Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE EPISTLES TO THE EPHESIANS, PHILIPPIANS, AND COLOSSIANS.
THE RIGHT REV. ALFRED BARRY, D.D.
THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS.
I. The Time, Place, and Occasion of Writing.—There are in this Epistle indications of the time and place of writing similar to those already noticed in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians. It is written in prison: for St. Paul bids the Colossians “remember his bonds” (Colossians 4:18), and designates Aristarchus as his “fellow-prisoner” (Colossians 4:10). Like the Epistle to the Ephesians, it is sent by Tychicus, with precisely the same official commendation of him as in that Epistle (Colossians 4:7-8; comp. Ephesians 6:21-22); but with him is joined Onesimus, the Colossian slave, the bearer of the Epistle to Philemon. The persons named in the concluding salutations (Colossians 4:7-14)—Aristarchus, Marcus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, and “Jesus, called Justus”—are all, except the last, named in the corresponding part of the Epistle to Philemon (Philemon 1:23-24); two of them, Aristarchus and St. Luke, are known to have accompanied the Apostle on his voyage, as a captive, to Rome (Acts 27:2): and another, Tychicus, to have been his companion on the journey to Jerusalem, which preceded the beginning of that captivity at Cæsarea (Acts 20:4). A direction is given to forward this Epistle to Laodicea, and to obtain and read a letter from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), which (as will be seen by the Note on the passage) is, in all probability, our Epistle to the Ephesians—an Epistle (see the Introduction to it) addressed, indeed, primarily to Ephesus, but apparently also an Encyclical Letter to the sister Churches of Asia. All these indications point to one conclusion—not only that the Epistle is one of the Epistles of the Roman captivity (about A.D. 61-63), but that it is a twin Epistle with the Epistle to the Ephesians, sent at the same time and by the same hand, and designed to be interchanged with it in the Churches of Colossæ and Laodicea. These indications are confirmed most decisively by the substance of the Epistle itself, which (as will be seen below) presents, on the one hand, the most striking similarities to the Epistle to the Ephesians, and, on the other, differences almost equally striking and characteristic—thus contradicting all theories of derivation of one from the other, and supporting very strongly the idea of independent contemporaneousness and coincidence of thought.
The occasion of writing seems evidently to have been a visit to the Apostle from Epaphras, the first preacher of the gospel at Colossæ, and the profound anxiety caused both to him and to St. Paul (Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:12-13) by the news which he brought of the rise among the Colossians (and probably the Christians of Laodicea and Hierapolis also) of a peculiar form of error, half Jewish, half Gnostic, which threatened to beguile them from the simplicity of the gospel into certain curious mazes of speculation as to the Godhead and the outgrowth of various emanations from it: to create a separation between those who believed themselves perfect in this higher knowledge and the mass of their brethren: and, above all, to obscure or obliterate the sole divine mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ. To warn them against these forms of error—the last development of the Judaism which had been so formidable an enemy in time past, and the first anticipation of an intellectual and spiritual bewilderment which was to be still more formidable in the future—St. Paul writes this Letter. The Colossian Church was indeed to receive a copy from Laodicea of our Epistle to the Ephesians; but in an Encyclical Letter this peculiar form of heresy could not well be touched upon. Epaphras was for the present to continue at Rome, and (see Philemon 1:24) to share St. Paul’s imprisonment. Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, then with St. Paul, was perhaps coming to Colossæ (Colossians 4:10), but not yet. Accordingly, by Tychicus, the bearer of the Encyclical Letter, and Onesimus, a fugitive Colossian slave, whom the Apostle was about to send back to Philemon, his master, this Letter is despatched. Partly it repeats and enforces the teaching of the other Epistle, but regards these common truths from a different point of view, designed tacitly to correct the errors rife at Colossæ; partly it deals directly with those errors themselves, imploring the Colossians to break through the delusions of their new “philosophy and vain deceit,” and to return to the simplicity of the gospel, in which they had all been one in the one mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
II. The Church to which it is addressed.—The Church of Colossæ, unlike the Churches of Ephesus and Philippi, finds no record in the Acts of the Apostles; for, although this city is not very far from Ephesus, we gather that it was not one of the churches founded or previously visited by St. Paul personally (Colossians 2:1; comp. Colossians 1:4). But it appears, from what is apparently the true reading of Colossians 1:7, that Epaphras, named as its first evangelist, and still, to some extent, in charge of it and the neighbouring Churches of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:12-13), was not only a fellow-servant, but a representative of St. Paul in his mission to Colossæ. We can, therefore, hardly be wrong in referring the conversion of the Colossians to the time of St. Paul’s three years’ stay at Ephesus, during which we are expressly told that “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10), and supposing that indirectly through Epaphras the Christianity of the Colossians was due to the influence of that great Apostolic preaching under which “the word of God grew mightily and prevailed.” We find also that St. Paul had intimate personal acquaintance, and what he calls emphatically “partnership,” with Philemon (see Philemon 1:17), apparently a leading member of the Church at Colossæ. It is not unlikely that through him also the Apostle had been able to influence the foundation or growth of that Church. These circumstances explain the style and tone of this Letter, which seems to stand midway between the personal familiarity and unhesitating authority of such Epistles as the Epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, addressed to churches founded directly by St. Paul, and the courteous reserve of the Epistle to the Romans, addressed to a Church over which he could claim none of the authority of a founder. This is, perhaps, especially notable in Colossians 2, where St. Paul prefaces his definite and authoritative denunciation of the peculiar errors besetting the Colossian Church with the half-apologetic introduction: “I would that ye know what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh.”
The position and history of Colossæ are admirably described by Dr. Lightfoot in his Introduction to this Epistle, sect. 1. It lay in the valley of the Lycus, a tributary of the Mæander, near Laodicea and Hierapolis. These two cities stand face to face, about six miles from each other on opposite sides of the valley, and ten or twelve miles further up, on the river itself, lies Colossæ, so that any one approaching it from Ephesus or from the sea-coast would pass by Laodicea. The three cities thus form a group, so that they might naturally receive the gospel at the same time, and the Christian communities in them might easily be under the same general charge. They seem to have been politically united under the Roman Government, and to have been distinguished by a common trade; like Thyatira, they were known for their manufacture of dyes, especially purple dyes, and derived considerable wealth therefrom. Colossæ had been once a place of importance. It is described by Herodotus (chap. vii. 20) as being, at the time of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, “a great city of Phrygia,” the site of which is marked by a subterranean disappearance of the river Lycus; and by Xenophon (Anab. i. 2, § 6), about a century later, as “a city great and prosperous.” But at the time at which this Epistle was written Colossæ was of far less note than the wealthy Laodicea, the metropolis of the district, or Hierapolis, well known as a place of resort for medicinal baths, and consecrated both to the Greek Apollo and the Phrygian Cybele. In the Apocalyptic letters to the Seven Churches of Asia it finds no mention, being probably looked upon as a dependency of the proud and wealthy Church of Laodicea. After the Apostolic age, while Laodicea and, in less degree, Hierapolis are well-known, Colossæ sinks into utter insignificance. It may possibly have been laid in ruins by one of the earthquakes which are known to have been common in these regions. Comparatively few remains of it are now found, and the very orthography of the name (Colossce, or Colassæ) has, it appears, been matter of dispute. It is notable that a Church so much honoured and cared for by St. Paul should have had hereafter so obscure and so adverse a future.  Views of the country near the supposed site of Colossæ, and of the ruins of Laodicea and Hierapolis, are given in Lowin’s St. Paul, Vol. II., pp. 357-360.
 Views of the country near the supposed site of Colossæ, and of the ruins of Laodicea and Hierapolis, are given in Lowin’s St. Paul, Vol. II., pp. 357-360.
III. The Genuineness of the Epistle.—External Evidence.—Speaking generally, the condition of the external evidence is much the same with this as with the other two Epistles. It is included unhesitatingly in all canons, from the Muratorian Canon (A.D. 170?) downwards, and in all versions, beginning with the Peschito and the Old Latin in the second century. Quotations or references to it have not, however, been traced in any of the Apostolic fathers. The first distinct allusion to it is in Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-170?), who says (Apol. i. 46, ii. 6; Dial. c. Tryph. c. 100):—“We were taught that Christ is the first-born of God;” “We have acknowledged Him as the first-born of God, and before all creatures;” “Through Him God set all things in order.” (Comp. Colossians 1:15-17.) The next is Theophilus of Antioch, who died about A.D. 180:—“God begat the Word, the first-born before all creation.” After this, in Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, direct quotation begins, and continues uninterruptedly in all Christian writings. (See Westcott, Canon of the New Testament.) The external evidence is therefore strong. Never until these later days of arbitrary criticism has the genuineness of the Epistle been questioned.
Internal Evidence.—This Epistle, far more than the Epistle to the Philippians, perhaps a little less than the Epistle to the Ephesians, bears traces of what I have ventured to call St. Paul’s “third manner.” To the correspondence of the change, both in style and substance, traceable in these Epistles, to the alteration of St. Paul’s circumstances, and the natural development of the gospel and of the Church, I have already referred in the General Introduction to the Epistles of the Captivity, and given reasons for maintaining that this change, which has been often made an argument against the genuineness of these Epistles, presents to us phenomena inexplicable on any supposition of imitation or forgery, but perfectly intelligible if we accept the Apostolic authorship.
Some critics, however—of whom Dr. Holtzmann (in his Kritik der Epheser- und Kolosser- briefe) may be taken as the chief representative—insist on tracing extensive interpolations (almost amounting to a virtual reconstruction) in what they believe themselves able to discover as the originals both of this Epistle and the Epistle to the Ephesians. Except so far as these hypotheses depend on the supposed traces of a later Gnosticism in both Epistles, but especially in this (on which see Excursus at the close of this Epistle), they seem to resolve themselves into the idea that every passage bearing strong similarity to the teaching of St. Peter and St. John must have been altered or interpolated with a view to accommodation. Without any substantial historical evidence, ignoring both the probabilities of the case and the indirect evidence of Holy Scripture, and disregarding the utter absence of any support whatever in the witness of Christian antiquity, they assume an absolute antagonism between St. Paul and the Apostles of the Circumcision, and pronounce every indication of an underlying unity, and a true development of common doctrine, which contradicts this assumption, to be a mark of interpolation or falsification by a later hand. With the rejection of this arbitrary assumption, the greater part of the ingeniously-constructed fabric of destructive criticism falls to the ground.
