In this paper, I hope to address some key points in the Epistle to the Colossians to help us understand what exactly Paul is saying, specifically dealing with chapter 1 verses 3-8. I will give some brief background and details, moving to the exegetical analysis of verses 3-8, and concluding with brief summary and final thought.
While most of us attribute Paul to writing the letter to the Colossians, there are some very compelling arguments that suggest Paul may not have physically written this letter. The most compelling is the style upon which Colossians was written. It is unlike any of the letters of Paul’s critical canon. The language used in this letter is not seen anywhere else in Paul’s work. However, the subject matter is very different form the others, which could be the result of the different language. Some scholars even argue that the theology on Colossians is quite different, in terms of eschatology, ecclesiology, Christology, and tradition. I am in agreement with Moo that it probably was not physically written by Paul (at least the earlier half). Paul used a scribe to write his words and ideas, and at the end wrote the thanks and encouragements himself.
Dating the letter to the Colossians is a rather difficult task. This letter, nor the city of Colossae is ever mentioned in any other place. The only evidence for date and origin lies within the letter itself. From the letter we find out that Paul was a prisoner at the time. From the book of Acts we determine 3 occasions of where Paul was imprisoned: Philippi, Caesarea, and Rome. Some believe that Paul may have spent some time in prison in Ephesus, which then becomes a legitimate place of authorship. Looking also at Ephesians and Philemon, the two most closely related letters, we see a lot of overlap in language, and theology. Furthermore, the greetings in Philemon and Colossians are almost identical1. We also find Tychicus as the carrier of both Ephesians and Colossians, which probably means that they left at the same time. I agree with the origin being Rome, since Ephesians is accepted to originate in Rome during Paul’s last years. Colossians deals with some very new issues, not seen in any other letter. False teaching is the main theme that is being dealt with in this letter. Unlike Paul’s other letter, Colossians does not speak (or attack) a particular person or a particular hearsay that is plaguing the people. Instead, he issues these warnings. Paul never tells us what these false teachings are, but he does tell us how these teachings affect the believers there at Colossae. First, he calls the false teachings a “hollow and deceptive philosophy”1. Scholars believe this philosophy is wrapped up in this ideas of the fullness of God, worship of angels, things that have been seen upon entering, voluntary worship, humility, and severe treatment of the body2. Paul directly addresses all these issues throughout the letter. Secondly, there were rules being propagated that Paul calls wordly2. These rules were obviously not rooted in Christ, and were not apart of the gospel that was preached from Epaphras who began the church at Colossae. There is said that there may have been a Gnostic Judaist movement in Colossae. Others believe that there was a pagan mystery cult present. Nonetheless, there was something that Paul did not approve of, and the letter to the Colossians was Paul’s initial response. Now looking at the context of chapter 1:3-8, we find that this is at the beginning of the letter in the opening. The opening of the letter sets the stage for Paul’s warnings about the false teachings in chapter 2. So therefore this section (1:3-8) is his Paul’s way of encouraging the Colossians to “understand that their adherence to the gospel of God’s Son provides for all the spiritual blessing and power that they will ever need”1(74). There is really only one theme in this particular section of the opening, namely thankfulness. It is the typical epistolary structure that is found throughout Paul’s letters. Paul is giving thanks to those at Colossae who are apart of the body of believers there. It is, however, a very elaborate section of thankfulness that needs some further exegetical analysis. 2.
Vs. 3- Εὐχαριστοῦμεν τῷ θεῷ πατρὶ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν προσευχόμενοι εὐχαριστοῦμεν 1per. Pl. pres. act. Ind., “we give thanks”. The subject of this is probably Paul and Timothy since Timothy is mentioned in the prescript (1:1). τῷ θεῷ πατρὶ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Paul is expressing his thanksgiving to God the Father, literally who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Πατρι is in simple apposition to τῷ θεῷ. This is unusual for Paul, as he usually thanks both God the Father, and Jesus Christ. Some theologians suggest that Paul’s focus on the Father is deliberate, in order to elevate Christ within the letter. He wants to anchor the person of Christ firmly to God the Father1. πάντοτε is an adverb that modifies εὐχαριστοῦμεν. I don’t think it would be accurate to have it modify προσευχόμενοi because firstly, adverbs in NT Greek often follow the verb that they modify, secondly it reflects the usually patterns of Paul epistolary greetings, and thirdly it would seem to be a bit of a exaggeration to say that we are always praying for you in a temporal sense. περὶ ὑμῶν προσευχόμενοι which literally means praying on behalf of you. προσευχόμενοι is a present adverbial participle, denoting a durative aspect. The action, i.e. praying, is happening at the same time of the main verb εὐχαριστοῦμεν. So this means that on every occasion that Paul prayed for the Colossians, he gave thanks for them. This carries tremendous weight for the character of Paul that he has dedicated himself to praying and giving thanks for people whom he had never even met.
