perhaps we can then appreciate what the writer is getting at in Colossians 1:9-10 with its series of apparently redundant references to “knowledge,” “wisdom,” and “understanding.” It’s one thing to know theoretically that we have been transferred from the power of darkness to Christ’s kingdom of light (1:12-13). But it’s another thing to feel it, to truly comprehend it.
And it is only this deeper comprehension—what Colossians calls “spiritual wisdom and understanding”—that bears fruit in a transformed life (1:9-10). The writer’s prayer, then, is that the Colossian believers will see beyond appearances to the full, Christ-shaped truth of things. And then, with the truth of reality unveiled, and confident of their own place in it, the believers will be remade in this image, which is also the image of Christ.
As we see in Colossians 1:11-12, this means living in joyful thanksgiving. This is the second reference to thanksgiving in our passage, and each has come in connection with prayer (see also 1:3). But by now this should be no surprise. For if prayer and thanksgiving converge in this passage, that is because the writer’s prayer is that believers will live into a reality with which they have already been gifted.
This, then, is the writer’s invitation: that with imaginations transformed by the “word of truth” (1:5), believers may now fully inhabit their calling as Christ’s holy and faithful ones (1:2).
- Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 84.