But, indeed, it appears difficult to conceive how any one attentively studying either of these Epistles, without any preconceived hypothesis, can fail to recognise the internal consistency and unity—all the more striking because indicating a free method, as distinct from a well-squared artificial system—which runs through the whole, and makes the theory of interpolation even more improbable than the theory of imitation or forgery. Nothing, for example, is more notable in this Epistle than the substantial unity, under marked difference of form, which connects the positive statement of doctrine in the first chapter (Colossians 1:14-23) with the polemical re-statement in the second chapter. In the former we trace anticipation of the latter, and (so to speak) preparation for the more explicit development of the attack on doctrinal error; in the latter, the very repetitions, with variations, of passages in the first chapter are indicative of a free treatment of the truths previously dealt with by the same hand, and are utterly unlike the tame reproductions or artificial modifications of a mere copyist. The remarkable indications, again, of the co-existence of similarity and distinctness between this Epistle and the Epistle to the Ephesians (noticed in the Introduction to that Epistle), as they preclude the theory of dependence or imitation in either, so are equally fatal to the idea of an artificial interpolation and reconstruction by later hands. They indicate at every point a free, almost unconscious, coincidence, omitting or preserving the parallelisms of idea and expression by a kind of natural selection. They mark a likeness of living organic growths, not of artificial and heterogeneous fabrics. Nor should we omit to notice the sustained power of these Epistles, differing as to the peculiar style of each, but equally conspicuous in both. The Epistle to the Ephesians has about it a certain calm and almost mystic eloquence, a beauty of meditative completeness of idea, unbroken by necessities of special teaching or special warning, which well suits a general Apostolic message to Christians as Christians, in which we seen almost to hear the utterance of an inspired mind, simply contemplating the divine truth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and speaking out, so far as they can be spoken, the thoughts which it stirs within—conscious of God and itself, only half conscious of those to whom the utterance is addressed. In the Epistle to the Colossians, on the other hand, we find a far greater abruptness, force, and earnestness. The free course of the Apostolic thought, which occasionally, perhaps, rises to an even greater height, is, on the whole, checked and modified by the constant remembrance of pressing needs and pressing dangers—accordingly developing some elements and leaving others comparatively undeveloped: and so, while perhaps increasing intensity, certainly interfering to some extent with the majestic symmetry of the universal revelation. Each Epistle has its marked characteristics; and these, unquestionably, so run through the whole as to destroy even any show of plausibility in the theory of interpolation.
The supposed anachronisms in the references to what afterwards became peculiarities of the Gnostic system will be treated of in the Excursus (at the close of the Epistle) on the Relation of the Epistle to Gnosticism. Here it will be sufficient to say that, on more attentive examination, not only do the supposed objections to the genuineness of the Epistle disappear, but the phenomena of the “philosophy and vain deceit” touched upon in this Epistle, when compared with the opinions either of the past or of the future, accord so remarkably with the characteristics of the period to which the Epistle claims to belong, as to add a fresh confirmation of the conclusions already derived from a consideration of the external evidence, and by the study of the coherence and vigour of the Epistle itself.
In this case, therefore, as in the others, we may unhesitatingly dismiss the questions which have been ingeniously raised, and with undisturbed confidence draw from the Epistle the rich treasures of Apostolic teaching.
IV. The main Substance of the Epistle.—In considering the substance of the Epistle, we must distinguish between the large amount of matter common to it with the Epistle to the Ephesians and the portion which is peculiar to this Epistle alone.
In regard of the common matter, it may be said generally that it is found treated with a greater width of scope and completeness of handling in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is best studied there in the first instance (see, accordingly, the Introduction and Analysis of that Epistle), and then illustrated by comparison and contrast with the corresponding passages in this Epistle. It will be seen (as is explained in the Notes on various passages) that this illustration is at every point full of suggestiveness and variety. Literal identities are exceedingly rare; in almost every set of parallel passages the treatment in the two Epistles presents some points of characteristic variety, either in expression or in meaning. Speaking generally, this variety depends on two causes. The first turns on the specialty of the Epistle, addressed to a single Church, thoroughly, though indirectly, known to St. Paul, and the generality of the other, approaching nearly to the character of a treatise rather than a letter. The second and the more important cause of this variety is the subtle adaptation even of details to the characteristic doctrines which stand out in the two Epistles respectively.
This last consideration leads on naturally to the examination of the portions of the Epistle to which there is nothing to correspond in the Ephesian Epistle.
(a) We have the passages in the first and last chapters which refer to the foundation of the Colossian Church by Epaphras, the declaration to them of the “truth of the gospel,” and the practical fruitfulness of that teaching (Colossians 1:6-11); next, to the deep anxiety felt by Epaphras and St. Paul himself for their steadfastness in the simple truths of the gospel, against the speculations of a wild philosophy and the allurements of a mystic perfection in practice (Colossians 1:23-24; Colossians 2:1-4; Colossians 2:8-10; Colossians 2:16-23; Colossians 4:12-13); lastly, the particularity and strong personality of the salutations, directions, and blessing at the close of this Epistle (Colossians 4:7-18), singularly contrasting with the brief generality of the other (Ephesians 6:21-24). All these correspond to the former of the causes above named. They mark the difference between a special and an Encyclical Epistle.
(b) Of infinitely greater moment is the special prominence which is given in this Epistle to the doctrine of the sole Headship of Christ. The references to the Church as His body, though not unfrequent, are brief, secondary, unemphatic; and thus stand in marked contrast with the vivid and magnificent descriptions in the Ephesian Epistle of the predestination and election of the whole body of the Church in the eternal counsels “of the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3-14): of the union of Jew and Gentile in the divine “commonwealth,” all divisions being broken down which separated each from the other and both from God (Colossians 2:11-18): of the great Temple, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief corner-stone” (Colossians 2:19-23): of the “one body” and “the one Spirit,” the “one Lord, the one God and Father of all” (Colossians 4:4-10). It is especially notable that to the last-named passage, which is the climax of the doctrinal teaching of the Ephesian Epistle, there corresponds in this the equally celebrated but wholly different passage (Colossians 3:1-4), which addresses the Colossians as “risen with Christ,” having their “life hid with Him in God,” looking for the time “when He who is their life shall appear, and they with Him in glory.” The reason of the distinction is made clear at once by the indications of the presence at Colossæ of a tendency to vain speculations, to obsolete Jewish forms, and to half idolatrous superstitions, all of which alike prevented them from “holding the Head,” from “being dead with Christ” to the rudiments of the world, from being “risen with Him” to a communion with heaven (Colossians 2:8-23). Accordingly, the sole Headship of Christ is dwelt upon—first positively, (Colossians 1:18-20), next polemically, in warning against error (Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:16; Colossians 2:18). Both passages are peculiar to this Epistle, as compared with the Epistle to the Ephesians. They deal with a subject on which the needs of Colossæ and its sister Churches forced St. Paul to lay very special emphasis.
(c) But this emphasis does but bring out with greater force what may be found elsewhere. The great characteristic feature of this Epistle is the declaration of the nature of Christ in Himself as the “image of the invisible God;” “firstborn before all creation;” “by whom,” “for whom,” “in whom,” “all beings were created in heaven and earth” and “all things consist;” “in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:15-17; Colossians 1:19; Colossians 2:9). In this the Epistle may be compared with the Epistle to the Philippians (Colossians 2:6-7). But the simple declaration there made of Christ as “being in the form of God” is here worked out into a magnificent elaboration, ascribing to Him the “fulness of Godhead” and the essential divine attributes of universal creation. It may be even more closely compared with the Epistle to the Hebrews, which not only describes Him as “the express image of the essence of Godhead,” but with an emphasis which reminds us of the judaistic angel-worship condemned in this Epistle, exalts His absolute superiority over all who, however glorious, are but creatures of God and ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:1; Hebrews 2:4). It is evident, again, that it anticipates, yet with characteristic difference of expression, the doctrine of the “Word of God” taught by St. John, and the ascription to Him of essential eternity and Godhead, and both of physical and spiritual creation (John 1:1-5; John 1:14). It is this which gives to our Epistle an unique doctrinal significance and value. Called out by one of the changeful phases of a pretentious, but transitory error, it remains to us an imperishable treasure. We cannot doubt that till the end of time it will have fresh force of special application, as ancient forms of error recur with more or less of variety of outward aspect, and in their constant changes, developments, and antagonisms, stand in significant contrast with the unchanging gospel.
V. Analysis of the Epistle.—To this general description is subjoined, as before, an analysis of the Epistle, shortened from the analyses in the various chapters.
(1)SALUTATION (Colossians 1:1-2).
(a)Thanksgiving for their faith, love, and hope, the worthy fruits of the truth of the gospel taught by Epaphras (Colossians 1:3-8);
(b)Prayer for their fuller knowledge, fruitfulness, and patience (Colossians 1:9-12).
(2)THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST (stated positively).
(a)His mediation in the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14);
(b)His divine nature as the image of God and the Creator of all things (Colossians 1:15-17);
(c)His Headship over the Church and over all created being (Colossians 1:18-20);
(d)Special application of His mediation to the Colossians, and declaration of the com-mission of the preaching of this mystery to St. Paul himself (Colossians 1:21-29).
(3)THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST (stated polemically).
(a)Declaration of St. Paul’s anxiety for them that they should remain rooted and established in the old truth of the gospel (Colossians 2:1-7);
(b)Warning against speculative error, denying or obscuring the truth—
(α)Of Christ’s true Godhead;
(β)Of the regeneration of spiritual circumcision in Him;
(γ)Of His sole atonement and triumph over the powers of evil (Colossians 2:8-15).
(c)Warning against practical superstition—
(α)Of trust in obsolete Jewish ordinances and mystic asceticism;
(β)Of superstitious worship of angels trenching on the sole Headship of Christ (Colossians 2:16-19).
(d) Exhortation to be—
(α)Dead with Christ to the rudiments of the world;
(a) To mortification of the flesh in all the sins of the old unregenerate nature (Colossians 3:5-9);
(b)To putting on the new man in all the graces of the image of Christ, receiving the peace of God and doing all to His glory (Colossians 3:10-17).
(2)SPECIAL DUTIES OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIP—
(a)Wives and husbands (Colossians 3:18-19);
(b)Children and parents (Colossians 3:20-21);
(a)Exhortation to prayer and watchfulness (Colossians 4:2-6);
(b)Mission of Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9);
(c)Salutations from St. Paul’s companions (Colossians 4:10-14);
(d)Charge to exchange Epistles with Laodicea (Colossians 4:15-17);
(e)Final salutation (Colossians 4:18).
VI. Comparison with Epistle to the Ephesians.—To this outline of the Epistle may also be added a tabular comparison with the Epistle to the Ephesians, noting the general lines of parallelism and peculiarity.
EPHESIANS AND COLOSSIANS.
[In this Table whatever is common to the two Epistles is printed in ordinary type, and whatever is peculiar to each in italics.]
EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS. 1.Doctrinal Section.
1.(a) Salutation (Ephesians 1:1-2).
(b)Doxology and thanksgiving for the divine election (Ephesians 1:3-6).
(c)Prayer and thanksgiving for them (Ephesians 1:15-18).
2.(a)Declaration of the “gathering up of all in Christ,” of His universal mediation for Jew and Gentile, and His headship over the Church, which is His Body, “the fulness of Him who filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:7-14; Ephesians 1:19-23).
(b)Fuller declaration of the union of Jew and Gentile in one covenant and temple, on sole condition of faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-20).
(c)The commission to St. Paul of the mystery of the calling in of the Gentiles, once hidden, now revealed to men and angels (Ephesians 3:1-13).
(d)Prayer that they may know that which passeth knowledge, by the indwelling of Christ, and be filled to me fulness of God (Ephesians 3:14-21).
3.SUMMARY OF DOCTRINE:
(a)The unity of the Church in God;
(b)The diversity of gifts;
(c)The one object of all—personal and corporate edification (Ephesians 4:1-16).
1.(a) General exhortation to put off the old man and put on the new, by learning Christ and being taught in Christ (Ephesians 4:17-18).
(b)Warning against various sins, as breaking unity with man (Ephesians 4:25-30).
(a)Wives and husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33). (The sacredness of marriage as a type of the union between Christ and the Church.)
(b)Children and parents (Ephesians 6:1-4).
(c)Slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:5-9).
(a)Exhortation to put on the whole armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-17).
