< July 21, 2019 >

Commentary on Colossians 1:15-28

 

The second in a four-part series on Colossians, this text sets forth its core theological convictions -- not as an argument, but as a pedagogy in which readers can participate.1

The writer’s use of pronouns will serve as our guide for tracing the flow in this passage. It starts with an extended hymn that extols the Messiah as God’s Wisdom -- in the third person (Colossians 1:15-20). Then, it narrates how “you” (the readers) have moved from a place of estrangement to one of reconciliation (Colossians 1:21-23a). It concludes with the writer -- who identifies himself as “I, Paul, a servant of the gospel” -- stating why wrote the letter: to bolster trust in the very mystery of God: “the Messiah in you” (Colossians 1:23b-28).

A hymn extolling the Messiah as God’s Wisdom

The hymn in this passage is replete with imagery related to the personified figure of Wisdom (Colossians 1:15-17). In this, it echoes Paul’s undisputed letters, where we already find an appropriation of existing Jewish traditions that had associated the Messiah with God's pre-existent Wisdom in all of creation.

It begins by extoling God’s “beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This reiterates not only Paul’s reference to the Messiah as the “image of God” (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:4), but also Jewish wisdom literature’s portrayal of Wisdom as the “image of God’s goodness” (Wisdom 7:26). Likewise, it speaks of the “firstborn of creation” (Colossians 1:15), recalling not only Romans 8:29, but also biblical depictions of Wisdom at the beginning of creation (Proverbs 8:22-26; Sirach 24:9). Finally, its praise of the one “through whom” and “for whom” all things have been created (Colossians 1:16) -- who is “before all things” and “in whom all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) -- evokes Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians 8:6; Romans 11:36) and Jewish portrayals of Wisdom’s active role in creation throughout all time and eternity (Sirach 1:4; 24:1-6; Proverbs 8:27-30).

As God’s Wisdom, the Messiah encompasses all of reality -- from the dualisms we use to structure our thinking, such as the dichotomy between “things seen or unseen,” to the cosmic and political “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” we often assume control the world (Colossians 1:16; see also Colossians 2:10).

The middle part of the hymn speaks of “the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). Drawing on the depiction of the “body of the Messiah” in 1 Corinthians 12, the emphasis here is on the Messiah as head of this body, its “beginning” (arche, see Genesis 1:1), which has “first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18). If the hymn had earlier referred to the “firstborn of all creation,” then here -- in a reference to the resurrection -- it speaks of the “firstborn from the dead,” echoing the portrayal of the Second Adam as the “life-creating spirit” in 1 Corinthians (Colossians 15:45).

Finally, the hymn praises the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Later, the writer will refer even more explicitly to the one in whom “the entire fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Such “fullness” is embodied in the way God reconciles all things through the Messiah, making cosmic peace -- “whether on earth or in heaven” -- through the very tangible “blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20; see also 2 Corinthians 5:9; Ephesians 2:12-22).

You, who were estranged, are now reconciled

Reconciliation is at the center of a shift that has already taken place among this letter’s readers: “You who were once alienated” -- that is, estranged from God and others, trapped in hostile and hateful ways of thinking, doing harmful and evil things to one another -- have now been “reconciled” in the Messiah’s “fleshy body through death” (Colossians 1:22a). Having reconciled you in his “fleshy body,” the Messiah will now present you “holy, without blemish, and above reproach” (Colossians 1:22b) -- as in, the liturgical act of “presenting” a sacrifice or offering (see Romans 12:1).

The writer reminds his readers that you have already “heard” about this hope, which is hope the gospel proclaims “to every creature” (Colossians 1:23b).  Nonetheless, he admonishes that if you want to enact and appropriate this hope -- that is, actually shift from a place of estrangement to one of reconciliation within your lived experience -- then you must persist, “firmly established and resolute,” in faith (Colossians 1:23a).

I, Paul, a servant in God’s economy

The writer now shifts to the first person: “I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.” He boldly claims that he not only shares in the “sufferings of the Messiah” (see 2 Corinthians 1:5-7), but also, in fact, “fills up” -- in his “flesh” -- “what is lacking in the Messiah’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). 

In line with divine arrangement (oikonomia), God has given him the task of making “the “word of God fully known.” Hidden through the ages and generations, this “word” is the “mystery” God has now disclosed to the saints (Colossians 1:26), the “hope of glory” the gospel proclaims to everyone (Colossians 1:27)

This mystery is nothing other than “the Messiah in you” (Colossians 1:27). Unlike mysteries about empirical facts that simply refer to things we are not aware of yet, divine mystery continues to be a mystery even when disclosed. Thus, admonishing and teaching everyone “in all wisdom” entails deepening and expanding their sense of this mystery so that they can be presented ever more fully mature “in the Messiah” (Colossians 1:28). 

Empowered by God’s own energetic activity, the writer labors and struggles with all his energy to console and hold together hearts in love, so that they may enter more fully into the wealth of assurance and knowledge of this divine mystery -- the Messiah himself, in whom “are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).

Countering anyone who might “delude you with persuasive speech” (Colossians 2:4), he seeks to buttress “your trust in the Messiah” and the patterns and structures that support that trust (Colossians 2:5).


Notes:

  1. See my commentary on Colossians 1:1-14 (7/14/2019) for a brief introduction to the series. As noted there, scholars disagree on whether Colossians was written by the Apostle Paul or someone influenced by him.