Vs.4- ἀκούσαντες τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ καὶ τὴν ἀγάπην ἣν ἔχετε εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἁγίους ἀκούσαντες is the launching point for the rest of the passage. It is a nom. pl. masc. aor. act. participle used to express cause. This is unlike the usual usage of an aorist participle, which is used to express antecedent action, action that happens before the main verb. In this case, it is used to express cause, “because we have heard”. τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ καὶ τὴν ἀγάπην ἣν ἔχετε εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἁγίους. Here the “triad” of faith, love, and hope (v.5) are introduced. These are important pillars in the life of the Christian. Naturally, Paul begins with faith. Apart from faith, there would be no Christian existence2. This faith is in Christ, which describes the sphere in which this faith lives and acts. Love is the practical expression of care and concern for one another. And hope (ἐλπίς) found in verse 5, is what Paul bases faith and love upon. Paul is basically saying that there is a connection through this triad that binds you to the fellow Christians in your region.
Vs. 5- διὰ τὴν ἐλπίδα τὴν ἀποκειμένην ὑμῖν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, ἣν προηκούσατε ἐν τῷ λόγῳ τῆς ἀληθείας τοῦ εὐαγγελίου As was mentioned, the faith and love rests on the hope in verse 5, διὰ τὴν ἐλπίδα. This is different form Paul’s usual juxtaposition of faith, hope, and love. This is the only account where Paul places hope as the foundation of the other two. What this means is that, unlike the usual reference to hope (attitude of hope), he is referring to the “totality of blessings that awaits the Christian in the life to come”2. There was teachings in Colossae that began to lead the faithful to wonder whether Christ could supply all their spiritual needs, so Paul decides to remind them that their faith and love rests on the solid foundation (i.e. hope) of what God has promised and committed to do for them in the future. To push this point a bit further, Harris writes, “ An objective fact produces subjective attitudes. The inheritance (i.e. hope) of Christians has the effect of stimulating in them stronger faith and deeper love. Your faith and love are based upon what you hope for.”3. This is Paul’s purpose for writing this. ἣν προηκούσατε 2 pl. aor. act. ind. from προακουω, which literally means to hear beforehand. It is referring to the time when they first heard the gospel, instead of the time before they heard the false teaching. ἐν τῷ λόγῳ τῆς ἀληθείας τοῦ εὐαγγελίου. Paul uses three very distinct and weighty words to describe the message that was sent through Epaphras. τῆς ἀληθείας (of truth) is an attributive genitive, adjectivally modifying τῷ λόγῳ (in the word). τοῦ εὐαγγελίου is in apposition to τῷ λόγῳ. I think this is an important construction because the emphasis is placed on the word. The emphatic meaning is that the word or message is or contains the truth, and this message is the gospel.
Vs. 6- τοῦ παρόντος εἰς ὑμᾶς, καθὼς καὶ ἐν παντὶ τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν καρποφορούμενον καὶ αὐξανόμενον καθὼς καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν, ἀφ’ ἧς ἡμέρας ἠκούσατε καὶ ἐπέγνωτε τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ τοῦ παρόντος εἰς ὑμᾶς. Paul uses this to identify some very real truths about the Colossian church. παρόντος literally means to be present or have come3. So the true gospel has come to them. I think he is using this to say, you have heard the true gospel and it is present among you, do not be fooled by these new false teachings. καθὼς καὶ ἐν παντὶ τῷ κόσμῳ. I think κοσμος should be defined here as “all of creation”, instead of simply “world”. I think it is appropriate because it is echoed in verse 23 in this way. Also, when we think of the word world, we think of man alone. Paul is not saying that the gospel has touched every man in the world. The emphasis is that the gospel message is exerting power “widely, in many different places”1. Some theologians suggest that Paul speaks to universalism3, that the gospel is universal to all creation. κόσμῳ ἐστὶν καρποφορούμενον καὶ αὐξανόμενον καθὼς καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν. Both of the participles here are present tense, which gives us a durative aspect. However, they have different voices. αὐξανόμενον is passive in voice. But καρποφορούμενον is middle in voice. This has some implications. The subject of the participles is found in the verb ἐστὶν (It is), and “it” is referring to the gospel message. Since καρποφορούμενον is middle in voice, this suggests that the gospel itself continuously bears fruit. This is a great truth about the gospel. Paul also lists καρποφορούμενον and then αὐξανόμενον. A result of the effects of the gospel is that it always bears fruit and grows in the lives of the believer. Again, he encourages them with truth saying καθὼς καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν. ἀφ’ ἧς ἡμέρας ἠκούσατε καὶ ἐπέγνωτε. Again, Paul is being very strategic to counter the false teachings that were circulating. Paul continuously highlights the reality of Christ in the lives of the believers in Colossae. He uses this clause to say not only has the gospel exerted transforming power among them, but also it has been doing so since the day they first heard it1. τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ. Paul is so concerned with grace and understanding it in relation to the gospel message, that he plainly centers it as the defining transforming moment beginning their lives as believers. This is a good construction, Paul begins with what has happened to the people (the result of the message), then he moves in verse 7 to the messenger