(b)Request for their prayers (Ephesians 6:18-20).
(c)Commendation of Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21-22).
(d)“Peace be to the brethren.” “Grace be with all them who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” (Ephesians 6:23-24).
EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS. 1.Doctrinal Section.
1.(a) Salutation (Colossians 1:1-2).
(c)Special reference to the teaching of Epaphras and its effect (Colossians 1:6-8).
(b)Declaration of the true Godhead and creative power of Christ (Colossians 1:15-17).
(c)The commission to St. Paul of the preaching of the mystery once hidden, now revealed, “which is Christ in you the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:23-29).
(d)Special warnings against peculiar forms of speculative error and practical superstition, drawing them from Christ, and obscuring His sole mediation and true Godhead (Colossians 2:1-23).
3.SUMMARY OF DOCTRINE:
1.(a) General exhortation to mortify our earthly members, to put off the old man and put on the new (Colossians 3:5-11).
(a)Wives and husbands (Colossians 3:18-19).
(b)Children and parents (Colossians 3:20-21).
(a)Request for their prayers (Colossians 4:2-6).
(b)Commendation of Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9).
(c)Salutations from the brethren (Colossians 4:10-14).
(d)Message to Laodicea and Archippus, and direction as to the Letter from Laodicea (Colossians 4:15-17).
(e)“Remember my bonds. Grace be with you” (Colossians 4:18).
EXCURSUS ON NOTES TO COLOSSIANS. EXCURSUS A: RELATION OF THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS TO GNOSTICISM.
EXCURSUS A: RELATION OF THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS TO GNOSTICISM.
IT is not intended in this Excursus to attempt any description of the actual historical developments of those singular phases of opinion, classed roughly under the name of “Gnosticism” (on which see Neander’s Church History, Sect. IV.), or any imitation of Dr. Lightfoot’s exhaustive and scholarly investigation of the connections in detail, between the form of speculative and practical heresy denounced by St. Paul at Colossæ, and the tenets of the various Gnostic systems. For the purposes of this Commentary it will be sufficient to inquire generally—
(1) What is the fundamental principle of Gnosticism?
(2) What were the chief problems with which it dealt?
(3) How far it could, in its early stages, reasonably ally itself with the Judaic system?
(4) What was its early relation to Christianity?
(1) Gnosticism, as the name implies, is the absolute devotion to Gnosis, or “knowledge.” It is, of course, obvious that “knowledge,” as it is the natural delight of man as man, so also is sanctioned by the Apostles themselves—by none more emphatically than St. Paul, and nowhere more emphatically by him than in the Epistles of the Captivity—as one of the signs and means of the growth of the spiritual life in the image of Christ. In every one of the Epistles of this period St. Paul earnestly desires for his converts progress in knowledge. (See for example Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:9.) It was, therefore, perfectly in accordance with Apostolic teaching that Clement of Alexandria and his school extolled the “true Gnostic,” as representing some of the higher phrases of spiritual life, and reflecting in some senses, more distinctly than others, the likeness of the mind of God in Christ Jesus. But St. Paul, while he thus delights in true knowledge, also speaks (1Timothy 6:20) of a “knowledge falsely so called,” and by this expression appears to brand with condemnation the spirit of what is commonly called Gnosticism. Where then lay the distinction between the false and the true “knowledge?”
In two points especially. First, Gnosticism exalted knowledge to an unwarranted supremacy in the Christian life. It made Christianity a philosophy, rather than a religion; as if its chief internal effect was enlightenment of the understanding rather than regeneration of the life, and its chief desire, in rising above self, was to discover abstract truths about God. and man, rather than to know God Himself, with “all the heart, all the soul, and all the strength,” as well as “all the mind.” Thus it fatally disturbed the true harmony of the speculative, the practical, and the devotional elements of the spiritual life. Energy in practical service, and love in devotion, it considered as good enough for the mass of men, but knowledge as the one mark of “the perfect.” Like all philosophies, it was aristocratic; for in work and in worship all might take their place, but only the few thinkers could “burst into the silent sea” of the higher speculation. There, by the esoteric doctrine, known only to the initiated, they believed themselves to be set apart from the ordinary Christians, for whom the exoteric or popular and imperfect teaching might suffice; and sometimes conceived that, with the higher mystic knowledge, they might gain also mysterious powers, and mysterious means of approach to a divine communion, unknown to others.
Secondly, Gnosticism also departed from the Apostolic teaching in relation to its method of knowledge. St. Paul describes, in a celebrated passage of the Epistle to the Ephesians, the process of the true knowledge of God. He prays for the Ephesians thus: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith, that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend . . . and know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with (or rather, up to) all the fulness of God.” The order is here profoundly significant. The knowledge, being a knowledge of a Personal God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, begins in faith—a faith which knows indeed in whom it believes, but then believes on Him, as having “the words of eternal life.” It is next deepened by love, called out by the infinite love of God in Christ, naturally manifesting itself, partly in adoration, partly in active service, and by both coming to know more and more what still passes complete knowledge. Finally, even in its ultimate growth, it is still in some sense the receiving of a divine light, which pours in, and fills the soul with the revelation of God. It does not fill itself, but it “is filled up to all the fulness of God.” Doubtless in all this the energy of the soul itself is implied—first to believe, then to love and to work, lastly to open itself to the divine truth: but it is throughout subordinate. If ever St. Paul allows it to be said, “Ye have known God,” he adds the correction at once, “or rather are known of God.” The process of Gnosticism was fundamentally different. Faith (it thought) was well for the vulgar; love, especially as shown in practice, was all they could hope to add to faith. But the Gnostic, accepting perhaps the vantage ground of ordinary gospel truth, took his stand on it, first to gaze, then to speculate, then to invent, in his own intellectual strength—now by profound thought, now by wild ingenuity of fancy, now by supposed mystic visions. As usual in such cases, he mixed up what he thought he saw with what he went on to infer by pure speculation, and turned what were simple speculations, probable or improbable, into professed discoveries of truth. Nothing is more notable in the full-grown Gnostic theories than the extraordinary luxuriance and arbitrariness of speculations, which, like the cycles and epicycles of the old Ptolemaic astronomy, stand self-condemned by their artificial ingenuity.
Now, it is clear that Gnosticism so viewed, although its full development waited for a later period, belongs in essence to all times. It arose again and again, in connection with Christianity, whenever the gospel had won its way to a position of such supremacy over actual life as to challenge speculation. This it had certainly done at the close of St. Paul’s Apostolic career, in all the civilised world of Asiatic, Greek, and Roman thought; but perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the provinces of Asia Minor, the ancient home of Greek speculation, and now the common meeting-ground of Western philosophy and Eastern mysticism, and in the famous city of Alexandria, where Greek and Jewish ideas had long been inextricably blended together. As we may trace its modern counterpart in much of the scientific and metaphysical speculation of our own day, so also it is but natural that it should emerge even in the earliest times, when the gospel confronted a highly cultivated and inquisitive civilisation. Whatever truth there may be in the old traditions that Simon Magus was the first Gnostic, it is, at least, clear that the germs of Gnosticism lay in his view of Christianity, recognising in it a mystic power and wisdom greater than his own, but ignoring its moral and spiritual regeneration of the soul.
(2) The great subjects of Gnostic speculation, under all its strange and fantastic varieties, were again the two great questions which at all times occupy the human mind. The first is speculative. What is the relation between the Infinite and the Finite, the Absolute and the Phenomenal, the First Cause and the actual Universe? The second is moral. What is the nature and origin of the Evil, both physical and moral, which forces itself upon our notice, as a disturbing element in a world essentially good and beautiful? and how can we explain its permitted antagonism to the First Cause, which is presumably good? To these two fundamental questions, belonging to all time, were added two others belonging to the centuries just before and just after the manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ. What place is to be assigned to the Jewish dispensation in the philosophy of God and Man? What are the character and significance of the Incarnation, which is the central Christian mystery?
With regard to the first question, Gnosticism universally accepted the conception of an Eternal God, sometimes recognised, whether vividly or dimly, as a Person, sometimes looked on as a mere depth (Bythos) or abyss of Impersonal Being. But it insisted that, in respect of the work of Creation of the world and of humanity, in the government of the world and in the manifestation of Himself to Man, God was pleased, or was by His Nature forced, to act through inferior beings, all receiving of His Pleroma (or, “fulness”) in different degrees of imperfection, and connected with Him in different degrees of nearness through “endless genealogies.” These emanations might be regarded as personal, such as the “Angels of God,” the “Word of God,” the “Spirit of God”; they might be half-personal, like the Æons of later speculation; they might be, where Platonism was strong, even the Ideas or Attributes of God, gathered up in the Logos. But it was through these emanations that the Supreme God made and sustained the world, created man as at once material, animal (psychic), and spiritual, and manifested Himself to man in different ages.
Next, in relation to the Moral Problem of the Existence of Evil, Gnosticism seems to have oscillated between the idea of a direct Dualism, wherever the Persian influence predominated, and the conception of a dead-weight of resistance to the Will of God, where-ever Monotheistic influence, especially Jewish influence, drove out the more pronounced conceptions of Dualism. But almost, if not quite, universally it traced the origin of evil to matter, conceived probably as eternal, certainly as independent, if not of the Supreme God, at any rate of the Creative Emanations, or of the One Being called the Demiurgus, or “Great Workman,” to whom the Creative was in most cases assigned. Those who were, or continued to be, “material,” enslaved to matter, were hopelessly evil; those who were “psychical,” having, that is, the soul of emotion and lower understanding as distinct from the spirit, were in a condition of imperfection, but with hope of rising to spirituality; those who were spiritual, and they only, were free from all evil, capable of communion with the Supreme God. The first class were the world; the second the mass of the religious; the last were the possessors of the higher knowledge. On what should be the end of this condition of imperfection and conflict, there was division of opinion. But a consummation either of conquest of evil, or of absorption into the Divine Pleroma, was looked for by all. In the meanwhile the Demiurgus, or the Creative powers of the world, were regarded, sometimes as rebellious, sometimes as blinded by ignorance, sometimes as simply finite and therefore imperfect; and to these qualities in them were traced the sin, the blindness, or the imperfection of the present dispensation.
From this conception of matter as the source of evil, and therefore of the body as the evil element in our nature, followed two rival and directly antagonistic conclusions as to the appetites and passions, and the view which the spiritual man should take of them and of the objects by which they were satisfied. The nobler conclusion was, in accordance with the purer Oriental religions, and the highest Platonic philosophy, that the body was simply a hindrance, a prison-house, a dead weight, a cause of blindness or dimness to the spiritual eye; and hence was to be kept under by a rigid asceticism, mortifying all its desires, and preserving the spiritual man, as much as possible, from any contact with the material. The other—perhaps the more common, certainly the ignobler—conclusion was that the indulgence of the body could not pollute any spirit, which was sustained by the higher knowledge, and, therefore, that what common opinion held to be “a shame” was to the spiritual man “a glory,” showing that the most sensual and reckless profligacy was to him a thing absolutely trivial and indifferent. It is obvious that these two rival theories would take up, and invest with a philosophical completeness, the ordinary tendencies represented by Pharisaism, on the one hand, and by Anti-nomianism on the other. Possibly by the natural law of reaction, the two extremes might often meet, in the same system, and even in the same individual.
