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Invitation to Colossians

The Approach Taken in This Commentary

The primary purpose of this short commentary is to highlight features of the biblical text so readers can understand its purpose as a piece of ancient communication. As a Christian interpreter of Scripture, I also attempt to highlight significant theological emphases. As the growth of the church in the Majority World has become an increasingly important feature of World Christianity, I have attempted to listen to interpreters of the text from contexts other than my own. I am a European man based in Scotland, and I cannot read the text from any other perspective, but I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to learn from Christian brothers and sisters from different contexts. I have sought to highlight features of the text that might have particular relevance for understanding the mission of God as it is worked out in different contexts. My reading of Colossians might therefore be described as a “missional” reading.

Who Wrote Colossians?

The letter states that the author was Paul the apostle (1:1). Many modern scholars have questioned Paul’s authorship for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons relate to what Paul “would” or “would not” write. Such arguments cannot be conclusive. Although there are distinctive themes and terminology in Colossians (including some striking similarities to material in the letter to the Ephesians), these are perfectly compatible with Paul writing to address Christians who are facing particular challenges in a specific context (especially if Paul deliberately incorporates some key terms used by false teachers into his writing). Widespread scholarly skepticism regarding Pauline authorship of Ephesians may have led to unnecessary skepticism being applied to Colossians due to the similarities between the letters. Connections with Paul’s letter to Philemon (which is widely regarded as a genuine letter of Paul) provide further support for accepting the ascription of authorship found in the text.

What Do We Know about the Church in Colossae?

There is no reference to Colossae in Acts. All our knowledge about the church must be drawn from the letter itself. It appears that the church was founded by Epaphras (1:7). Paul has heard encouraging reports about the Colossians’ “faith in Christ Jesus” and of “the love [they] have for all the saints” (1:4), yet he is concerned that they either already face (2:20), or might face in the future, temptation and/or pressure to conform to some form of “philosophy” (2:4, 8). In order to help them to resist such dangers (whether actual or potential), Paul emphasises the glory of the Son (1:15–20) and the decisive change in the experience of the Colossians that took place when they received the gospel (e.g., 1:6, 13–14, 21–23; 2:6–7, 9–15, 20; 3:1–4). He also exhorts the Colossians to live in a manner consistent with the reality of that change (see particularly 2:20–23; 3:3–17).

How Does Colossians Relate to Other Letters?

Colossians is often classed as one of several letters known as the “Prison Epistles” or “Captivity Epistles” or some similar description. These letters are Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon, and they are grouped together because of various references to Paul as a “prisoner” or in “chains.”


Paul wrote Colossians to encourage the followers of Jesus in Colossae to recall the act of rescue that God has accomplished for them (1:13–14); to consider the wonder of who Jesus is as creator and sustainer of all things, as head over all things, and as the one through whom God reconciles all things to himself (1:15–23); and to remain in relationship to Jesus the Messiah in the face of others who call for their loyalty (2:6–8).

Key Verses

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

— Colossians 3:1–4 CSB


I. Prescript (1:1–2)

II. Thanksgiving and Prayer (1:3–14)

A. Thanksgiving That the Gospel Is Bearing Fruit and Growing (1:3–8)

B. Prayer That the Colossians Will Bear Fruit and Grow (1:9–12)

C. Reminder of What God Has Done for the Colossians (1:13–14)

III. The Supremacy of the Son (1:15–23)

A. Creative Presentation of the Son as Head over Creation and the Church (1:15–20)

B. God’s Act of Reconciliation Applied (1:21–23)

IV. Paul’s Service for the Church (1:24–2:5)

V. The Fullness of Being in Christ (2:6–15)

VI. Exhortation Not to Be Judged by False Teachers (2:16–23)

VII. Eschatological Orientation (3:1–4)

VIII. Ethical Instructions (3:5–4:6)

IX. Final Greetings (4:7–18)

Prescript (1:1–2)

Paul is known to us as a letter writer. We can be thankful for the varied circumstances that led Paul to write the letters that now form part of the NT canon. As Paul expressed his thoughts in a transferable and reproducible form, he provided, in the providence of God and by the work of the Holy Spirit, a resource that continues to shape Christian thought and behaviour to this day. We may think of Paul’s letters as “missional” documents in that they were sent to particular communities and individuals with the intention of serving God’s grand purpose to form disciples of Jesus so that they might ultimately enter into the fulness of God’s purposes for all things (1:20).

The opening of the letter follows broadly the standard conventions of the day and is very similar to Paul’s other letters. Paul is identified in the text as the author of the letter. There is no manuscript evidence for the absence of his name or for the inclusion of any alternative name. Many scholars have questioned and/or rejected Pauline authorship, but there is no compelling evidence that requires rejection of the claim of the text. Paul identifies himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus.” He uses this self-designation in the openings of nine out of the thirteen letters that bear his name. While this term is sometimes used in a general sense of one sent by a church (e.g., Barnabas in Acts 14:14), Paul’s usage suggests the stronger sense of a special “envoy” (BDAG) of the risen Lord. The reversal of the more typical “Jesus Christ” is of little significance, although it probably adds weight to the argument that Christos functions as a kind of title, or “honorific,” rather than simply as a name. Paul has been given his particular commission “by the will of God.” This not only authenticates Paul’s particular calling but also highlights God as the one who initiates and actualises his purpose.

Timothy is named alongside Paul, but this probably should not be understood as indicating that Timothy is a co-author of the letter. Rather, Paul associates one of his close colleagues as an expression of the value he places on serving together with others. Nonetheless, when Paul adds his name to the end of the letter in his own hand (4:18), there is no reference to a similar “signature” by Timothy.