Vs. 7- καθὼς ἐμάθετε ἀπὸ Ἐπαφρᾶ τοῦ ἀγαπητοῦ συνδούλου ἡμῶν, ὅς ἐστιν πιστὸς ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν διάκονος τοῦ Χριστοῦ Paul finally introduces the messenger Epaphras in this verse. Little is known about Epaphras. He is only mentioned in Colossians and Philemon. Theologians have inferred that Epaphras was probably a native of Colossae and Paul converted him during his missionary journey in Ephesus1. One important thing to note is that Paul calls him a ἀγαπητοῦ συνδούλου and a διάκονος τοῦ Χριστοῦ. These are very weighty titles for someone who is not apart of the apostolic order. In fact Paul only uses ἀγαπητοῦ συνδούλου one other time in the New Testament, and διάκονος τοῦ Χριστοῦ is only used for a select hand full of people. I think Paul is doing something here. First, he used such strong endorsements to identify the reliability of Epaphras and his commitment to the church in Colossae. Paul has complete confidence in Epaphras2. Secondly, because he has never met the church at Colossae, he strongly asserts that Epaphras is a representative of him. He is an extension of Paul’s ministry. διάκονος τοῦ Χριστοῦ “minister of Christ” or literally “servant of Christ” is the language of honor. Often used in the Old Testament, its usage referred to those people chosen by God and predestined for His service2. Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets were all servants of God. Verse 7 focuses of Epaphras’ faithfulness as a servant and verse focuses on his reliability as one. I will note here that I did my word study πιστὸς. It is an adjectival modifier of διάκονος “faithful servant”. I found that πιστὸς dates back to at least 500 BC. The semantic range of meaning is rather narrow. Often it was used to denote one who is faithful or trustworthy. In some cases, obedient was used. Overall, all the glosses live in the realm of someone who is trustworthy. Believing is also a possibility in the New Testament. Its frequency of use is low when compared to the translation faithful. In all, this word has held up through time, and there is no reason to believe that it means anything more than faithful. We also encounter a text critical issue in verse 7. The two variants are ἡμῶν or υμων. I chose ἡμῶν as the correct variant. It has the earliest witness or reading (papyrus 46), and it gepgraphic distribution is greater. The compliments it shares between the Alexandrian and Western text types hint to its superiority. Furthermore, contextually, ἡμῶν just reads better. In other words, Epaphras is a fellow servant of ours, of the apostles.
Vs. 8- ὁ καὶ δηλώσας ἡμῖν τὴν ὑμῶν ἀγάπην ἐν πνεύματι I believe Paul is pleased with the church in Colossae, because he makes it a point to mention their love being displayed there. I think this may be a subtle way of affirming their true conversion and praising them. Love displayed means that they are operating in grace. ἐν πνεύματι. This is probably hinting to the Holy Spirit that is enabling them to love. O’Brien suggest that this phrase indicates that the community’s life was filled with love enabled by the Holy Spirit, which allows them to attend to the needs of the saints2. The believers there would have known about Paul, and would have loved him just as they love other saints in the area. He highlights this truth, which certainly would have help in addressing the issues with the false teaching2.
In accordance with Paul’s usual epistolary greeting, he opens this letter to the Colossians by giving thanks to God for the faith and love of his readers. He tells us that this faith and love that we have in Christ and for others is rooted in a hope that is kept safely in heaven. This hope comes from Christ, himself, through his work on the cross (we get this in the hymn 1:15-20), and this message was given through Epaphras, whom Paul whole-heartedly endorses. This message is continuously bearing fruit and increasing in the Christian life, and is doing so from the time it was first preach by Epaphras. Epaphras is working hard for me, Paul, to deliver to you a worthy gospel message, therefore we must listen to him and not these other false teachers. Paul recognizes that the gospel is working in Colossae and praises them for loving one another in the Holy Spirit. Paul was very pastoral in his approach with these first few verses of Colossians. He affirms that which is true first and foremost, before addressing the issues. This is shepherding at its best. He affirms the reality of Christ in the lives of the believers, not condemning them first, or destroying their hope for believing and probably practicing the false teaching. Keep in mind that these people had never meet Paul, and attacking them would not have been a sensible move. I think all pastors, leaders, and teachers should have the same tactfulness in their approach. Addressing a very real and serious issue, while allowing those in harms way to keep their dignity, and spiritual vitality is so much easier and accepted than doing the opposite, which unfortunately is what I have seen a lot of pastors, leaders, and teacher do in my local and neighboring congregations.
Moo, Douglass. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon.
Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2008. Print. Pillar New Testament Commentary.
Hubbard, David Allan., and Peter T. Obrien. Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon
. Waco, TX: Word, 1982. Print.
Harris, Murray J. Colossians & Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991. Print.