A glance at these subjects will again show that Gnosticism, as in its principles, so in its chief problems, belongs to all times, and is essentially independent both of Judaism and Christianity. It was most natural that the claim of these problems to attention should assert itself in the later periods of the first century, even in reaction against the prosaic and practical systems of Stoicism and Epicureanism, then dominant in ordinary Roman thought, and, however opposed to each other, at least united in a contemptuous discouragement of all abstract speculation, especially in things divine. No home could be more congenial to such inquiries than the classic soil of philosophic speculation in Ephesus and the other cities of Asia, or the learned atmosphere of eclecticism which pervaded the Alexandrine school.
(3) But there were, as has been said above, two questions which presented themselves to the special forms of Gnosticism dominant at this period, and of these the first was of the relation of Gnostic theories to the Old Testament and the Jewish dispensation.
Now, in Judaism there was, on the one hand, much to attract the Gnostic. In it he found the one great living system of Monotheism, setting forth the absolute and infinite Godhead as the Eternal Source of being, invisible and incomprehensible to man; so infinitely-above all creatures that His very Name was too sacred to be pronounced by human lips. In it he also found, or could easily develop, the doctrine of angelic intervention, in the creation and the guidance of nature, in the intercourse of God with man, even in the government of human history, and the protection both of individuals and of races. The peculiar privilege of a chosen people, easily represented as belonging to them simply through a higher knowledge, and not less easily transferred as an inheritance to a spiritual Israel of the enlightened and perfect, supplied the element of exclusiveness inherent in all Gnostic systems; and all the ordinances of ritual, of typical sacrifices, and ceremonial purity, readily lent themselves to the conception of a certain mystic consecration of the privileged, who might be a “royal priesthood,” a prophetic and saintly order, before God, as distinct from “the people, who knew not the mystic law,” and were “accursed.” Nor would he omit to notice in the Sapiential books of the Old Testament—such as Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—the exaltation of Wisdom, as distinct from faith and holiness, to a supreme place; and he would find that round the memory of the Wise Man had grown up a whole crowd of legends of mystic lore, of supernatural insight, and of an equally supernatural power over the world of angels and of demons. So far, the Gnostic might find in the Jewish dispensation, freely handled after the manner of Alexandria, much that would give a kind of backbone of solidity to his vague and artificial speculations.
On the other hand, Gnosticism was repelled from all that element in the Jewish dispensation which is ordinarily called the “Theocracy,” placing God in direct relation to the ordinary life of Israel, manifesting Him in the local sanctity of the Tabernacle or the Temple, honouring Him with physical sacrifice, setting forth His will in the clear and prosaic ordinances of the Law, dealing with all the people as a body, and as in many points equal before Him. For all this placed the Infinite Godhead in a direct, and, as it seemed to the Gnostic, an unworthy or an impossible contact, not only with man, but with that common life, that visible and tangible sphere of man’s being, which he utterly despised. To some extent it could be got rid of, as at Alexandria, by allegorical interpretations, and by the impositions on the most prosaic text of mystic meanings, known only to the initiated, and handed down in secret “traditions of men.” But where these failed, Gnosticism had a more sweeping remedy. It was to ascribe the whole system literally to the “disposition of angels,” to attribute all that was carnal in Judaism to the inferior Demiurgus, perhaps imperfectly ministering the will of the Supreme God, perhaps becoming himself the God of the Jewish nation and of the Old Testament; in either case, giving a dispensation fit only in itself for the lower psychical life, needing to be sublimed by the spiritual into a hidden wisdom, “a secret treasure of wisdom and knowledge.” Hereafter, when the Demiurgus came to be considered as antagonistic to the spiritual will of the Supreme God, this conception (as in the hands, for example, of Marcion) developed into an absolute hatred of Judaism, as a system entirely carnal, idolatrous, antagonistic to spiritual truth, and to the gospel so far as it was spiritual. But for this, in the first century, the time was not come. As yet, the growing power of Gnosticism treated Judaism as an ally, though perhaps in some degree a subject ally, in the victorious advance of its daring speculation.
Now, it has been shown, as with remarkable clearness by Dr. Lightfoot (in his Introduction to the Colossian Epistle, § 2), that some such alliance is actually trace-able in the strange Jewish brotherhood of the Essenes—marked as it was (by consent of all authorities) by a rigid asceticism, “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats;” by a denial of the resurrection of the body, as being a mere hindrance to the spiritual condition of the hereafter; by an abstinence from all sacrifices, as involving pollution, and perhaps as mere carnal ordinances; by mystic speculations as to the nature of the Godhead, and “the names of the angels,” and by occasional claim of supernatural powers of magic; by the jealous preservation of secret traditions, and by a careful separation of the initiated from the mass of their fellow-Israelites.
The chosen home of the Essenes, of whom we have detailed accounts, was in Palestine, on the borders of the Dead Sea. But it is hardly likely that so remarkable a movement should have confined itself to any single locality. Certainly in Alexandria, in the tenets of the sect of the Therapeutce, and in the teaching of Alexandrian Judaism, there was much of essential similarity to the Essenic system. Now, in close connection with our Epistle we notice the presence in Asia Minor of disciples of St. John Baptist, adhering, indeed, to “the way of the Lord,” but knowing nothing of the “baptism of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-7). These would come naturally from Palestine, perhaps from. “the wilderness of Judæa,” where John had baptised, near the chosen home of Essenism. We find, moreover, that a great Alexandrian teacher (Apollos), also “knowing only the baptism of John,” had come down in the early part of the gospel to teach with singular power at Ephesus. That St. John himself, though probably quite erroneously, has been claimed as an Essene is well known. But in any case his ascetic and salutary life, his stern denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, his very baptism of repentance, his declaration of the nullity of mere sonship of Abraham, would certainly be congenial to the Essene mind. Josephus’ celebrated picture of his Essene teacher (quoted by Dr. Lightfoot, p. 161), reminds us, again and again, though with difference, of St. John Baptist himself. Certainly his disciples, when they had lost their master, clinging to his name in spite of his own warning of the transitoriness of his mission, might easily find in the Essenic system the rallying point which they needed, in order to preserve their distinctive character. Nor can we well forget the “vagabond Jews, exorcists,” seeking to cast out evil spirits by the mere charm of a sacred Name of One in whom they did not believe, but a Name which they, like Simon Magus, in Samaria, recognised as having in it a supernatural power of miracle; and the mystic “books” of “curious arts “burnt publicly at Ephesus. The Essenic ideas might easily spread beyond the limits of the strict Essenic brotherhood. If once planted in the prolific soil of Asia Minor, they could hardly fail to attain a rapid development.
Now, it is certainly with a form of Judæo-Gnosticism that St. Paul has to deal in his Colossian Epistle, and one, moreover, which bears some marked similarities to the Essenic type of thought. On the one hand, he denounces the enforcement of the Jewish festivals (Colossians 2:16), and probably of the rite of circumcision (Colossians 2:11): on the other, he warns against the “traditions of men” (Colossians 2:8), containing “a philosophy and vain deceit, ”, and alludes significantly to “the treasure, the hidden treasure of wisdom and knowledge.” He describes, again, a “worship of angels,” and an “intrusion into the things not seen,” at least by the ordinary eye (Colossians 2:18, where see Note); and a rigid asceticism going beyond Pharisaic observance of the Law, and crying out at every point, “Touch not, taste not, handle not” (Colossians 2:21). Indirectly, but very emphatically, he protests against exclusive pretensions, and would present “every man as perfect before Christ” (Colossians 1:22; Colossians 1:28). All these features belong unequivocally to Gnosticism, but to Gnosticism in its early stages, while still allied to Judaism, before it had attained to the independent luxuriance of later days. Nothing, for instance, is more striking than the reference to angelic natures, “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers,” as intervening between man and God, and the want of any vestige of allusion to the Æons of the later Gnosticism, even such as may perhaps be traced in the “oppositions” and “genealogies” of the Pastoral Epistles (1Timothy 1:4; 1Timothy 6:20; Titus 3:9). St. Paul uses the word Æon again and again (see Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 2:7; Ephesians 3:9; Ephesians 3:11; Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 4:20; Colossians 1:26), but always in its proper sense of “age,” without a shadow of the strange half-personification of the later Gnostic use. Throughout there is a distinct appropriateness to the time of the imprisonment at Rome, and just that union of similarity and dissimilarity to the later growths of Gnosticism which might be expected at this early date.
(4) But still more important and interesting is the question of the relation of Gnosticism to Christianity indicated by the Colossian Epistle. In the full-grown development of Gnosticism there were evidently two phases of this relation. In some cases the Gnostic theory, as a whole, stands out independent of Christianity, simply weaving some ideas derived from the gospel into the complexity of its comprehensive system. Such seems to have been, for example, the attitude towards Christianity of Basilides and Valentinus. In other cases, of which Marcion may be taken as a type, it identified itself in the main with Christianity, striving to mould it by free handling to its own purpose, and appealed to the Christian Scriptures, expurgated and falsified in its own peculiar sense. Moreover, in the same advanced stages Christianity was clearly distinguished by it from Judaism;” the Christ “was independent of the Demiurgus, the supposed author of the Jewish dispensation, and stood in far closer union with the Supreme Deity. Sometimes, as again notably in the system of Marcion, Christianity was characterised in a series of antitheses, as opposed to Judaism, and the salvation of the Christ was represented as a deliverance from the power of the God of the Jew. But a glance at the Epistle to the Colossians will show that of these things there is as yet no trace. Christianity had already broken through the narrow limits of Jewish legalism; the struggle marked in the Galatian and Roman Epistles had terminated in the complete victory of the freedom of the gospel. But, just as the Epistle to the Hebrews shows that there was still need to assert the transitoriness of the Jewish Ritual, Priesthood, and Sacrifice, so in this Epistle we observe that Jewish mysticism still claimed some dominion over the infant Church. Not till the hand of Providence had cut the knot of entanglement by the fall of Jerusalem, and the various manifestations of the bitter hostility of the Jews towards Christianity, was the dissociation complete.
In the eyes of Gnostic speculation of the East, Christianity probably as yet showed itself only as a sublimated and spiritualised Judaism, still presenting all the features which had excited sympathy, and simply crowning the hierarchy of angels by the manifestation of Him, who was emphatically “the Angel of the Lord;” while, on the other hand, it eliminated the narrowness of legalism, the carnality of ritual, and the close connection of the divine kingdom with common-place political and social life, which in Judaism had been an offence. Hence, in the phase already described at Colossæ, without throwing off its connection with Judaism, Gnosticism eagerly sought to lay hold of the new religion, to accept it in all its simplicity for the vulgar, and to mysticise it for the perfect into a higher knowledge. The error which vexed the Church at Colossæ appears still to approach it from without, much as the earlier Judaism had approached the Churches of Antioch or Galatia. Perhaps St. Paul’s foreboding words at Miletus had been justified by the rise “among their own selves of men speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them;” but the body of the Church seems still untouched, and is bidden to beware lest any man should “spoil” them, “judge” them, or “beguile them of their reward,” by drawing them to this new phase of error.