The Christians in Colossae are addressed as “saints” or “holy ones.” The primary emphasis of this term in Paul’s writings is to identify Christians as “set apart” by God (BDAG: “dedicated or consecrated to the service of God”) and marked as his special people. There is some ambiguity in the Greek text regarding the precise interpretation of the words but without any significant difference in meaning.

The greeting is generally typical of Paul’s letters. The one notable difference is that grace and peace are said to come from “God our Father,” with no mention of “the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is clear from the letter as a whole that this does not indicate any difference in the Christology of the letter in comparison with Paul’s other letters. This stylistic variation is possibly due to the presence of “our Lord Jesus Christ” in 1:3.

Thanksgiving and Prayer (1:3–14)

Thanksgiving That the Gospel Is Bearing Fruit and Growing(1:3–8)

Paul follows his common practice in his letters of giving thanks to God, in this case for the Colossian believers. This is far from a mere formality. First, we see that Paul deliberately cultivates an attitude of thankfulness. He declares that he “always” thanks the Father for the Colossians “when we pray for you” (1:3). Doubtless this included periods of formal prayer, but this statement should be understood as describing a settled disposition Paul maintained as he engaged in all his many activities. Paul evidently regarded praying on behalf of Christian brothers and sisters as a significant aspect of his calling as an apostle. Second, Paul’s words of thanksgiving for the Colossians offer both encouragement and reasons for modesty. The former because Paul acknowledges before them the work of God that he sees in their lives. The latter because he ascribes the good he observes not to the merits of the Colossians but to the grace of God. The combination of “faith,” “hope,” and “love” is found elsewhere in the NT, notably in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and 1 Corinthians 13:13. Here, however, while Paul identifies faith and love as characteristics of the Colossian believers, he presents hope as a reality external to the Colossians that is “reserved for you in heaven” (1:5). The precise nature of this objective hope is not clarified at this point.

This hope has been declared to the Colossians in “the word of truth,” further described as “the gospel.” Paul does not elaborate on the content of this message. We may assume that he takes the meaning of the term as understood based on the instruction the Colossians have already received. He will allude to this instruction shortly. Paul provides details of his understanding of the content of “the gospel” in several places (notably, 1Cor 15:1–5, but also Rom 1:1–4). Where Paul does provide such explanation, the content of the gospel is distinctly Christological, relating to who Jesus is and what he has accomplished. Here, however, Paul does not explain the term but rather assumes that it is already a familiar concept to the Colossians, although he indicates that there was a strong emphasis on “God’s grace” (1:6). This message has already “come to you” (1:6), a rather vague expression that Paul then immediately clarifies by stating “you learned this from Epaphras” (1:7). Epaphras, then, has been the agent of bringing and explaining the gospel to the Christian community in Colossae, yet there is a sense in which he is not the primary reason for the impact of the gospel in this community. God is working out his purposes.

The gospel, says Paul, has been “bearing fruit and growing” (1:6). There is perhaps an “echo” here of Genesis 1:28, since the verb translated “growing” is also used in the Greek rendering of that verse. The language Paul uses suggests “organic” growth: the gospel is itself the lifegiving agent of change, which is another way of saying that God acts in the gospel. As Paul says elsewhere, the gospel is the “power of God” (Rom 1:16; 1Cor 1:18). Paul’s perspective on this growth suggests an awareness of God’s purposes for the nations. While we cannot know the nature of Paul’s awareness of the extent of the inhabited world, his words suggest a concern for the way in which the gospel is having an impact on a grand scale as well as in a particular local community. They suggest that Paul models a Christian interest in the growth of the church worldwide as well as in any particular location. Paul traces the impact of the gospel to “the day you heard it,” thus highlighting the importance of verbal proclamation in God’s purposes.

Epaphras is identified briefly (1:7), but little information is provided about him since the Colossians already know him well. What Paul does say, however, speaks well of Epaphras. First, he has faithfully proclaimed the gospel to the Colossians. Secondly, Paul speaks of him as his “dearly loved fellow servant” and a “faithful minister.” These commendations point both to the character and selfless service of Epaphras and to the extent to which Paul values his colleagues in ministry (and does so publicly). The brief comment in 1:8 is particularly poignant. When Epaphras has an opportunity to speak about his church community to Paul, he chooses to focus on their “love in the Spirit.” Modern pastors (and all Christians) may learn much from Epaphras’s choice to speak well of his Christian brothers and sisters rather than to focus on issues that annoy or disappoint him (of which there must surely have been some, given that churches are composed of sinful human beings). Epaphras is mentioned again in Colossians 4:12 and in Philemon 23.

Prayer That the Colossians Will Bear Fruit and Grow (1:9–12)

In Paul’s letters, thanksgiving and prayer frequently go together. In fact, thanksgiving seems to lead naturally to prayer. It seems that Paul is prompted to pray by his awareness of how God is already at work in the lives of Jesus’s disciples (1:9). The immediacy of the response suggested by Paul’s words (“since the day we heard this”) gives the impression of both delight and urgency in Paul’s prayers for the Colossians. Paul’s prayer contains several related requests. The first is that the Colossians will “be filled with” the knowledge of God’s will. The “will” of God that lay behind Paul’s calling to be an apostle is also that which shapes and directs the lives of the believers in Colossae. We should understand God’s will primarily as his grand purpose (what might be called “the mission of God” or, in Latin, the missio Dei) rather than the precise details relating to life choices of individual Christians (although the latter need not be excluded from the sense of the term). Knowledge of this will must be a matter of “all wisdom and spiritual understanding” rather than simply intellectual knowledge. Such wisdom is the work of the Spirit (the typical sense of “spiritual” in Paul) and leads to transformed lives. The initial request leads on to an anticipated result: that the Colossians will “walk worthy of the Lord” (1:10). The term “walk” follows the common use of the term in the OT for a manner of life (e.g., Prov 8:20). Spiritual understanding should lead to behaviour that brings honour to the Lord. The connection between life and knowledge is reinforced by Paul’s words, “bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God.” This expression is distinctive in at least two ways. First, it forms the second part of a chiastic (X-shaped, after the Greek letter chi [Χ]) structure begun in verse 9:

A         “filled with the knowledge of his will”

B                     “so that you may walk worthy of the Lord”

B’                    “bearing fruit in every good work”

A’        “growing in the knowledge of God”

Second, the same two verbs that were applied to the gospel in verse 6 (“bearing fruit and growing”) are brought together once again (in slightly different forms), but this time in relation to the lives of believers. The distinctive combination of these two verbs used twice within a few lines of each other strongly suggests a deliberate emphasis. Reading the two occurrences in light of each other suggests that the organic, life-giving character of the gospel will show itself in the lives of those who encounter it and respond to it.

Paul prays that the believers might be “strengthened with all strength” (using a noun and verb for emphasis) “according to his glorious might” (1:11). God’s strength is of such a supreme nature that he is able to provide whatever strength the Colossians might need. The strength Paul prays for is not intended to enable believers to dominate others but rather to exhibit “endurance and patience,” terms that suggest the experience of trials. The prepositional phrase “with joy” probably should qualify the following participle (so the CSB): “joyfully giving thanks to the Father” (1:11–12). The reality of circumstances that require endurance and patience is no reason not to exude joy and thankfulness. As Paul has cultivated a disposition of thankfulness, he now prays that this would also be a distinguishing characteristic of the Colossians. Paul highlights the gracious act of the Father who “has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light” (1:12). The verb translated “enabled” in the CSB has the sense of “to cause to be adequate, make sufficient, qualify” (BDAG). The term suggests that the Colossians had no qualification of their own to share in what God intends for his people. Their inclusion in the blessing of God depended entirely on the gracious and powerful act of God. The language of “inheritance” combined with the reference to God as “Father” points to the inclusion of the Colossians in a family relationship. As the Son is the heir of God, so those who are in Christ are “co-heirs” (Rom 8:17; Eph 3:6). The reference to “inheritance” also recalls OT language applied to the people of Israel, particularly with respect to land (e.g., Deut 10:9).

Reminder of What God Has Done for the Colossians (1:13–14)

Paul builds on his reference to the Father in verse 12 by means of a concise statement of the Father’s saving act in the Son. This striking statement has a notable balance: there is a “domain” (exousia) characterised by “darkness” and a “kingdom” (basileia) belonging to “the Son he loves.” The Father has acted with respect to both of these two dominions: he “rescued us” from the first and “transferred” us into the second. (Paul switches from the second-person plural “you” in verse 12 to the first-person plural “us” in verse 13, thus including himself.)

The reference to “the Son he loves” Paul to explain more fully how believers are related to the Son. He uses a relative clause, “in whom,” which highlights the experience of being “in Christ,” a common Pauline emphasis. To be “in the kingdom of the Son” is to be “in the Son.” Paul describes the benefit of this experience with a broad term that is then qualified in a more precise manner. In the Son, believers have “redemption.” This term, along with related words, recalls the liberation of the people of Israel in the exodus (cf. Exod 6:6). The particular nature of this liberation is clarified by a phrase in apposition to (that is, placed immediately next to, so as to provide further information) “redemption”: “the forgiveness of sins.” The experience of liberation for the Colossians is not physical or political, but spiritual. But neither the captivity nor the liberation is any less real. The way in which this forgiveness is associated with the cross of Jesus is developed in 1:20 and in 2:13–15.

The Supremacy of the Son

Creative Presentation of the Son as Head over Creation and the Church (1:15–20)

Verses 15–20 are a carefully formulated statement of the character of the Son who has been introduced in 1:13–14. Although this passage has sometimes been described as a “hymn,” it is not clear whether the passage was a preformed piece of material which Paul included in his letter or whether Paul himself created the text specifically for the letter. In the light of the uncertainty, it is probably best to recognise the character of the passage as a “creative presentation” in which language is used in a patterned and memorable way, yet without using the term “hymn,” which might suggest an existing composition used in liturgical contexts.

The passage is composed of two parallel sections. In the first (1:15–17), the Son is presented as over creation. In the second (1:18–20), the Son is presented as over the church.

Verses 15–17 contain many allusions to the biblical creation narrative of Genesis 1–2. The description of the Son as “the image of the invisible God” recalls God’s determination to make humans “in our image” (Gen 1:26–27), but the statement here is even stronger, being a predicate statement using a form of the verb “to be”: the Son is the image of the invisible God. The term “firstborn” is striking on account of its repetition in both sections of the passage (1:15, 18). This term can sometimes refer to the firstborn child of human parents. While some interpreters have suggested an Arian reading of this term that would indicate that the Son is the first being to be created, this is out of keeping with the Christological views of Paul elsewhere and likewise with NT theology more broadly. A more natural reading of the term with respect to the Son is to acknowledge the use of the term in the LXX to refer to Israel (Exod 4:22) and David (Ps 89:27) as God’s chosen representatives and agents. The use of the term with respect to David in Psalm 89:27 is particularly significant since David was not the firstborn son of Jesse. This metaphorical use of the term points to a “special status” (BDAG), and more particularly “preeminence” (cf. 1:18b).