It has been remarked by Neander that Cerinthus, born at Alexandria, and certainly in the days of St. John at Ephesus a propagator of his doctrine in the Churches of Asia Minor, is the Gnostic, whose system is a link between Judaism and Gnosticism proper. Certainly what can be traced as to his speculations on the function of the Angels, or of one Supreme Angel, in the Creation of the world and in the giving of the Mosaic laws, agrees well enough with the indications of the Colossian heresy. But of the distinctive points of his treatment of Christ—namely, his conception that the Demiurgus was ignorant of the will of the Supreme Deity, which was revealed by the Christ; his distinction between the man Jesus of Nazareth, and “the Christ,” descending upon Him in the form of the dove at His baptism, and leaving Him before the Passion—we find no trace in the Colossian Epistle. The direct warnings of St. Paul refer only to the errors of the Judæo-Gnosticism. It is rather by the declaration of the positive truth of the true Godhead of the Lord Jesus Christ, His creative function, His infinite exaltation above all principality and power, and above all, the weighty declaration that in Him “all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily,” that, as in a prophetic jealousy, he guards against the developments of Gnostic heresy in the future. We trace here a distinction from the more direct warnings even of the Pastoral Epistles— against the teaching in the Church of “other doctrines,” of “fables and endless genealogies” of Gnostic emanation; the explaining away of the future resurrection; the “seducing spirits and doctrines of demons”—i.e., of beings intermediate between God and man; which were united with the asceticism “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats”; “the questions and strifes of words,” and the “oppositions “(Gnostic antitheses) “of knowledge falsely so called”; the apostasy “of all which are in Asia,” and the heresy “eating like a canker “into the very heart of the Church, which will no longer “endure sound doctrine.” (1Timothy 1:3-4; 1Timothy 4:1-3; 1Timothy 6:4; 1Timothy 6:20; 2Timothy 2:17; 2Timothy 4:3). There is a still more marked distinction from the explicit warnings of St. John, protesting emphatically against the distinctive assertion of Gnostic heresy, that “Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh,” and dwelling on the Incarnation of “the Word of Life,” the Son, “to have whom is to have the Father,” in those weighty declarations, every word of which seems charged with reference to Gnostic error. Everything shows that the heresy noted at Colossæ belongs to an earlier stage than even the Gnosticism of Cerinthus. In contemplating it, we see the last expiring struggle of Judaism, and can just trace, inextricably entwined with it, the yet deadlier error, which was here-after to separate from it, and even to trample on it, and to advance over its dead body to the attack on the living energy of Christianity.
These considerations may suffice to mark with tolerable clearness the relation of the Epistle to Gnosticism. They certainly appear to show how entirely erroneous and inconsistent with the facts of the case is the idea, so confidently advanced, that the Epistle indicates a knowledge of full-grown Gnosticism fatal to its Apostolic origin. But they have far greater value, as enabling us better to understand its deeply interesting picture of the development, alike of Christian truth, and of the heresy, destined hereafter to assail or undermine it, in the closing years of the ministry of St. Paul
EXCURSUS B: THE APOCRYPHAL EPISTLE TO THE LAODICEANS.
The translation of this Epistle here given is taken from the Latin (in which alone it is found), quoted by Dr. Lightfoot in the Appendix to his edition of the Epistle to the Colossians, with a conjectural rendering back into the Greek (which he thinks may have been the original) and two old English versions of the fifteenth century. He also gives a full description of the various Latin MSS., from which it appears that the earliest (the Codex Fuldensis) is a Vulgate New Testament of A.D. 546, in which the Epistle occurs between the Epistle to the Colossians and the First Epistle to Timothy. A glance at it will show that it is little more than a tame compilation of phrases, which, however, are taken not from the Ephesians or Colossians, but mostly from the Philippians, and that it has no bias or evidence of distinctive purpose whether for good or for evil. It certainly is not the Epistle spoken of in the Muratorian Fragment, as “in Marcionis heresim conficta.” Its very simplicity induces a charitable hope that originally it may have been only “a pious imagination,” made without idea of forgery, which subsequently was accepted as claiming to be a genuine Epistle of St. Paul.
It runs thus:—
“Paul an Apostle, not of men, nor through man, but through Jesus Christ, to the brethren who are in Laodicea; grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I thank Christ in all my supplications that ye are abiding in Him, and continuing steadfast in His works, waiting for the promise even unto the Day of Judgment. Neither let the vain words of some who teach beguile you, that they should turn you away from the truth of the gospel, which was preached unto you by me. And now shall God bring it to pass that they which are from me be serving to the furtherance of the truth of the gospel, and doing all goodness in the works of salvation (and) of eternal life.
“And now my bonds which I suffer in Christ are manifest; in which I am glad and rejoice; and this shall turn to my everlasting salvation, which also itself is wrought by your prayers, and the supply of the Holy Ghost, whether it be by life or by death. For to me both to live in Christ and to die is joy; and His mercy shall work out the same thing in you, that ye may have the same love, and be of one mind.
“Therefore, my dearly beloved, as ye heard in my presence with you, so hold fast and work in the fear of God, and it shall be to you unto everlasting life. For it is God which worketh in you. And do without drawing back, whatsoever ye do.
“Finally, my dearly beloved, rejoice in Christ, and beware of those who are greedy of filthy lucre. Let all your petitions be made known unto God, and be steadfast in the mind of Christ. Whatsoever things are sound, and true, and pure, and righteous, and lovely, do; and what ye have heard and received keep in your heart. And peace shall be with you.
“The saints salute you. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit, Cause this Epistle to be read to the Colossians, and that the Letter of the Colossians be read also to you.”
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother,(1) Timotheus our brother.—Except in the mention of Timotheus (as in the other Epistles of the captivity; see Philippians 1:1; Philemon 1:1), the salutation is almost verbally coincident with the opening of the Epistle to the Ephesians (where see Note). The mention of Timotheus here, and the omission of his name there, mark the difference in character between the two Epistles. In a special Epistle like this Timotheus would be joined with St. Paul as usual. In a general Epistle to the churches of Asia, the Apostle alone could rightly speak.
To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.(2) From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.—The best MSS. show here, that the salutation should run simply “from God the Father,” thus varying from St. Paul’s otherwise universal phraseology. Such variation can hardly be accidental. Could it have been suggested to St. Paul’s mind, in connection with his special desire to emphasize the true Godhead of Christ, so obvious in this Epistle, by an instinctive reluctance to use in this case any phrase, however customary with him, which might even seem to distinguish His nature from the Godhead? It is certainly notable that in the true reading of Colossians 2:2 Christ is called “the mystery of God, even the Father”—an unique and remarkable expression, which marks a preparation for the full understanding of the teaching of our Lord, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).
We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you,(3-8) In this expression of St. Paul’s thanksgiving for them there is as usual a peculiar correspondence to their circumstances. They had been full of faith, love, and hope, the fruit of a true gospel preached by Epaphras; there was fear now lest they should be beguiled from it, although that fear was obviously not yet realised, as had been formerly the case with the Galatians. Hence St. Paul’s emphasis on their hearing, knowing, and learning the truth, and on the faithfulness of Epaphras as a minister of Christ.
(3, 4) Comp. Ephesians 1:15-16, where there is an almost exact verbal coincidence. Whatever may be the force there of the words “having heard of your faith,” clearly here they harmonise with many indications that the Colossian Church, though well known to St. Paul, was not known by personal knowledge.
For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel;(5) For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven.—The union of hope with faith and love is natural enough. Compare the fuller expression of 1Thessalonians 1:3, “your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope.” But the place assigned to hope in this passage is notable. “For the hope” is really “on account of the hope.” Hence faith and love are spoken of, not merely as leading up to hope, but as being actually kindled by it. Similarly in Ephesians 1:18 we find that, while faith and love are taken for granted, there is a special prayer that they may be enlightened “to know the hope of His calling” as the one thing yet needful. The prominence given to the thought of “the heavenly places” in the Epistles of the captivity, and therefore to Christ in heaven, even more than to Christ risen, is evident to any careful student. Accordingly, the hope, which is the instinct of perfection in man, and which becomes realisation of heaven in the Christian, naturally comes out with corresponding emphasis.
Ye heard before.—That is, at their first conversion. There is an implied warning against the new doctrines, which are more fully noticed in the next chapter.
The truth of the gospel.—This expression (as in Galatians 2:14) is emphatic. It refers to the gospel, not chiefly as a message of graciousness and mercy, but rather as a revelation of eternal truths, itself changeless as the truth it reveals. There is a corresponding emphasis, but stronger still, in St. John. (See, for example, 1John 2:27; 1John 5:20; 2John 1:1-4; 3John 1:2-3.) The gospel was now winning its way to supremacy over civilised thought. Hence the need of warning against the sudden growth of wild speculations, contrasted with the unchanging simplicity of its main truths.
Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth:(6) Which is come unto you . . .—There is much variety of reading here, but the text followed by our version is certainly incorrect. The probable reading is, which is come unto you, just as in all the world it is now bringing forth fruit and growing, as also it does in you. In this sentence there are two lessons implied. First, the universality of the gospel, in which it stands contrasted, as with all local and national religions, whether of Judaism or of Paganism, so also with the secret doctrines of Gnostic speculation, intelligible only to the initiated few. Next, the test of its reality both by practical fruit of action, and by the spiritual growth connected therewith. In relation to the former, “faith without works” is “dead”; in relation to the other it is “imperfect,” needing to be developed into maturity (James 2:20; James 2:22). Both these lessons were evidently needed, in consequence of the appearance at Colossæ of the occult mysticism and the unpractical speculation noted in Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:10; Colossians 2:18. But the Church itself was still faithful. Hence the last words, “as also it does in you,” turning back again to Colossæ in particular, are an insertion of kindly courtesy—one of the insertions of apparent afterthought not unfrequent in St. Paul’s Epistles—intended to show that the implied warning is by no means a condemnation.
As ye also learned of Epaphras our dear fellowservant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ;(7) Ye also learned of Epaphras.—Of Epaphras we know nothing, except what we gather from this passage, and from Colossians 4:12; Philemon 1:23. The name is a shortened form of Epaphroditus, but it is most unlikely that he is the same as the Epaphroditus of Philippians 2:25; Philippians 4:18. Being, it seems, a native of Colossæ itself, he was apparently its first evangelist, and is afterwards described as feeling some responsibility for it and its neighbouring cities, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13). His work could not have been transient, for under him the Colossians are said not only to have “heard,” but also to have “known” (come to know perfectly) “the grace of God.” St. Paul here gives emphatic testimony to his faithfulness, and to his preaching to them “in truth.” That he was, then or afterwards. Bishop of Colossæ is probably a mere guess of tradition. But he may have had some such charge as that which was afterwards more formally committed to Timothy at Ephesus, and Titus in Crete. At this time, however, he remained with St. Paul (Colossians 4:12-13), and apparently shared his captivity, for he is called (in Philemon 1:23) his “fellow-prisoner.”
Who is for you a faithful minister of Christ.—(1) “For you” is, properly, on your behalf. This has been supposed to mean that Epaphras, like his Philippian namesake, had been a representative of the Colossian Church, in ministry to the Apostle; but this is hardly compatible with the entire absence of any personal reference in the sentence. Contrast Philemon 1:13, “that on thy behalf he might minister to me.” If this reading, therefore, is to stand, “on your behalf” must be taken to signify generally “for your benefit,” which is doubtless the meaning of our version. (2) But there is considerable, perhaps preponderating, MS. authority for the reading “on our behalf,” that is, in our stead. This makes Epaphras a representative, perhaps an actual messenger, of St. Paul, for the conversion of the church at Colossæ; sent probably at the time when the Apostle had his head-quarters at Ephesus, and when “all that dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:10). This interpretation not only gives greater force to this passage, but explains also the attitude of authority here assumed by St. Paul toward a church which he had not seen, differing so markedly from the tone of his Epistle to the Romans in a like case.
Who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit.(8) Who also declared unto us.—This refers to news recently brought by Epaphras to St. Paul at Rome. He had been a minister in St. Paul’s stead; he now, like Timothy afterwards, visited him to give account of his deputed work.
Your love in the Spirit.—“In the Spirit” is “in the grace of the Holy Ghost”—the Spirit of love. The love here would seem to be especially love towards St. Paul, a part of the “love towards all the saints” ascribed to them above (Colossians 1:4).
For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;(9-12) From thanksgiving St. Paul passes, as always, to pray for them. The prayer is for their full and perfect knowledge of God’s will; but this is emphatically connected with practical “walking” in that will, first by fruitfulness in good work, next by showing themselves strong in Christ to endure sufferings, lastly by thankful acceptance of God’s call to inheritance among the saints in light. There is a hearty recognition of the blessing of knowledge (on which the incipient Gnosticism of the day was so eloquent); but it is to be tried by the three tests of practical goodness, patience, and thankful humility.
(9) Do not cease to pray for you.—Comp. Ephesians 1:16. “To pray” (see Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6) is the general word for “to worship”; “to desire” indicates prayer, properly so called, asking from God what is requisite and necessary for ourselves or for others.
The knowledge of his will.—The “knowledge” here spoken of is the “full knowledge,” to be attained in measure here, to be made perfect in heaven. See 1Corinthians 13:12, “Now I know in part; but then shall I know (perfectly) even as I am known.” On this word, especially frequent in the Epistles of the captivity, see Note on Ephesians 1:17. It should be noted that the knowledge here prayed for is “the knowledge of God’s will”—not speculation as to the nature of God, or as to emanations from Deity, or even as to the reasons of God’s mysterious counsels, but knowledge of what actually is His will, both in the dispensation which is to be accepted in faith, and in the commandments to be obeyed in love. So St. Paul (in 1Timothy 1:4-5) contrasts with the “fables and endless genealogies” of Gnostic speculation, “the end of the commandment,” “charity out of a pure heart and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned.”
In all wisdom and spiritual understanding.—This “knowledge of God’s will” is man’s “wisdom.” For “wisdom” is the knowledge of the true end of life; which is (as the Book of Ecclesiastes so tragically shows) vainly sought, if contemplated apart from God’s will, but found (see Ecclesiastes 12:13; Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7) in the “fear of the Lord” and the “keeping of His commandments.” (On the relation of the supreme gift of wisdom to lesser cognate gifts, see Note on Ephesians 1:8.) “Understanding” here is properly the faculty of spiritual insight or judgment, the speculative exercise of wisdom, as the “prudence” of Ephesians 1:8 is the practical. Hence St. Paul subjoins the practical element at once in the next verse.
That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;(10) Walk worthy (worthily) of the Lord. Here St. Paul begins to dwell on the practical life, much in the same spirit in which, in Ephesians 4:1, he returns from the profound thought of Colossians 2, 3 to the entreaty “to walk worthy of the vocation with which they are called.” “The Lord” is here, as usual, the Lord Jesus Christ; to walk worthy of Him is to have His life reproduced in us, to follow His example, to have “the mind of Christ Jesus.” The “worthiness” is, of course, relative to our capacity, not absolute.
All pleasing.—The word here used is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but is employed in classic and Hellenistic Greek to mean “a general disposition to please”—a constant preference of the will of others before our own. It is here used with tacit reference to God, since towards Him alone can it be a safe guide of action. Otherwise it must have the bad sense which in general usage was attached to it. St. Paul emphatically disowns and condemns the temper of “men-pleasing” (see Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:22; 1Thessalonians 2:4), as incompatible with being “the servant of Christ.” He could, indeed, “be all things to all men” (1Corinthians 9:22); he could bid each man “please his neighbour for his edification” (Romans 15:12). But the only “pleasing” to which the whole life can be conformed is (see 1Thessalonians 4:1) the consideration “how we ought to walk and to please God.” Only in subordination to this can we safely act on the desire of “all pleasing” towards men.
Increasing in (or, by) the knowledge of God.—The context evidently shows that the path towards the knowledge of God here indicated is not the path of thoughtful speculation, or of meditative devotion, but the third path co-ordinate with these—the path of earnest practice, of which the watchword is, “Do and thou shalt know.”
Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness;(11) His glorious power.—Properly, the strength of His glory, His glory being His manifestation of Himself in love to man. (Comp. Ephesians 3:16, “According to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His spirit in the inner man.”) On this use of “the glory” of God, frequent in these Epistles, see Ephesians 1:6; Ephesians 1:12; Ephesians 1:14, and Notes there. The prayer, however, in the Ephesian Epistle looks to “knowledge of the love of Christ” as its object; the prayer here to power of endurance of trial and suffering.
Patience and longsuffering with joyfulness.—(1) “Patience” is here “endurance,” rather than what we usually call patience. It is spoken of by St. James (James 1:3) as the result of the bracing effect of trial, and is illustrated by the typical example of Job (James 5:11). Now a glance at the Book of Job will show that, while in respect of physical trial he is resignation itself (Job 1:21; Job 2:10), yet that under the spiritual trial, which is the great subject of the book, he is the reverse of what is commonly called patient. He endures and conquers, but it is not without vehement passion and spiritual struggles, occasionally verging on a repining and rebellion, of which he bitterly repents (Job 41:6). (2) To this “patience,” therefore, here as elsewhere (2Timothy 3:10), St. Paul adds “longsuffering”—a word generally connected (as in 1Corinthians 13:4) with the temper of gentleness and love, and coming much nearer to the description of our ordinary idea of a “patient” temper, which, in its calm sweetness and gentleness, hardly feels to the utmost such spiritual trials as vexed the righteous soul of Job. Of such longsuffering our Lord’s bearing of the insults of the Condemnation and the cruelties of the Passion, when “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,” is the perfect type. (3) Yet even then St. Paul is not content without “joyfulness,” in obedience to the command of our Master (Matthew 5:12), fulfilled in Himself on the cross (Hebrews 12:2). The ground of such joy, so often shown in Christian martyrdom, is given by St. Peter (1Peter 4:13), “Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” Of that joy St. Paul himself was a bright example in his present captivity. (See Philippians 1:18-19; Philippians 2:17-18.) The words therefore form a climax. “Patience” struggles and endures; “long-suffering” endures without a struggle; “joyfulness” endures and glories in suffering.
Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:(12) Giving thanks unto the Father.—These words naturally follow the words “with joyfulness,” with which, indeed, they may be grammatically connected. But the “thankfulness” here is, as the context shows, the thankfulness of humility, sensible that from the Father’s love we have received all, and can but receive.
Which hath made us meet.—The same word is used in 2Corinthians 3:6, “who hath made us able ministers of the new covenant,” and corresponds to the word “sufficient” in St. Paul’s previous question (2Corinthians 2:16), “Who is sufficient for these things?” The reference is clearly to God’s foreknowledge and call (as in Romans 8:29-30), in virtue of which “we are more than conquerors,” and “cannot be separated from His love in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
To be partakers of the inheritance of the saints.—Literally, for the part (appointed to us) of the lot of the saints. (Comp. Ephesians 1:11, where, however, the sense is slightly different). The “lot” (like the Old Testament type of the share in the land of Canaan,” the lot of their inheritance”) is the place assigned to the saints primarily by the grace of God. It may have, as in the case of the type, to be fought for; but it is won not by our own arm, but by “God’s hand and His arm, and the light of His countenance, because He has a favour unto us” (Psalm 44:3). Hence, in accordance with St. Paul’s usual teaching (especially emphatic in this and the Ephesian Epistle), the whole stress is laid on God’s grace, giving us our lot, and “making us meet” to accept it.
In light.—Properly, in the light. See Ephesians 4:8-14—a passage dwelling on the idea of the kingdom of light, almost as strongly and exhaustively as St. John himself (1John 1:5-7, et al.). “In the light” (opposed to “the power of darkness” of the next verse) is in the light of God’s countenance, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.
Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:[2.The Doctrine of Christ.
(1) His SALVATION AND REDEMPTION of us all (Colossians 1:13-14).
(2) His NATURE AS THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD, the creator and sustainer of all things heavenly and earthly (Colossians 1:15-17).
(3) His HEADSHIP OF THE CHURCH (Colossians 1:18).
(4) His MEDIATION, reconciling all to God, first generally stated, then applied especially to the Colossians (Colossians 1:19-23).]
(13-23) In this we have the great characteristic section of this Epistle, distinguished from corresponding parts of the Epistle to the Ephesians by the explicit and emphatic stress laid upon the divine majesty of Christ. It corresponds very closely with the remarkable passage opening the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the Epistles of the preceding group, to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, chief and almost exclusive prominence is given to the universal mediation of Christ, as justifying and sanctifying all the souls of men. In these Epistles (this truth being accepted) we pass on to that which such universal mediation necessitates—the conception of Christ as the Head of all created being, and as the perfect manifestation of the Godhead. The former is the key-note of the Ephesian Epistle; the latter is dominant here, although the former remains as an undertone; as also in the great passage of the Epistle to the Philippians (Colossians 2:6-11), speaking of Him as “in the form of God,” and having “the Name which is above every name.” The especial reason for St. Paul’s emphatic assertion of the great truth here we see in the next chapter. But it is clear that it comes naturally in the order of revelation, leading up to the full doctrine of, “the Word” in St. John. As the spiritual meaning of the Resurrection, the great subject of the first preaching, had to be sought in the Atonement, so the inquiry into the possibility of an universal Atonement led back to the Incarnation, and to Christ as pre-existent from “the beginning” in God.
(13, 14) We enter on this great passage, as is natural, and accordant with St. Paul’s universal practice, through that living and practical truth of our redemption in Christ Jesus, which in the earlier Epistles he had taught as the one thing needful (1Corinthians 2:2).
(13) Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness.—“Delivered” is “rescued,” properly applied to dragging a person out of battle or the jaws of danger. “The power of darkness” (see Luke 22:53) is, of course, the power of evil, permitted (see Luke 4:6) to exist, but in itself a usurped tyranny (as Chrysostom expresses it), not a true “kingdom. Salvation is, first of all, rescue from the guilt and bondage of sin, to which man has given occasion by his own choice, but which, once admitted, he cannot himself break. It is here described in its first origination from the love of the Father. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.”
And hath translated us . . .—The word “translated” is a word properly applied to the transplanting of races, and the settlement of them in a new home. Salvation, begun by rescue, is completed by the settlement of the rescued captives in the new kingdom of Christ. The two acts, indeed, are distinct, but inseparable. Thus baptism is at once “for the remission of sins” and an “entrance into the kingdom of God.”
His dear Son.—The original is far more striking and beautiful. It is, “The Son of His love,” corresponding to “the beloved” of the parallel passage in the Ephesian Epistle (Colossians 1:6), but perhaps going beyond it. God is love; the Son of God is, therefore, the “Son of His love,” partaking of and manifesting this His essential attribute.
In whom we have . . .—This verse corresponds verbally with Ephesians 1:7, where see Note. From the love of the Father, the first cause of salvation, we pass to the efficient cause in the redemption and propitiation of the Son.
Colossians 1:15-17 pass from Christ as our Mediator to Christ as He is in Himself from all eternity, “the image of the invisible God,” and as He is from the beginning of time, the creator and sustainer of all things in heaven and earth. What was before implied is now explicitly asserted; what was before emphatic ally asserted is now taken for granted, and made the stepping-stone to yet higher and more mysterious truth.