Verse 16 opens with hoti (“because”), which seems to suggest that the Son has the status described in verse 15 on account of his role as agent of creation (“in him” or “by him”). The terminology used here is somewhat different from that used in John 1:3, but the sense is very similar. The Son’s identity is bound up with his role as the agent of creation. This leads to identification with God as the creator and with Wisdom in Proverbs 8, who likewise is presented as the agent of creation.

Verse 18 makes the second major statement about the Son: “he is head of the body, the church.” The use of the pronoun “he” (autos) is a slightly different construction compared with the relative pronoun used in the opening of the first section (v. 15) but balances the use of the same pronoun in verse 17. Paul uses the term “body” with reference to the people of God in several places, notably in 1 Corinthians 12. In that text, interestingly, Jesus is not identified as “the head” (“the head” is identified in 1Cor 12:22 as one of the members that cannot say to other members, “I don’t need you!”). The term “head” (kephale) is used in connection with the body, however, in Ephesians 5:23. The significance of “the body” is made clear by the addition of the noun in apposition, “the church.” This connection is also made in Ephesians 5:23, although in a slightly different expression.

A second statement stands as a further explanation of the initial comment: “He is the beginning.” The term archē has a range of possible meanings including “beginning” and “ruler” (BDAG). As in verse 15, this statement begins with a relative pronoun, so adding to the balance of the passage.

The grammar of verse 19 is ambiguous, which allows for different possible translations. Whether we read the neuter “all the fullness” as the grammatical subject of the sentence or supply an implied subject (“God”), the sense is the same: all that God is, his “fullness” (pleroma), was present in the incarnate Son, Jesus.

God’s Act of Reconciliation Applied (1:21–23)

Paul here contrasts the past experience of the Colossians with their present condition. There is a distinct similarity in structure (though less so in terms of verbal similarity) with Ephesians 2:1–10. Paul’s words reflect his understanding that the transition from alienation to reconciliation for each individual is both existential (that is, experienced as life prior to conversion and life following conversion) and historic (that is, the experience of being united with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection). It is not easy to fit these theological realities into a simple explanation, but it is clear that Paul holds both to be true.

Paul adds a conditional statement (“if indeed you remain”), which qualifies his earlier statement. This should not be interpreted as an expression of doubt regarding the status of the Colossian believers. Instead, it is a means by which Paul places emphasis on the responsibility of the Colossians to receive and hold fast to the “hope of the gospel that you heard” (1:23). This expression repeats a group of terms that were used earlier in 1:5–6. The repetition of these terms suggests that there is a form of “inclusion” formed by these words.

Paul’s final statement further highlights the significance of the gospel using a participial clause. First, says Paul, this gospel has been “preached” or “proclaimed” “in all creation under heaven.” The gospel is understood to be a message that can be announced, and Paul is remarkably positive regarding the extent of that announcement. Paul’s language reflects his confidence that the gospel has been proclaimed widely throughout the world he knew. The existence of people groups and continents beyond Paul’s knowledge does not affect the truthfulness of Paul’s statement as he intended it to be understood.

Paul’s reference to himself as a “servant” of the gospel indicates that Paul regards his life as entirely devoted to making Jesus known. This expression is in keeping with his self-designation as an “apostle” (1:1), since an apostle is one who has been commissioned by his master (Christ Jesus).

Paul’s Service for the Church (1:24–2:5)

Paul now offers personal reflections on his ministry, developing his brief comment in 1:24. The section from 1:24–2:5 emphasises Paul’s personal commitment to the ministry he has been given and highlights “the mystery” (referenced twice in 1:26–27 and again in 2:2) that lies at the heart of Paul’s message.

Paul’s statement that he rejoices in his suffering (no doubt, at least partly a reference to his imprisonment) for the sake of the Colossian believers is straightforward, but the following words in 1:24 are puzzling. What could Paul mean by saying that he is “completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church”? If we read this statement in the context of all Paul’s writings and the theology he expresses elsewhere (as we should), we cannot conclude that Paul in any way believes that Jesus’s death was only partially effective or that he (Paul), as a mere human, could contribute to the sacrifice for sin that Jesus offered on the cross. In fact, we only have to read a few lines further to find Paul’s confident assertion of the effectiveness of Jesus’s death on the cross. While noting the challenging nature of the statement, I am inclined to follow those who understand Paul to refer to the sufferings (about which he speaks freely in various places) that are the inevitable outcome of Paul’s faithful completion of his calling as an apostle of Jesus Christ to proclaim the gospel. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:10–12 (including the statement “we always carry the death of Jesus in our body”) suggest a similar perspective on the connection between Jesus’s death and Paul’s sufferings.

The “mystery” that Paul refers to three times in this short section is best interpreted by the immediate context. The fundamental character of a “mystery” as Paul uses the term is clearly expressed in 1:26: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” For Paul, a “mystery” is something that was previously hidden but has now been revealed. It need not be something inherently difficult to understand or to communicate. The precise nature of this hidden material is further clarified in 1:27: “God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” This expression suggests that, here at least, the mystery is that God’s chosen king (the Messiah, or Christ) is “in you.” This appears to be an alternative way of speaking of the believer’s union with Christ, although Paul speaks more typically of the believer being “in Christ.” The reference to the Gentiles suggests a similarity of emphasis to Ephesians 3:2–13 where “the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4) is that Gentiles are included in the promises of God.

Paul’s frequent references to knowledge, wisdom, mystery, and revelation may point to a deliberate choice of language on his part to address directly claims by false teachers, although this cannot be affirmed with certainty.