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:(15) The image of the invisible God.—This all important clause needs the most careful examination. We note accordingly (1) that the word “image” (like the word “form,” Philippians 2:6-7) is used in the New Testament for real and essential embodiment, as distinguished from mere likeness. Thus in Hebrews 10:1 we read, “The law, having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things;” we note also in Romans 1:23 the distinction between the mere outward “likeness” and the “image” which it represented; we find in 1Corinthians 15:49 that the “image of the earthy” and “the image of the heavenly” Adam denote actual identity of nature with both; and in 2Corinthians 3:18 the actual work of the Spirit in the heart is described as “changing us from glory to glory” into “the image” of the glorified Christ. (2) Next we observe that although, speaking popularly, St. Paul in 1Corinthians 11:7 calls man “the image and glory of God,” yet the allusion is to Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28, where man is said, with stricter accuracy, to be made “after the image of God” (as in Ephesians 4:24, “created after God”), and this more accurate expression is used in Colossians 3:10 of this Epistle, “renewed after the image of Him that created him.” Who then, or what, is the “image of God,” after which man is created? St. Paul here emphatically (as in 2Corinthians 4:4 parenthetically) answers “Christ,” as the Son of God, “first-born before all creation.” The same truth is conveyed in a different form, clearer (if possible) even than this, in Hebrews 1:3, where “the Son” is said to be not only “the brightness of the glory of the Father,” but “the express image of His Person.” For the word “express image” is character in the original, used here (as when we speak of the alphabetical “characters”) to signify the visible drawn image, and the word “Person” is substance or essence. (3) It is not to be forgotten that at this time in the Platonising Judaism of Philo, “the Word” was called the eternal “image of God.” (See passages quoted in Dr. Light-foot’s note on this passage.) This expression was not peculiar to him; it was but a working out of that personification of the “wisdom of God,” of which we have a magnificent example in Proverbs 8:22-30, and of which we trace the effect in the Alexandrine Book of “Wisdom” (Wisdom Of Solomon 7:25-26). “Wisdom is the breath of the power of God, and a pure stream from the glory of the Most High—the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of His goodness.” It seems to have represented in the Jewish schools the idea complementary to the ordinary idea of the Messiah in the Jewish world. Just as St. John took up the vague idea of “the Word,” and gave it a clear divine personality in Christ, so St. Paul seems to act here in relation to the other phrase, used as a description of the Word. In Christ he fixes in solid reality the floating vision of the “image of God.” (4) There is an emphasis on the words “of the invisible God.” Now, since the whole context shows that the reference is to the eternal pre-existence of Christ, ancient interpreters (of whom Chrysostom may be taken as the type) argued that the image of the invisible must be also invisible. But this seems opposed to the whole idea of the word “image,” and to its use in the New Testament and elsewhere. The true key to this passage is in our Lord’s own words in John 1:8, “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son” (here is the remarkable reading, “the only begotten God”), “who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath revealed Him.” In anticipation of the future revelation of Godhead, Christ, even as pre-existent, is called “The image of the invisible God.”
The firstborn of every creature (of all creation).—(1) As to the sense of this clause. The grammatical construction here will bear either the rendering of our version, or the rendering “begotten before all creation,” whence comes the “begotten before all worlds “of the Nicene creed. But the whole context shows that the latter is unquestionably the true rendering. For, as has been remarked from ancient times, He is said to be “begotten” and not “created;” next, he is emphatically spoken of below as He “by whom all things were created,” who is “before all things,” and in whom all things consist.” (2) As to the order of idea. In Himself He is “the image of God” from all eternity. From this essential conception, by a natural contrast, the thought immediately passes on to distinction from, and priority to, all created being. Exactly in this same order of idea, we have in Hebrews 1:2-3, “By whom also He made the worlds . . . upholding all things by the word of His power;” and in John 1:3, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made which was made. Here St. Paul indicates this idea in the words “firstborn before all creation,” and works it out in the verses following. (3) As to the name “firstborn” itself. It is used of the Messiah as an almost technical name (derived from Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:28), as is shown in Hebrews 1:6, “when He bringeth the first begotten into the world.” In tracing the Messianic line of promise we notice that; while the Messiah is always true man, “the seed of Abraham,” “the son of David,” yet on him are accumulated attributes too high for any created being (as in Isaiah 9:6). He is declared to be an “Emmanuel” God with us; and His kingdom a visible manifestation of God. Hence the idea contained in the word “firstborn” is not only sovereignty “above all the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:28; comp. Daniel 8:13-14), but also likeness to God and priority to all created being. (4) As to the union of the two clauses. In the first we have the declaration of His eternal unity with God—all that was completely embodied in the declaration of the “Word who is God,” up to which all the higher Jewish speculations had led; in the second we trace the distinctness of His Person, as the “begotten of the Father,” the true Messiah of Jewish hopes, and the subordination of the co-eternal Son to the Father. The union of the two marks the assertion of Christian mystery, as against rationalising systems, of the type of Arianism on one side, of Sabellianism on the other.
For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:(16) For by him . . . all things were created by (through) him, and for (to) him.—Carrying out the idea of the preceding clause with accumulated emphasis, St. Paul speaks of all creation as having taken place “by Him,” “through Him,” and “for Him.” Now we note that in Romans 11:36, St. Paul, in a burst of adoration, declares of the Father that “from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things;” and in Hebrews 2:10 the Father is spoken of as One “by whom are all things, and for whom are all things” (the word “for whom” being different from the word so rendered here, but virtually equivalent to it). Hence we observe that the Apostle here takes up a phrase belonging only to Godhead and usually applied to the Father, and distinctly applies it to Christ, but with the significant change of “from whom” into “in whom.” The usual language of holy Scripture as to the Father is “from whom,” and as to the Son “through whom,” are all things. Thus we have in Hebrews 1:2, “through whom He made the world;” and in John 1:3-10, “All things were made”—“the world was made”—“through Him.” Here, however, St. Paul twice adds “in whom,” just as he had used “in whom” of God in his sermon at Athens (Acts 17:28), probably conveying the idea, foreshadowed in the Old Testament description of the divine “Wisdom,” that in His divine mind lay the germ of the creative design and work. and indirectly condemning by anticipation the fancy of incipient Gnosticism, that He was but an inferior emanation or agent of the Supreme God.
In heaven and . . . earth . . .—Here again there is a reiteration of earnest emphasis. “All things in heaven and earth” is the ancient phrase for all creation. Then, lest this phrase should be restricted to the sublunary sphere, he adds, “visible and invisible.” Lastly, in accordance with the general tone of these Epistles, and with special reference to the worship of angels introduced into Colossæ, he dwells, like the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, on the superiority of our Lord to all angelic natures, whether they be “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers.” (Comp. Ephesians 1:21; Philippians 2:9-10.)
Thrones, or dominions . . .—Compare the enumeration in Ephesians 1:21. The word peculiar to this passage is “thrones,” which in all the various speculations as to the hierarchy of heaven, naturally represents the first place of dignity and nearness to the Throne of God. (Comp. Revelation 4:4, “Round about the throne four-and-twenty thrones.”) But it seems difficult, if not impossible, to attach distinctive meanings to those titles, and trace out their order. If St. Paul alludes at all to the Rabbinical hierarchies, he (probably with deliberate intention) takes their titles without attending to their fanciful orders and meanings. Whatever they mean, if they mean anything, all are infinitely below the glory of Christ. (See Note on Ephesians 1:21.)
And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.(17) He is before all things.—The words “He is” are both emphatic. He, and He only, is; all else is created. It is impossible not to refer to the “I am” of Eternal existence, as claimed by our Lord for Himself. “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; comp. also John 1:15). Hence the word “before” should be taken, not of supreme dignity, but of pre-existence.
By him all things consist.—That is, hold together in unity, obeying the primæval law of their being. In this clause is attributed to our Lord, not only the creative act, but also the constant sustaining power, “in which all lives and moves and has its being,” and which, even less than the creative agency, can be supposed to be a derivative and finite power, such as that of the Demiurgus of Gnostic speculation.
And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.(18-20) In these verses St. Paul returns from dwelling on the eternal nature of the Son of God to describe Him in His mediatorial office as Son of Man, becoming the “Head” of all humanity, as called into “His Body, the Church.” In this he touches on a doctrine more fully developed in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (See Ephesians 1:10; Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 2:19; Ephesians 2:21; Ephesians 4:15-16.) But still, as has been already noted, there is in this Epistle more stress on the supreme dignity of the Head, as in the other more on the unity, and blessing, and glory of the Body. It should be observed that in this, His mediatorial office, there is throughout a mysterious analogy to His eternal sonship. In both He is “the Head,” first, of universal creation, next, of the new creation in His Church; He is “the beginning,” in the one case in eternity, in the other in time; He is “the firstborn,” now in Eternal Sonship, now in the Resurrection making Him the new life of mankind.
(18) He is the head.—“He” is again emphatic. “He who is the image of God, He also is the Head.” (On the title itself, see Ephesians 1:22.)
The beginning.—Chrysostom reads here a kindred word, the first-fruits. The reading is no doubt a gloss, but an instructive one. It shows that the reference is to Christ, as being in His humanity “the first principle” of the new life to us—the “first-fruits” from the dead (1Corinthians 15:20; 1Corinthians 15:23), and “the bringer of life and immortality to light” (2Timothy 1:10).
The firstborn from the dead.—The same title is given to Him in Revelation 1:5. In his sermon at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:33), St. Paul quotes the passage, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee,” as fulfilled in that “He raised up Jesus again.” (Comp. Hebrews 5:5.) In Romans 1:3, he speaks of Christ as “declared” (or, defined) “to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” The Resurrection is (so to speak) His second birth, the beginning of that exaltation, which is contrasted with His first birth on earth in great humility, and of His entrance on the glory of His mediatorial kingdom. (See Ephesians 1:20-23, where the starting-point of all His exaltation is again placed in the Resurrection.)
That in all things he might . . .—Literally, That in all things He might become pre-eminent. The words “He might become,” are opposed to the “He is” above. They refer to the exaltation of His humanity, so gloriously described in Philippians 2:9-11. Thus absolutely in His divine nature, relatively to the mediatorial kingdom in His humanity, He is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last” (Revelation 1:8; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:17-18).
For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;(19) For it pleased the Father.—(1) The construction is doubtful. There is nothing corresponding to “the Father” in the original. Our rendering involves the supply of the nominative God, i.e., “the Father,” or Christ to the verb, so that the sentence may run, the Father or Christ determined of His good pleasure that, &c. The supply of the nominative “Christ” is easier grammatically; but it accords ill with the invariable reference of all things, both by our Lord Himself and His Apostles, ultimately to the good pleasure of the Father. Moreover, the verb is so constantly used of God that the supply of the nominative “God,” though unexampled, is far from inadmissible. The simplest grammatical construction would, indeed, be to take “the fulness” as the nominative, and render for in Him all the fulness (of God) was pleased to dwell. But the personification of “the fulness,” common in Gnostic speculation, is hardly after the manner of St. Paul. Perhaps, on the whole, the rendering of our version (which is usually adopted) is to be preferred; especially as it suits better with the following verse. (2) The sense is, however, quite clear, and is enforced by Colossians 2:9, “In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” On the word “fulness” (pleroma), see Note on Ephesians 1:23. The “fulness of the Godhead” is the essential nature, comprising all the attributes, of Godhead. The indwelling of such Deity in the humanity of Christ is the ground of all His exaltation as the “Head,” “the beginning,” the “firstborn from the dead,” and the triumphant King, on which St. Paul had already dwelt. By it alone can He be the true Mediator between God and man.