The Fullness of Being in Christ (2:6–15)

2:6–7 Paul’s instructions in 2:6–7 might be described as the “thesis statement” of Colossians, expressing concisely and emphatically Paul’s main purpose in writing the letter. Paul places emphasis both on how the Colossians “received Christ as Lord” and on the ongoing obligation to “walk in him.” Both past entrance into the people of God and ongoing life in the Christian community are a matter of recognising Jesus as Lord (building on the Christological exposition of chapter 1) and living out the reality of being united to him by faith. The remainder of the letter will explain more fully what it means to “walk in him,” both negatively in rejecting false beliefs and practices and positively in grasping and living out the full implications of having “died with Christ” (2:20) and having been “raised with Christ” (3:1).

The elaboration in 2:7, which Paul adds to the basic instruction in 2:6, consists of four participles. The first two combine images from organic growth (“rooted”) and construction (“built up”). Paul combines these images elsewhere, though with some different terminology (cf. 1Cor 4:5–15; Eph 3:17). The third participle (“confirmed,” “established”) and the fourth (a participial phrase: “abounding in thankfulness”) complete a suggested trajectory of discipleship from initial rooting through to a life of consistent thanksgiving. The latter trait is not only evident in Paul’s own attitude (1:3) but is also a repeated emphasis in Paul’s instructions to the Colossians (1:12; 3:15, 17; 4:2).

2:8–15 Paul indicates that the Colossians face the risk that they may be “taken captive” by “philosophy.” This should not be understood as a blanket denunciation of all human thinking that is described with this term, but it does highlight the danger of human thinking that is not regulated by God’s self-revelation. Verse 8 includes a reference to the “elements of the world.” This expression appears again in 2:20, suggesting that it is a significant term. Its meaning is debated without any significant consensus, and so the decision of the CSB to translate it simply with no further interpretation is perhaps best. Paul contrasts whatever false teachers may offer in terms of mystery with Christ himself. Paul reminds the Colossians, using language similar to that used earlier in 1:19, that in Christ “all the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9). Not only is this the case, but believers are also “filled by him” (2:10; Paul uses a word from the same family as the term “fullness,” which he used immediately previously). No alternative teaching offers such direct encounter with the deity, regardless of what it promises. Paul affirms that this Christ who fills the Colossians is “head over every ruler and authority,” recalling his statement in 1:16. It is clear that in 1:15–20, Paul lays foundations to which he returns in this section of his letter. His words hint that the false teachers may have made claims about “fullness,” “elements of the world,” and “rulers and authorities,” but we should be wary of assuming the content of the false teaching by undisciplined “mirror reading.”

Paul’s reference to circumcision in 2:11 suggests a Jewish aspect to the teaching the Colossians may encounter. Paul clearly indicates that the Colossian Christians have already experienced all that physical circumcision pointed to by their union with Christ. In particular, Paul appears to suggest a definitive “cutting” with the past when they placed their trust in Jesus and especially in their baptism. Their baptism symbolised union with Christ in his death and resurrection, yet it is not the act of baptism that transformed the believers but rather their faith in God who raised Jesus from the dead.

In verses 13–15, Paul offers a striking summary of God’s gracious dealing with believers and what he accomplished in Jesus Christ on the cross. There is a strong similarity between 2:13 and Ephesians 2:1, 5. First, Paul reminds the Colossians that God made them alive when they “were dead in trespasses” and “uncircumcision.” The Colossians were dead in the sense that they were entirely unable to act to change their circumstances and, possibly, were also unaware of their great need. Verses 14 and 15 provide two complementary perspectives on the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. In verse 14, the emphasis is on how God dealt with the “certificate of debt” that stood against all human beings. This reference to a handwritten “certificate of indebtedness” (BDAG), which might be used in business transactions, appears to be a reference to the Law of Moses. It stood against us not because of any malicious intent but simply because it recorded the truth of human failure. God, in “nailing it to the cross,” resolved the problem not by ignoring the debt but by dealing with it. The reference to “the cross” stands for all that Jesus accomplished on the cross with respect to the debt for sin owed by human beings. Verse 15, on the other hand, considers God’s actions with respect to the “rulers and authorities” (tas archas kai tas exousias), which appears to be a reference to spiritual beings in opposition to God that are nonetheless creatures subject to the headship of the Son (see 1:16). God not only disarmed these creatures (which suggests that they once had some measure of ability to inflict harm) but also displayed them “in a triumphal procession” (BDAG), demonstrating, in a manor analogous to a victorious Roman warrior leading his defeated foes in a “triumphal procession” to their ultimate destruction, that they have been decisively defeated by Jesus’s death on the cross. The final prepositional phrase, en auto, might be translated with reference to Jesus (“in him,” so the CSB) or with reference to the cross (“by it,” so the NIV, which provides “the cross” to make the reference unambiguous).

Exhortation Not to Be Judged by False Teachers (2:16–23)

Following Paul’s brief explanation of the decisive significance of Jesus’s death on the cross, he addresses the Colossians with two paragraphs containing exhortations. The first paragraph has a somewhat supportive tone, with various expressions such as “don’t let anyone judge you” and “let no one condemn you.” The second paragraph is more confrontational, with challenges along the lines of “why are you acting this way?”

2:16–19 Paul first states that the Colossians should allow nobody to judge them with respect to various matters. These matters relate to food and drink and to various times and seasons. At first sight they appear to refer to topics of Jewish religious practice. These are followed, however, by references to “ascetic practices,” “the worship of angels,” and “claiming access to a visionary realm.” Together, these references suggest a kind of mystical, Law-observant belief system. It is wise to recognise that the precise nature of the religious perspective presented by Paul is unclear. Verse 19 points back to 1:18. Anyone who is not connected to “the head,” the Son, is not characterised by healthy, God-given growth.

2:20–23 At this point, Paul is more direct in his confrontation. Were it not for the commendations we read in the opening sections of the letter, we might sense a measure of the frustration expressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Once again Paul refers to “the elements of this world” without explanation. What is clear, however, is that someone who has died with Christ has died to these elements. They are, therefore, no good thing! Yet, the Colossians are apparently living in a manner that is not consistent with their new spiritual reality in Christ. The present verb-forms suggest that the Colossians are at least beginning to give in to various forms of regulations that, again, suggest dietary and/or purity issues. Paul indicates that these matters are simply human regulations and will be subject to ultimate judgement. Verse 23 indicates that not only are these esoteric practices that appear to offer nothing more than human commands, but they are not even effective.

Eschatological Orientation (3:1–4)

Paul now shows the significance of what he has said up to this point. If God has indeed acted in Jesus Christ and also in the personal experience of the Colossians, then this reality should be evident in their manner of life and thought.

Paul opens this section with a conditional clause (“if . . . then”). Some translations render the Greek expression as “since you have been raised with Christ,” but I think the CSB’s rendering as “if” is appropriate. The Greek construction (sometimes described as a “first class condition”) indicates that something is assumed to be true for the sake of argument, but the question of whether it is actually true remains to be determined. Paul asks his readers to reflect on whether this reality is indeed their experience and, if so, to act accordingly.

If the Colossians have been united to Christ by faith, then they share in both his death and his resurrection. This is no less a reality than their physical condition, and they should live out the implications of this truth. This is such a fundamental reality that Paul can speak of “Christ, who is your life” (3:4).

Paul describes the present situation of Christ as “above . . . seated at the right hand of God.” While Paul does not refer to the ascension of Jesus explicitly, it seems to be assumed in his language of resurrection. Paul uses the language of Psalm 110:1, which is frequently employed by NT writers. It is important not to interpret the language of “above” woodenly. Paul can affirm that Christ is “above,” but he can also state that he “is near” (e.g., Phil 4:5).

This paragraph, along with those that follow, neatly encapsulates a key aspect of Pauline and NT eschatology: A decisive event has taken place in the death and resurrection of Jesus and in the believers’ experience of having been united with him. Therefore, believers must now make choices about their thoughts and actions that reflect accurately this reality. And beyond the present experience there is future hope of the completion of all God’s purposes when Jesus appears.

Ethical Instructions (3:5–4:6)

3:5–11 At this point, Paul begins a sustained exhortation (“therefore”) based on the theological argument he has outlined previously, and particularly in 3:1–4. In verses 5–11, Paul calls the Colossians to “put off” all that is inconsistent with their status in Christ. His instructions include two “vice lists” in verse 5 and verse 8. These will be balanced by a “virtue list” in verse 12. In both cases, these lists should be regarded as indicative of what character traits should be shunned or cultivated. They are not intended to be exhaustive. Paul frankly acknowledges that the vices named have been part of the Colossians lives in the past. Perhaps this suggests that he is writing primarily to Gentiles, but Paul would not hesitate to recognise that all human beings by nature have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). While inappropriate sexual behaviour is certainly included among the named vices, it is important to recognise that Paul also lists many internal attitudes such as greed and anger and inappropriate use of speech, including lying within the Christian community (3:9). All of these actions are inconsistent with the fundamental transformation that has taken place in a Christian’s life (3:9–10). Verse 11 is similar to Galatians 3:28. To be in Christ is the most fundamental identity a person can have.

3:12–14 The following paragraph provides a beautiful portrait of the community life of the people of God. Although the main emphasis of the passage is instruction, including many “imperatives,” there are several references to the “indicatives” of God’s prior gracious disposition and actions towards the Colossian believers, including the initial statement that undergirds the whole paragraph. It is because of Paul’s confidence that his Christian brothers and sisters have been “chosen” in God’s eternal purposes, set apart as “holy” to him, and are “dearly loved” (by God, in this context) that he can give the following instructions.

Paul develops the metaphor of “putting off” and “putting on” (3:9) with a call to “put on” various virtues (3:12ff). Whereas Paul provided “vice lists” in 3:5–9, he now provides a “virtue list.” The list of virtues is similar, but not identical, to what he includes in the list of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22–23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23).

put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col 3:12)

The similarities indicate that there was a recognisable cluster of character traits Paul considered to be core to Christian character. The differences suggest that there was no single definitive list of virtues but that each list is exemplary in nature. Although not included in 3:12, “love” and “peace,” both of which are part of the list of virtues in Galatians 5:22–23, appear in separate statements in 3:14 and 3:15, respectively.

That Paul does not anticipate perfection among believers is clear from the two “one another” participial phrases in 3:13a that follow the list of abstract nouns. Although the CSB uses the same English translation (“one another”) in both cases, the Greek terms are different. In this context, however, they function as equivalents (BDAG; see the similar expressions in Eph 4:32). Christians are to “bear with one another” and “forgive one another.” These actions are counterparts of each other. The participles suggest that these are ways in which the virtues that have just been listed are demonstrated in action. The first expression requires tolerance and suggests that Christians should not grasp every opportunity to take offence at the words and actions of other believers. The second expression requires that the one who has been treated badly should forgive. The verb used here is related to the Greek term charis (frequently translated as “grace”). Together these expressions call for both restraint in responding to perceived wrongs and readiness to forgive such wrongs. Although the conditional clause (“if anyone has a grievance against another”) suggests a hypothetical situation, the implication is that such opportunities will certainly arise in a Christian community. Paul is highly realistic regarding the effect of sin in every believer, and, while he is confident in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, he anticipates that even the most mature believer may speak or act in a way that would provide an occasion for offence to be taken. Christian character shows itself by not taking advantage of such occasions for the good of other individuals and of the body as a whole but instead defusing them by means of forgiveness.