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.(20) Having made peace through the blood of his cross.—On this verse, where St. Paul returns to the subject of the Atonement, with which he began, comp. Ephesians 2:13-18, and Notes there. In the Ephesian Epistle the treatment of the subject is fuller, and in one point more comprehensive, viz., in bringing out emphatically the unity of all, Jews and Gentiles alike, with one another, as well as their unity with Christ. But, on the other hand, this passage involves deeper and more mysterious teaching in this—that it includes in the reconciliation by the blood of Christ, not merely all humanity, but “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” This is, indeed, only a fuller exposition of the truth that “God was in Christ reconciling the world (the kosmos) to Himself” (2Corinthians 5:19); and that “the whole creation waiteth,” “in constant expectation,” “for the manifestation of the sons of God,” and “shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21). But it is couched in more distinct and striking terms, opening to us a glimpse of the infinite scope, not merely of our Lord’s Mediatorship, but of His Atonement, which, while it almost bewilders, yet satisfies the thoughtful understanding, and more than satisfies an adoring faith. As there seems to be a physical unity in the universe, if we may believe the guesses of science, so, says Holy Scripture, there is a moral and spiritual unity also in Jesus Christ.
Colossians 1:21-23 apply this truth of the Mediatorial work of the Lord Jesus Christ to the especial case of the Colossians. The subject here touched is more fully worked out in Ephesians 2:1-2; Ephesians 2:11-18; the alienation is there described as not only from God, but from His covenanted people; the reconciliation is with God and man in one great unity.
And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled(21) Alienated.—Not naturally aliens, but estranged. (See Note on Ephesians 2:12.)
By wicked works.—Properly, in your wicked works. The enmity of heart is not properly caused by wicked works, but shown in them, and probably intensified by reflex action through them.
In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:(22) In the body of his flesh.—There seems to be some emphasis on the word “flesh:” just as in the parallel of Ephesians 2:16, the expression is “in one body,” with a characteristic emphasis on the word “one,” suiting the genius of the passage. The meaning is, of course, His natural body, as distinguished from His mystic Body, spoken of above (Colossians 1:18). But this is no sufficient reason for the use of this phrase, for there could be no confusion between them in this passage. Hence, without ascribing to the word “flesh” a distinctly polemical intention, we may not unnaturally suppose that there was present to St. Paul’s mind the thought of the Gnosticism, which depreciated the body as evil, and which must have always inclined to the idea that “Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh” (1John 4:2-3); and that the presence of this thought induced some special emphasis in his language.
Holy and unblameable and unreproveable.—See Note on Ephesians 1:4. The word “to present” is used both in a sacrificial sense (as in Romans 12:1) and in the sense of introduction and presentation (as of a bride, see Ephesians 5:27). The words, “holy and unblameable,” i.e., “without blemish,” suit the former sense. But “unreproveable” is incongruous with it, and the parallel passage (Ephesians 2:18) speaks of “access” or introduction to the Father.
If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister;(23) If.—The word, as in Ephesians 3:2; Ephesians 4:21 (where see Notes), conveys a supposition hardly hypothetical—“If, as I presume;” “If, as I trust.” St. Paul cannot refrain from needful warning, but he refuses to anticipate failure.
Grounded.—Built on the foundation. Comp. Ephesians 2:20, “built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone.”
Settled.—The result of being so grounded. The word is used in the same sense, but without metaphorical association, in 1Corinthians 15:58, “stedfast, unmoveable,” as here “settled and not being moved.”
The hope.—See Note on Colossians 1:5. Here, as there, great emphasis is laid on “hope.” But here there may possibly be reference to some ideas (like those spoken of in 2Timothy 2:18) that “the resurrection was past already,” and that the hope of a true resurrection and a real heaven was either a delusion or a metaphor.
Every creature which is under heaven.—Comp. our Lord’s command, “Preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). In idea and capacity the gospel is literally universal; although in actual reality such universality can only be claimed by a natural hyperbole.
[3.The Mission of St. Paul.
As APOSTLE OF THE GENTILES, a minister of the newly revealed mystery of their salvation, testifying to all alike by suffering and by preaching, in order “to present all perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:24-29).]
Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church:(24-29) Here (as in Ephesians 3, in the same connection) St. Paul dwells on his own mission to set forth the universal gospel to the Gentiles. In the Ephesian Epistle this declaration is made a direct introduction to practical exhortation (comp. Col. 4, 5, 6); here it leads up to the earnest remonstrance against speculative errors in Colossians 2, which precedes a similar practical exhortation. In both cases he dwells on the committal to him of a special dispensation; in both he rejoices in suffering as a means of spiritual influence; in both cases he declares the one object to be the presentation of each man perfect before Christ.
(24) Who now rejoice.—In the true reading of the original there is no relative pronoun. The sentence starts with emphatic abruptness, “Now (at this moment) I rejoice” (just as in 2Corinthians 7:9). In all the three Epistles of the Captivity this same rejoicing is declared in himself and urged on his brethren. In Ephesians 3:13, “I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory;” in Philippians 2:11, “Yea, if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause do ye also joy, and rejoice with me.” There, as here, the rejoicing is in suffering, not in itself, not solely because it is borne with and for Christ, but also because it is for the sake of the Church. Here, however, this idea is expressed with far greater emphasis.
Fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ.—The sense of this passage is at first sight startling, but it could not have been thought difficult or doubtful, had not false inferences from it tempted men to shrink from the obvious meaning. Now, (1) the “afflictions of Christ” is a phrase not used elsewhere; for “affliction” (properly, hard and galling pressure) is the ordinary burden of life, and is generally spoken of only as coming on His servants. But, like the common phrase “the sufferings of Christ” (2Corinthians 1:5; Philippians 3:10; 1Peter 4:15; 1Peter 5:1), it must moan the afflictions which He endured. It is true, as has been thoughtfully suggested (see Chrysostom and others on the passage) that we are to count as His the afflictions of His Church; but still, even if we are to include these indirect afflictions, we cannot possibly exclude the direct. Next, (2) St. Paul expressly says (in the full force of the original) that “he fills up instead” of his Master, what is still left unfinished of his Master’s afflictions. (See the passages quoted by Dr. Lightfoot in his note on this verse.) He declares, i.e., that, succeeding to the suffering of Christ, he carries it out for the sake of His body the Church. This is, indeed, nothing but a clearer and more striking expression of the truth conveyed in 2Corinthians 1:5, “The sufferings of Christ overflow to us,” so that we bear our part, in addition to the full measure which He bore; and even in the commoner expression, to be “partaker of Christ’s sufferings” (Philippians 3:10; 1Peter 4:13), or “to drink of His cup and be baptised with His baptism” (Matthew 20:22-23). But, (3) looking to the meaning and use of the word “afflictions,” we note that “the afflictions of Christ” must be His sufferings on earth considered simply as a part—though immeasurably the chief part—of the burden of humanity in a sinful world, They represent, not the Cross of Atonement, on which He alone could suffer—and in which any reader of St. Paul must find it absurd to suppose that he would claim the slightest share—but the Cross of struggle against sin even to death, which He expressly bade us “take up if we would follow Him.” This He has still left “behind;” this in His strength every one of His servants bears, partly for himself, partly also for others. In the former light St. Paul says, “The world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14); in the latter he claims it as his highest privilege “to fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ for His Body which is the Church.”
In my flesh for his body’s sake.—There is obviously an antithesis here. St. Paul suffers in his natural body for the mystical Body of Christ.
Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;(25) Whereof I am made (or, became) a minister.—Above (in Colossians 1:23) St. Paul describes himself as a “minister of the gospel,” here as a “minister (or, servant) of the Church.” Elsewhere he is always the “minister of God” and “of Christ”; here of the Church, as the Body of Christ, and so indissolubly united with Christ.
The dispensation of God.—See Ephesians 3:2-9, and Notes there. The reference is to his peculiar “Apostleship of the Gentiles.”
To fulfil.—The marginal reading and reference to Romans 15:19 give the explanation of the word, “fully to preach the Word of God”—to be a messenger of the perfect revelation, which had now unfolded what was previously a hidden “mystery.”
Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:(26) The mystery.—On the Scriptural sense of the word “mystery,” and its relation to the modern use of the word, see Note on Ephesians 1:9. In this passage, perhaps, most of all, it is defined with perfect clearness, as “a secret long hidden, and now revealed.”
To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:(27) To whom God would—i.e., God willed. The expression is emphatic. It was of God’s own pleasure, inscrutable to man. So in Ephesians 1:9, we read “the mystery of His will.” Note also, in Ephesians 1:4-6, the repeated reference to the predestination of God in His love.
Which is Christ in you.—This mystery specially committed to St. Paul to declare is. in Ephesians 3:6, defined thus, “That the Gentiles should be (or, are) fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel”; and the nature of this promise is explained below, “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” Here the mystery itself is boldly defined as “Christ in you;” just as in 1Timothy 3:16, according to one interpretation of that difficult passage, “the mystery of godliness” is Christ Himself, “who was manifest,” &c. Here we have again a significant illustration of the difference between the characteristic ideas of the two Epistles. In the Ephesian Epistle the unity of all in God’s covenant is first put forth, and then explained as dependent on the indwelling of Christ in the heart. Here the “Christ in you” is all in all: the unity of all men in Him is an inference, but one which the readers of the Epistle are left to draw for themselves. On the great idea itself, in the purely individual relation, see Philippians 1:21, and also Galatians 2:20; in the more general form, see Romans 8:10; 2Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 4:19.
The hope of (the) glory.—So in 1Timothy 1:1, “The Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope.” “The glory” is the glorified state of perfection in heaven, wrapt in the communion with God, and so “changed from glory to glory.” Again we note (as in Colossians 1:5; Colossians 1:23) the special emphasis laid on the hope of heaven. Christ is “our hope,” as He is “our life,” i.e., the ground of our sure and certain hope of the future, as of our spiritual life in the present.
Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:(28) Warning every man, and teaching.—In “warning” is implied the idea of reproof of folly or sin. (See 1Thessalonians 5:14; 2Thessalonians 3:5.) “Teaching” is simply instruction—including, of course, practical exhortation—of those already warned.
Perfect.—See Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 3:15, and Notes there. Here, however, as in 1Corinthians 2:6-7, the reference may be to the sense of “perfect “as “initiated in mystery.” St. Paul, in opposition to the exclusive claim of “perfection” by the speculators in mystic knowledge (“falsely so called”) would present “every man,” learned or ignorant, “perfect before God.” In this universality of privilege lies the glorious distinction between the gospel and all schools of philosophy, whether they reject or assume its name.
Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.(29) Whereunto I also labour.—In this verse St. Paul passes from the plural to the singular, evidently in preparation for the strong personal remonstrance of Colossians 2:1-7.
His working . . .—See Ephesians 1:12, and Note there. Perhaps, as in Galatians 2:8 (“He that wrought effectually in Peter to the Apostleship of the Circumcision, the same was mighty in me towards the Gentiles”), there is special allusion to the grace given to him for his Apostleship of the Gentiles.