The theological ground for such forgiveness in provided in a “just as . . . so also” clause taht repeats the use of the verb “to forgive” (3:13b). Slightly altering the CSB rendering, we might translate it, “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you.” The final plural personal pronoun places emphasis on the obligation of the Christian community to reflect together their understanding of how the Lord has treated them.

The list of virtues is given a kind of completion by 3:14: Above all, [put on] love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (CSB) or “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (ESV). Love here appears to be understood as bringing unity and coherence to the other virtues (BDAG), functioning (in Paul’s clothing metaphor) like an overgarment. Paul refers to his “chains” (desmoi) in 4:18. Might the use of the cognate compound term here (“bond”) be a play on Paul’s circumstances? Similar use of “bond” language is found in Ephesians 4:3: “making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” In one case the bond is love, while in another it is peace, suggesting some flexibility in the concept.

3:15–17 Although verse 14 appears to form a kind of conclusion to Paul’s “clothing” analogy, verse 15 continues with further exhortations. Grammatically, there is a change from the second-person imperative of verse 12 to several third-person imperatives. Although these are typically translated as “let . . .,” they are not permissive statements. The third-person imperative makes just as strong a command as the second-person form. An alternative English translation might be, “the peace of Christ . . . must rule.” While the reference to “your hearts” indicates the personal impact on individuals, Paul’s instructions are not to be read individualistically, since he bases his instructions on the calling Christians have received to peace in one body. The second-person imperative “and be thankful” is added almost in passing. Yet the theme of thankfulness appears several times in 3:15–17 using cognate terms.

As “the peace of Christ must reign,” so “the word of Christ must dwell” in the believers “richly.” Such dwelling comes about through active cultivation of a mutual ministry of teaching and counsel. Far from being a domineering experience, this mutual instruction is to be musical! Songs that faithfully convey the message of Scripture and the gospel are an ideal medium for sharing ministry within the Christian community.

Verse 17 draws the exhortations together in an all-encompassing instruction relating to “whatever you do, in word or in deed.” Every action and word of the believer, in every context, is to be performed or spoken as one who bears the name of the one true Lord, Jesus. There is no sacred-secular divide in Paul’s mind. Every act should be an act of Christian service. What is more, in all things the follower of Jesus should be characterised by thankfulness to the Father through the Son. Those who truly follow Paul’s instructions will become more astonished and grateful for the Father’s gracious purposes for them, which have been, and are being, and will be accomplished in Christ.

3:18–4:1 In this section, Paul gives instructions to various members of the ancient household following a recognised pattern. This section of text is frequently called a “household code,” a translation of the German term Haustafel, apparently coined by Martin Luther. A passage with a similar structure is also found in Ephesians 5:20/21–6:9 (scholars debate whether Ephesians 5:20 should be considered the opening verse of the new section, the closing verse of the previous section, or a transitional verse). The passage in Ephesians is substantially longer than that in Colossians.

Paul addresses three natural pairs of household relationships: wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. In each case, those in the first category in each pair would have been regarded in the ancient world as being under obligation to act with due deference to those in the second category. While these conventional categories in the ancient household are addressed in other ancient texts, the NT texts are distinctive in emphasising the importance of the agency of the parties with least social power and also for laying obligations on those with more social power to act in a manner appropriate for followers of Jesus. Paul places obligations on husbands, fathers, and masters, not to ensure that wives, children, and slaves fulfil their responsibilities, but rather to fulfil their own responsibilities to act for the good of others. Likewise, wives, children, and slaves are addressed directly as people with moral agency. Those whose social status is limited or non-existent are treated with dignity. Those who have social status are not responsible for ensuring the appropriate behaviour of others but for living in a manner that honours the Lord.

In each case, a basic instruction is followed by some form of rationale, amplification, or explanation. In five of the six cases, the instruction is brief. The instructions to slaves, on the other hand, are developed significantly more than those addressed to others. There is repeated use of the terms “Lord” and “master” in the instructions to slaves, which allows some play on the Greek term kurios. Those who are “masters” according to the societal structures of the day must remember that they have a “master”/“Lord” to whom they themselves must answer.

4:2–6 These verses contain short instructions that are now addressed apparently to the whole community of believers. As the CSB appropriately indicates in the section heading, the common thread in these verses seems to be different uses of speech. The initial instruction in verse 2 is a general call to prayer with thanksgiving. The two verbal forms at the centre of the balanced clauses suggest determination and vigilance in prayer. Paul requests (in the form of an instruction) that one aspect of the Colossians’ prayer would be specifically for Paul to have an opportunity to speak in words of proclamation. The “word” may be best understood as “the message,” as in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “the word of the cross.” Paul further clarifies the content of the message with reference to the “mystery of Christ,” a phrase he has used earlier in the letter. It is on account of proclaiming this message that Paul is imprisoned. Paul clearly understands openings for the proclamation of the gospel to be orchestrated by God and so to be prayed for. Paul is not simply praying for the advance of the gospel in general terms. He requests prayer for himself so that he might be a faithful communicator of the message. Given that Paul is apparently in captivity, his request that God would “open a door” makes this modern interpreter smile! Yet Paul does not have to be released from prison in order to communicate the gospel. Philippians 1:12–14 makes clear that Paul would leave his captors in no doubt about his message.

With the smooth transition of topic from speech in prayer to speech towards others, Paul continues to give instructions relating to those outside the Christian community in verses 5 and 6. His instructions are that the believer’s way of life (how one “walks”) should be “wise” and their speech should be “gracious.” It is not entirely clear what this would mean in practice. Is this a reference to general demeanour or to evangelistic engagement? Paul’s instructions might be applied to many different kinds and contexts of human interaction. The fundamental challenge is to consider every moment and every word as significant and worthy of thoughtful use.

Final Greetings (4:7–18)

Paul’s final greetings should not be regarded as an insignificant aspect of his letter; rather, they demonstrate the character of Christian community in action. Paul gives careful attention to sending greetings from one group of disciples to another and models an attitude of collegiality.

4:7–9 Paul commends two colleagues, Tychicus and Onesimus, whom he describes as “brothers,” using his favoured familial term. Tychicus is identified as Paul’s messenger, expressly commissioned to communicate news of Paul to the Colossians and to encourage them. The verb used here can indicate a range of functions including encouragement and exhortation, but the reference to “your hearts,” along with the generally positive tone of the letter, suggests that “encouragement” is what is meant here.

4:10–15 Paul passes on greetings from numerous companions and colleagues. Those individuals who send greetings are largely the same as those identified in the letter to Philemon. This might suggest a similar time and provenance for both letters.

4:15–16 Verse 15 marks a transition. It continues the theme of “greeting” begun in 4:10. This time, however, the greeting is to be made by the Colossians and directed towards another group of believers in Laodicea. This verse leads to instructions regarding how the Christian communities in Colossae and Laodicea are to interact with each other. Paul has already referred to his work on behalf of Christians in both Colossae and Laodicea. Likewise, Epaphras has worked hard on behalf of both communities. The reference to Nympha and to “the church in her home” highlights the importance of homes to the early Christian community. In this case, Nympha is identified as the person with whom the house is associated. This phrase is most naturally read as indicating that the house belongs to Nympha (though it might also be read in other ways). Nympha is, at the very least, a significant female figure in the Christian community in Laodicea, although it is not possible to be more specific about why she is identified by name, as Paul does not provide any supporting information. In verse 16, Paul refers to “the [letter] from Laodicea.” Notice that the letter is “from Laodicea” rather than “to Laodicea.” Paul’s letters normally identify the location of the recipients rather than the place of origin of the letter. No letter has been preserved with this description. While some scholars have suggested that this document might be the letter we know as Ephesians, there is no textual evidence to support this supposition. Paul’s instructions that letters originally sent to one community be read in nearby Christian gatherings indicate that Paul’s writings, along with other pieces of Christian (presumably, apostolic) communication, were regarded as resources for the wider Christian church. His words also indicate that most Christians in those days would have encountered Paul’s letters as they were read aloud by a literate person rather than by personal study of a written document.

The instruction to Archippus regarding his ministry is not explained. Comments such as this remind modern readers that the NT letters were true pieces of communication between people who knew each other and were aware of a wider context of communication that allowed them to understand references that are unclear to us.

4:18 Paul’s closing greeting is made in his own handwriting, which we know only because Paul draws particular attention to this fact (since the original manuscript is not available to us). This inclusion likely indicates that Colossians, like other letters by Paul, was physically written by an “amanuensis” up to the point when Paul took the pen in his own hand. In 2 Thessalonians 3:17, Paul explicitly states that this is his standard practice. It is unclear whether the sight of Paul’s own handwriting would have served on its own to authenticate the letter, since we do not know if the Colossians would have recognised Paul’s handwriting on the basis of prior communication. Since the letter was carried by Tychicus (4:7), one of Paul’s associates, he would have been able to confirm that the handwriting did indeed belong to Paul. Perhaps this practice was a means of expressing visibly direct, personal involvement in the letter-writing process.

The final two elements of the closing remarks are a request (expressed in the form of a command) to “remember my chains” and a short “prayer-wish.” The command to “remember my chains” may be an implicit request that the Colossian believers pray for Paul. It might also be a request that they consider and respond to his physical needs. Any practical help would be much more difficult to provide if Paul were located in Rome rather than in nearby Ephesus, as some suggest. The “prayer-wish” is the briefest example in a Pauline letter. It lacks a verb (as is common in Paul’s letters), and so the implied verb might be understood to be in the indicative mood, thus stating that “grace is with you,” or else in the optative mood, giving “may grace be with you.” The latter option seems most likely, particularly as we find uses of the optative verb in the opening greetings of 1 and 2 Peter and Jude. It is appropriate that we conclude this reading of Paul’s letter with his desire, and doubtless his confidence, that his readers would experience God’s grace.


Padilla, C. René. “CARTA A LOS COLOSENSES,” in Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo: Estudio de Toda La Biblia Desde América Latina, Edited by C. René Padilla, Milton Acosta Benítez, and Rosalee Velloso Ewell, Primera edición. La Paz, Bolivia; Barcelona, España; Buenos Aires; Lima: Certeza Unida; Andamio; Ediciones Puma; Ediciones Kairos; Certeza Argentina; Editorial Lampara, 2019.

Pao, David W. Colossians and Philemon. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Wintle, Brian and Bruce Nicholls. Colossians and Philemon. Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2019.


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Colossians 1



1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the saints and faithful brothers1 in Christ at Colossae:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Thanksgiving and Prayer

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant.2 He is a faithful minister of Christ on your3 behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks4 to the Father, who has qualified you5 to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Preeminence of Christ

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by6 him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation7 under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Paul’s Ministry to the Church

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.


[1] 1:2 Or brothers and sisters. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, the plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) may refer either to brothers or to brothers and sisters

[2] 1:7 For the contextual rendering of the Greek word sundoulos, see Preface

[3] 1:7 Some manuscripts our

[4] 1:12 Or patience, with joy giving thanks

[5] 1:12 Some manuscripts us

[6] 1:16 That is, by means of; or in

[7] 1:23 Or to every creature